In chapter 4 of Americanah, Adichie introduces us to an important female character and develops Ifemelu’s status as a take-no-trash powerhouse woman. After false rumors are spread about Obinze’s mother fighting (and beating) a male colleague, Ifemelu discovers the truth. She didn’t actually fight anyone; she was slapped by a man for speaking her mind. People were enraged, but only because she was a widow, and she knew that she deserved better.
“She said she should not have been slapped because she is a full human being, not because she doesn’t have a husband to speak for her.” (71)
I don’t know about you, but I’d wear that quote on a t-shirt. We also learn that Ifemelu speaks her mind and doesn’t care what other people think about her. She knows that her classmates think she talks and argues too much, unlike other “sweet” girls, and she embraces that image.
Adichie’s inclusion of these incredible ladies is wonderful, but influential male authors vastly outnumber influential female authors. Not to over-generalize, but men often don’t provide many powerful roles for females in their writing. Girls are often nothing more than a romantic conquest or a sidekick. And while some male authors do create strong female characters, it isn’t always enough. Don’t get me wrong – strong female characters are wonderful, and we need them, but we deserve more. A character can be strong without being complex, developed, or relatable, and we need to see all of those traits in our characters.
Young girls, grown ladies, and anyone who identifies as a woman can benefit from reading about important women. That certainly doesn’t mean that we need perfect characters. With Photoshopped magazine covers, perfect runway models, and over-edited photos surrounding us on every media outlet, we need leading literary ladies with flaws and imperfections – it shows us that it’s okay if we aren’t perfect.
But women need to see more than just a female protagonist with a lady friend or two. We deserve female characters in all shapes and sizes, playing all kinds of parts – protagonists, antagonists, supporting characters, minor characters, dynamic characters. Diversity in representation is invaluable. Make our characters quirky, serious, funny, compassionate, anxious, withdrawn, and bubbly (just not all at the same time!). We are all unique and powerful individuals, and seeing ourselves in the literature around us can help us accept ourselves as the incredible women we are.