“He was no longer sure, he had in fact never been sure, whether he liked his life because he really did or whether he liked it because he was supposed to” (Adichie 21).
There’s a mistaken notion that feminism is entirely about women’s rights. On one hand that is kind of true; but on the other is the often forgotten true goal of feminism: gender equality. Feminists work towards the goal of true gender equality, a goal in where both women and men are freed from the restrictive patriarchal roles society has placed upon them and stand together as equals. Chimamanda Adichie novel, Americanah, is a perfect example of this. Not only does it gives us an example of Ifemelu’s journey to self-empowerment by rejecting the patriarchal roles society has tried to place upon her; but it also shows the very similar struggle that men must also go through in order to stand equal to women through the character of Obinze.
The public image of feminist theory is one that focuses primarily on women. This is understandable in that there is just so much material that any casual observer can access from news articles, viral videos, and magazine articles that all claim the banner of “feminism”. This over saturation of content has led to the misinformed idea that feminists are overly aggressive man-haters. This is rather sad in that the true goal of feminism is gender equality and a “true feminist” is someone who recognizes that men, just like women, are trapped within the patriarchal roles that society has placed on them.
Patriarchal societies such as those in America and Nigeria hold men up to the ideal of the home-owner, the bread winner, and the protector. They are the ones who hold the important jobs, and the ones who hold power politically, economically, or physically. Additionally, they are expected to act in a masculine manner in their guardianship of their wives and children. This does not seem like such a burden, but taken to its logical extreme, we have created a society that punishes men if they show any “feminine” manners. We live in a society where a man who likes to cook and clean over fighting and smoking is seen as a weak or abnormal.
So where does Obinze stand in this patriarchal society? In truth, Obinze’s story is parallel to that of Ifemelu. In the beginning Obinze was already introduced to the idea of the feminist women through his mother and Ifemelu. He has a vague notion of the power that women can hold and he seems fairly comfortable with adapting himself to match them. For example, Ifemelu once mentions briefly about how Obinze once helped her pluck in-grown hairs off her chin. It does not seem like much, but taking a closer look you begin to realize just what this says about Obinze’s character. By helping Ifemelu with this process for beauty, especially for something as odd and uncomfortable as in-grown hairs, Obinze is actively breaking down the feminine mystique. Instead of seeing Ifemelu as this beautiful mysterious figure, he sees her as a human being. However, he is not free of the roles society has placed on him. In fact, he is rather ignorant of the role that he is expected to play, and so he consumes everything around him with a childish naivety. The best example of this is when he forces himself on Ifemelu despite her unwillingness, and he continues without protection despite her outright protest. He pushes forward as if Ifemelu’s body already belongs to him.
It’s interesting to note that all of the men introduced in Americanah are described as being childish at some point in the novel. It’s as if all of the men are children playing at being men. This is exactly what happens to Obinze. Through a rather unfortunate series of events that destroys his original childhood dreams, he regresses from the person he was and allows himself to settle into the roles society expects from him. He gains for himself a nice house, an expensive car with a driver, a beautiful wife and daughter, and the respect of everyone around him. Yet, everything that he has achieved was given to him, he did not have to work hard to get his goals, and as long as he maintains his image he can keep his current lifestyle.
However, Obinze is self-aware enough to realize that this isn’t him. It’s a gradual process, but the longer he spends playing the rich man the more he begins to realize that he isn’t the man everyone thinks he is. He despises the fact that people think he’s humble because he does not wave his money around. He hates the fact that his wife has become ever more paranoid that he will have an affair, and he longs for something to challenge him. That challenge comes in the form of Ifemelu. She is everything that his wife is not. She’s blunt and knows exactly what she wants. Through her own journey, she has come to her own empowerment. She is the one person that Obinze can be honest with, and she is the only one he complains to about his life and the people around him.
However, Ifemelu realizes quickly Obinze’s hypocrisy and is quick to call him out on it. She calls him a coward and immediately ends their affair. This intervention serves as the much needed wakeup call that Obinze needed. He realizes he may have thought that he was rebelling, or reclaiming a part of himself that he had suppressed in order to fit this role that his friends and wife expected of him. However, in truth he was doing exactly what was expected of him. His wife already knew about his affair, she had been expecting it for years, and his friends all have had affairs of their own. This epiphany is enough of a push for Obinze to do what none of his friends would do, for Obinze to abandon his wife, his child, and his success so that he may chase after what he truly wants. It is once he begins to sheds his limiting patriarchal ideology, and only then that Ifemelu lets Obinze back into her life.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. London: HarperCollins, 2013. Print.
Written for Dr. David N. Odhiambo’s ENG 380: Multicultural and Postcolonial Literature