Title: Bad Feminist
Author: Roxane Gay
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication Date: 2014
Rating: 3/5 stars
I really wanted to like this one. Let’s begin at the beginning, with the thesis Gay lays out in her introduction.
I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain… interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.
ME: Yes! I’m a feminist too! I too don’t have the grounding in feminist theory, history, or discourse I’d like! I have some traits and tastes that don’t rest easily with feminism, and I struggle to reconcile them! An inclusive, flexible feminism that allows for the messiness of being a human with conflicting thoughts and feelings? That’s my jam!
And then I kept reading… Gay describing herself in the next paragraph:
…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.
Wait. What? I know this is most likely just a sign of my own, I don’t know, ignorance or myopia or privilege or something, but at this point, I was thinking to myself, what sort of feminists is she talking about? Since when did feminists not like to get freaky? Did I not get the memo about being required to dislike pink? How bad of a feminist am I?
I had a quick talk with myself. Reminded myself that I wasn’t even through the introduction and that I need to stop being such a grump. Per Goodreads, what followed was going to be “a sharp, funny, and spot-on look at the ways in which the culture we consume becomes who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms of all the ways we still need to do better.” Sounds great!
The first several essays act as an introduction to Roxane Gay, and her background is remarkable: The child of Haitian immigrants. A survivor of a gang rape as a young girl. A woman of color in academia. A bisexual woman of size. She comes across as an intelligent, compassionate, thoughtful person with an important perspective to share.
And I don’t doubt that she is, but reading the essays that followed was an exercise in frustration. Many of them felt like hastily thrown together blog posts; the angry, frustrated conversations you might have with friends about how misogynistic American politics has become; or the snarky, passive-aggressive Facebook post you write to annoy the distant relative you secretly suspect is a Men’s Rights Activist (everyone does that, right?).
Though there are certainly some stand-out essays (I particularly enjoyed a number of essays in the last third of the book where she tackles issues of race, gender, and politics), many of the essays just felt meandering and poorly crafted. She identifies a piece of pop culture of interest. The piece of pop culture is often (though certainly not always) something she enjoys even though it makes her a “bad feminist.” She points out a bunch of ways in which the culture is sexist and misogynistic and problematic. She reiterates that she’s a feminist. And then… the essay ends.
I suppose a large part of my problem is that Roxane Gay and I have very different ideas about what “good feminist” is. In her conclusion, she identifies a number of ways in which she is failing as a feminist:
- “I like pink.”
- “I read Vogue, and I’m not doing it ironically.”
- “I love dresses.”
- “I know nothing about cars.”
- “I very much like men.”
- “I totally fake ‘it’ because it’s easier.”
- “I love babies, and I want to have one.”
I suppose that there must be forms of feminism that exist, somewhere, that deny women the right to like pink, read fashion magazines, like men and babies, etc. Maybe in academic or activist circles? I know this is likely a reflection on my own background and privilege than on Gay or her book, but I have a really hard time imagining a real world version of feminism that requires so much of women. A feminism that asks women to look closely at these things, to interrogate them, to approach them carefully? Yes. Absolutely. But a feminism that requires that I justify my favorite color in order to be a “good feminist” or makes me feel guilty for preferring to pay a mechanic to fix my car than learning how to do it myself when I could not possibly care less about cars? That just doesn’t seem very feminist to me.
I know I’m being harsh, but I was expecting so much from this book. I picked it up looking for a fresh perspective on feminism and pop culture. I wanted to gain insight from someone from different background who has thought more deeply and thoroughly about what it means to be a woman in our world than I have. I know that my feminism is very white, very middle class, and very privileged. I’ve often felt that what makes me a “bad feminist” is the very narrowness of this perspective, and I suppose I came to this book wanting Roxane Gay to help me become a better feminist. As I write this, it hits me how unfair that was of me. I wanted her to educate me, and she just wanted to tell her story.
I read this book to satisfy the “Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes” task of the Read Harder Challenge.