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Analysis

Feminism and wealthy Nigerian women: What should you know?

21 October 2021, Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin, Simidele Dosekun
Feminism and wealthy Nigerian women: What should you know?

To have—or, at least, claim—a sense of self that is “already empowered” or happily unencumbered by power relations, requires a fair bit of material privilege.

Simidele Dosekun’s new book, Fashioning Postfeminism: Spectacular Femininity and Transnational Culture, is about young, class-privileged women in Lagos who wear—to a spectacular degree and in spectacular combination—weaves and wigs, false eyelashes and false nails, heavy and flawless makeup, and the highest of heels. This “spectacularly feminine style,” as she calls it, has been growing in visibility and popularity in Nigeria for about the last 15 years. It dominates Nigerian popular media, from Nollywood stars and other celebrities, to glossy women’s magazines, to the looks curated by sites like bellanaija.com and other accounts on Nigerian social media. Unsurprisingly, it is also the style of brides and other women at the most “fabulous” Nigerian weddings. Based on interviews with 18 women in Lagos who dress broadly in this style, Fashioning Postfeminism is concerned with the accompanying senses of identity and self being fashioned and communicated. The book argues that the women see themselves in “postfeminist” terms: as “already empowered” and even “self-empowering.” Donning a style of dress that promises self-confidence by way of normative feminine beauty, these women see themselves as individually beyond the need for feminism as collective politics and struggle.

In the following conversation, Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin and Simidele Dosekun discuss and reflect upon Dosekun’s book. Their conversation comes out of a wider panel discussion at the 2021 Lagos Studies Association Conference.

GAO: I found Fashioning Postfeminism exciting because it moves away from the predominant scholarship on low-income African women who supposedly “need to be empowered.” We rarely read about ultra-privileged African women who are “already empowered,” particularly through consumerism and its accompanied “freedoms and choices.” I am, however, intrigued by the implicit suggestion in the book that “postfeminism is only for wealthy Nigerian women.” I wonder about the non-wealthy women in Nigeria’s new economy who are also influenced by transnational culture and engage in practices of the spectacular feminine, and about the women we might call the “empowered almost,” those who embody the aspirational and imagine their future selves as “fully empowered.” Where might they come in?

SD: When I started the project 10 years ago, there was an uninterrogated assumption in the literature that postfeminist notions that women can “have it all” and no longer need feminism were addressed pretty much exclusively to privileged white women in the global north. My counterargument in the book is that postfeminism travels across borders of various kinds, but I didn’t want to slip into making an argument that the culture is just up for grabs by any or all women everywhere. I do think that, ultimately, it is quite elitist. This is not to say that, in a place like Nigeria, only wealthy women consume postfeminist media, for example, or engage in the kind of spectacular fashion and beauty practice with which my book is concerned. But I do think to have or at least claim a sense of self as “already empowered,” as happily unencumbered by power relations, requires a fair bit of material privilege. My argument about class is about who can claim postfeminism in the present; I very much agree with you that there are questions about aspirational futures that also need to be considered.

GAO: While reading, I also kept on wondering about elite queer and trans Lagosian women, who do not appear to be part of your research demography. Is it possible for some of them to be postfeminist subjects? Which technologies of feminine beauty do they employ and what do these technologies promise for them? How do they navigate transnational culture vis-à-vis the negotiation of local power and culture in Nigeria?

SD: Absolutely. I think queer and trans women can and do also “do” postfeminism, both in terms of the kinds of technologies of feminine beauty in question in the book, and the accompanying claims and mentalities about feminine empowerment that I heard from the cis women whom I interviewed. Indeed, there are also cisgendered men too, both queer and not, taking up the beauty technologies—in Nigeria, media personality Denrele Edun comes to mind, for instance. As to what such beauty technologies and practices promise and mean for different kinds of gendered subjects who embrace them, I cannot presume to answer, as I don’t believe we can read subjectivity from style. To answer, we’d precisely have to hear from the actors in question.

GAO: The women in the book clearly articulated their desire not to be misrecognized as “runs girls” [Nigerian slang for women who engage in transactional sexual/romantic relationships]. They also embraced sexual propriety and respectability when it came to distancing themselves from transactional sex. I am curious about the possibility of considering this embrace of sexual propriety and respectability as “cruel attachments” too.

SD: I was a little surprised at the relative sexual conservatism that the participants expressed, to be honest. I suspect one reason was that I did not always bring up questions of sex and sexuality in the most fluid way, so, most likely, I introduced some awkwardness around these themes. It’s useful to think of women’s attachment to “sexual respectability” in terms of “cruel attachments,” as promising much but ending up hurting us, so thanks for the suggestion. I think women the world over know that, at the end of the day, “respectability” will not protect us from possible abuse and violence of all kinds, and, moreover, that the line between the putatively respectable and disrespectable is incredibly fine and capricious.

GAO: My favorite topic was your insightful and nuanced analysis of weaves and wigs as “unhappy technologies” of spectacular femininity, using Sara Ahmed’s definition of unhappy objects as those that “embody the persistence of histories that cannot be wished away by happiness.” You point out that the women’s postfeminist claims and affects, for instance, could not resolve or even mask the melancholy and painful histories of their hair choices and stories.

SD: I really wanted to make a case in the book for moving past reading or seeing black women in weaves and wigs as “self-hating,” “wanting to be white,” and so on. I find this far too simplistic, and even disrespectful; it pathologizes black women, and even if it is voiced in the name of black nationalism, in a roundabout way it continues to affirm and naturalize white supremacy. Sara Ahmed’s concept of the “unhappy” helped me make an argument for keeping white supremacy in view without making it the whole story. I do not explore the following question in the book—I had it in mind for a postdoctoral project that never happened—but I’d say that we also need to think about and conceptualize the fact that the so-called “human hair” that black women are wearing and desiring is “Indian hair,” “Vietnamese hair,” and so on. What are the race—and other—politics of this? It is very complicated.

GAO: Overall, you argue for a politics of the unfashionable in a book about fashion by urging us to look beyond the market/consumerism for liberation. In a moment when global white supremacist capitalist patriarchy pervades our daily lives, you insist that we be “killjoys,” circumvent “happiness,” zero in on uncomfortable questions around justice, and magnify the need for liberation from structural inequalities.

SD: Yes, I am suspicious of sexy and fashionable and commodified feminisms! This is not to say that I think feminism is, or feminists are, sexless, frumpy, humorless, and so on, which are of course well-worn stereotypes. I just think that we need to resist strongly the co-optation and hollowing out of feminist and other progressive politics by the market—the reduction of feminist politics into T-shirt slogans, say. I also believe firmly in the right to and value of anger so long as there are things in the world that make us angry!

By Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin, Simidele Dosekun
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