The title of Roxane Gay’s New York Times bestseller is Bad Feminist. But you don’t have to be any kind of feminist, or even have any interest in feminism, to get something out of this book of essays. You just have to be interested in what’s happening in the world. Better still, if you sometimes find yourself feeling that you should think a certain way about a particular issue, but maybe you know at some level that you don’t really feel that way, Bad Feminist is for you.
Reaching for the highest compliment they can muster, books reviewers sometimes say that they couldn’t put the book down. I think there is a much loftier kind of praise and it applies to Bad Feminist: I put it down over and over again, because it made me think. Sometimes it made me walk away and pace.
Roxane Gay critiques movies such as Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, The Help, and the whole Tyler Perry oeuvre. The essay on The Help was itself worth the price of admission. She discusses television shows such as Girls, Orange is the New Black, Tosh.O, and Law & Order: SVU. Gay also explores high-profile books and, often, their critical reception. Examples include Lean In, The End of Men, Gone Girl, The Hunger Games, the Twilight series, and Fifty Shades of Grey. Readers get to hear what Gay thinks about a wide array of celebrities, scoundrels, and respected public figures, such as Bill Cosby, Chris Brown, Jerry Sandusky, Paula Deen, Don Lemon, Marissa Mayer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Wendy Davis. In a bracing chapter, “A tale of two profiles,” Gay compares the reporting and cultural conversations around the Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to those about Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager killed by George Zimmerman. Gay also expounds on culturally fraught concepts such as privilege, trigger warnings, and rape culture.
Some of the topics in Bad Feminist have been so worked over in traditional media and social media that you may think there is nothing new that can possibly be said about them. That’s wrong. Roxane Gay is a fresh voice. It doesn’t always seem that way at the outset of any particular essay. She will make some points you have heard before, maybe some points you long ago decided you agree with. That feels good but it does not seem particularly revelatory. But then she considers another side and another aspect and one more after that, and soon you realize she is not just reiterating what you had been thinking all along. She is thinking much more deeply. Her arguments have texture. They also have heart.
Roxane Gay has academic credentials but her writing is blissfully free of jargon and pretense. Sometimes scholars try to hide themselves in their quest to be the impersonal voice of authority. Not Roxane Gay. She is there as a real person on every page. She shares intimate and disturbing experiences. She wants you to know that she sees herself as flawed and would never pretend to be otherwise.
Gay calls herself a “bad feminist” because she does not fit the mold, as she sees it, of how good feminists are supposed to be. For example, she sometimes feels so overwhelmed at work that she wants to cry — so, she closes her door and does just that. She wants to be independent but also have someone who will take care of her. She doesn’t know anything about cars and doesn’t want to learn. She thinks her favorite color should be black, but it is actually pink.
If some of that strikes you as small stuff, well, it is. Where Roxane Gay is uncompromising is in the domains of the big, important issues:
“I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that consistently places women at a disadvantage, the inequity in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, the repeated attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women, and on and on.”
“I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done,” she adds. “No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist…I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”
After reading Bad Feminist, there is a question I keep asking myself every time some new provocation or controversy or big event commands America’s attention: What does Roxane Gay think of that? Fortunately, she is currently a contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times, so often, we all get to find out.
Bad Feminist: Essays
Harper Perennial, August 2014
Paperback, 320 pages