by Vanessa Liang Xuan Wu z5079754
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – The portrayal of a feminist.
What is a feminist? Who are feminists? Can someone be more of a feminist than the next person? Can males be feminists as well? The word feminist is defined in the dictionary, but there seem to be a never-ending conversation about what it is and what it should be. Despite its relatively fluid meaning, it remains often used in the media as a label. A figure who is no stranger to this label is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is a multiple award-winning novelist from Nigeria who received international fame from the wider audience when her TEDx talk “We should all be feminists” went viral and even got sampled to be featured in Beyonce’s track titled “Flawless”.
In my analysis of the following articles, I will examine how this label is not given but rather earned.
Erica Wagner 3 Nov 2015 Vogue
Clare Spencer 22 Oct 2016 BBC
Natasha Bird 10 Oct 2016 Elle
JE Reich 7 Jun 2016 Jezebel
Lynsey Chutel 3 Jul 2016 Quartz
The dictionary loosely defines feminists as advocates for women rights. They are often found in conversations surrounding the social problem of gender inequality. The almost universal experience of gender inequality, coupled with the portrayal of feminism in media has created a fluid but communal understanding of what feminists should be. Through my analysis, I will argue that the word ‘feminist’ has become a title that needs to be demonstrated with evidence and argued for, according to socially perceived standards.
There is a range of attitudes towards Adichie presented in these articles. Wagner(Vogue), Spencer(BBC), Reich(Jezebel) and Chutel(Quartz) gave Adichie a relatively positive evaluation while Bird(Elle) introduced one of few negative portrayals of Adichie. Despite having differing evaluations, all authors kept to four main portrayals of Adichie, a successful, opinionated, credible and feminine individual. The articles examined largely fall under the category of soft news where there is a mix of quotes from Adichie, external sources as well as authorial impressions of Adichie are incorporated in the piece. Hence evaluations are conveyed both indirectly through implication as well as explicitly through the remarks of the author.
The portrayal of Adichie as a successful individual who is outstanding in character and her pursuits was done both directly and indirectly in the articles. This is extensively seen in Vogue’s feature article on Adichie which is the earliest published out of the bunch that is examined.
“She’s an award-winning novelist, a TED talk sensation and Beyoncé’s favourite feminist.”
The opening sentence of the article already presents the author’s explicit suggestions of Adichie’s success. While ‘award-winning novelist’ can be seen as an undisputed fact, ‘TED talk sensation and Beyonce’s favourite feminist’ (emphasis added) are definitely superlative descriptions that positions the audience to view Adichie’s achievements as outstanding.
“She herself is proving to be a major force in the development of local authors: for the past eight summers she and her Nigerian publisher have hosted a writing workshop in Lagos.”
The author further attributes success to Adichie by describing her as a ‘major force’ which implies that she has created significant impact through her long commitment to the local writing community. The mention of Adichie’s service to her community can also be read as praise of her character, in the spirit of selflessness and collectivism, where the audience is likely to perceive as positive character traits.
This is further supported by an external quote from a fellow reputable author Salman Rushdie who described Adichie as “…what was so striking was her own confidence and authority. She very much held her own, and spoke fluently and powerfully, and all of us there that day could see that someone very remarkable had just arrived.” (emphasis added). This can be read as an indirect evaluation, borrowing the reputation of Salman Rushdie and his impression of Adichie, the author paints for the audience a personality portrait that is full of positive traits such as confidence, strength and intelligence.
In the articles that were later published, authors largely depended on explicit evaluations of Adichie’s achievements and her public recognition.
“One of the world’s leading feminists…”
“The Nigerian novelist was well known in literary circles…”
“Lauded Nigerian author and celebrated feminist…”
“Celebrated Nigerian novelist…”
“…one of the most prominent voices on feminism today…”
By conveying Adichie’s achievements in such a undisputable manner, the authors show that Adichie’s success is something that is already recognised by the wider public which is a powerful persuasive tool to convince that audience that Adichie’s success is significant, using the argument of the majority.
The second main portrayal of Adichie that supports the socially perceived criteria of feminists is that of an opinionated and intelligent individual. This can be seen from the heavy use of direct quotes from Adichie in all five articles. This is especially seen in Vogue’s feature article where its structural affordances allowed for long running quotes from Adichie.
“I was still writing it when I went up to speak, and afterwards, clearly people had listened, clearly people felt strongly about it – but I let it go. So they put it online, and only then I heard about people using it in their classes, about people arguing about it at work and school.”
“I am a person who writes and tells stories. That’s what I want to talk about. There’s an obsession with celebrity that I have never had. But the one thing I will say is that I really do think Beyoncé is a force for good, as much as celebrity things go. I know there has been lot of talk in the past year about how feminism is ‘cool’ now, but I think if we are honest, it’s not a subject that’s easy. She didn’t have to do this, she could have taken on, I don’t know, world peace. Or nothing at all. And I realise that so many young people in our celebrity-obsessed world, well, suddenly they are thinking about this. And that’s a wonderful thing. So I don’t have any reservations about having said yes.” (emphasis added)
In these long running direct quote, the repeated appearance of the personal pronoun ‘I’ conveys Adichie’s personal voice and viewpoints. Her use of phrases like ‘I am’ and ‘I really do think’ also shows the reader that she is an individual who is self-aware and ready to forward her personal opinion. The presence of these long direct quotes throughout the article also presents Adichie as a coherent individual who is able to speak for herself communicate her thoughts fluently to her audience.
This is further illustrated by regularity which Adichie’s opinion become the title of the articles that are written about her.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘[Beyonce’s] Feminism Is Not Mine’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “I Wanted to Claim My Own Name”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Quietly Gave Birth, Refused to ‘Perform Pregnancy’
Adichie is seen to be unafraid to share her original and uncensored opinions despite the possibility of attracting controversy and media attention to herself, which shows an outstanding determination to forward her personal opinions. Adichie’s opinion in presented in Elle is potentially offensive to Beyonce and her opinion in Jezebel may inspire disagreement from other mothers who have engaged in the performance of pregnancy. The author’s disagreement with Adichie’s evaluation of Beyonce’s feminism was what inspired the Elle article in the first place.
“‘Her type of feminism is not mine,’ she says. ‘As it is the kind that, at the same time, gives quite a lot of space to the necessity of men.'”
In response to Adichie’s opinion, the author argues that “The problem is that we’ve enough men and women in the world refuting the idea of feminism entirely, to be able to afford to have in-fighting among those who stand up for the concept.” (emphasis added) From the phrase ‘in-fighting’, the reader can see that the author does not question Adichie’s position as a feminist but still puts forward a negative evaluation for Adichie’s opinion against Beyonce as it is deemed to be contributing to a larger ‘problem’ rather than improving the situation. Adichie’s actions come at a cost that society is unable to ‘afford’.
A less than glowing evaluation of Adichie is similarly presented in the Jezebel article where the author describes Adichie’s decision to keep her pregnancy quiet as a “pointed effort to elaborate the gendered imbalance of ‘performing pregnancy'” as well as a “refreshing take”. This can be read as an explicit evaluation of Adichie’s intent and its subsequent impact. While the evaluation is not obviously positive, the reader is positioned to interpret it positively when it is considered in conjunction with Adichie’s status as a feminist which simply put is an advocate for change. To describe Adichie’s actions as ‘refreshing’ implies that there is something new and different about it compared to the current social norm which fulfils her role and identity and a feminist.
She is also often seen to be adopting a recommendatory tone in her speech which contributes to the construction of an opinionated character in the media.
“I feel we need to make a space for dreaminess. But life is short. I’ll say, don’t give up your job. Get up earlier, make the space. If it matters to you, make it matter.” (emphasis added)
“I think men are lovely, but I don’t think that women should relate everything they do to men…”
“We women should spend about 20 per cent of our time on men…” (emphasis added)
Adichie’s recommendatory tone can be inferred through the use of verbs such as ‘women should’ and ‘we need to’ which signals a recommendation to be followed. Through the presentation of her recommendatory opinions, Adichie is also portrayed as an intelligent and thoughtful individual. This may prompt the reader to consider her recommendations rather than brush them aside as recommendations are often given by individuals who has a certain amount of expertise and credibility in society.
Adichie’s opinionated nature is also illustrated with her ability to assert herself while under the pressure of an insistent reporter. Quoted in both Quartz and Jezebel’s article, Adichie deflects the reporter who asked for her baby’s name with “No, I won’t say.” accompanied with a “disarming smile”. She is known prefer keeping her family life private and away from media scrutiny and her actions corresponds with a pre-existing public image which presents her has an individual who defends her own opinions.
Thirdly, Adichie is presented as a credible figure and an authority on feminism through the use of indirect implication. In the article by BBC, the author uses implicit evaluative terms to elevate and portray Adichie as a figure of authority.
“She advised that raising a feminist didn’t mean forcing her to reject femininity: ‘Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive. It is misogynistic to suggest that they are.’“
“This lesson – to stop caring what others think – is what she says is the most important thing to pass on to daughters.”
The author foregrounds Adichie’s opinions with implicitly evaluative terms such as ‘advised’ and ‘lesson’ to suggest to the reader that Adichie is in a position who is qualified to give advice and share lessons before introducing Adichie’s actual words. This arrangement may encourage the reader to give higher regard to Adichie’s opinions as she is portrayed as a figure of authority.
Adichie’s credibility is further strengthened with validation from external sources like other feminist thinkers such as Harvard lecturer Phyllis Thompson and Abujha-based feminist Florence Warmate. In the BBC article, the author gives a brief comment that “[Adichie] is taken seriously by feminist thinkers as well” which can be analysed as a direct positive evaluation of Adichie’s credibility but she is quick to justify her evaluation with quotes from two notable feminist thinkers.
“But she says Ms Adichie’s relationship to make-up is very much in line with the “third wave feminism” of the 1990s and current post-feminism, both of which encourage women to do what makes them feel confident, and to take pleasure in their own presentation.”
“She said that Ms Adichie’s experience of life in America, where she went to study at the age of 19, has allowed her to “take herself out of the [Nigerian] situation and properly analyse it“.
The first quote by Havard lecturer Phyllis Thompson explains and legitimises Adichie’s interest in make-up and fashion which is traditionally dismissed by feminists to be an unproductive social construct imposed on females. This not only strengthens Adichie credibility by deflecting criticism from people who subscribe to older definitions of feminism but it also further supports Adichie’s own sentiments about feminism and femininity that was shared previously.
“Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive. It is misogynistic to suggest that they are.”
The second quote by Florence Warmate also lends credibility to Adichie’s views on feminism as it suggests that Adichie’s privileged experience has gifted her with a perspective that is uncommon but helpful in forming effective analysis of the state of feminism in both Nigeria and America. Warmate’s comments serves to foreground Adichie’s recount of her experience of moving to the United States. Adichie’s presentation of her contradictive experience and her subsequent resolution gave her an opportunity to communicate her ideals and concept of feminism in a credible and convincing manner as it is based on personal experience. This shows that Adichie is capable of identifying feminism in the everyday and act upon it based on her ideals and convictions.
“‘I was raised to care about my appearance but when I went to the US I internalised the idea that if a woman wants to be taken seriously, she can’t seem to care too much about her appearance.’ She went back to wearing make-up when she came to a realisation: ‘I don’t really care very much about what anyone else thinks.’“
Adichie’s portrayal as a credible authority on feminism is also supported by celebrities such as Beyonce and Lupita Nyong’O and brand endorsements from Dior and Boots. In Vogue, Beyonce claims that “Her definition of a feminist described my own feeling…” while Nyong’O shares that “For the first time I felt that someone had found the words to express sentiments, analyse situations about the rich and varied African immigrant experience, in a way I never could.” Adichie’s success in communicating the experience of two other women of diverse backgrounds increases her credibility as it shows that her grasp and understanding of feminism has wider appeal and application. The brand endorsements are also additional recognition to the mainstream appeal of her idea of feminism.
Finally, Adichie is presented to be a feminine figure in the articles. This may not be the traditional perception of a feminist which often includes rejecting pursuits that are seen as feminine e.g. fashion, makeup, men, bras etc… However, it reflects Adichie’s perception of what feminism should be. As seen in BBC’s article, “She advised that raising a feminist didn’t mean forcing her to reject femininity: ‘Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive. It is misogynistic to suggest that they are.’“ While in Vogue, she is portrayed to “do all these drawings for [her] clothes”, have “her favourite make-up artist” get her ready for the photo shoot where she is seen “in a neat-waisted patterned dress and teetering lavender heels that are utterly unsuited to the sandy ground”. Adichie’s interest in fashion and makeup despite the fact that it is time-consuming and sometimes impractical as it requires her to “teeter” in heels that are “unsuited to the sandy ground” is presented alongside her success as a feminist.
Another feminine quality that is emphasised in the articles is Adichie’s frequent laughter and smiles. This is especially highlighted in Vogue “You might guess from looking at photographs of her that she is a very serious person, but her laughter comes easily and often.”, “She throws backs her head and laughs.” and “…laughing again.”. Additionally, her attempt at using her feminine charm to disengage the reporter is seen in Quartz and Jezebel where she flashes a “disarming smile” in response to a question that she is not willing to answer. Adichie is shown to have managed being a feminist while being feminine and this persuades the reader to agree with Adichie’s perception of feminism and further reinforces Adichie’s claim to the label of a feminist.
This particular characterisation is further enhanced with the photos that are featured in the articles.
Even in photographs Adichie is shown to have both a serious and relaxed side. This can be explicitly seen from Vogue and Elle who used more than one photo in their article, each featuring Adichie with contrasting serious and smiling expressions. From the pictures, one can easily tell that Adichie is a well dressed and well groomed individual but it does not stop her from being a feminist and engaging in serious intellectual conversation about this difficult topic. This is expressed in the photographs found in Jezebel and Quartz. In Jezebel’s photo, Adichie is seen to be well dressed and well groomed but she is at an award ceremony for Women Prize For Fiction. Her care for her appearance is shown to be not contradictory to her career success and achievement. While in Quartz’s photo, Adichie is shown to have a serious and thoughtful expression while she is getting her hair and makeup done by others. This photo accurately reflects Adichie’s perception of feminism that is portrayed in media and its physical representation by Adichie herself is a powerful persuasive tool for readers to believe Adichie’s perspective and validate her status as a feminist.
With the exception of Vogue, the other articles portrayed Adichie in a close up shot from a level angle. This creates a personal atmosphere that prepares the reader to get to know Adichie as an individual in the article. The use of close portraits also places sole focus on Adichie which suggests that she is someone of certain importance and power, whose words should matter and carry weight.
In conclusion, the media frequently uses the label ‘feminist’ to describe individuals but it remains something that requires justification. As seen from the analysis above, the process of justifying it requires careful navigation between its dictionary definition, social definition and individual definition. The media has constructed a variety of representations of Adichie but analysis shows that they were all working from the same socially defined framework of what a feminist is: successful, opinionated, credible and feminine. Their evaluations of Adichie were similarly based on an agreement that feminism is a desirable positive force in society.
Spencer, C. (2016). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – the feminist who sells make-up – BBC News. [online] BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-37676472 [Accessed 3 Oct. 2016].
Wagner, E. (2015). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “I Wanted To Claim My Own Name”. [online] British Vogue. Available at: http://www.vogue.co.uk/article/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-novelist-ted-speaker-interview [Accessed 3 Oct. 2016].
Bird, N. (2016). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘[Beyoncé’s] Feminism Is Not Mine’. [online] ELLE UK. Available at: http://www.elleuk.com/life-and-culture/culture/news/a32225/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-beyonces-feminism-is-not-mine-interview/ [Accessed 3 Oct. 2016].
Reich, J. (2016). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Quitly Gave Birth, Refused to ‘Perform Pregnancy’. [online] Jezebel.com. Available at: http://jezebel.com/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-quietly-gave-birth-refused-to-1783171806 [Accessed 3 Oct. 2016].
Chutel, L. (2016). Award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has had a baby, not that it’s anyone’s business. [online] Quartz. Available at: http://qz.com/722822/award-winning-author-chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-has-had-a-baby-not-that-its-anyones-business/ [Accessed 3 Oct. 2016].