Natalie Gadbois: Making feminism more inclusive

Alfred A. Knopf/Vintage Books

By Natalie Gadbois, Daily Gender & Media Columnist
Published December 4, 2014

Almost a year has passed since Beyoncé dropped her surprise, earth-shattering album, Beyoncé. I celebrated the release by drinking a milkshake in my roommate’s bed and screaming the lyrics to “Grown Woman,” my Midwestern interpretation of Beyoncé’s glamour. With those 14 songs (and sexy accompanying videos) she changed how much of the world viewed the music industry, stardom and watermelon. With the help of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Bey also made feminism go platinum, defiantly claiming the oft-criticized word as her own.

“***Flawless,” Yoncé’s no-holds-barred and (debatedly) feminist dressing-down of her haters (and all the posers who think they can be like her), featured an excerpt from a Adichie’s 2013 TEDx Talk, entitled “We should all be feminists.” Though she had already made a name for herself in the literary world, as her three novels are all bestsellers and critically acclaimed, this short feature on the Beyoncé song made her a household name — at least within Beyoncé-loving households, the only kind that really matters.

And for good reason. Adichie is the modern feminist everyone should know. Not only does “We should all be feminists” speak to an expansive list of issues of gender inequality — the policing of girls’ sexuality, skewed power dynamics in academia and the misplaced value on marriage — Ngozi is funny and charming, bringing warmth and grace to important topics. Her other works contain these same shades, developed portrayals of diverse women’s experiences. Not brazenly feminist so much as subtly revolutionary, challenging norms between countries and cultures.

In her novel “Americanah,” the 2013 National Book Critics Circle award winner, Adichie weaves the tale of Ifemelu, a bright Nigerian girl who moves to the United States for college, leaving the love of her life behind. The book rotates between middle-class Lagos, black hair salons in Trenton, New Jersey, seedy apartments in London and upper-class white Philadelphia deftly, pinpointing both the hardship and the rapture Ifemelu experiences navigating these spaces as a foreign black woman.

Ifemelu is brash and strong and smart and unapologetic, much like Adichie herself. Much of the novel focuses on Ifemelu’s relationships — never asserting that she needs a boyfriend, but honestly depicting her internal struggle as she falls in and out of love with men who can’t understand her background. In one potent passage Ifemelu relaxes her hair because she fears she won’t land a job with natural hair, and her adoring boyfriend Curt — rich, white, liberal — reacts in horror and disappoint that she feels she must change herself. Her queasy worry that he loves her in part because of her apparent exoticism demonstrates one of the most skewering examinations of the confluence of race, gender and nationality I’ve ever read. It’s also funny and soaring, microcosmic evidence of Adichie’s craft.

Stories like Adichie’s, and the diverse background that contributes to them, are infinitely important, especially given the current state of feminism in the United States. It’s dangerously easy for feminists to get stuck in one narrative; many of the most vocal and impactful modern voices of feminism come from cookie cutter backgrounds: white, upper-class, American, heterosexual. Feminist organizations have an alarming habit of limiting minority voices. First wave feminists like Alice Paul only allowed Black women to participate in the Women’s Suffrage Movement if they worked and marched separately from the white women and men; Author and activist Rita Mae Brown very publicly quit the National Organization of Women in 1973 to protest of the organization’s efforts to distance itself from gay and lesbian groups.

Unfortunately, this legacy of compartmentalizing identities to fight for a greater good continues today. Just yesterday, combative feminist magazine Jezebel published a story headlined “Let’s find Taylor Swift a black friend” — missing the point entirely on how to incorporate non-white voices into the conversation without tokenizing or simplifying.

Despite controversy over the word itself, there is a universality to feminism that when tapped into is immensely empowering, as Adichie’s work demonstrates: there are certain experiences that women everywhere can relate to, ways that women connect across borders and demographics. But, conversely, particularly because of social media and “viral” feminism, vocal American feminists can often get caught in the privileges of white, upper-class feminism, tone deaf to other identities — recent backlash against Lena Dunham and Taylor Swift proves this trend.

Thankfully, perhaps because of Twitter and our increasingly global world, or perhaps because of a conscious effort to be more inclusive, other voices are coming to life, adding more and more narratives to the library of pop culture feminism. Voices like Adichie’s, like Beyoncé’s, like transgender activist and star of “Orange is the New Black” Laverne Cox. Hopefully this is part of a general shift towards a less fractured brand of feminism, a global movement focused on impact and education rather than oversimplified declarations. As Adichie personally defines feminism, “A feminist is a man or a woman who says ‘Yes, there is a problem with gender as it is today. And we must fix it. We must do better.’” We must do better, and feminism is only stronger when it disseminates stories from a range of voices. So watch Adichie’s videos. Read her books. Discover narratives distinct from your own; it will only serve to widen your perspective.