Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie, image from kamdora.com
“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.” Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now, marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. 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. Feminist: a person who believes in the social political, and economic equality of the sexes.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If you’re a fan of Beyoncé, the quote above will be very familiar. Queen Bey sampled these words by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (novelist and self-described ‘happy African feminist’) from her TEDx talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ for the track ‘Flawless’ (2013). We highly recommend watching Chimamanda’s talk and taking in her words. She’s a truly an amazing woman.
‘Flawless’ Ft Chimamanda recently exploded back into the realm of pop culture and the music kingdom, due to Beyoncé’s performance at the VMA’s, which featured the track, and an unforgettable backdrop.
For the performance, Beyoncé emerged as a powerful silhouette backlit by single word, written in bold, bright lights. FEMINIST.
Beyoncé’s Flawless perfomance, image from thepolitic.org
I realise that you probably can’t see my fist pumpin’ action through the computer screen but I KNOW you can feel it. This was a watershed moment for feminism. But before we delve too deep into this particular feminist moment and why it’s so important, let’s take a look back at feminism in pop culture, and Beyonce’s particular take on the whole thing.
‘Feminist’, as so many of us know, has not been a popular label for some ladies (and some of the men folk for that matter) for a loooong time. Friends have recounted numerous instances in the past when they were asked ‘Are you a feminist?’ to which they responded ‘Um…nooo, I don’t think so’, as they didn’t want to be associated with what seemed to be Anti-Men, negative or sort of extreme.
It wasn’t until later that they realised that feminism is not about hating men, or part of women’s secret plan for world domination. Only later did they realise that feminism means something real and human – equality of both sexes – which is something which we can all get behind. Equality. In all aspects of life.
This poor understanding of what feminism means has for a long time permeated our pop culture – which of course filters down into our everyday lives and interactions with one another. Successful women in positions of incredible influence have denounced the term, distanced themselves from it and some have even ridiculed the idea (which is confusing in more ways then I can truly explain).
Katy Perry has been quoted as saying that she is ‘not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women’ (huh?) and Madonna (plus heaps of other female celebs) famously said that she is not a feminist either, no sir, she is a humanist. Humanism has often been seen as a softer version of feminism which embraces the notion of equality, without the vicious man-crushing (jokes). The problem with this idea is that it ignores the fundamental meaning of feminism – which is not to elevate women above men, rather it is to bring about balance between the sexes, so that we see equal numbers of men and women in politics, as nurses, builders, teachers or doctors, as stay at home parents, all receiving the same pay for the same work. Women around the world afforded the same opportunities as men, like access to education. It’s about mutual respect.
Some might say ‘Beyoncé can’t possibly be a feminist! She’s too provocative, too sexual in her performances’. And in response to that narrow view, I say: this is actually what feminism is about. It’s about being able seeing women in positions of power and influence. It’s about seeing women as sexual beings (on her own terms), it’s about believing that women should be in control of her finances, and knowing that it’s every woman’s right to exercise her political voice. It’s about choice.
Beyoncé has a long track record of putting her feminist views out there – her early work with Destiny’s Child (‘Bills, Bills, Bills‘, ‘Independent Woman‘ and ‘Bootylicious‘ attest to that), promoted women’s empowerment, pushing girls to appreciate their body, to become comfortable with their sexuality, to be in control of their own money, to be the mistress of their world and do it on their own terms. Essentially, to choose their own path.
By placing ‘FEMINIST’ smack bang into the middle of our world, Beyoncé is asking us to consider our views on the rights of women and where we place ourselves in all that. That’s why this is a watershed moment. The word ‘feminist’ has officially become cool. So next time you’re asked ‘are you a feminist?’ perhaps it’s worth thinking about what Chimamanda would say.
Ally is a Melbourne-based designer, educator and one of the co-creators of Rosie. She is addicted to This American Life podcasts, wasabi peas and red lipstick. Her dog Scout is widely acknowledged as her spirit animal. Ally loves being able to put feminist issues front and centre.