Feminism and Postcolonialism in "Swing Time" by Zadie Smith

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In “Men Negotiating Identity in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth” Taryn Beukema focusses on the men in White Teeth with an eye on history, aiming to explain how historical events and periods defines the construction of masculinity.

In Swing Time, Zadie Smith shows that people are complex and might not be who they think they are. Quinn (2016) points out that this is a novel about the illusion of identity, that the biracial narrator does not fit into one clear category when it comes to her identity. She is neither black, nor white. Although she initially identifies as black, she later realizes her African peers see her as white. The Guardian also cites this fact in its review, saying that this difference in perception relates to the novel’s theme of relativity. Nothing is absolute, only relative. Another example of this is Aimee’s privilege compared to the narrator’s and the narrator’s compared to the villagers in Gambia. She is always looking for a place to belong: with Tracey, with Aimee, in Gambia, or even as a goth. Throughout the novel the only constant in the narrator’s life is Tracey’s presence, whether in her memories or in her actual life. Tracey (whose success is also relative), Selasi (2016) remarks, can be the equivalent of a home to the narrator.

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On the other hand, Forna (2016) points out that the friendship between the narrator and Tracey is based on jealousy (one envying pretty dolls, the other envying a present father) and competition as much as on love and loyalty. Schwartz (2016) points out that working for Aimee does not help the narrator to find an identity, but rather allows her to postpone looking for one. Early on in the novel the narrator admits this herself: “I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow” (4). Since we know that the narrator is always looking for an identity and a place to belong, it is significant that she does not have a name. This, Tortorici (2016) notes, raises the question: What do we know about the narrator, in the end? Names, after all, are the things by which we identify ourselves, it is the answer to the question “Who are you?”. Her lack of identity is emphasized by her lack of name. An important tool Smith uses to define or hide identity is accents. Maybe the best example of this is the narrator’s mother in Swing Time, who uses her best English accent when talking to other mothers about ballet shoes. She uses this to appear of a higher social class than she is. She hides her Black British identity, as Schwartz notes.


The theme of postcolonialism has also been addressed, among others by Efraim Sicher and Linda Weinhouse (2012). They have a broad understanding of ‘postcolonialism’ and ‘British’ to allow a wide range of perspectives. They look at how ‘the Jew’ figures in the idea British society has of itself after the fall of the British Empire (Levy 398). In Sicher and Weinhouse’s book, Zadie Smith appears among the non-Jewish writers who struggle with identity issues in colonial settings or across the color divide (Levy 398).

In Zadie Smith: Critical Essays several writers have written about postcolonialism. Dalleo argues that White Teeth, though often seen as British literature, is in fact Carribean (Dalleo 91). Ulka Anjaria takes a look at On Beauty through a postcolonial lens and argues that it “revives the domestic plot to interrogate the pitfalls of both traditional aesthetics and a deconstructive ant-aesthetic — both of which are unsuited to account for the complex experiences of post-colonial family life” (Anjaria 31).

John Mullan (2002) remarks that it is postcolonialism that brought White Teeth’s character to London and that some characters, like Samad and Hortense, are aware of their post-colonialism. He also notes that Smith has fun with mixing cultures in unexpected ways.


Although a less common theme in research on Smith, issues of gender are still discussed. In “Still Mammies and Hos: Stereotypical Images of Black Women in Zadie Smith’s Novels”, Tracey Walters (2008) discusses three stereotypical images used by Zadie Smith, namely the mammy, the matriarch and the jezebel. These terms are defined by Patricia Hill Collins (2015, p. 71-77) as the faithful, obedient domestic servant, the overly aggressive and unfeminine mother who emasculates lovers and husbands, and a woman with inappropriate and/or insatiable sexual appetite, respectively. It is quite dangerous to use stereotypes. Walters points out that they can be damaging as they can be used to create power dynamics that endorse sexist and racist beliefs (126). The greatest example of this damaging impact is the slavery, where people of color were treated like cattle which reinforced a deluded idea of superiority. Mammies was the name given to older slave women.

Walters points out that Smith’s female characters often lack dimension and are overshadowed by the male protagonists, they often do not surpass stereotypes (125). Smith has admitted that she has difficulty writing about women, because they are complex, saying that men are much simpler (Walters 126). Walters also remarks that Smith uses stereotypes as a satirical device, and that black women are not the only characters she stereotypes (127). Through stereotypes, she reveals people’s biases and shows how detrimental stereotyping can be (Walters 128). Walters discusses an instance in White Teeth where Marcus Chalfen is very offensive towards Neena and Maxine. He reveals his feelings about interracial relationships (and women) by assuming that such a relationship would be an exchange of sex (physicality) and sensibility (intellectuality). He reduces women to sex slaves, who only have their bodies to offer (Walters 128). Naturally, White Teeth is not the only novel in which Smith uses stereotypes. Walters recognizes Kiki in On Beauty as a mammy.

The mammy is also said to have forgotten her black cultural identity. This is something Kiki recognizes “I’m alone in this… this sea of white. I barely know any black folk anymore, Howie” (Smith 206). She confirms her role as the mammy by taking care of the household but not really having anything to say and deferring to Howard for real decisions (Walters 131). Even if she does confirm her role as the mammy, Smith is able to make Kiki a much more complex character as is expected of a mammy. In “Black, Fat and Feisty” the author even goes so far as to say that in On Beauty, Smith “turns racial stereotypes on their head”. In White Teeth the matriarch stereotype is personified in the figure of Hortense Bowden who is a ‘bad mother’ who becomes estranged from her daughter because of her choice of husband, and who “gave Darcus Bowden the tongue-whipping of his life” (Walters 133-134; Smith 31). In her household she is the breadwinner and Darcus, the man, is silenced.

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