Book Review: Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
Posted on January 20, 2015
I loved everything about this book, and I would give it more stars, but I ran out at five. This review is a ramble, really, because I cannot talk about these essays without also talking about my own feminist stance, at least in part. Reading Gay made me constantly question myself, and engaged me in an ongoing internal dialogue over three hundred pages — a dialogue which I was really having with Gay, even though she was not there and could not hear me. (I didn’t let that detract from the conversation.)
I am happy to read a current take on feminism ― or even “bad” feminism (though of course, it’s not) ― that I believe must resonate with younger women. Many young women today seem to feel a disconnect with their older feminist peers, many of whom they perceive as strident, anti-male, and authoritarian regarding the “right” and “wrong” ways to be a woman. (If women wanted to be told how to be proper women, we could have stuck with men telling us that. We sure as hell don’t need it from the so-called leaders of the sisterhood.)
I just turned fifty, so do not count myself among the younger generation to which I am referring; and yet, I have struggled the past few years, too, with the term “feminist” and what it means to declare oneself as such, publicly. With whom, then, am I claiming solidarity? There are feminists, historically and currently, who I believe do speak for women like me, and others who do not. Though I do now and have always thought of myself as a feminist, this has never made me feel a sense of connection with an amorphous sisterhood, and I do not allow anyone to set the standards for how I live my life.
Does that make me a bad feminist?
Can I not stand for some feminist social and political ideals, without supporting others? My own feeling is that of course I can. The whole point of feminism is giving women what they never had historically, and what many around the world still do not have: individual freedom of choice and the power to enact those choices. If we get boxed in by our own ideology, so that our choices narrow to that which suits the currently-accepted feminist paradigm, then the solution has become the problem, hasn’t it?
One thing lovely about being fifty, cliché though this may be, is that it has somehow magically freed me to accept myself fully, without guilt that I should be someone more than, or different from, who I am. This doesn’t mean that I have given up on self-improvement, where needed, but it does mean that I am not too concerned with whether or not I live up to others’ ideas of what I should be. I consider the opinions of my family and friends, but I do not lose sleep worrying about upholding the mantle of feminism, or any other “ism”.
Having said that, I do feel that I owe some things to my gender, and these I am happy to give. I consider them to be the basics of feminist loyalty; and yet, they are given with love, rather than merely a sense of duty. These include voting in our best interests and speaking out against our oppression. In the recent past, it’s included a large portion of my career as a therapist, spent helping victims of sexual assault and interpersonal violence.
Gay is in a much trickier position than me, though, because she is looked upon as voice of modern feminism, and must feel a great deal of pressure to get it right ― whatever “right” means. She questions herself constantly and shares both her certainties and her doubts with us. I found her wonderful to read because she is a feminist to whom I can relate, who recognises that she is “bad” at being a feminist in some ways, while righteously on-fire in others.
Gay is unapologetic and direct about her own life experiences, her own biases and blind spots, and her love of the colour pink and perusing fashion mags. Early on in this collection of essays, Gay is rhapsodic about the virtues of Francine Pascal‘s Sweet Valley High series, and what it offered her as a lonely and awkward young girl, alone in a room with her books. (I adored this essay.) She has some short, pithy essays about herself as girl and woman ― my favourites being “I Was Once Miss America” and one longish one about a Scrabble competition that is hilarious.
So, the collection starts off light, but that’s no true indication of how it proceeds. By the end of the book, Gay is comparing the public response to Trayvon Martin’s death, to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture. She discusses how Trayvon, a victim of fatal violence, had his life analysed as if he were the one going on trial; how he was viewed with suspicion because he’d been a black boy out for a walk. As we’ve been learning over and over again, in many parts of the U.S., it is not safe for black boys to go out walking.
By contrast, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was no victim, but a perpetrator of mass violence, who nevertheless provoked efforts at understanding how he’d gone wrong, and a cringe-inducing sort of fawning. Why? Because he is white and has soulful brown eyes. Tsarnaev looked like he should be playing guitar in a cafe somewhere; whereas, Trayvon, as Gay points out, looked as we imagine criminals look. By which I mean, black and male. (How sad, to be Trayvon’s mother and hear that your son looks like a criminal to half the population.)
How to manage that mass cognitive dissonance, when our expected criminals turn into victims, and our poets into killers? Blame the victim and find excuses for the perpetrator? Clearly, that is one terrible solution to the mental mismatch this creates. As I read this essay, I remembered being sickened by the loving fan pages devoted to Tsarnaev and wondered how families of the Boston Marathon bombing victims must have felt, seeing those pages. I also remembered a young, teenage me, who would have found Tsarnaev’s looks enchanting. And that’s what happens when you read Roxane Gay. You have to live with that.
In between the lighter and darker essays I’ve described, Gay talks brilliantly and engagingly about gender, sexuality, politics, race, and entertainment, as well as how all of these interact with each other or fail to do so. She expresses, understandably, her alienation from a feminist discourse that is mainly white, middle and upper-middle class, and hetero-normative. She shows us, as a society, where we are getting it right on issues of gender, race, and sexuality, and where we still have so much work to do.
I was especially moved by Gay’s own revelations of herself and her life, both the funny and the traumatic. She is gutsy and unashamed in sharing her life stories and does so with grace and a startling emotional clarity. “What We Hunger For” is an essay I started to skip because it starts off talking about The Hunger Games. I am one of the five people in the Western world who has neither read nor seen this series; and yet, I may have to rethink that decision now. I figure if Gay likes it, then I might give it a try. But, this essay is about far more than a series of novels. It’s about being a girl who is fragile and empty, as so many of us are when very young, and desperate for someone to fill up that hole inside where our sense of self should be. It’s about the sometimes tragic outcomes that result when we are wanting love but don’t know yet what it looks like. It’s also about predators who set traps, and prey who fall into them, and in that way, it brings us full circle back to The Hunger Games. Gay is clever like that. You will be reading her essays, thinking “How’d we get here from there?” and then, like kaleidoscope pieces, it all comes together and the whole beautiful vision is revealed.
I had to read these essays only a few at a time. I did not race through them. This is because, while Gay will make you love her (and I defy you not to!), she will also draw you fully into her own emotional responses to the various topics she is discussing. I found myself laughing a lot, outraged a lot, and moved to tears on several occasions. Repeatedly, I found myself questioning my own attitudes and behaviours, most especially regarding race. This was provoked mainly during my reading of the essays on “Race and Entertainment” in which Gay discusses several American movies starring black actors, past and present, which have been loved by the public (so that’s good right?); but which stereotype black Americans, and focus fetishistically on black suffering. Interestingly, it is not only white producers and directors who catch her ire. She is especially indignant (that’s probably too weak a word) about how black women are routinely portrayed in low positions and then kicked down if they try to rise above their stations (i.e. punished for wanting what everyone else wants, and for sometimes breaking the rules to get it). That is not to say that there are never exceptions to this, but it is an all-too-common theme.
I think I am not a racist. Is that true, or am I kidding myself? Gay supposes we are all a little bit racist, even if we don’t realise it. I am not sure, but I am inclined to agree with her. Certainly, after reading her essays on “Race and Entertainment”, I do feel that I have misunderstood a lot. Although I felt a bit smug for being one white woman who figured out right away that The Help was not a win for black women, I am still left unsure whether I was racist to love the movie version of The Color Purple so much. (And I did, I did. I really did.) Sadly, Gay was not able to answer this question for me, as her presence in my head did not extend to offering feedback outside the text. Still, I am grateful for the time I spent with her, and I am looking forward to reading her novels. If she ran for an office (any office!), I would absolutely vote her in.