First published in The National on 13 March 2017
GILL Sans is perfect. I really do believe that. For those who aren’t font addicts, that’s a typeface and not a person. Designed in 1926, it was created in response to Edward Johnston’s London Underground typeface, borne from Eric Gill’s desire to build on and perfect Johnston’s work. The result was a typeface of such classic simplicity, it was given the sobriquet “the English Helvetica”, and is still used. But wait – why am I talking about type? Eric Gill was a questionable man. A deviant whose morally questionable sexual mores oscillated far beyond the personal into the lives of those around him.
When I was a student I was horrified to learn this, but keen to explore the relationship between art and creator. I wanted to understand how a body of work could become contaminated by the acts of the individual, and whether that meant enjoying it was impossible. With the undergraduate candidness borne from no fear of being tone-policed, we discussed at length the need to separate the art from the artist – something I’d barely considered before.
Again – why am I focusing on a man who’s been dead since 1940?
I still love Gill Sans and use it every day. I’m typing this column in it right now. It’s a design classic used by the BBC, John Lewis and Network Rail and countless others in the past, present and likely the future. The relationship to this typeface offers a useful vignette on how we consume the work of those we question. Picasso was a misogynist. Roald Dahl made anti-Semitic comments. But how often are their views discussed contemporaneously with their work we know and love? Their work – the value of their work to society – has endured despite their personal opinions and behaviours.
This brings me to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I discovered late last night that the feminist and novelist is currently being hauled over the coals for her comments on trans women in a Channel 4 news interview. This woman won a MacArthur Genius Grant. She has written extensively on feminism with a fearlessness and piercing clarity that so many of us have needed and learned from. Every one of her novels has stayed with me in a way far beyond anything else I’ve ever read. I’ve sought refuge in her many times; applauded her directness and eloquence in the written word and on screen. Attempted to model her cool composure and unwavering delivery. Just yesterday I shared a piece in The Guardian on why it’s nonsense to dismiss gender equality for becoming “mainstream”. And then I watched the Channel 4 interview and stopped. I thought: “This complicates things somewhat.”
Can you love and respect a writer and disagree with some of their views? Do words that hurt some instantly condemn a body of work to the slush pile of imperfect feminist thought?
In her recent essay for the collection Nasty Women, Love In A Time of Melancholia, Becca Inglis used a phrase that encapsulates my current thinking on consuming the work of those who’ve stepped outside of our expectations – the “problematic fave”. She argues for the place of complicated role models in our lives – ones who hold a mirror up to our own stumblings and missteps. It’s important to note that Inglis wasn’t talking about trans issues – but the phrase is a useful one to think through.
Sometimes someone you love and admire will say something you don’t agree with. Sometimes they’ll drop an absolute clanger. Sometimes it’ll be so tone deaf you wince – but that doesn’t mean everything they’ve ever said until this point is invalid. It also doesn’t mean that person loses the capacity to say important and necessary things going forward. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has had and will have vitally important things to say. As a white woman, she has taught me much about the nature of misogynoir – the pincer grasp of misogyny and racism black women face. She’s shone a light onto why black women’s hair is not “just hair”, and emblematic of the way black bodies are exoticised, criticised, consumed and abused by white people, and why you absolutely cannot reach out and touch it. She’s also given me a consistent window into Black Girl Magic, which CaShawn Thompson describes as a celebration of “the beauty, power and resilience of black women”.
Her work underlined how much I’d spent my life consuming the work of black women without being an ally. In short, without Adichie’s voice my feminism would be inchoate. I do not agree with her words in this instance, but it does not call her work to date into question. It will not prevent me from listening to her in future – but it will continue to make me think about what I consume. Instead of going to bed, I spent the night trawling Twitter and Facebook for windows into the lived experience of trans women to offer a counterpoint – something I wouldn’t have done at that moment, with that level of intensity, had it not been for Adichie’s interview. Because of it I found voices I otherwise would never have heard. There is value in that.
Culturally speaking, there’s a great double standard at work here. We continue to voraciously consume the work of creators because of the quality and importance of their work as separate from them as individuals. Is it right? Is it wrong? Either way, we’re doing it. People still watch Woody Allen films. Mel Gibson is still churning out cinematic hagiography. Casey Affleck won an Oscar. Trump is president. All of these men have been the epicentre of tremendous damage to those around them and their careers and work have barely suffered. Adichie expressed an opinion – one that has caused controversy and has hurt many – but will her important work now be rejected? Will her books be closed? Will her lectures protested? Will she be no-platformed? Will people enact a coloniality of the present and view her previous work through the prism of these words? Will she be remembered as an important voice, or dismissed as redundant?
All of these women have said things that run contra to current “mainstream” feminist discourse – but unpopular views catalyse thinking – and their analysis should be heard, rather than muted by current popular ideas. Their views, even for those who don’t agree, create a dynamic tension against the popular, inviting a deeper exploration of a subject. I say this as someone who recognises the trans claim to womanhood and the need for no feminist hierarchies, and who wants to learn more about the spectrum of oppression all women face.
Roxane Gay calls herself a “bad feminist” because her views don’t always comport to those the sisterhood find acceptable. As Gay and Inglis say, I think we need “problematic faves” and “bad feminists”. They remind us that feminism isn’t perfect, and that neither are those in the movement we idolise.