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January 22, 2019

Reclaiming The F-Word

Feminist poster
Feminist poster

Feminist. Feminism. It truly is the F-word for a lot of people. There’s something about the word that just drives people nuts.

In fact, in 1992, in a public letter decrying a proposal for an equal rights amendment (the horror!) television evangelist Pat Robertson hilariously proclaimed that feminism would cause women to “leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” Don’t laugh. This is true. Now fast forward to last week at the MTV VMAs.

Something powerful happened and we seemed to have missed it. There was more to the event than Blue Ivy dancing to her Mum’s tunes and clapping as she received her award. There was more to the night that Nicki Minaj’s apparent wardrobe malfunction and certainly more to the night than Blue Ivy’s hair (let the child be).

What was important was seeing storey-high letters blazing the word FEMINIST on stage. The F-word had been reclaimed and it wasn’t just that Beyonce was behind it, it was the fact that she chose to use words by Chimamanda Adichie to reclaim the term. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's sensible definition of feminism is: someone "who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes".  I’m in with that.

You and I who are mothers to daughters, big sisters to other girls and even leaders to many more need to get past our squirmish feelings about things like the MTV VMAs and look for the clip of Beyonce’s performance and share it with the younger women in our lives. For a very long time, the term “feminist” was almost a dirty word, until beautiful, powerful even outright sexy and gorgeous women started to use it and own it.

In what appears to be a remarkable, cultural shift, studies have found the number of American women who call themselves feminist increased by 12 per cent from 2006 to 2012. Now roughly two-thirds of women own the label. This is astonishing.

And so the scale has tipped.  Back to the VMAs and Beyonce marrying crazy showbiz and a great African writer, she also used and quoted Adichie's blunt, thoughtful TED talk: "We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. 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." Reach, don't shrink, don't contain yourself. 

If you have never watched Adichie’s TED talk, you must put it on your to-do-list today and share it with your girls. Google it. However, because I have you now, let me continue by highlighting from gems from that talk that struck a cord: "We teach girls shame. 'Close your legs. Cover yourself.' We make them feel as though being born female they're already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think. And they grow up — and this is the worst thing we do to girls — to be women who have turned pretence into an art form."

In Nigeria, Adichie says, people say: "Oh, but women have the real power, bottom power". She explained: "And for non-Nigerians, 'bottom power' is an expression which means something like a woman who uses her sexuality to get favours from men. But bottom power is not power at all. Bottom power means that a woman simply has a good route to tap into, from time to time, somebody else's power. And then of course we have to wonder when that somebody else is in a bad mood, or sick or impotent."

A Time’s journalist did a  search on Twitter for the word feminist, with the help of Twitter’s data team, looking at language trends over the  48 hours since the MTV VMAs happened. The search comes up with  just one word association: Beyoncé.

As far as feminist endorsements are concerned, this was the holy grail: A word with a complicated history reclaimed by the most powerful celebrity in the world. And then she projected it — along with its definition, by the Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — into the homes of 12 million unassuming Americans. We missed it. You and I. We have a moment here to ensure that our daughters don’t revert to “bottom power” as so many of them seem to be doing already.

Listen to me very carefully. I am well aware that many of us can’t abide by Beyonce because she makes us look bad. All that skill, all that booty, all that beauty, all that money, all that Jay Z… get over it.

Whether you like it or not, whether you receive it or not, Beyonce has  accomplished what feminists have long struggled to do: She’s reached the masses. She literally, brought feminism into the living rooms of 12.4 million Americans. Million of mainstream music fans were challenged to think about feminism as something powerful, important, and yes, attractive.

My best tweet among the thousands that followed that performance by Beyonce at the VMAs came from Jessica Blankenship @blanketboat  "if you don’t yet realize that we’re deep in the age of black women leading feminism and every other important social movement, catch up”.

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