Today, I read and watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay and TEDx Talk We Should All Be Feminists. And honestly, there is so much that I love about this essay – Adichie does a really wonderful job of defending the label of feminist and how gender needs to be considered when thinking about inequality. (Although, there are some flaws.) Her TEDx Talk is below and you can buy the adapted essay here. In this post though, I’ll be focusing on reviewing the adapted essay.
In her short and adapted book based on her 2012 TEDx Talk, Adichie writes about the different ways we treat men and women in different societies (primarily the United States and Nigeria). She describes some of the ways in which women are treated differently than men in Nigeria – like how hotel managers think lone women coming in might be sex workers or that women sometimes can’t get into nightclubs without the escort of a man. She also writes about the second shift work – a sociological phenomena that describes the house work done after work and something that’s typically done more by women than men.
Adichie also writes about how some traits seen in men are often praised in work settings but those same traits are discouraged and seen as a liability to women in the exact same settings. Men can be aggressive and bossy in the workforce and praised for it but the moment a woman is the same, there are complaints. She writes about how we pressure girls to be likable and to worry about how others think of us but we don’t do that for boys.
All of this and much more is done in this short book. Adichie also writes about the fagility of masculinity, the blaming of rape/assault victims, and how gender can often be a difficult conversation. The most important part though, as least for me, is that Adichie defends the usage and labeling of feminist, saying that:
Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.
Although, as great as I think this book is as an introduction into feminism, I don’t think it’s perfect. There are many parts in which Adichie is quite heteronomative and cissexist. Throughout the essay, she cites differences between the two binary genders of men/boys and women/girls. A big part of those differences Adichie writes about are the biological differences but that is under the assumption that man = penis, XY chromosomes, and other assumed biological characteristics and that woman = vagina, XX chromosomes, and other assumed characteristics.
Those biological differences that Adichie keeps referring to don’t always determine gender nor are they always consistent. Intersex and trans people do in fact exist, meaning that there are people whose genitalia are ambiguous upon birth or people who don’t identify with their assigned gender. There are men with vaginas and women with penises and having those characteristics don’t make them any less of their identity.
Another detail is that Adichie writes about virginity – saying exactly that “the loss of virginity is a process that usually involves two people of opposite genders”. Again, there’s that assumption that everyone is heterosexual and that there opposite genders instead of different genders. And while I agree with her sentiment that women are shamed for having sex while men are praised for it, I don’t think that we need to constantly assume that a penis in vagina sexual experience is universal or the only “real” kind of sex.
Ultimately though, I think that both the video and the adapted book/essay are a great introduction to feminism and I love that Sweden gave the book to every 16 year old student recently. I’m really on board with the fact that Adichie does a really great job at acknowledging the gender differences in how we treat people and defending the label of feminist and femininity. I do think that this short book and the TEDx Talk are a great way to explain the different ways men and women experience the world (despite the fact that it does alienate much of the LGBTQ+ global community).
However, I don’t think that feminism work and education should stop at this book and I realize that it’s not a perfect production. Adichie adheres to heteronormativity and cissexism within both the book and video and feminism should be intersectional, inclusive, and cognizant of the different ways in which we all experience gender.