Bad Feminist

Bad FeministIn the essay, “Bad Feminist: Take Two,” Roxane Gay writes

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.

This entry was posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Bad Feminist

  1. Carol S says:

    Can only agree with you re being a complicated person before/as well as a feminist. I’d never heard of her until Saturday’s Guardian article, now am both fascinated & intrigued. I’ve ordered her novel though it looks like strong meat. It is very interesting to read your take on her essays here. Thank you

  2. Interesting review, thank you – I hadn’t come across her before but will be exploring now. I’m currently reeling from the nonsense that is I don’t need feminism because… I’m really not sure what the current perception if a feminist is. For me it’s always been about the right to make choices, and it’s depressing to realise that many women don’t see that at all.

    • Teresa says:

      At one point, Gay quotes someone who defines feminism as not wanting to be treated like shit, which I thought was pretty good. Having the right to make choices is part of that, for sure.

      I think a lot of women who say we don’t need feminism just don’t happen to experience oppression themselves–or don’t recognize it as such when they do.

  3. Deb says:

    She had a bunch of tweets up yesterday about being stopped at Best Buy because the white couple walking out ahead of her set off the alarm but they were waved through while her purchase was inspected and even then security went back to the cashier to verify that Gay had made the purchase!

    I’m not sure who came up with those “feminist” rules like not shaving your legs, etc.–I suspect whoever it was was not a feminist.

    • Teresa says:

      I saw those tweets. Unbelievable. (Also, entirely believable, but still terrible.)

      I think a lot of those rules came from feminists saying they shouldn’t have to shave their legs or wear bras or whatever if they didn’t want to. And that’s absolutely true! But choosing to do those things doesn’t make a woman not a feminist.

  4. I long ago found out how right you are about not reading a collection of short works cover to cover. Short stories, essays, poems, should all be read one at a time over a period of time. They are not dishes that make up one huge meal, but many meals, and are best treated as such.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t think short works have to be read one at a time. For me, it really depends on the collection. It takes me a while to get accustomed to some writers’ voices, so one piece at a time doesn’t work so well. And with other writers, either way seems to work.

      The trouble I have with reading one story or essay at a time is making short pieces part of my routine. If I put down a collection after reading one piece, I may never come back to it. So my tendency is to read collections the way I read novels, unless it doesn’t work with a particular collection. That tends to happen when the pieces are all too much alike. Or when it’s a multi-author collection, where considering the pieces one at a time is more fruitful.

  5. Alex says:

    I hadn’t seen those tweets but it reminds me of something similar that happened to friends of mine here in the UK because they had Irish accents. As to the passage you quote at the beginning of your piece, that describes me precisely. I am sure there are a great many women who are reluctant to claim to be feminists because their perception of what it means to name themselves that way is a bar too high. I haven’t come across Gay but will now search these out.

    On the question of reading essays, as you will appreciate this is something that is much on my mind at the moment, especially as I do need to read just one at a time, as I do with short stories. But you put your finger on the issue precisely. If you prefer to read them that way then how do you fit them into a reading schedule? This is something I am still experimenting with. I suspect the issue is actually one of how do I become more self-disciplined all round but then aiming for perfection in that area is probably as profitless as aiming to be the perfect feminist.

    • Teresa says:

      It seems far better to me to be a bad feminist and a bad reader than to not be a feminist or a reader at all. I’ll never be a perfect example of either, but I can’t imagine shunning either label.

  6. JaneGS says:

    >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.

    Amen to that. I’m in the camp of reading a collection of essays slowly. I need time to digest. :)

  7. I have a lot of friends who say “I’m a feminist and” — followed by some confession about liking pink, being crazy about Disney, or whatever else. It’s the shamed cousin of “I’m not a feminist but” — though in fact I think “I’m not a feminist but” should be more ashamed of itself than us feminists who like pink.

    (Not me actually. I could live without pink. Weddings too. But I do totally enjoy some romantic comedies with absolutely awful views of women, men, and relationships between women and men.)

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, both seem to be about making the definition of feminism more restrictive than it is. And I agree that the “I’m not a feminist but…” is more troubling than “I’m a feminist but…”

      Also, I like lots of stuff with unfortunate views of women. I don’t have to agree with something entirely to like it.

  8. Rebecca H. says:

    Thanks for the review! I’m looking forward to reading this, and I will definitely read through it slowly, as you suggest, as that’s my usual method with essays. It takes me a while to read a collection, but I get to savor the pieces more that way.

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’ll enjoy this, since you’re already a fan of her essays. I’d read several before, but I enjoyed getting a chance to read some I’d missed.

  9. Lu says:

    I’ve seen several bloggers having similar reactions – that the collection is a little uneven and best read in chunks rather than all at once. I do love Roxane Gay since I’ve started following her on Twitter and tumblr, and I’m excited to read this one, but I think I will take it in small chunks!

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve also noticed a few people liking the later essays better than the earlier ones, which was my experience. Once I got halfway through, I started gobbling them up.

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