Published by Harper Perennial on Aug. 5, 2014
Genres: Essays, Feminist
Since I read An Untamed State a few months ago, Roxane Gay has become one of my favorite writers — and since I subsequently followed her on Twitter, she has become one of my favorite people on the Internet. She always has interesting things to say about current events, and she also delightfully live-tweets Food Network shows. She’s fabulous, and if you’re not already following her on Twitter, you need to go do that right now. I’ll wait.
Bad Feminist is a collection of Gay’s essays about feminism, race, and culture, and how they all intersect. She discusses a myriad of topics from the personal to pop culture to politics to societal expectations with thoughtfulness and insight.
Gay writes about her forays into competitive scrabble, the frustrations of being a first-year professor, and a traumatic experience in adolescence that changed the way she saw the world. She expounds on her pleasure in reading Sweet Valley High, both as a child and as an adult; her enjoyment of The Hunger Games and admiration of Katniss as a strong heroine; and her urge to sing along when Blurred Lines comes on the radio, despite its troubling lyrics.
“Not Here to Make Friends” examines the pressure on women to be “likeable,” both in life and in fiction. (Readers who followed the fallout of Clair Messud’s Publishers Weekly interview will be particularly interested in this piece.) Gay writes wonderfully on the double standard that makes unlikeable male characters “antiheros” and unlikeable women shrews.
“In literature, as in life, the rules are all too often different for girls. There are many instances in which an unlikeable man is billed as an antihereo, earning a special term to explain those ways in which he deviates from the norm, the traditionally likeable… An unlikeable man is inscrutably interesting, dark, or tormented, but ultimately compelling, even when he might behave in distasteful ways…”
“When women are unlikeable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike. Why are these women daring to flaunt convention? Why aren’t they making themselves likeable (and therefore acceptable to polite society)?”
She also considers WHY we are so uncomfortable with characters who don’t conform to cultural expectations. Could it be that unlikeable characters are the most human, the most alive? And that we are uncomfortable because we don’t dare be so alive, so bold and daring?
Gay also writes about trigger warnings, the necessity of which has been hotly debated in recent months. Her essay “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion” was the first anti-trigger warning piece to sway me from my inclination to believe people should be warned about content that may make them relive their trauma. It’s a thought-provoking essay that I would recommend to readers on either side of this issue.
In the essays dedicated to race, Gay discusses why she finds Tyler Perry’s films problematic, and she decries the lack of quality roles for black actors — roles that are complex and interesting, that don’t revolve around white characters. She offers really interesting analyses of recent popular films and TV shows such as The Help, Django Unchained, and Orange is the New Black, which helped me see these movies/shows in a different light. These essays helped me realize how limited my understanding is, and I think it is important to continually seek out perspectives different from my own in order to become a more empathetic citizen of the world.
There isn’t an essay in this book that isn’t fascinating. I’ll never tire of Gay’s writing on the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon; Wendy Davis’ incredible filibuster in the name of reproductive freedom; Trayvon Martin and Robert Zimmerman; the debate about birth control that is, bafflingly, still going on; and “the casual language of sexual violence.”
“Rape humor is designed to remind women that they are still not quite equal. Just as their bodies and reproductive freedom are open to legislation and public discourse, so are their other issues. When women respond negatively to misogynistic or rape humor, they are “sensitive” and branded as “feminist,” a word that has, as of late, become a catchall term for “woman who does not tolerate bullshit.””
This review has become a babbling, meandering, extremely long mess, but I didn’t know how else to write it. There is just so much in this collection of essays that is worth talking about — that practically demands to be talked about. I love Gay’s tone, which remains rational and graceful even when she writes about things that fill her with rage. She writes powerfully and eloquently with incredible insight about feminism and race and culture.
But most of all, I admire the way she writes about the contradictions of being a woman who considers herself a feminist — and how those contradictions are okay. When I started reading the final essay in this collection, “Bad Feminist: Take Two,” I began to underline the first paragraph, and I didn’t stop. By the time I got to the third page, I gave up my pencil and wrote in the margin, “Not going to keep underlining because YES – yes to all of this.” I could have written this essay — or a much less eloquent version of it. Gay speaks to the contradictions of being a “bad feminist;” she wants to be independent, but she also wants to be taken care of. She turns up the volume and dances to thuggish rap songs, even though the lyrics are degrading and offend her to her very core. Pink is her favorite color, she reads Vogue, and she is mortified by her love of maxi dresses. Sometimes she fakes “it” because it’s easier. She calls her father when she has questions about cars, even though “good feminists, I assume, are independent enough to address vehicular crises on their own.” This essay could be my manifesto.
“No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman. I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”
Basically, I loved this book and think everyone should read it.