Roxane Gay is a writer and academic and Bad Feminist is her 2014 essay collection. The book is divided into a 5 thematic sections, with two very personal sections bookending three less personal sections. The more personal sections focus on Gay’s experiences as a black woman, the sexual assault perpetrated on her as a child, and her issues with mainstream feminism and its rigidity. The less personal sections contain essays with Gay’s reviews/opinions on news and culture, focusing on what this news and culture reveals (or doesn’t reveal) about gender, race and sexuality.
The reviews on Goodreads are very polarizing- some 5 star reviews talking about how this book was so meaningful it brought them to tears, some 1 star reviews who think Gay’s essays lack structure or coherence, or are Gay presenting herself as ‘cool’ for liking low-brow culture.
My review falls somewhere in the middle- not perfect, but thoughtful and an ‘own voices’ take that warrants reading. The good: these essays were remarkably easy to read, and that’s not just the subject matter. Although she is an academic, and clearly drawing on different literary theories at certain points in her analysis, the writing remained engaging. Additionally, I think Gay raises a lot of good points (more diverse movies should be made, slavery movies are a form of torture porn, etc.). While some of her points don’t seem as fresh, especially in a post-Black Lives Matter world, I’m chalking a lot of that up to its 2014 publication date (which is on me, not on Gay- I should have read it sooner). The bad: overall essay structure and consistency. On essay structure, a lot of these could have been tighter with more defined theses. They have a stream of consciousness style to them and the conclusions she was tying to draw didn’t always land for me. On the consistency, I was a bit disappointed that Gay spends time explaining the falsity of how there is one type of feminism that all of us should be aiming for (preach!) but then goes on to call herself a bad feminist because she doesn’t fit this one type (sigh). The only caveat I will give her on this is that it may also be a hangover from the 2014 days- in recent years with Beyonce calling herself a feminist and the women’s march on Washington, etc., it seems like the term feminist has been reclaimed, arguably with a broader acceptance than one single type.
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion
Jia Tolentino’s essay collection touches on similar themes and topics as Gay’s, and she also shares a BIPOC perspective (albeit with Tolentino being an Filipina- American millennial to Gay’s Haitian- American Gen-X’er). In this head to head match up, Tolentino came up the winner for me.
Tolentino, a journalist who used to write for Jezebel, writes on topics ranging from reality tv (she was part of one season of a teen competition show filmed in Puerto Rico), to the self-marketing/improvement ethos focused on women, to a view of the millennial generation through the scams that formed us. As with Gay’s collection, some of the essays are stronger than others (although your view on which are best will vary- some of the Good Reads reviewers loved the ones I liked least, and vice versa). The strongest essays for me were “Always Be Optimizing”, “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” and “We Come From Old Virginia”. These deal with, respectively, the pressures of being a modern woman, the scams that formed/reflect the millennial generation and the college rape crisis as focused through the lens of the Rolling Stone UVA story (UVA was Tolentino’s alma mater). The writing was clear and she made her arguments so well.
Overall, Tolentino’s writing felt more structured than Gay’s, and I appreciated how thorough her references to literary theory were (oddly, more thorough than Gay’s, despite Gay being the academic). As with Gay’s collection, a few of Tolentino’s essays meandered and felt lacking a cohesive point (the reality tv one felt this way to me- I couldn’t quite arrive at what point she was trying to make aside from that she’d been in a reality tv show?)- but less than Gay’s, viewed as a sum total. Now I guess we’ll have to see how fresh Tolentino’s collection feels in 6 years…