I started reading this essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie many months ago, when I felt inspired to download it. It is very simply written as it was originally a TED talk delivered by the author. She gave very clear examples, with some humor and snark, on why it is absolutely silly to deny women equal rights to exist in the world they inhabit.
Halfway through, I stopped, and didn’t pick it up until last week. While much of the “rah rah feminism” sentiment still resonated, I couldn’t help but feel like her essay was structured in a very black-and-white manner. What I mean is that it was written to preach to the choir, and anyone reading it would likely already consider themselves a feminist. What’s more, the feminism that she explores is so basic, somewhat akin to how a student might approach addition and subtraction before being able to move on to physics.
Blame my niggling unease on the post-Weinstein consciousness that we are now seeped in. Now that the media is talking about the nuanced ways in which being a female can be considered dangerous in the workplace – whether if its due to sexual or gendered discrimination – simply stating “I am a feminist” doesn’t feel quite enough. In fact, in some cases, it might even feel fake and performative, like how certain men in Hollywood are saying that they had no idea about Weinstein (or Brett Ratner, or Charlie Rose, or [insert-prominent-male-figure-here) even though it should be clear by the coverage that the level of sexual harassment and abuse happening was an open industry secret.
Reading this now, what particularly strikes me is how little room for nuance Adichie has for how one should express their strength or feminism – an odd revelation considering that Americanah was one of the most nuanced depictions of race and societal’s perception of it that I’ve read.
For example, I find a lot of her notions of masculinity and femininity to be troubling. She said that when she gave a lecture once, she wish she had dressed more feminine instead of opting for a more masculine suit, because she felt that by wearing the suit, it was a way for her to try and be taken more seriously instead of being true to herself. I found that anecdote to be revealing of what she thinks of women who dress in “masculine” ways, or who engage in “masculine” acts. Does she mean that a women dressed in a feminine manner should be taken more seriously as she is being true to her feminine self – whatever that word means nowadays – and that we as women should adhere to a feminine way of dressing?
If I may be stuck on the fashion choices bit for a while, I also just find it troubling to ascribe fashion under definitions of masculine and feminine, especially in a world where Rihanna exists (She can wear a “masculine” or “feminine” garbage bag, and it would just be amazing because she’s Riri.) And tack on the troubling things she has said in the past (after this essay was published) about trans people and their experiences as women, I now also get the sense that she thinks the “feminine” experience is something that has qualities that *she * deems feminine.
In short, I find her description of strength and asserting your “feminine” self to be told in as binary a way as… say perhaps how chauvinists might see women’s role in society. Her point of view of the female experience – at least as I read it in this essay – appears to be as stringent and culture-based as the very society she accuses of engaging in gender discrimination.
It also really bothered me at the end when she said that her brother was the best feminist. It rubs me the wrong way, because it reminds me of how men nowadays would have performative feminist declarations (Obvious: “Women should have the right to choose what to do with their bodies.”), yet still engage in subtle acts that show their gender bias (Not so obvious: “She is always bitching about how the boss doesn’t like her because she’s a woman; she’s just being overly sensitive.”).
All of us have been raised in a patriarchy, so of course our point of view might be skewed, even women. But to say that the best feminist she knows is her brother feels odd – like she’s discounting any possible feminist role models she might have. She’s so eager to prove that her brother is one of the good ones, that men could – gasp! – be feminists that she somehow has forgotten to mention the female figures in her life and her education that might have shaped her feminist point of views. Some guy who’s supportive of his sister is the best feminist, whereas all the other women in her life don’t get nary a mention. It’s like propping him up for doing the bare minimum, being a not shitty brother. If that’s feminism, then it sounds an awful lot still like subscribing to the patriarchy.