Nigerian feminists (NFs) on Twitter have Simi to thank for my frequent dive-bombing of their comment sections. I discovered them when an NF reacted after Simi reproduced a conversation between two women which went something like this (according to her):
“Woman 1: This is my view
Woman 2: I don’t agree
W1: Shut up, what do you know? I’m a feminist”
Simi complained about W1 disrespectfully dismissing W2 and asked “Is this feminism?”
The NF rightly pulled Simi up for using the tired old arguments – women are their own worst enemies, women are super-critical and disrespectful of each other, if we women can’t agree, how can we hope to gain the respect of men? – to denounce feminism. I agreed with the NF of course. However, it has to be said that in terms of sheer arguing skills, Simi won the day. Her best line – “Let’s just say I speak for women and you speak for feminism” – was almost as poisonous as the insincere ‘lols’ that laced the entire conversation.
The second time I associated Simi with feminism was during the AMVCA awards earlier in 2017 when she received criticism for her choice of dress. I could understand why she was annoyed – it was a clear illustration of why, if you wouldn’t walk up to someone in a party to say you hate their outfit, especially after you’ve witnessed numerous people doing the same thing, you probably shouldn’t do it on Twitter. After a series of tweets, she said something like ‘Isn’t it funny that it’s women bashing other women?’ prompting the great and good men of Twitter to parrot a seemingly endless string of similar sentiments – gleefully pointing out that women are unnecessarily bitchy, insecure and critical implying (and sometimes expressly stating) that this is the reason it’s hard to take them seriously.
I thought the furore over the dress, which was nice but less formal than a lot of other dresses at the event, was ridiculous. However Simi’s reasoning didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Firstly, the dress was criticised by both men and women. Secondly, so what if women were critical of the dress? What is the implication of her tweet? That if women can’t support each other, how can we trust them with equality?
Denying the women the right to disagree in the name of sisterhood is itself an attack on women’s freedoms. Men are allowed to disagree; I don’t hear anyone suggesting that Nigerian men under 30 don’t deserve equality just because Wizkid and Davido can’t get within screaming distance of each other without scrapping like two alley cats. It would be nice if we could stick together on important issues but our emancipation cannot be conditional on some kind of false show of solidarity.
Also, doesn’t Simi’s stance have the potential to become circular? If, in the name of female solidarity, there can be no reason for a woman to criticise another woman, what right does Simi have to criticise other women for criticising or having an opinion on her dress and round and round and so forth and so on. Anyway, Simi herself has made fun of other female media personalities – Gifty, for instance (under legislation which states that if you speak in a false accent to entertain people, it has to be an exaggerated Nigerian accent rather than a Western one). It doesn’t make her a bad person. It makes her a human on Social Media just like the people who criticised her dress.
The third stage (or wave? given the title of this article) came after her album listening party. When the album was released, I included in one of my blog posts, a sentence poking fun at all the outrage at her AMVCA dress. I was flabbergasted when it started again, this time by an NF reacting to a blue party dress she wore at the listening party. This was followed by several tweets addressing, as during the AMVCA event, her defiance in “refusing to dress properly” – not just by feminists of course. It was then my sympathies shifted more firmly to Simi’s side.
So what is it with NFs and Simi? Not only do they grump at everything she wears, they never seem to celebrate her achievements1. I too was disappointed when she declared she was not a feminist. Not because I expect Nigerian artists to be feminists (ha!) but because she had previously tweeted a few things about male privilege and patriarchy. I quickly got over that. Yes, she doesn’t identify as a feminist and she appears have beliefs about relationships that I haven’t held for a long time. However, she is one of the few Nigerian female singers who seems like a truly independent spirit beyond being fierce for music videos, being ‘all about her money’ and shouting at everyone else before quietly submitting to their husbands in some very strange marriages indeed.
I’m delighted that the current army of young Nigerian feminists exist. They campaign about so many important issues from domestic violence to rape to equal marriages, education and provision for young disadvantaged girls, and sex education. They’ve taught me so much. However, for some of them there is an element of their feminism which is appears to be quite man/sex/beauty focused and I wonder if this causes some of the apparent antipathy towards Simi.
Let’s start with the beauty issue. Traditionally, feminists rejected the insane value, to the exclusion of almost everything else, patriarchal society placed on women’s looks and sex appeal. The peak of that rejection was feminists deciding to reject the concept of beauty altogether. They wanted nothing to do with beautifying themselves or wanting to be attractive. Clearly that was not sustainable and attitudes softened. Women who were and/or wanted to be attractive could do so without betraying the feminist within (and without). It was okay to like beauty even if we recognise the stranglehold that the beauty industry has on the female self-esteem (besides I’m not sure that the pervasive need to ‘pepper’ one’s enemies through one’s physical appearance would allow anti-beauty feminism to flourish in Nigeria).
Now it seems that one of the pillars of modern feminism is that all women have a ‘right’ to be beautiful. The reasons for this are complex and beyond the scope of this article but the dark side, as illustrated by the reaction to Simi’s choice of outfits, is that we’ve come full circle again. A disproportionate amount of attention and expectation is placed on a woman’s styling but this time it’s apparently for her own good and not for men .
As it turns out, Simi is beautiful and she does make an effort with her styling. Personally I think she is stylish but the point is that she actually goes out and gets herself styled. She doesn’t roll out of bed and turn up to an event. If we were talking about someone who is making a statement out of not making an effort (as would be her right), this would be a different discussion.
The Twitter anger and disdain is directed at the fact that she doesn’t spend all her time and money running around in circles like a deranged, headless chicken trying to figure out what specific clause of the fashion police’s lookbook she has breached. She has been reprimanded for being stubborn, not heeding advice and generally dressing badly on purpose. She clearly makes an effort but when there is still criticism she directs her energy at the reason she’s in the public eye in the first place – her music.
This kind of thing has plagued women for centuries. If one was to be paranoid, I would agree with several feminist activists that the idea is to keep us busy trying to maintain the body weight of a 12-year old, keep wrinkles at bay in our late 50s and obsessed with expensive, impractical clothes so we don’t notice the important things. Or it may be plain old commercialism. Whatever it is – do it if you must but I’m not entirely convinced that it is an essential part of feminism or even femininity.
It (almost) goes without saying that the hysteria over Simi’s style is not replicated when it comes to her male counterparts. It is simply noted that they have dressed up for a gig and their performances are rated.
We should think about the inequality this could cause. If Simi is indeed in a relationship with a fellow musician or entertainer, they are both presumably making some money out of show business. They both need to invest in their art and their brand and that includes their personal appearance. He is free to spend a reasonable amount of money on his look (so even if he was single, we can confidently rule out Basketmouth) and use the rest of the money for other things, paying for his band, caring for himself and perhaps relatives, saving.
Simi, however, is expected to focus an unreasonably large part of her income on either her clothes or, since she apparently doesn’t have an ounce of dress sense in her head, an endless succession of stylists. If for some reason, the music money slows down or dries up, guess who is going to have less financial power (or to put it plainly, a lot less bloody money)? Yep! the woman again. Because of ridiculous beauty standards imposed on her.
A final word on beauty is my intense irritation at the idea that Simi’s talent has to accompanied by a specific amount of styling. It is noteworthy that Blue-Dress-Gate was started up by someone who had either not listened to the album that the blue dress was worn to promote or decided that the album was not worthy of comment. Great. We’re back to the place where nothing a woman does is worth considering if the right ‘look’ doesn’t accompany it.
Sex. Fortunately, Simi’s participation in the #forthe_____challenge and criticism of Nigerians substituting ‘bae’ for ‘dick’ has given me a tenuous hook to briefly discuss the sex-related part of modern feminism. It is very tenuous because the person who criticised the substitution didn’t mention Simi but did, during the AMVCA dress hysteria, produce (in an extraordinary display of ‘chook-mouth’edness unlike this vital and informative article) a long and unnecessary thread about the importance of ‘dressing like a star’.
I can see how the #forthedickchallenge would appeal to the sex positive demographic. The challenge was to rap about all sorts of crazy things you would do ‘for the dick’ including going against your principles (if it sounds like I’m being snotty about it, you should know I wrote one myself which I was advised, by kind friends and relatives, not to post anywhere). This may be seen as empowering in a sex positive kind of way because it reinforces the kind of thinking that insists women are as up for it as men, if we accept of course that men are uniformly up for it (which we don’t by the way).
Sex positive feminism evolved from the feminist idea of breaking down sexual-gender stereotypes that assumed that ‘men will be men’ , true ladies will be chaste and a woman who seems to like sex or being sexy is abnormal, bad and/or deserving of harm. I suppose substituting ‘bae’ for ‘dick’ is less dramatic and empowering in that way. #Forthedick is a new way for a woman to ‘own her sexuality’ and #forthebae is just another woman saying she will do anything for her man.
Now on to the maddest part of my theory – the man-centered bit. Just to provide some context, it’s not that I don’t think that men are important to feminism. Most feminists will relate to men in some way and require some reciprocity from men for feminism to work in a sane way (and if men didn’t exist, I guess there really wouldn’t be a need for feminism). But I think there’s a middle ground between man-hating and the type of neo-liberal feminism that is obsessed by the way women are viewed by men, where the ultimate triumph is to be able to push your feminist-ally male partner in the face of anyone who poses the question, usually accompanied with this infuriating emoji 🤔, as to whether any feminist can hold down a successful marriage (trust me, it’s hugely satisfying). It just puts men at the centre of everything. If a man says a woman is fat, he’s given so much negative attention! How powerful would it be just to ignore his comment because it doesn’t matter what a random man says about a woman he has no interaction with?
My mad theory is that, as a result of internalised misogyny, there is some resentment among some women, possibly including feminists, about the kind of woman Simi superficially represents. Small in frame and voice (apart from singing voice), eternally youthful, seemingly easy going and low maintenance, financially if not emotionally, perhaps they think she is the embodiment of the feminine ideal that modern Nigerian men seek out in their attempt to combine the best parts of patriarchy and feminism to their advantage (“Let’s see now, she has to bring in 90% of the household income and do 180% of the housework. Sexually liberated, of course, as long she doesn’t mind me sending strange men pictures of her naked…..”).
Perhaps that is a bit far-fetched. I do think that if a male artist said half the things (the good half obviously) that Simi says about gender issues, he would be an untopple-able hero. There seems to be an element of male centred feminism that criticises Simi but heaps praise on a Nigerian male celebrity simply for not overtly being an asshole or because he had a few (entirely male-benefitting) seemingly liberal ideas, seeks to make Hugh Hefner a feminist icon (I still can’t get my head around that. “RIP Hugh Hefner” – a man who made his entire fortune out of sexually objectifying women).
As for the beauty and style criticism, it seems to have taken on a life of its own – not, I hasten to add, predominantly sustained by feminists – Tablecloth-Gate, Canvass-Gate, the reference to her clothes as “rags”, the comparisons with Rihanna’s unconventional outfits and so on. Some people find it amusing, some find it outrageous, it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility that some people criticise because of the potential likes, comments and retweets such criticism will generate. The great and good men continue to twit away at their ‘bitchy women’ narrative which means there is now an edge of defiance to the commentary. Personally, I find it uncomfortable, exasperating and bordering on bullying but then again, I’m still trying to find my place in faith feminism, radical feminism, Nigerian feminism, choice feminism and 1st/2nd/3rd wave feminism – with their various virtues and shortcomings. What do I know?
1 I say ‘never’. Since the first draft of this article, I’ve noted at least NF coming out in her support and defence. Also, as I’m technically an NF, I suppose this sentence isn’t literal…but you know what I mean!