We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a powerful and articulate essay that was adapted from the author’s December 2012 TEDx Talk. It serves as both a personal investigation and interpretation of what it means to be a woman today, but also a call to action for men and women around the world, all of whom, in Adichie’s opinion, should favor and support feminism.

The essay revolves around a single question: “What does feminism mean today?” It is developed out of an earlier TEDx talk titled “The Dangers of a Single Story,” which recounts the risks of succumbing to or perpetuating stereotypes. The expansion is logical because, as Adichie suggests, the word “feminism” has been damagingly stereotyped over many years and by many groups, some of whom simply respond to the word without knowing what it means and others of whom are fully aware, and know better, but attack the idea because it is an assault against their own privileged place in society.

What I found truly compelling about this reflection on feminism is that it is steeped in the culture and society of Nigeria, a country that still rigidly clings to the concepts of “gender roles.” Adichie provides a number of anecdotes that illustrate just how deeply rooted are these stereotypes and prejudices, such as the fact that restaurant hosts and servers will refuse to acknowledge a female customer if a man is with her, even if she is paying, because women are not supposed to have money and if they do, it must have been provided by the male (and never mind the idea that a woman might go out to a bar or club without a male chaperone). These examples might ring hyperbolic in the United States, but the reality is that this was our cultural response to gender not very long ago, as it was in Europe. The evidence that many countries are still oppressed by such stereotypes is a prescient reminder that our own society’s rules are new and thus relatively insecure, but also that we too still have far to go in seeking gender equity right here.

An interesting point that Adichie makes throughout the essay is that the “word feminist is so heavy with baggage, negative baggage” (11). She explains how pervasively peoples’ negative attitudes about feminism (or feminists) have spread, so much so that those prejudices often dominate the conversation and deny us room for reasoned discussion. How can we have a conversation about gender equality with someone who “turns off” at the first mention of just one word? It might be helpful to come up with a new phrase to help jumpstart and re-appropriate the conversation, bringing it back to a simple discussion about equity rather than the deafening, emotionally fueled debates about “man hating” and “angry women,” sort of like turning the conversation from “global warming” to “climate change” when it became clear that people easily conflated “warming” with weather and thus misunderstood the complexity of the systems involved and because it became apparent that people who wanted to mislead others about the topic could undermine the facts of the argument by making the word/situation seem ridiculous (“Oh, look at all that snow, we could sure use some global warming!”).

But feminism is what it is: a belief that men and women should be treated equally in all elements of society, economics, politics, etc. When taken this way, as Adichie suggests, few people think of this as a radical concept. So, how do we move past the word? Adichie believes that it has to start with all of us:

“I would like today to ask that we should begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently” (25).  

In other words, we need to take responsibility for the way that we see the world and perpetuate its injustices; we need to teach our children the benefit of seeing and being and creating a world that is better.

Adichie is clear that this means men and women must be equal partners in creating change, and that is in large part because anti-feminism hurts men, too. It oppresses men by prescribing their roles, too. Men cannot be free to be themselves, to truly think, act, and respond the way that they want to, if they are being conditioned to respond, always, in the “masculine role.” If a man is sad, why shouldn’t he cry? And why is that considered “un-masculine”? If a man loves his spouse or children or pets, why shouldn’t he express it? And why is doing so often considered “un-manly”? If a man finds relaxation in cooking or cleaning, why shouldn’t he do these things?

And the same goes for women. Feminism does not tell women not to enjoy cleaning the house, sewing clothes, or making crafts. It simply tells men and women to be who they are, regardless. Imagine the stress and anxiety that would be relieved and the freedom that would come to all of us if we weren’t being forced into predetermined roles that supposedly guide our every single response and our every single interest or ability.

“We teach girls shame,” Adichie writes. “We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something” (33). Likewise, we teach boys to be in control and to crave competition, but we teach girls to be conciliatory and to apologize for having opinions. But “what if . . . we focus on ability instead of gender? What if we focus on interest instead of gender” (36). For Adichie, it is clear that this is all feminism asks of us: allow a person to be him/herself. Teach everything we can, so that our children can learn and try everything they want, and then let them decide what to do and how to act from all available knowledge, opportunity, and experience. Personally, I think that’s a world worth building.

Ultimately, I found Why We Should All Be Feminists thoughtful, relevant, and relatable. Although it is based on an oral lecture, it reads well as a written piece. Despite repeating some of the typical supportive arguments about feminism, Adichie adds crucial context by relaying her personal experiences as a woman and a Nigerian. I read this one in close succession to Reni Eddo-Lode’s Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race, which also deals with issues of intersectional feminism (as well as structural racism) but in the United Kingdom. I think the fact that these conversations about race and gender are happening on such a large scale, and happening all over the world, is promising.

Advertisements

Review: White Noise by Don DeLillo

923693White Noise by Don DeLillo
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 51

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

 “This is the language of waves and radiation, of how the dead speak to the living.”

White Noise is the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college in “Middle America” (I envisioned South Dakota, though it is never explicitly stated).  Jack and his (fourth) wife have an interesting relationship – a co-dependency of sorts, wherein they’re drawn together both from a sense of love but also from a fear of dying.  They have four children, each of whom is special in some way, particularly the eldest son whose brilliance is in a way emasculating to his professor-father.  The family dynamic and the parents’ overwhelming, paralyzing fear of death come to the fore-front as a black chemical cloud is accidentally unleashed in the community.  This “airborne toxic event” as it is called, is a physical manifestation for the emotional “white noise” that the Gladneys and, in a way, all Americans are experiencing.   All of the technological advancements and innovation have brought us great wonders, but at what cost? 

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.
 
The Gladney family reminds me of a real modern family.  They are recognizable in a distinctly “now” way, as coinhabitants of a specific residence (although, sometimes, there are multiple parents and step-children who do not all live together so, really, they are not even coinhabitants of a residence, but of a stretched sphere).  Parents have lost a certain parental authority.  Children have gained a certain dominance over their elders because they are growing up with a firmer grasp of the contemporary technology.  All of this is represented by Jack & Babette and their bizarre children.  Heinrich, who at 14 is already a skeptic and a cynic who reduces everything to analysis – who cannot wish or wonder or find awe in anything.  Steffie is overly sensitive, unable even to watch television shows where people are put in danger or made to look stupid (like reality shows).  Denise is sharp and bossy, spotting her mother’s drug problem before anyone else and trying, unlike anybody else, to do something about it.  Wilder, though mute throughout the entire book, turns out to be one of the most important family members, particularly as a source of comfort to his neurotic parents.  

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
 
Combined with the interesting subject matter and the (sad) realism is a great writing style.  Dialogue and storytelling are clearly strengths for DeLillo (at least in this novel – I have not read anything else by him).  He understands people and contemporary relationships, in particular.  This comes across in the way he tells the story, the sense of humor, the movement, the disappointment – it is all there in the language.  For a book that is largely about our unwillingness or inability to communicate, DeLillo manages to get the message across loud and clear. White Noise is a masterpiece of postmodern discourse – it is a work of metafiction, cleverly disguised as a family story. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
 
This is the book I would love to have written.  This is the type of book that I think about all the time, that I have tried to write on a few occasions. Nobody knows how to communicate effectively.  Kids create drama to get noticed, parents create drama because they are unfulfilled, bored, unsatisfied – constantly bombarded with messages that we are all supposed to want more, own more, buy bigger, have better.  We don’t really know our neighbors anymore, or our co-workers.  Drugs are prescribed to treat our problems, other drugs are prescribed to control the side-effects of the first ones.  We can’t sleep without pills, can’t wake up without caffeine.  We take pictures of pictures and lose all sense of or care for original works of art, because we can keep photocopies of these things, oftentimes more brilliant than the originals, in our back pockets.  We are constantly connected to instant-information devices, so we learn nothing and remember nothing, because the answers are handed to us at the touch of a screen.  We are becoming something other than human.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 14+
Interest: Mass Culture, Paranoia, Cultural Studies, Contemporary Issues, Neurosis, Anxiety, Family, Higher Education, Technology, Chemical Weapons, Pollutants, Postmodernism, Metafiction, Language
 
Notable Quotes:

“What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything.”

“Man’s guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood has been complicated by technology, the daily seeping falsehearted death.”

“These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters.”

“Heat. This is what cities mean to me. You get off the train and walk out of the station and you are hit with the full blast. The heat of air, traffic and people. The heat of food and sex. The heat of tall buildings. The heat that floats out of the subways and the tunnels. It’s always fifteen degrees hotter in the cities.  Heat rises from the sidewalks and falls from the poisoned sky. The buses breathe heat. Heat emanates from crowds of shoppers and office workers. The entire infrastructure is based on heat, desperately uses up heat, breeds more heat. The eventual heat death of the universe that scientists love to talk about is already well underway and you can feel it happening all around you in any large or medium-sized city. Heat and wetness.”

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

“I am the false character that follows the name around.”

“I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters.”

Review: Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin

Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD:  7

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

The title of this novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, should be enough to tip off the reader that the book is going to be, well, a bit odd.  And it is.  While many aspects of the book are entirely believable – even to the point of being mundanely typical- some elements are just, well, completely inexplicable.  Still, Tao Lin leaves no room for doubt in these bizarre situations, so the reader must push forward, accept what is happening (like talking bears with depression, and homicidal dolphin philosophers, for example), and try to wade through the nonsense to get the picture being presented, which is one of hopelessness and lethargy.  This book is a scathing, though creative, argument against American capitalism, which Lin seems to believe has been a creative and moral leech on society and progress.

Characterization:
2 – Characters slightly developed.

The main character, Andrew, is a depressed, socially awkward, slightly delusional twenty-year-old pizza delivery man, with an obsession for a girl who may or may not exist.  The reader must wonder whether or not he is just weird, or if he might be suffering from some serious acid-trips gone wrong, considering the amount of time he spends talking to humanoid animals – most of which are just as depressed, sad, and bizarre as Andrew is himself.  His friend, Steve, and Steve’s family are equally weird, though not so strange as Andrew (one can imagine that the other characters, though just as lazy, could possibly succeed at something whereas Andrew will surely never amount to anything).  There is little depth to any of the characters, and absolutely no growth for any.  Some of the most interesting characters are the ones who are not real – the dolphins, bears, gerbils, etc. who have human-like qualities and often communicate with Andrew in some way (taking him in on strange, Labyrinth-like journeys to hidden, underground worlds).  There is also a strange and funny meeting with the United States President (Bush?), an alien, the animals, and Andrew, near the end of the book.  The bottom line seems to be that there is no point to anything, and no happiness or purpose to be found anywhere.

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Lin’s prose is certainly engaging – playful but serious at the same time.  He moves the story forward at a great pace, and his descriptions are simple but well-wrought.  The language is simple, too, but not in a dumb-down sort of way.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What is most impressive about the novel is its purpose.  I am not head-over-heels about the delivery or the plot/story itself, but its intent – the passion and beliefs behind it- are well-received, important, and thought-provoking.  What is happening to America’s youth and the American dream?  Children stay children younger – dependent on their parents and families for years after college, in many cases; and yet, children are also forced to grow up so fast – exposed to adult themes and moral situations at younger and younger ages.  The result:  Loneliness, despair, a sense of disconnect from the world, and a total loss for meaning and purpose in life.  We live in a world and culture which measures success by how much someone can afford – how big is your house?  How many cars do you own, and how much did they cost?  How much energy can you waste?  How long can you live at home, avoiding things like responsibility, building a career, starting a family?  What happened to accountability, hard work, and valued achievements?

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult

Interest: Angst, Depression, anti-Capitalism, America, Despair, Philosophy, Culture

 Notable Quotes:

“A world without right or wrong was a world that did not want itself, anything other than itself, or anything not those two things, but that still wanted something. A world without right or wrong invited you over, complained about you, and gave you cookies. Don’t leave, it said, and gave you a vegan cookie. It avoided eye contact, but touched your knee sometimes. It was the world without right or wrong. It didn’t have any meaning. It just wanted a little meaning.”

“He used to think things like, This organic soymilk will make me healthy and that’ll make my brain work better and that’ll improve my writing. Also things like, The less I eat the less money I spend on publicly owned companies the less pain and suffering will exist in the world. Now he thinks things like, It is impossible to be happy. Why would anyone think that?”