You can’t win these days as a feminist. There’s the bristling a-holes who sniff “What are you, some kind of feminazi?” whenever you try to distinguish yourself from a doormat. Speaking up about certain topics, like misogyny in video games (I’m sorry, about ethics in gaming journalism) can get you death threats. Existing next to these human septic tanks are the women who try to make themselves more palatable to the guys by saying things like, “I’m not a feminist, I shave my legs and I love men.”
These people are frustrating enough. But then there’s this other group…fellow feminists who tear you down for not feministing “correctly.” You can see it everywhere: Kate Winslet didn’t want to talk about the pay gap so she’s a garbage person. Beyonce didn’t talk about feminism until a few years ago, so she’s a phony. Cate Blanchett supported Woody Allen and Roman Polanski so she’s essentially responsible for their sex crimes. Hillary Clinton never divorced Bill so she no longer has any credibility to talk about women’s issues.
That’s the way it works. We build up these women as “good” feminists, and as soon as they screw up (and they will, because people screw up) we tear them down. Of course, we never hold men to that same standard. So it’s no surprise that Roxane Gay decided to title her collection of essays Bad Feminist. After all, if she doesn’t act like the arbiter of all feminist theory, then we can’t tear her down. She’s allowed to have contradictory opinions, like despising rape culture while rocking out to “Blurred Lines.”
A lot of Bad Feminist focuses on our expectation that a feminist should be all things to all women. It’s not enough that Lena Dunham tells the story of one group of friends in Girls: we criticize her show for not being inclusive to women of color (which is fair enough for sure, but is used as a way to negate her accomplishments). Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is criticized for only giving advice that’s useful to rich working women, but Gay points out, “If she chose to offer career-advice for working-class women, a group she clearly knows little about, she would have been just as harshly criticized for overstepping her bounds.”
*Warning! I’m about to sound like a know-it-all douche*
I think Bad Feminist works really well as an intro to Feminist Theory. It should absolutely be on college reading lists. It gives the reader a broad feminist perspective, especially when it comes to pop culture. For those who haven’t been exposed to this kind of writing before, I think it could be a transformative experience. But for those of us who are already interested in the subject, it feels like this book covers old ground in an old way. I’ve never even seen Girls, but I’ve heard different iterations of Gay’s points at least a dozen times. I know that my movement under-represents black, queer and trans women. I know that it’s bullshit that African Americans basically can only win Oscars for playing maids or slaves. That doesn’t mean she should stop saying it, (please don’t ever stop saying it) but I was waiting for her to make a new point. Instead, she’d just point at it, say “Isn’t this terrible” and move on.
There are also some shining moments, like her complete evisceration of the movie “The Help” or her pointing out that people will dislike a book if the female protagonist is unlikable (causing me to go back through my recently read book pile to reevaluate my initial reactions. I still hate the Girl on The Train, though). There are essays so raw that I didn’t realize I was holding my breath while reading them, like the one where Gay writes about being gang raped as a teenager by her boyfriend and his friends. That section made me wish the rest of her book were as well-written.
I don’t want to make it sound like Bad Feminist is a subpar work. It isn’t. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about this whole “feminist” thing. But as someone who loves Gay’s novels, and heard nothing but raves about this book, I couldn’t help but close the book, thinking “That’s it?”
*I’m aware that using the term “douche” as a pejorative is sexist.**
**I don’t care, it’s really satisfying to say.***
***Come at me bro.