We Can All Be Feminists: Adichie versus Beyoncé
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: award winning novelist, Yale graduate, and…Beyoncé’s lyricist? In a recent interview with the Dutch magazine de Volkskrant, Adichie opened up about her feelings on her famous feature in Beyoncé’s song “Flawless,” saying: “her type of feminism is not mine.” What does this mean? What is “Beyoncé’s feminism?” And can it be reconciled with feminism at large?
Those of us who were young, budding feminists at the time of the Beyoncé/Adichie collaboration will remember the moment quite clearly. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a respected novelist who amassed quite a large following on the internet for a famous TEDx Talk she delivered entitled “We Should All Be Feminists,” skyrocketed into popular consciousness when Beyoncé famously sampled part of the speech for her song, “Flawless.” The song was performed by Beyoncé at the 2014 MTV VMAs, in front of a screen that blared the word “FEMINIST” in all caps—a move that was largely without precedent on the pop-cultural stage.
Though she had stayed largely silent about the song and her feelings about it, for a long time, Adiche finally opened up about Beyoncé’s use of her speech in a recent interview in a Dutch magazine: “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 per cent of our time on men, because it’s fun, but otherwise we should also be talking about our own stuff.”
Does Adichie hate Beyoncé? No, probably not. The interview opens with Adichie’s saying, “She portrays a woman who is in charge of her own destiny, who does her own thing, and she has girl power. I am very taken with that.” Rather, it appears that what Adichie is trying to say is that Beyoncé’s work seems too often to relate to men: her relationships with them, her feelings about them, what they mean to her, what roles they play in her life. And, kind of like a real-life Bechdel test, this type of female dialogue can be problematic. Her argument is bolstered by the fact that Lemonade, Beyoncé’s most recent release—a visual album rife with lush scenes of black women, powerful and beautiful, taking center stage—centers around a man (her husband, Jay Z), and his infidelity. Her 2013 world tour was named The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour. Many of the songs on her last album, Beyoncé, put men at the front and center of a conversation that claims to be about empowerment. Adichie feels the centrality of men in Beyoncé is not only a distraction, but a step in the wrong direction.
This isn’t the first feminist criticism that has been leveled at Beyoncé. Famous feminist critic, bell hooks, has called Beyoncé an anti-feminist and even a terrorist, and pointed out that Lemonade doesn’t do what it should in the deconstruction of institutionalized sexism. Other critics have accused Beyoncé of co-opting feminism and of using it for commercial gain without confronting its full complexity. They have also criticized her for her exploitation of the male gaze and the fact that her ubiquitous presence in conversations about feminism has overshadowed often more important, more complex conversations.
Many of these arguments are valid. Beyoncé’s feminism may truly be a commercial ploy. It may not be nuanced enough, and may not understand the ways in which it serves, rather than destroys, the patriarchy. But there is a tradeoff between ideas that are widely consumed and ideas that seriously challenge institutional inequality. The simplified version of feminism Beyoncé sells is a problem—but so is having a social movement that extends to only a niche group of people. Adichie herself says, “With this song she has reached many people who would otherwise probably never have heard the word feminism, let alone gone out and buy my essay.” Before feminism became a commodity traded and sold by artists and tampon brands alike, the women who had the most access to feminism were educated, high-class, white women. Feminism that is popularly consumed is fairly characterized as reductive, but it is also democratic. And there is value in that democratization, because what is feminism but a fight for equality?
So: do we condemn Beyoncé’s critics? Is Adiche completely off in her contention that Beyoncé’s feminism is unsatisfying? On that, again, I would argue: no. The democratization and popularization of feminism can be good—but it is not an unqualified good. It does oversimplify narratives of intersectionality, the hegemony of oppressive systems, and issues of queerness. It’s hard to summarize years of academic inquiry into the catch-phrase on an Always or Dove ad. What people like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie do, what people like bell hooks do, is tell us that there is more to learn, more boundaries to push, further to explore. They keep us from being complacent, and their role is just as integral to effective and thoughtful change as Beyoncé’s is to mass mobilization.
In most movements advocating for social change, we are asked to pick a camp: progressive, or radical? But fundamental to understanding the way that change happens is the understanding that these schools of thought, often seemingly mutually exclusive antitheses of one another, are required to act together for actual change to happen. The tension between them is as integral as it is frustrating to the success of their movement, and we cannot eliminate one without harming the feminist project as a whole.