I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist. To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to good feminists. If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong, at least according to the way my perceptions of feminism have been warped by being a woman.
She then goes on to catalog some of her areas of wrongdoing: despite having a good job, she wants to be taken care of; she listens to “thuggish rap” with misogynistic lyrics, she loves pink, she shaves her legs, she knows nothing about cars, she loves the excess of weddings—and so on.
Is there a feminist in the world who could not generate such a list of ways we’re supposedly doing it wrong? I doubt it. The image some have of feminism is indeed limiting, which is perhaps why so many women still feel a need to say, “I’m not feminist, but” before making some feminist statement. Gay is not shunning the label of feminist in this collection. Not at all. What she is doing is acknowledging that she is an individual woman with her own opinions and the right to be treated with dignity and respect. That, all on its own, makes her a good feminist. Even if she sometimes wants to sing along to “Blurred Lines.”
I’d read several of Gay’s essays online before getting the e-galley of this collection. In fact, this collection includes two of her essays that I’d found particularly memorable—“The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion” (about trigger warnings) and “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help.” Gay’s essays frequently explore some aspect of contemporary culture through a black, feminist lens. In a direct and thoughtful voice, she considers such subjects as sexual violence, racial profiling, and gay rights. Her topics come from the day’s headlines, best-seller lists, and TV ratings charts—whatever is a subject of conversation.
One of the things I like about Gay’s writing is that she’s able to be both passionate and measured. It’s a difficult thing to do—and both aspects of her voice are equally important. She’s often angry about subjects to which the only proper response is anger. How else should we react when women are treated as objects to be groped without any consideration of consent? In “Blurred Lines, Indeed,” an essay about misogyny in popular music, Gay writes, “It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away.” But Gay reserves that level of fury for the most deserving targets. This collection is not all indignation all the time. When she writes about how Orange Is the New Black falls short in its depiction of black woman, her tone is one of disappointment and frustration that the bar is so low.
Although I liked the collection overall, not all the essays are hits. I think Gay is at her best when she chooses just one or two targets to focus on. Essays like “Not Here to Make Friends” and “How We All Lose” that tried to tackle multiple works on a similar theme ended up seeming overly long and rambling. In both cases, her excellent main points got lost in lots of plot summary.
I should also note that some may find it better to read the essays one or two at a time, rather than all at once, as I ended up doing. After reading Kim’s review, I decided to slow my reading pace down because the first chunk of essays that I read were leaving me exhausted. But as I read on, the essays got shorter (or seemed shorter because they were more focused), and I was able to pick up my pace without finding the reading tedious. In fact, I ended up having trouble putting it down. (Interestingly, Kim seemed to like the earlier essays better than the later ones, but she attributes that to reading them all at once.) As someone who’s admired Gay’s writing for years, I was glad to get a chance to read more.
E-galley received for review consideration via Edelweiss.