I spend a lot of time reading about, thinking about, and listening to podcasts about feminism. I’m a proud feminist who does not find the word dirty or inflammatory. I kept my surname when I married, I support my staff to maintain work-life balance and progress their careers regardless of gender, and I appreciate when pop-culture gives a nod to feminism (I’m looking at you, The Meg… a movie I recently defended to a friend on the basis that it is an important feminist addition to the shark-movie genre).
On that basis, it was refreshing to read a novel where I had seen or was at least aware of all the feminist texts and visual media that Roxane Gay referenced and dissected. I was pleased to see her tackling important topics like privilege, fat-shaming/acceptance, minority representation in pop culture, powerful men failing upwards, victim-shaming etc. But ultimately, I did not learn anything from my reading of Bad Feminist. Perhaps if I had read her novel in 2014 when it was first published, it would have struck a more current chord with my thinking. Time, it seems, moves fast in the world of feminist literature.
Before I started this novel, I had assumed that the author was going to explain why she was a ‘bad feminist’. I was expecting some self-deprecating humour and poking of holes in the ideals we set for ourselves. Instead, I mostly found her to be more outwardly-focussed on the feminist failings of others. Throughout her many critiques of feminist representation in such properties as Girls, Hanna Rosin’s ‘The End of Men’, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s views on ‘having it all’ etc etc, she found the materials produced by others to be wanting again and again and again. Despite noting explicitly that ‘not all texts can be all things’ (in other words, not all feminist fiction can also cover off on all complex intersectionality issues of race and body imagine etc), many of her critiques centred on just that point. No voice that she dissected seemed to represent her voice to her satisfaction. I can absolutely appreciate this frustration – we are all looking for representation. From our politicians, to our popular media, to the ads we pass on the commute to work. We all want to see ourselves in these moments.
But we cannot. It’s simply impossible for all things to meet all needs at all times. The best we can do is celebrate, support, and share the representations that do reflect us. We can aim higher. Maybe in order to do that, texts like ‘Bad Feminist’ are essential. Perhaps they are needed at a time when we can be blind to the full spectrum of feminist issues faced by the modern woman. But this book was absolutely exhausting to read.
By the halfway point of this novel, I’d grown weary of the author’s critiques and impossible standards. I was also flummoxed by her decision to include a long and ultimately pointless essay on her introduction to the world of competitive scrabble, which was neither interesting nor entertaining. I was waiting for her to use her voice in her novel to say the difficult things that she felt others had failed to convey. That is, after all, why I chose to buy her book. I’ve followed Roxane Gay’s story from the time this book was published all the way to the abhorrent handling of an interview she gave in Australia last year (the fault was not hers, but in the interviewer Mia Freedman. You can read more about that controversy online but, suffice to say, I have been ‘team Roxane’ for some time). The point being: I really wanted to love this book.
So it pains me to say that finishing this novel was a chore that I would not recommend. While she eventually does find her voice in the second half, it was too little and too late for me.
For anyone who is looking for a competent introduction to modern feminist texts, ‘Bad Feminist’ will likely meet your needs. But if you are well on your way to feminist enlightenment and looking for more challenging ideas and critiques, then I’m afraid this may leave you wanting. Time moves fast in the feminist landscape, and 2014 just feels like an exhausting lifetime ago.
2 custom scrabble boards out of 5.