(Harper Perennial, 2014)
“Bad feminist” is a self-deprecating term for what ends up sounding like a very appealing sort of person. A bad feminist, by Roxane Gay’s description in her eponymous essay collection, is someone who supports fair treatment of women but who doesn’t necessarily agree with every feminism-associated or feminist-espoused idea, someone who believes in certain principles, yet acts against them sometimes, and with varying degrees of self-awareness. “When I drive to work, I listen to thuggish rap at very loud volume even though the lyrics are degrading to women and offend me to my core,” Gay writes in her essay “Bad Feminist: Take Two,” confessing the ways in which her behavior conflicts with her concept of the idealized feminist. “I have opinions on maxi dresses! I shave my legs! Again, this mortifies me. If I take issue with the unrealistic standards of beauty women are held to, I shouldn’t have a secret fondness for fashion and smooth calves, right?” Though lighthearted in her examples, Gay is serious in her commitment to making the world a better place for women and to doing so as a feminist. She concludes that fear of imperfection and hypocrisy, in oneself, prominent feminists, or the movement overall, are not reasons to give up on feminism. “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”
Bad feminist is also the opposite of “good feminist” and all the attendant expectations of a good feminist, Essential Feminism, and Capital-F Feminism. People disagree about what being a good feminist means, but its confines are narrow, like the pedestals that Gay describes prominent feminists alighting on and tumbling from. “People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly,” Gay writes. “Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up. Consider me already knocked off.” While there’s only one way to do feminism right—or so imply the strident opinion writers that Gay mentions—there are infinite ways to fuck it up. Or to see the same situation positively, it’s in bad feminism that diversity and plurality lie. Gay advocates for a feminism that includes people of all sexualities, all economic classes, married or single, childless or not, women with careers to speak of or women who clock into jobs that are really just jobs. The collection’s introduction is titled “Feminism (n.): Plural.”
Bad Feminist’s 37 essays focus primarily on issues of gender, sexuality, and race, through the lenses of art, entertainment, and politics. Gender-related issues predominate: The introduction and final two essays, “Bad Feminist: One” and “-Two,” all deal with the idea that it’s possible to be a feminist without being perfect, and between those bookends are essays that examine sexual violence, body image, and reproductive rights. Race is also much discussed, and there are a few essays on other topics, including Scrabble, but Bad Feminist is a fitting title. In addition to signaling the book’s main subject matter, it also represents the tolerant, pluralistic approach that Gay takes to criticism overall.
Gay is a diplomatic cultural critic. She always points out the strengths and weaknesses of the works of art she critiques; when she makes an argument, she carefully considers alternative points of view. Rarely does she write at a high pitch, nor does she use name-calling to attack people and ideas. In fact, she incorporates humor into pieces about even dark topics. Present in individual essays, Gay’s placid, friendly tone is compounded in this collection and leaves a strong and positive impression.
The book is finely knit, with one essay relating to the next. The discussions of race and of feminism, in particular, run along parallel tracks, assembling into a larger discussion about how marginalized groups can achieve contradictory goals: addressing injustices and also leaving them behind in art and in life.
A motivation behind the intro and “Bad Feminist” essays is that these days, the word feminist often carries the connotation of an insult. “I was called a feminist,” Gay writes in the introduction, “and what I heard was, ‘you are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person.’” This comprehensive castigation recalls the Facebook group/Tumblr “Women Against Feminism” recently featured/mocked by Buzzfeed. The Buzzfeed post was a collection of pictures of women holding signs that finished the phrase “I don’t need feminism because…” Here were some of the answers: “I am not a victim”; “there is no war against me”; “I respect men”; “I do not need a ‘leg up’ to succeed.” These women seem not to separate their personal experiences from those of women as a group, who do face discrimination and violence. They also seem not to realize that it’s in part thanks to feminism that they feel they don’t need feminism.
Consider the answer “I am not a victim” and turn your attention to race. One section of Gay’s book is dedicated to criticism of film and television about—but not necessarily written and directed by—people of color. Gay faults films about the U.S. pre-civil rights (12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, The Help) for focusing on the dominant narrative of black struggle. “Hollywood has very specific notions about how it wants to see black people on the silver screen,” Gay writes. “There are certainly exceptions, but all too often, critical acclaim for black films is built upon the altar of black suffering or subjugation.” These films, in other words, define black people by their victim status.
In the essay collection White Girls, critic Hilton Als makes a similar point. He gets tired of white people “exercising their largess in my face as they say, Tell me about yourself, meaning, Tell me how you’ve suffered. Isn’t that what you people do? Suffer nobly, even poetically sometimes? Doesn’t suffering define you?”
Nobody wants to be expected to suffer. This idea of glorifying suffering is common to critiques of feminism and of narratives about slavery and oppression; take downs of “Take Back the Night” marches are analogous to Gay’s criticism of 12 Years A Slave.
Gay’s view of race in film and TV cannot, however, be boiled down to “move beyond the struggle narrative.” It is complicated and inconsistent. While she criticizes films about black struggle for being too stereotypical, she criticizes another, Tyler Perry’s Temptation, for telling a story that is not typical enough. In the film, Judith, an upper-middle-class married woman, contracts HIV seemingly as punishment for her infidelity—an infection that, Gay points out, is unlikely. “According to the Centers for Disease Control, HIV prevalence rates are inversely related to annual household income in urban poverty areas. The likelihood of a woman in Judith and Brice’s demographic contracting HIV is not very.” Her essential criticism is not that the film is unrealistic—people of all demographics get HIV—but that it is moralistic: “Perry shamelessly exploits HIV for the sake of his very narrow and subjective morality when HIV disproportionately affects black women who make up so much of his core audience.”
I read her criticism of the way race is portrayed in film and TV, including Orange Is the New Black, whose characters of color seem more interesting to me than the show’s white centerpieces, and wonder what sorts of films about people of color she would actually like. Gay seems to acknowledge this kind of reaction: “There is ample evidence that it is quite difficult to get difference right, to avoid cultural appropriation, reinscribing stereotypes, revising or minimizing history, or demeaning and trivializing difference or otherness. As writers we are always asking ourselves, How do I get it right?” Continuing on this train of thought in another essay, Gay writes, “Most black movies, for better or worse, carry a burden of expectation, having to be everything to everyone because we have so little to choose from.”
It’s a burden placed on feminism, too, where people debate how best to balance career and family, and further, discuss what a woman’s choices in these matters and others say about her status as a feminist. In “Bad Feminist: Take One,” Gay despairs at the Atlantic articles that consider whether a woman can “have it all.” “I keep reading these articles and getting angry and tired because they suggest there’s no way for women to ever get it right.” The demands on those who stick their necks out are especially high. “Public women, and feminists in particular, have to be everything to everyone; when they aren’t, they are excoriated for their failure.” Here Gay refers to the way Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was criticized for appealing only to relatively wealthy women in certain kinds of careers, excluding working-class women, despite the fact that Sandberg acknowledges the disparity between women like her and those who, to borrow a passage Gay quotes, “are not focused on changing social norms for the next generation but simply trying to get through each day.”
Whether speaking of race or feminism, Gay’s overarching message is that getting it right is impossible because there is no one right way and because even if there were a perfect ideal, people, being flawed, would fall short of it. She advocates for pluralism and diversity. As she writes about race in entertainment: “Audiences are ready for more from black film—more narrative complexity, more black experiences being represented in contemporary film, more artistic experimentation, more black screenwriters and directors allowed to use their creative talents beyond the struggle narrative. We’re ready for more of everything but the same, singular stories we’ve seen for so long.”