She Waited Long Enough : Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We should all be feminists” the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie claims. This catch phrase is the title of the TED talk she delivered in Euston in 2012 [1]. Born in 1977 in the State of Enugu in Nigeria, this woman is a novelist, a nonfiction writer and a short story writer. Her speech has been published in 2014 and is now available under the form of an essay, due to the strength of her discourse and its logical following success. What is interesting about her is the manner in which her work, fictional or not, is deeply infused with self-reflexivity and intersectionalism and is very influential when dealing with popular culture. Those two directions are translated in her work by the fact that she refuses to take the concept of “feminism” for granted, that she does not want to reduce it to one struggle defending only one community and finally that she wants to touch as many people as possible.

Let’s first focus on the self-reflexive dimension. Indeed, in her first TED talk, entitled “The Danger of the Single Story”, she tackled the ways in which “stereotypes limit and shape our thinking”. She argues : “It seems to me that the word feminist, and the idea of feminism itself, is also limited by stereotypes”. In her TED talk, she explains that the first time she was called a “feminist”, it was by a men. They were arguing and “it was not a compliment”, she remembers. She then adds that her first novel published in 2003, Purple Hibiscus -about a husband beating up his wife- was called “feminist” by a man. The same man advised her never to define herself as “feminist”, because to him feminists are “women who are unhappy because they cannot find husbands”. Adichie takes it easy and declares ironically to the audience : “So I decided to call myself a happy feminist”. This way, she goes against the very widespread idea that feminists are nothing but frustrated women. On the contrary, they are blooming, radiant people. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s background is interesting and plays an important role in the way she envisions feminism : acording to an intersectional spectrum. She was born in Nigeria and emigrated to the United States of America aged 19 for her studies. In her novel Americanah, published in 2013 and included in the New York Times selection of the 10 best books of the year, tinted with autobiographical elements, she confronts racism and sexism in her mother country and in the U.S.. Those two evils are not erased in America, but just transformed and rendered more diffused, hidden, subtle and yet pervasive and persistent. She explains in her talk : “We have evolved, but it seems to me that our idea of gender has not evolved”. Being racism, sexism or any other form of discrimination, what Adichie is really concerned about is “that fine grained mark that culture stamps on people” [2]. Similarly, her collection of short stories The Thing Around Your Neck is exploring and crossing the boundaries between sexes, geographical frontiers and family generations and roles. The story On Monday of Last Week is provided with a queer subtext. Indeed, a sexual tension is growing between two women. The lesbian possibility is here, though never actualized. This way, she challenges one dimension of patriarchy which is heteronormativity and she expands the concept of “feminism”. White heterosexual women do not own any monopoly over the notion of “feminism”. In her talk, she explains she was told that feminism was “Unafrican” and was the result of a corruption caused by “Western books”. She goes against this idea limiting feminism’s perspectives. Feminists do not only defend a certain type of women : they defend equal rights for all types of communities. Adichie towards the end of her talk tackles “culture” at large and says it is about “continuity and preservation” exerted by conservative forces. There is a status quo which needs to be shaken. She makes a central statement : “Culture does not make people. People make culture”. This way, she invites people to be active in every branch of culture in order to make it less sexist, less racist… in other words open and torelant. This influence of her TED talk is highly visible in popular culture. The famous artist Beyoncé Knowles borrowed one part of the discourse to include it in the form of a verse in her track “Flawless”, a song eminently feminist, extrated from her eponymous fifth record “Beyoncé.”. The extract Beyoncé chose to incorpote is the one dedicated to ambition and aspiration. It begins this way :

We teach girls to shrink themselves
To make themselves smaller
We say to girls,
“You can have ambition
But not too much
You should aim to be successful
But not too successful
Otherwise you will threaten the man.”

But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage
And we don’t teach boys the same?
We raise girls to see each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments
Which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
In the way that boys are

It is all about “teaching”, “making”, and “raising” and this “for the attention of men”. It echoes a famous statement uttered by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, saying that “Women have been especially created for men’s pleasure” [3]. The obvious target of Adichie is here patriarchy, that is to say the system through which historical, political, sexual and social powers are exerted by men over women for centuries now. Having grown up in Nigeria, she experienced a deelply enshrined and violent form of patriarchy. By the use of the pronoun “we”, Adichie invites us to consider something very often forgotten and yet central to the issue. Indeed, through the mentioning of an inclusive pronoun, she considers women are also responsible for this inequality of treatment. Women have internalized their subaltern role and do not realize they are being manipulated, limited and discriminated. A work of deconstruction is necessary, to throw away the veil of stereotypes. What is seen as “normal” by women accepting their conditions is actually a social construction, initiated by men, and not a natural state of affairs. Adichie explains “marriage” is not the natural, one and only “source of joy and love” for women, but rather the result of a sexist, essentialist and heteronormative raising leading to social expectations in keeping with men’s desire to maintain power. This very articulated discourse, Beyoncé translates it in vernacular :

don’t think I’m just his little wife
Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted
This my shit, bow down bitches

It gives visibility and accessibility to the author’s struggle. To finish, what Adichie wants us to bear in mind and to implement is this very inclusive, simple and atemporal definition of feminism, which can cross race, class, levels of education, nationalities and periods of time : “Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”. By the use of the term “person”, Adichie points to the necessity to include men in the struggle, to a certain humbleness and to the profound humanism which motivates this project.

Written by Marion Cartier, external contributor

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc.

[2] Americanah, p. 177.

[3] Rousseau Jean-Jacques, Émile ou de l’éducation, in Œuvres complètes, Édition Gallimard, Paris 1969, p. 692.

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