Book Review -- Bad Feminist

What I like most about Roxane Gay's writing is her commitment to unflinching honesty, and her desire to ask the kinds of questions other people secretly think to themselves and never say aloud. She's also incredibly funny and well-versed in popular culture; she's descriptive, vibrant, self-deprecating and completely uninterested in bullshit.

I also respect and admire that even though her work is currently receiving a substantial amount of press (specifically for Bad Feminist, a collection of essays), she's actually been writing for a really long time. Such a fact is not unique or uncommon for most writers, nor for female writers; most writers who reach the edges of fame and fortune, whose names become known by larger populations and Hollywood and literary circles and so on, are not new the game. They've been hustling for years, often teaching and certainly not making millions along the way.

But Gay has publicly acknowledged that, yeah, she's worked her ass off and some days it didn't feel like she would ever "make it" -- whatever that means -- and now that she's "here," it's a little strange. Its kind of like when a model admits that she does, in fact, try to eat healthy. Its weird and totally awesome when a public figure admits the work that goes on behind the scenes, whatever their role. And I find it particularly important nowadays, when writers occasionally expect instant popularity and focus their efforts upon going viral as opposed to sharing their truth. (Or perhaps that's just my perspective due to knowing lots of budding writers.)

So I like that Gay pulls no punches. This attitude shows up in her writing. She absolutely will confront your expectations and assumptions about all sorts of things, but sort of in a sly way, where you don't know you've been had until it's happening.

Bad Feminist is a compilation of essays, some previously published elsewhere and some not, on a range of subjects: reality television, racism, sexism, television, movies, feminism, novels, friendship, politics, sex, abuse, etc. The title alone is alluring: being a feminist is often toted as either "good" or "bad" for women (and men), and it is refreshing that she says she's essentially "not good" at being a feminist, yet cares deeply about the ongoing movement. This admission runs counterculture to our societal expectation that women be perfect or get out of the way, that women should have and do it all, that women cannot identify themselves with a particular group unless they're all in. Instead, Gay makes space for nuance, which I find incredibly helpful when it comes to feminism.

I consider myself a feminist. I don't know enough about the history of feminism, even as it continues on in my generation. I appreciate the sacrifices and efforts of the women who came before me, those in my life and complete strangers. I see the publicity of young actresses making bold claims that they, too, are for women; I see the young men calling out sexism when possible and making generic statements of support. (I mean, celebrity-wise, I would argue that feminism is fairly good for one's career.) I care about equality for women because I'm a woman. I also like men. The fact that I have to state both truths in the same paragraph for my feminism to count makes little sense to me.

That's why being a "bad feminist" appeals to me -- at least, by way of Gay's definition. She calls herself a "bad feminist" because:

Because I’m human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying — trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground. I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist pedestal.
— Roxane Gay

Her ability to note nuance, again, matters a great deal. Feminism is not all or nothing, and that's something I can relate to. Sometimes the work of feminism seems so overwhelming, so exhausting, so all encompassing, that I can see why some women want nothing to do with it. Hell, I'm one of those women sometimes. I sometimes don't change the Chris Brown song when it comes on the radio. I have no desire to learn how to change a tire or fix a wall or build anything. I tell myself that I'll ask for a raise "next time" or that the salary offered is "good enough." I like to cook but get annoyed when it's expected that I will every time. Sometimes I call out people on racist comments or jokes and other times, I let it go because the fight feels like too much hassle. There are many moments, in my relatively privileged life, where I don't necessarily "do" the work of feminism, yet benefit and still remain passionate about it. Gay's writing reminds me that supporting feminism is pointless, yet understandable, on the days when it's all talk, all clouds, all walking through the mush. She also notes that feminism means fighting for the rights of women who don't want to be feminists, because this whole fight is first and foremost about the ability to choose.

My two favorite chapters are about friendship with other women and the Sweet Valley High book series; regarding the former, Gay states,

"Step 12: If a friend sends a crazy e-mail needing reassurance about love, life, family or work, respond accordingly and in a timely manner even if it is just to say, 'GIRL, I hear you.' If a friend sends you like thirty crazy e-mails needing reassurance about the same damn shit, be patient because one day that's going to be you tearing up Gmail with your drama."

I certainly recommend reading Bad Feminist, but do it in installments with a chapter here, a chapter there. I raced through it and immediately wanted to re-read it upon finishing, so take your time and let the mental and emotional dust settle after each section. Gay's words might make you uncomfortable, or make you sing out with praise -- either way, embrace it. See my favorite excerpts below.

On privilege:

"We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone . . . What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered. You don't necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don't have to apologize for it. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about . . . You could, however, use that privilege for the greater good."

On truth:

"We should be able to say, 'This is my truth,' and have that truth stand without a hundred clamoring voices shouting, giving the impression that multiple truths cannot coexist."

On television:

"I'm more interested in a show called Grown Women about a group of friends who finally have great jobs and pay all their bills in a timely manner but don't have any savings and still deal with sloppy love lives and hangovers on Monday at work. That show doesn't exist, though, because stability holds little allure for the popular imagination and Hollywood rarely acknowledges women of a certain age."

On likability:

"Why are we so concerned with whether, in fact or fiction, someone is likable? An unlikable man is inscrutably interesting, dark or tormented, but compelling, even when he might behave in distasteful ways . . .  When women are unlikable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike . . . Unlikable women refuse to give in to that temptation [to pretend, be someone they are not] . . . They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices, and those consequences become stories worth reading.

On trigger warnings:

"This is the uncomfortable truth: everything is a trigger for someone. There are things you cannot tell just by looking at someone. We all have history. You can think you're over your history. You can think the past is the past. And then something happens, often innocuous, that shows you how far you are from over it. The past is always with you. Some people want to be protected from this truth . . . Writers cannot protect their readers from themselves, nor should they be expected to."

On misogyny:

"The time for outrage over things we already know is over. The call-and-response of this debate has grown tightly choreographed and tedious. A woman dares to acknowledge the gender problem. Some people say, 'Yes, you're right,' but do nothing to change the status quo. Some people say, 'I'm not part of the problem,' and offer up some tired example as to why this is all no big deal, why this is all being blown out of proportion. Some people offer up submission queue ratios and other excuses as if that absolves responsibility. Some people say, 'Give me more proof,' or 'I want more numbers' or 'Things are so much better' or 'You are wrong.' Some people say, 'Stop complaining.' Some people say, 'Enough talking about the problem. Let's talk about solutions.' Another woman dares to acknowledge this gender problem. Rinse. Repeat."

On rape humor: (THIS.)

"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' . . . Men want what they want, we should all lighten up. It's hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you're going to float the fuck away . . . These are just songs. They are just jokes. It's just a hug. They're just breasts. Smile, you're beautiful. Can't a man pay you a compliment? In truth, this is all a symptom of a much more virulent cultural sickness -- one where women exist to satisfy the whims of men, one where a woman's worth is consistently diminished or entirely ignored . . . A culture that treats women as objects, that gleefully supports entertainment that is more often demeaning toward women than it is not, that encourages the erosion of a woman's autonomy and personal space, is the same culture that elects state lawmakers who work tirelessly to enact restrictive abortion legislation."