For those of you who haven’t gone out and found the full version of that Chimamanda Adichie talk that Beyonce sampled in Flawless, here it is.
No need to thank me.
I watched this just now, and I was painfully reminded of Joss Whedon’s take on the subject of the word “feminist”.
(I am sorry for putting you through this again.)
Here are two storytellers, both incredibly aware of the power of stories and the power of language, taking on the same word. It is almost uncanny how much of the same ground they cover:
– that the word “feminist” comes with a lot of baggage;
– that this is an issue of equality and shared humanity;
– that it’s an issue of language and an issue of culture.
Now look at how differently they treat those points. Whedon throws the word out of the window in some misguided attempt at humour. Adichie reveals the way all that baggage has affected her, the internalised oppression she is carrying and struggling with:
“At some point, I was a happy African feminist, who does not hate men, and who likes lip gloss, and who wears high heels for herself and not for men.”
Whedon declares that “You either believe women are people, or you don’t.” Adichie examines the social structures and systems of oppression that lead to the majority of people today believing that women are not people. She tells us how we are all socialised to see girls and women as less, to assume that any money or self-worth a woman may have will have come from a man, to see women as guilty, to stifle girls’ ambition by making their first priority marriage. (And if you think that last one is an African and not a Western issue, you need to think again. But that’s another post.) She points out how men are the default – how Joss Whedon probably never had to think about what to wear to that award dinner he made his speech at, while Chimamanda Adichie has to expend energy to look less feminine in order to be taken seriously. She talks about how these assumptions are so ingrained in our society that even her progressive male friends do not see them until they are shoved right up in their face.
Whedon seems to think we have solved racism. Adichie, a black African woman, examines the interaction between different systems of oppression (racism and sexism), different types of privilege.
Whedon says if only we had a word that made it clear that believing that women aren’t human was unacceptable, the world would be a much better place. Adichie looks at practical ways in which we can initiate and sustain cultural change: raising children based on talent and interests rather than gender, being aware of the assumptions we make and the messages we send, challenging sexist behaviour when we see it. She is also keenly aware of all the ways in which discussions about gender get shut down and derailed, often deliberately, often by people like Joss Whedon. (“Why do you have to say ‘my experience as a woman’? Why can’t you say ‘my experience as a human being’?” Yeah, that does sound kinda familiar, now that you mention it.)
Joss Whedon makes a speech, throws a word out of the window, throws another one at the audience, and that’s it, job done. Chimamanda Adichie understands that it takes 100 years for killing twins to no longer be part of a culture. She tells us of the barriers she faces in accessing and shaping her own culture. She acknowledges the difficulty of changing our culture, but very clearly tells us that it is not only not impossible, but that it is vital. “Culture does not make people. People make culture.”
I am inspired by one of these two messages, one of these two people. When Joss Whedon tells me “Go forth and use ‘genderist’!” my response is a resounding “Fuck you!” When Chimamanda Adichie tells me to be a proud woman, a proud feminist, and to go and challenge our society’s myriad sexist assumptions every single day, then yes, of course I will. Because Chimamanda Adichie speaks from her experience as a woman, while Joss Whedon lacks the imagination that would allow him to conceive that women’s experiences are different.
 It needs to be acknowledged that parts of Chimamanda Adichie’s talk contain heteronormative and cissexist assumptions, and there is one piece that is problematic with regards to sex work. While in an ideal world all of us would be constantly aware of all axes of privilege and all intersections of oppression and speak and act accordingly, this is not the world we live in, and I feel Adichie’s contribution to the feminist discourse is incredibly valuable even with these flaws.