I finally made it to the Roxane Gay party! Bad Feminist is a critically acclaimed collection of essays by Roxane Gay that covers many topics. The essays are divided into categories such as “Gender and Sexuality,” “Race and Entertainment,” “Politics, Gender and Race,” and “ME.” Within each category, Gay offers a number of essays related to the topic at hand, writing with insight, well-argued liberal opinions, and humor. She is well versed in politics and pop culture, and is willing to reveal something of herself while discussing TV, movies, reproductive rights, books, politics, and more. These essays read as if Gay were having a conversation with you, the reader. They are sharp and provocative, and you will walk away with a list of books and movies to explore, and perhaps opinions to reconsider.
The collection opens and closes with segments entitled “ME,” in which Gay addresses feminism and her own “bad feminism.” Those who call themselves feminists are frequently treated as some kind of monolith, and if one who identifies as feminist misspeaks or makes a misstep or holds a view seen as not properly feminist by other feminists, the entire brand is tarnished. Gay points out her own perceived failures as a feminist — not having read widely enough, enjoying music with misogynistic messages, etc. But, of course, it’s wrong to treat feminists in this manner. As Gay points out, feminism must be imperfect because “feminists” are nothing but a collection of human beings who are imperfect themselves. As far as women who proclaim that they are not feminists are concerned, Gay writes,
Feminism is a choice, and if a woman does not want to be a feminist, that is her right, but it is still my responsibility to fight for her rights.
That sounds like a good feminist to me! Gay also uses her “ME” essays to address “privilege” and the need for each of us to recognize that we benefit from privilege. While Gay is a woman of color who identifies with the LGBTQ community, which puts her at several notable disadvantages, she also recognizes she is enjoys privileges, too. Yet,
…the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.
What is needed is a discussion of privilege “by way of observation and acknowledgment rather than accusation.”
Gay then proceeds to do just this throughout the rest of her essays. Her observations on racism, gender discrimination, misogyny are offered not with anger so much as with an understandable weariness and frustration. Her criticisms are constructive and on point. In “Gender and Sexuality,” Gay takes on popular TV (HBO’s Girls) as well as the Sweet Valley High books, the issue of “likable” female characters in fiction, the idea of “women’s fiction,” current popular non-fiction on gender and equality, news reporting on sexual violence and her own trauma in that area, trigger warnings, and “coming out” and our need for role models. You walk away with a very long list of books to read thanks to this section, but also with some thought-provoking opinions. Yes, Girls represents white girl privilege, as does much of the media. I’ve never watched the show, but I’ve heard plenty of criticism of it and not just from Gay. (I did appreciate her comment that she would rather there be a show called “Grown Women,” and just read that there will be and Roxane Gay is writing it!) Still, she wonders if Girls is being held to a higher standard because it’s “new” and “cutting edge”? I literature, why do we evaluate books on whether the main female character is “likable”? Aren’t unlikable women just being themselves and accepting the consequences of their choices (and aren’t male characters seen as “anti-heroes” for doing the same)? Why, in reporting on the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Texas, did the New York Times focus on how it rocked a “community” and what it meant for the lives of the perpetrators instead of what happened to the victim? And when it comes to role models in the LGBTQ community, why do we expect public figures to come out and do all the work?
We expect role models to model the behaviors we are perfectly capable of modeling ourselves.
How helpless are we willing to be for the greater good?
In “Race and Entertainment,” Gay examines a good number of movies and some TV shows that may seem “diverse” and inclusive, and thus worthy of praise, but which fall short upon closer scrutiny. Tyler Perry’s movies, Orange is the New Black, Django, The Help, Twelve Years a Slave all get sharp but fair criticism from Gay. I must confess though that The Help and Twelve Years a Slave are the only works mentioned that I knew because I had read them. Fruitvale Station stands out for Gay as a film that presents an intimate and human portrait of Oscar Grant, who was killed by a city transportation worker. Tyler Perry gets criticism for his treatment of women (particularly successful and ambitious women) and the working class.
“Politics, Gender and Race” contains some very concise and provocative essays on respectability politics, women’s alienable reproductive rights, and the very different media portrayals of Trayvon Martin and Dzhokhar Tsernaev. Gay rightly questions why it is that the medical community stands silent in the face of their female patients’ loss of rights to make decisions about their own bodies, and she floats the intriguing idea of an underground birth control network (which is seeming more necessary by the day). The essay on Martin and Tsernaev is superb. I remember well the Rolling Stone coverage of Tsernaev, with a cover that made him look like Jim Morrison or something, and all the NPR stories about his high school friends and neighbors insisting he was such a normal and cool kid, asking how this could happen. Meanwhile, Trayvon Martin was essentially put on trial for his own murder, with news coverage emphasizing every minor infraction he ever had committed, essentially justifying what George Zimmerman did. Tsernaev benefitted from white privilege in coverage of his crimes while Martin was presumed guilty of something because he was black.
George Zimmerman killed Martin because Martin fit our cultural idea of what danger looks like. Zimmerman was acquitted for the very same reason.
It’s tough to review a book like this because the essays are so many and so rich. I feel as if I’m leaving out a lot of important things, like how damn funny Gay is. She is self-deprecating throughout her writing, much of which deals with serious topics, but then you get more humorous essays, such as the one about her days in competitive Scrabble playing. I would never want to play a game with this woman. She’s in it to win it, but she is quite funny when detailing her defeats along with her fellow competitors. Her abiding love for Sweet Valley High books and her review of the “10 years later” return to SWH is another memorable and fun passage, although it is discussed as part of her painful years in school as an outsider. I think this is what is so appealing about Gay’s writing, for me anyway. It’s genuine. She’s honest. Good and bad, funny and painful get mixed together because that’s life. That’s human and feminist.