Despite her celebrated status within the writing community (honors include a MacArthur Fellowship and being one of The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40″), most people hadn’t heard of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie until Beyoncé surprised the world with her visual album last week. A snippet of “We should all be feminists,” Adichie’s TED talk on feminism, was sampled on a song called “Flawless” in an attempt to finally pin down the definition of feminism. You might not think that this is necessary, or maybe you even believe that Beyoncé isn’t one to be lecturing about the topic, but, despite the tireless work of everyone from Gloria Steinem to Tavi Gevinson, there is still some confusion surrounding the term.
“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. Otherwise you will threaten the man.’
Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support, but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?
We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.
Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When asked whether they are feminists, famous women too often distance themselves from the idea either because they think being a feminist somehow means they hate men (“I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men.” — Lady Gaga), or they think the term has a negative connotation (“I think when people hear feminist, it’s like, ‘Get out of my way, I don’t need anyone.’ I love that I’m being taken care of and I have a man that’s a leader.” — Kelly Clarkson), or they think being a feminist means you’re a negative whiner (“I think [considering myself a feminist] would isolate me. I think it’s important to do positive stuff. It’s more important to be asking than complaining.” —Bjork), or that it means you’re a lesbian (“For me, feminism is bra-burning lesbianism. It’s very unglamorous.” — Geri Halliwell a.k.a. Ginger Spice), or they suffer from cognitive dissonance (“I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.” — Katy Perry, while accepting Billboard’s Woman of the Year award). The list sadly goes on.
When misogyny is so deep-rooted that even women are led to believe that feminism is a dirty word, and when feats like the one Wendy Davis executed this summer are still necessary, it becomes abundantly clear that the struggle for gender equality is far from over. Which is why the Adichie sample in “Flawless” is such an inspired Trojan horse move on Beyoncé’s part. A pop song is arguably the most viral form of communication that exists in our culture. By placing the actual definition of feminism in what is bound to be a hit song, Beyoncé guarantees that millions will not only hear it, but memorize it. The power of this, the youth of the world chanting the definition of a feminist, holds the potential for changing the world. Some might argue that pop music is hollow, worthless fluff, but Beyoncé with Adichie’s help is proving that pop music at its best can be a dialogue, a place of activism, a vehicle for change. Together, they’re proving that what’s more infectious than an earworm is an idea.