Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay has been popping up all over the place it seems these last several months and now I have finished it I understand why. Since I read Laurie Penny’s book just before picking this one up I can’t help but make a few comparisons. Both are essay collections but where Penny focuses on gender and patriarchy, Gay is more wide ranging with essays on competitive Scrabble, teaching, race, gender, books and movies. Penny is pissed off and doesn’t give a rat’s ass if she offends anyone. Gay is more measured, moderate, questioning and even funny. Both women have been raped. Penny almost died from anorexia. Gay struggles with being overweight. Both understand that feminism is a bigger issue than women having equal opportunity to make money. Gay refers to this as feminist essentialism and it is why she calls herself a bad feminist.
Feminist essentialism is what second wave feminism from the seventies got boxed into — humorless, militant, pornography-hating, hairy-legged, no make-up allowed women with unwavering principles and if you waver, you’re not a real feminist and you’re kicked out of the club. Second wave feminists also had a hard time addressing racial issues as well as heteronormativity. All this morphed into the kind of feminism Elizabeth Wurtzel writes about in a 2012 Atlantic article in which “real feminists earn a living, have money and means of their own.” And later that same year in a Harper’s Bazaar article she added that real feminists also work hard to be beautiful and would never “misrepresent the cause by appearing less than hale and happy.” If that’s what feminism is, no wonder Gay calls herself a bad feminist. I’m bad too!
Gay admits to being a bundle of contradictions. She often finds herself singing along happily to songs that are blatantly misogynist but the tune is so catchy she just can’t help herself. She dates men she knows are not good for her and she has, and probably will again, fake an orgasm because it is easier than taking the time and effort to get what she wants from a man who she is sure she will never have sex with again. She really likes to watch bad reality television.
Feminism is not perfect, she says, but that doesn’t mean it is not worthwhile. We forget that feminism is powered by people and people are flawed and
[f]or whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.
Gay’s favorite definition of feminism was offered by an Australian woman named Su in 1996:
feminists are ‘just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.’
Gay has a fantastic essay, “Peculiar Benefits,” about privilege. Most of us who live in western industrialized countries have privilege of one kind or another. I’m white, middle-class, educated, able-bodied, and in a heterosexual relationship that allows me to be married (Minnesota allows same-sex marriage — yay! — but that didn’t happen until 2013). I probably have other privileges I haven’t even thought about. They are nothing to be ashamed of. They are to be recognized and acknowledged for what they are. I know there are people in my city and all over the world who don’t have half the privileges I do. I don’t have to do anything about it, but I try to in my own imperfect way. As Gay says,
You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences 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 — try to level the playing field for everyone, to work for social justice, to bring attention to how those without certain privileges are disenfranchised. We’ve seen what the hoarding of privilege has done, and the results are shameful.
I could go on and on about how wonderful this book is. Gay’s writing on rape culture is excellent and her essay on trigger warnings, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” is a thoughtful discussion on the topic. Her examination of racism, especially in books, film and television, is also fantastic.
I read an interview with Gay recently (sorry, I don’t remember where!) in which she expressed her surprise that Bad Feminist is doing so well. This is her first foray into nonfiction, she considers herself a novelist, and this book was outside her comfort zone. I’m glad she wrote it and I hope there will be others. If you’ve not had a chance to read the book yet and are wondering if you should, yes, definitely give it a go.