Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist is a collection of essays that both takes on the meaning of feminism and a number of current subjects important to feminism. Invoking feminist Carol Hanisch’s famous maxim that “the personal is political,” Gay educates her readers with an approachable voice, at times both academic and irreverently humorous, and always thoughtful and thought-provoking.
The essays are grouped into several sections, including Gender & Sexuality, Race & Entertainment, and Politics, Gender & Race. As a woman of color, Gay does not ignore the intersectionality of race and gender, despite the omission of race in the book’s title. Her main thesis, however, is that feminism is a slippery term, and feminists (and their detractors) assign to the label a plethora of definitions. Gay makes this clear when she writes, “feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed.” Therefore, she says she “embrace[s] the label of bad feminist because I am human,” and does not “have all the answers.” This is the book’s greatest strength – Gay’s refusal to define, categorize, and impose rules on what it means to be a woman, a woman of color, and a feminist. Furthermore, in “Bad Feminism: Take One,” she resists an “essentialist feminism” that “doesn’t allow for the complexities of human experience or individuality. And, hilariously, in “Bad Feminism: Take Two,” she confesses to liking the color pink, listening to gangster rap (“I am mortified by my music choices”), and shaving her legs.
Although she eschews having all the answers, one of the best essays in the collection is “How to Be Friends with Another Woman,” a list of rules for sisterly solidarity. She instructs readers not to “tear other women down” and to “Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive.” As Gay’s voice is as humorous as it is straightforward, she also advises that women shouldn’t “flirt, have sex, or engage in emotional affairs with your friends’ significant others” because “If you want to be with an asshole, get a fresh asshole of your own. They are abundant.”
Because Gay is an academic, she does include ideas from feminist writers Judith Butler and Hélène Cixous, but her tone remains accessible to those outside academia. What makes the book most accessible to its intended general readership are her essays on popular culture, in which she deals with both portrayals of women and of people of color. In the essay “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help,” she tears down the basis for America’s love of the book and film, illuminating for readers the many problems with the representation of race relations and representations that audiences have found comfortable. The main issues as she sees them are that the portrayals of black women are stereotypical (they are maids and “magical negroes”), the representations of white women are “overly sympathetic,” and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement is entirely absent. So while those who love the book and/or movie have lauded it for its depiction of solidarity between white and Black women, the truth, as Gay makes clear throughout all of these essays, is not so simple due to our cultural history as well as our human complexities.
Although Gay could be criticized for focusing heavily on trivial popular culture, she brings insight to her interrogations of these subjects that enlighten readers. In “Some Jokes Are Funnier Than Others,” she discusses the incident when an audience member called out comedian Daniel Tosh for a rape joke during a standup comedy routine. Gay points out that the “heckler” was correct in saying that “‘rape jokes are never funny’” because “Rape humor is designed to remind women that they are still not quite equal.” She also goes on to make a point that, particularly in the age of the Internet, “Sometimes, saying what others are afraid or unwilling to say is just being an asshole. We are all free to be assholes, but we are not free to do so without consequence.” Truth, Roxane. TRUTH.
At times, Gay makes assertions that are not supported adequately. For example, in “The Alienable Rights of Women,” Gay says, “The drug industry has no real motivation to develop a reversible method of male birth control because forcing this burden on women is so damn profitable” and that “men don’t seem to want the responsibility for birth control” because “They see what the responsibility continues to cost women, publicly and privately.” Some elaboration would make these statements stronger for readers who are on the fence when it comes to the particulars of reproductive freedom (or feminism in general). Gay’s style, however, is not to belabor a point, but to draw out ideas and invite the reader to consider ideas for herself.
Overall, Bad Feminist is a strong interrogation of our cultural climate with regard to women and people of color. Gay does not try to impose answers to the seemingly insolvable problems of racism and sexism. She does offer a final conclusion about being a feminist: “Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman.” She concludes the entire collection by saying, “I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.” It is the striving for social justice and doing one’s best to heighten the public’s consciousness that matters, in the end, rather than being a perfect feminist, as there is no such thing.
Bad Feminist is a deceptively dense read in that Gay requires readers to stop, think, consider and question not only issues of feminism but also those of race. Most readers will find themselves not only exclaiming “Yes!” out loud, sharing Gay’s humor and insight on social media, and underlining the choicest bits with pencil in hand, they will also find themselves in this book and grow from the experience. With the recent publication of her debut novel, An Untamed State (which she discusses in “The Smooth Surfaces of Idyll,” in addition to this collection of essays (many of which were previously featured in publications such as Salon, The Los Angeles Review, and Jezebel), Gay is becoming a major voice in cultural criticism and creative writing.
Let me be clear about this. Buy this book, read it, savor it, laugh with it, disagree with it, and expand your awareness of feminism. You will not be sorry. I’m more enlightened because of this book.
Harper Perennial, $15.99 USD
Overall rating: 10/10