Friday, January 10, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Chimamanda Adichie's "We should all be feminists"

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave this talk at TEDxEuston 2012, a conference on inspiring ideas about Africa. It resonated in the hall, but got an extra push toward fame in late 2013, when Beyoncé sampled it in her surprise "visual album" in the song "Flawless."

Adichie uses pairs of topical threads and the contrasts inherent in them to frame this talk. It's about men and women, masculinity and femininity, culture and choices. As a novelist might, she bookends the talk by discussing the meaning of the term "feminist." She starts by having to look up the definition, then is told by different people that she can't be a feminist because she's not unhappy, because she's African, because she doesn't hate men. So she starts reframing the definition: "At some point, I was a happy African feminist who does not hate men and who likes lip gloss and who wears high heels for myself and not for men," she admits.

There's plenty of humor laced throughout this talk--she gets a big laugh when she notes that "We praise girls for virginity, but we don't praise boys for virginity, and it's always made me wonder how exactly this is supposed to work out"--but the talk focuses on an even-handed and frank look at the double standards to which men and women are held, and why that's not a plus for either gender. Her words about what we expect of men are among the best in this talk.

She brings all these threads together by weaving them into a statement about women's voices and how we teach girls to silence themselves:
We teach girls shame. Close your legs, cover yourself, we make them feel as though by 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--they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.
What can you learn from this speech?
  • Be a uniter, not a divider: When you're pushing a point or an agenda or a theme that, on its face, is going to divide your audience (whether that's the audience in the room or the one online), you have a couple of choices. One is to play to those who'll agree to you and ignore your opponents. The other is to create a big tent, and show both sides where they fit under it. Adiche deftly includes men and how anti-feminism works against them throughout her speech, in a inclusive manner. The result is a speech men may like as well as women will.
  • Take a non-anxious tone: I'm all for a fiery speech when the occasion is right. But you have choices as a speaker in terms the tone and temperature of your talk, particularly when your topic is considered divisive. Just because the topic is tense or uncomfortable doesn't mean you need to be. Adiche's straightforward delivery and non-anxious tone let us focus on her message. This speech is all the stronger because of her no-nonsense, forthright approach.
  • Make the call for action achievable: Even though her call to action involves changing the way we raise girls and boys, Adiche makes her suggestions in terms anyone can find achievable, taking what seems like a tall order and cutting it down to a manageable size. If your audience can leave the room believing in their ability to do what you've asked of them, they're more likely to try it--and you're more likely to be a credible speaker in their eyes.
Read Adiche's novels Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun,and watch the speech in the video below. What do you think of this famous speech?

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