Feminism is a hard topic to talk about. It only takes two seconds for me to start rambling an incoherent mess without a point, without an argument. The underlying social issues are complex, and the complexity is so ingrained throughout every aspect of our culture that it feels impossible to tackle; how can focusing on a single aspect — a single page, a single frame, a single pixel — reflect the greater picture?
It’s impossible; it’s infuriating; it’s stupid.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay, ‘We Should All Be Feminists,’ is a wonderfully-written, level-headed introduction and summary of what — apparently not just American or Western — modern cultures interpret as The Trouble With Feminism. I don’t know when I became a feminist. I used to not be. In high school, I held the same gross views as many men’s rights activists, and even had a pick-up artist phase (to my great embarrassment). If I were to try rationalizing a story-book history, I might say it was a combination of my higher education (and the role-models that came with it), a period of confused identity (incl. gender), and, through that difficult period, having only women as friends (many of them gay). I also grew up in Texas, where masculinity is, in particular, venerated as the ultimate tradition. But now I’m a feminist, or try to be, for whatever that’s worth.
Chimananda’s important essay has its faults, and those faults almost exclusively relate to:
- Its short length,
- its being based on a 2012 speech, and
- it might just be preaching to the choir — her arguments may be safe and ‘obvious.’
Without question, sexism / feminism cannot be distilled down to a 45-page argument. At this length, things are kept simple, arguments are backed up using generalizations and anecdotal experiences.
Being based on a TED Talk she delivered in 2012, the unique cadence and language of a speech persist into the essay. It’s better to listen to than to read.
The last one obviously depends on the audience reading Chimamanda’s speech. Some of her arguments were obvious to me before reading — that, e.g., men still overwhelmingly lead our society because it’s tradition; because physical strength was more important than intelligence when these foundations were set — and others were only obvious after I read them — that, e.g., preference for the broad term human rights is an exclusionary tactic (however unintentional) meant to diminish and deny feminist debate.
No matter how obvious they might be, however, that’s not an awareness we execute moment to moment when unconscious tradition rears its ugly, traditional head. For example, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has an American friend — she has a lot of friends in this essay — who took over a managerial position only to be criticized by her employees for being tough and not bringing a ‘woman’s touch’ to a position that didn’t ask for one. I also have friends — I suspect we all do — in academia, who face similar discrimination from students and faculty. (Luckily, the discrimination tends to be correlated with age.) It’s an unconscious expectation from everyone, even feminists, because that division of masculinity and femininity, of logic and emotion (e.g., hysteria), is the normal expectation for our culture. & it’s rationalized away as a product of something like biology, thus applying the appearance of legitimacy and research.
Chimamanda also relates a story of a young woman being gang-raped at a Nigerian university. The response was quick to shift towards blaming the victim because she was a woman, and something in her behavior or attitude or personality must have called the incident down on her as punishment. (The men being men was forgivable.) It’s hard to pretend this is geographically-unique — that it doesn’t happen in America, where Asking For It is a go-to stereotype from young men (and women) in the comment section of any relevant story or video.
’Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.’
Again, it’s infuriating, all the stigmas being bred by this persistent discrimination. But a feminist can’t get angry, because to get angry diminishes the rationality of your argument, or because women can’t be angry or threatening and be taken seriously. But it’s an angry issue, as Chimamanda argues — we need to be angry at the grave injustices of the world. Being angry and being outspoken is sometimes a necessary means to facilitate a positive social change, and we need those changes to occur now, not tomorrow, not next year, and not for the next generation.
‘We Should All Be Feminists’ is an excellent introduction or refresher to necessary ideas. It may not distill it to a perfect argument for many people — and its hopeful tone may not be particularly realistic — but it’s a 30-minute expression of one of the most important social justice issues frustrating the world today.