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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Beyoncé: Feminism in action

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Adichie vs. Beyoncé?

Not so fast.

Feminists, Beyoncé fans, and dedicated admirers—the virtual collective known as the Beyhive—let out a palpable gasp across the Internet upon reading headlines that quoted Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as saying that Beyoncé’s feminism is not her feminism. In an interview last week with the Dutch publication de Volkskrant, Adichie spoke at length for the first time about her TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” being sampled by Beyoncé for the icon’s song “***Flawless,” released as part of her visual eponymous album in 2013.

But there is no drama here, no conflict, and no reason for the Beyhive to attack this award-winning author and MacArthur genius grant recipient. In fact, Adichie’s thought-provoking comments generously remind feminists of productive ways to think about the movement. Her comments not only echo the belief that there is no one way to be a feminist—that feminism more appropriately should be understood in the plural, feminisms—they also reorient the focus of feminism back to the critical, fundamental subject: women.

In the de Volkskrant interview, Adichie emphasizes that she respects and admires Beyoncé; it is mainstream media’s fabrication that suggests otherwise. Furthermore, her comments are less critique than differentiation:

“Still, her type of feminism is not mine, as it is the kind that, at the same time, gives quite a lot of space to the necessity of men. I think men are lovely, but I don't think that women should relate everything they do to men: did he hurt me, do I forgive him, did he put a ring on my finger? We women are so conditioned to relate everything to men. Put a group of women together and the conversation will eventually be about men. Put a group of men together and they will not talk about women at all, they will just talk about their own stuff. We women should spend about 20 percent of our time on men, because it's fun, but otherwise we should also be talking about our own stuff.”

The point of differentiation Adichie draws can be imagined in terms of space, time, and energy: Beyoncé’s feminism, she indicates, gives “quite a lot of space to the necessity of men.” Adichie’s feminism argues that giving this space to men takes energy and attention that should be spent on women, since the objective of feminism is women’s liberation. Instead, women should redirect their focus back to themselves; make the mirror of recognition, approval, and acceptance not men, but themselves and other women. In her acclaimed TED Talk, Adichie explains how men come to figure at the center of women’s lives: “We do a much greater disservice to girls because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of men.” This is the problem she locates in the feminism expressed by Beyoncé in her albums. It is, moreover, a temperate variation of bell hooks’s critique of Beyoncé’s latest visual album, Lemonade, earlier this year in which the black feminist scholar contends that Beyoncé’s “construction of feminism cannot be trusted [because it] does not call for an end to patriarchal domination.”

The future of feminism, for Adichie, depends on its ability to put women first. And this begins, for Adichie as well as for an impressive lineage of feminist thinkers tracing through Simone de Beauvoir all the way back to Mary Wollstonecraft, with the individual. With changing how women think about themselves. “What matters even more is our attitude, our mindset,” Adichie asserts in her TED Talk about how gender has been inscribed as a morality into our minds. “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are.”

But feminism not only entails an ethics of the self, it is also a politics of the collective. Adichie’s argument for women’s liberation is that men should not be situated as the gatekeepers, or the adjudicators of women’s subjectivity. It is an argument that resonates with that proposed by the late lesbian feminist scholar Barbara Johnson, who wrote in the breathtaking conclusion to her 1998 book, The Feminist Difference:

“[A]s long as feminist analysis polarizes the world by gender, women are still standing facing men. Standing against men, or against patriarchy, might not be structurally so different from existing for it. A feminist logic that pits women against men operates along the lines of heterosexual thinking. But conflicts among feminists require women to pay attention to each other, to take each other’s reality seriously, to face each other. This requirement that women face each other may not have anything erotic or sexual about it, but it may have everything to do with the eradication of the misogyny that remains within feminists, and with the attempt to escape the logic of heterosexuality. It places difference among women rather than exclusively between the sexes. Of course, patriarchy has always played women off against each other and manipulated differences among women for its own purposes. Nevertheless, feminists have to take the risk of confronting and negotiating differences among women if we are ever to transform such differences into positive rather than negative forces in women’s lives.”

Women need to face each other. Only then will we more thoughtfully address the differences and disagreements among us. Only then will we become a coalition. Johnson’s remarks elucidate and magnify the message of Adichie’s comments: feminism, as the movement for women’s liberation, requires the centering of women—of all women. Women, therefore, no longer come to be identified as the negative or inverse of men. Instead of being identified in relation to men, we come to be known and valued in relation to ourselves. This is how we eradicate misogyny—and especially internalized misogyny: women facing each other. 

Feminists are not misandrists—contrary to the stereotype, we do not hate men. But Adichie, and Johnson before her, advocate for a type of feminism that, by placing the focus on women, explodes the category of “women” to show and value our diversity and our differences—to show that our feminism is actually feminisms. The virtual dialogue between Adichie and Beyoncé reveals this plurality. But it was in fact because of this dialogue—of these two women facing each other, albeit virtually and across time—that audiences could perceive their respective differences when it comes to feminism. Adichie facing Beyoncé—two women facing each other—then, is the heart of Adichie’s feminist message turned into action.

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