In recent years, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of several award-winning, bestselling novels has gained recognition for centering a strong African feminist perspective in her work. In 2012, Adichie gave a TED talk, “We Should All be Feminists,” which articulated an accessible feminist manifesto that vividly recounted her own experiences with sexism in Nigeria. Beyoncé famously sampled selections from Adichie’s talk on her self-proclaimed feminist track “Flawless” in 2013, cementing Adichie’s place within popular feminism. When asked, in a March 2017 interview for Britain’s Channel 4, whether it mattered “how you’ve arrived at being a woman” and whether a trans woman is “any less of a real woman” Adichie responded, “trans women are trans women” and their experiences differ from those of “regular” women:
“[I]f you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of changed, switch gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
Her answer elicited a fierce debate on social media, with many trans activists decrying her commentary as transphobic. I engage these responses to Adichie’s comments to scrutinize the ways in which popular feminism remains a contested terrain that continues to privilege certain feminist subjectivities over others, particularly cisgender over trans women.
Adichie’s comments imply that trans women are not “real” women because, she assumes, trans women all grew up with and benefitted from male privilege. Echoing the essentialist feminism of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), Adichie defines womanhood purely by a specific set of experiences under patriarchy that presupposes a definite correlation between biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and perception. But the vast majority of trans women’s experiences dispel Adichie’s contention that they have universally benefitted from male privilege: trans women, particularly those of color, remain disproportionally impacted by poverty, discrimination, harassment and violence (see James et al. 2015). In fact, 2016 marked the deadliest year on record for trans people in the U.S. (Quinlan 2017).
Trans actress Laverne Cox responded to Adichie in a series of tweets questioning her reliance on the gender binary and the problematic narrative that neatly demarcates trans people’s lives into “pre” and “post” transition. Reflecting on her own experience growing up in Alabama, Cox (2017) noted, “patriarchy and cissexism [p]unished my femininity and gender nonconformity. The irony of my life is prior to transition I was called a girl and after I am often called [a] man.” Adichie’s claim that all trans women have had male privilege, thus, erases a multitude of trans experiences and fails to account for the complex workings of gender, specifically the violent realities of transmisogyny.
The backlash Adichie received for her statements about trans women points to some of the challenges that have accompanied feminism’s resurgence as en-vogue. Just as second-wave feminism privileged white women’s perspectives and experiences, Adichie’s comments demonstrate that cisgender perspectives and experiences, replicating a cis-hegemonic feminism. In a blog post responding to Adichie’s comments, trans activist and writer Raquel Willis (2017) quipped that “Adichie being asked about trans women is like Lena Dunham being asked about Black women. It doesn’t work.” The comparison Willis draws between Adichie and Dunham recalls the fraught history of white feminism claiming to speak for “all women,” while ignoring the unique experiences of women of color. Similar to women of color feminisms pushing back against white universalizing experiences of gender (see e.g., Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981; Crenshaw 1991; hooks 2000), trans women’s fight against the dominance of cis privilege in popular feminism illustrates the ongoing importance of an intersectional approach to feminism, which acknowledges how overlapping identities create a variety of life experiences, none of which are more or less authentic or valid than another.
Thus, the debate surrounding Adichie is not an isolated incident but reflects broader historic contestations over the popularization of feminism. For example, while the 1968 Miss America pageant protest by second-wave feminists in Atlantic City has been (wrongly) mythologized by media as the famous “bra burning” incident, it is less commonly known that on the very same day, women of color activists organized a counter Miss Black America contest to challenge not only the sexism and denigration of women, but the racism of the national pageant, which had never had a black contestant The separate Miss America protests can shed light on persisting divisions within the feminist movement today: while the national Women’s March in January 2017 drew record crowds wearing pink “pussy hats” across the country, the organizers faced criticism for continuing to sideline trans women and their concerns despite promoting inclusionary principles in their mission statement.
After vehement outcries against her comments, Adichie attempted to clarify her statement in a Facebook post (2017). She claimed that she did not mean to invalidate the experience of trans women, asserting that “diversity does not have to mean division.” But she also denigrated trans women’s self-identification as an “impulse” stemming from “a need to make trans issues mainstream” rather than a genuine sense of self. She went on to criticize trans visibility as having produced a conflation of trans issues with cis women’s issues, which she argued should be treated separately. Yet, trans women activists have consistently pointed out that because their experiences do indeed differ, it is precisely the unique perspectives of trans women that can provide necessary insights into the complex workings of patriarchy and its intersection with other systems of oppression.
Adichie’s insistence on separating trans from cis women’s issues thus raises larger questions about for whom and what feminism is actually for. Is it mainly, as Adichie insists, about the equality between men and women or, as is the case for trans and other marginalized women, is it a question of life and death, of literal survival? While social media posts and commenters on her Facebook post expressed support for Adichie, many urged her to stop clarifying and instead listen and learn from trans women. One commentator insightfully noted,
It’s probably safe to say you don’t have trans and/or gender nonconforming people in your life that you actually share community with. … Because if you did, you would understand on a deep level the fallacy of your rationale. … [G]iven your popularity, power and influence, you [s]hould be deeply concerned about the weight of your words and the impact it will have on the lives of trans and gender nonconforming people … (Osaze 2017).
On the one hand, popular feminism has become more palatable for a broader audience, particularly through celebrity figures proudly re-claiming the label “feminist” such as Emma Watson and Beyoncé. But on the other, the Adichie controversy reveals the dangerous tokenism that accompanies popular feminism, where figures with name recognition are asked to provide – often perfunctory – commentary on issues that do not comprise their own lived experience and/or intellectual grounding.
What this demonstrates is that whenever feminism does become fashionable, there is also a simultaneous loss of nuance to feminist analysis in order to render it easily digestible for mainstream media consumption. When single figures become elevated as spokespeople, the privilege and responsibility of such a position should entail an acknowledgement that one cannot possibly speak to and for all lived experiences. Thus, Adichie’s assumptions about a community that she is not a part of, yet feels entitled to speak for, are patronizing and ill-conceived. Regardless of Adichie’s position on trans women’s place in feminism, she should defer to the perspectives and experiences of trans women when asked about them.
With the current political threats to health care, reproductive rights and immigrant communities as well as the rescindment of federal protections for trans students and the surge in discriminatory “bathroom bills” across the U.S., feminism cannot afford to exclude transgender voices from formulating strategies for resistance. If we are serious about dismantling patriarchy we need to combat not just sexism, but cissexism and transmisogyny. Furthermore, confronting and posing challenges to systemic racism, classism, ableism, and Islamophobia will not be successful if trans women continue to be marginalized in the feminist movement. By failing to include the perspectives of trans people (popular) feminism becomes complicit in the replication of the very systems of violence and oppression that we set out to dismantle. In February of this year, three young black trans women – Ciara McElveen, Chyna Doll Dupree, and Jaquarrius Holland – were murdered within days of each other, precisely because their womanhood was not deemed authentic. The voices of trans women need to be front and center not because they are “just like” cis women, but because of their own unique experiences as women.
This piece was published in a special edition of Feminist Media Studies‘ Criticism & Commentary section (co-edited by Sarah Banet-Weiser, Susan Berridge, and Laura Portwood-Stacer) and is available here:
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 The author would like to thank Njeri Githire, K. Mohrman, and Laura Portwood-Stacer for their thoughtful comments and discussions.