The Good, the Bad and Ugly of the F-Word---What is the Right Kind of Feminist?

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The F-word is thrown around a lot. Sometimes it is reviled while other times, it is revered. Feminists exists on a range of extreme to mainstream. I have been immersed in feminist research this year as I have completed my dissertation and embarked upon an upcoming research project on what it means to be a feminine and fabulous leader. One of the great books that I came across was a collection of essays by Dr. Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist. The title made me really think about whether there is really such a thing as a bad feminist? Recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was interviewed and commented that Beyoncé’s kind of feminism was not her kind of feminism. So does that make Beyoncé a bad feminist? Is Adichie a good one? While certainly feminism exists on a spectrum of intent and impact, is there really a good or a bad feminist? Does there have to be?

Dr. Gay espouses in her introduction that she finds herself to be a bad feminist because she is a flawed woman who believes in feminist views and women’s rights, but is not well-versed in feminism. And she listens to singers and rappers who hint at misogyny and calls women bitches. Annie Lenox called out Beyoncé and said she was feminist-lite, largely because of the sexuality in her artistry. So this made me think…does a woman have to be perfect to be a good feminist? If that’s the case, aren’t we all bad feminists? Rather than poking holes in our approaches to feminism, we can embrace the imperfections of women to look past our flaws and celebrate our right to be flawed.

Speaking of flaws, the original intersection of Beyoncé and Adichie was when excerpts from Adichie’s TEDx talk was included in Beyoncé’s controversial song, Flawless. Beyoncé featured Adichie’s powerful words that advocated for ambitious women to be able to pursue achievements other than marriage and motherhood. This song was a feminist paradox of sorts. Beyoncé champions the power of women in a song where she begins by telling her haters to “Bow down bitches.” So is she a bad feminist for doing so?

Artists are able to intertwine creativity with advocacy. Regardless of the ultimate finding on her approach, Beyoncé introduced a powerful concept to many of her fans that may not have otherwise connected with the genius of Adichie’s feminist prose. So that’s got to be good for something in the feminist cause, right?

In considering the thoughts of these four women, all of whom I admire, I have explored their concept of what it means to be a feminist. In her powerful speech, Adichie referred to the definition of Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. If we take this definition literally, there are no qualifications other than to believe. There is no requirement to have read any particular feminist text or to be well-versed at all. There is no prohibition on being feminine or sexy or twerking or calling another woman a bitch or even a Boss Ass Bitch. There is not a requirement to do anything. In fact, there is not anything that limits being a feminist to being a woman. In fact, Adichie advocates that we should all be feminists.

Women are notorious in our quests for perfection. It is a blessing and a curse. We seek to attain perfection and push ourselves to excellence, yet we don’t always celebrate ourselves because we still don’t think that we have done enough or are good enough. We sometimes overlook our own accomplishments in comparison to another woman’s accomplishment.

If you really consider Adichie’s comments, she is not criticizing Beyoncé as much as she is making the salient point that women can express feminism in many ways. Adichie’s kind of feminism is no better than Beyoncé’s nor is Beyoncé’s superior to Lenox’s. In fact, that is the paramount goal of feminism—to give women choices. Feminism by definition is the doctrine or movement that advocates equal rights for women. Logic would follow that every woman has the right to express her advocacy in any way that she sees fit. I would argue that a true bad feminism is one that negates another woman’s “kind of feminism” because it is different from her own.

When Lenox called Beyoncé feminist-lite in a September 2014 interview, she called Beyoncé’s feminism “tokenistic” because it did not “represent wholeheartedly the depths of feminism.” Does it have to? And how, exactly, do you represent wholeheartedly the depths of feminism? Can you truly accomplish that in a song or speech or interview? And to the extent that Beyoncé or any other woman does not represent “wholeheartedly the depths of feminism,” is any attempt a bad one? Going to back to Dr. Gay’s concept of bad feminism, must a woman be completely well-versed in feminist studies to be able to advocate equal rights for women?

Adichie took another take on feminist-lite in a recent Facebook post and warned of the danger of conditional female equality. Being feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not. You either believe in the full equality of women, or you do not.” Does full equality extend to the fullest of freedom in how you express feminism? If so, then a twerking feminist is just a good as a bra-burning one. Arguably, the only bad feminist is the one who does support another who is advocating equal rights for women.

If we really embrace the definition of feminism, we can recognize that each of us has the ability to advocate for women’s equal rights. Some of us may protest. Some of us may write legislation. Others may sing about it or include it in our artistry. Yet others may never say a word, but commit to hiring and promotion practices that ensure women remain in the leadership pipeline and advance in their careers. Some may even burn our bras. And, yes, some, may even twerk.

The beauty of feminism is that we are each free to choose how we express our commitment to women’s equal rights. And that makes us one Baaad Feminist!