It was at her Ted Talk in April 2013 that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie breathed fire back into the age old topic of feminism. In her simple and clever speech, We Should All Be Feminists, the renowned Nigerian author identified herself as a feminist. Her definition was straightforward: “A person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”
The speech was refreshing. She used a few anecdotes and, through humour, helped us better identify patriarchy in our everyday lives. She light-heartedly told the story of a parking attendant who, after having accepted payment from her, turned to her male friend and thanked him. “The man believed that whatever money I had had ultimately come from Louis (Chimamanda’s male friend), because Louis is a man,” she explained. When Beyoncé, in 2014, named one of Time magazine’s most influential people, sampled the speech in the song “Flawless”, it created more buzz. Then, later this year, while accepting her MTV VMA Vanguard award, Beyoncé performed the single in front of a giant screen with “FEMINIST” in giant lights. It had bloggers and commentators talking.
Not everyone was pleased, though. Senior editor at The Federalist, Mollie Hemingway wrote that she thought it ironic that “a cry for feminism took place between the strip club and the ‘Bow Down’ song”. She added that feminism at present was “an incoherent mess of double standards”. Mollie has not been the only one. Legendary feminist author and activist, and a strong black feminist voice, Bell Hooks also questioned the Beyoncé brand. At a panel discussion titled Are you still a slave? in May of this year, Hooks brought up the Time cover, scrutinising the image Beyoncé portrayed.
She described the picture of the half-naked singer as “not a liberatory image” and said that Beyoncé’s image of a black, successful woman was at the service of imperialist, white supremacist and capitalist patriarchy. Clearly feminism is hallowed ground. You can’t just call yourself a feminist,and you should be extra careful if you’re a Grammy award-winning billionaire pop star. In a recent piece for the Guardian, Jessica Valenti said we need to draw boundaries. In “When Everyone is a Feminist, is Anyone?“, she says the appropriation of feminism into pop culture meant that people who categorically don’t uphold feminist values and did not engage in feminist activism, could also call themselves feminists. Feminism, said Valenti, required more than just a declaration.
I wonder then, for little old you and me, if feminism is a space we can inhabit at all. Does every feminist have to be a radical activist? Do small and personal acts of empowerment, such as calling your partner on his sexism, making your sons cook and clean, going for that management position – whatever your little platform allows – count when you are not actively and publicly portraying the ‘complete’ feminist idea. The message being sent is that the only feminist that is right is the one who blogs, publishes books and sits at panel discussions. That the feminist community only exists for the scholarly and activist. I, for one, am for the simple, all inclusive brand of feminism. The kind that Chimamanda talks about in her speech when she says, “we should all be feminists.”
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