Book Review: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

September 3, 2014

cover_bad_feministThere aren’t really adequate words for me to describe how much I love this book. This is the book about feminism and culture that I’ve been waiting years for. And no one can do it quite like Roxane Gay.

I’ll be honest—I’m probably not the most impartial reviewer. I’ve been reading Gay’s work for a while now, on The Rumpus, mostly, but also on Buzzfeed and Jezebel and other sites where her name pops up. I’d search her out because I knew I’d be getting concise, emotive writing and incisive cultural critique. In fact, I’d read some of the essays in this book before, and yet, rereading them in the context of the collection was another experience altogether. In short, I knew I was going to love this book, and it still surpassed my expectations.

In her introduction, Gay begins by explaining her past trepidation at the word feminist:

I resisted feminism in my late teens and my twenties because I worried that feminism wouldn’t allow me to be the mess of a woman I knew myself to be. But then I began to learn more about feminism. I learned to separate feminism from Feminism or Feminists or the idea of an Essential Feminism—one true feminism to dominate all of womankind.

We live in a culture that has made disavowing feminism easy for a variety of reasons: because we don’t want to be considered “angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady persons,” as the popular counter-conceptions goes; because we don’t feel like we can possibly live up to the standards of One True Feminism; or because we feel left out of the movement altogether, as is the case for many women of color, queer women, and trans women.

Yet Gay, as a woman who previously rejected the term feminist, says: “It was easy to embrace feminism when I realized it was advocating for gender equality in all realms, while also making the effort to be intersectional, to consider all the other factors that influence who we are and how we move through the world.” Roxane Gay is a bad feminist, a term that she openly embraces—but the label could also easily be  “human feminist.” We are all flawed; we all have missteps and make messes.  Feminism is flawed as well. That doesn’t mean we’re not feminists.

And this is only the introduction! There are nearly forty essays in this collection, and each are as vital and complex. Gay shines in her media critiques, examining topics such as The Hunger Games, The Help, Fruitvale Station, Django Unchained, Girls, 12 Years a Slave, Sweet Valley High, Fifty Shades of Gray, Chris Brown, Daniel Tosh, and Tyler Perry. Her personal essays are stirringly written, including a fantastically fun account of tournament Scrabble. She is at turns hilarious, cutting, heartfelt, and smart. She brings down the house with “The Alienable Rights of Women,” which details the history (past and unfortunately current) of the restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom, writing one of the best essays on the topic I’ve ever read.

But what really stood out to me were her critical essays on race. I began reading this book just before the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Gay’s essay “Holding Out for a Hero,” about the idea of justice in the context of the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman trial, was all too relevant. So was “A Tale of Two Profiles,” which compared the favorable media portrayal of Dzohokhar Tsarnaev (one of the two young men suspected of the bombing of the Boston Marathon), with the portrayal of Trayvon Martin, whose life was put on trial although he was the victim of the crime. While it is deeply sad that these essays are still so timely, they are crucial additions to the discussion of justice and race in contemporary America, and incredibly important to read.

On another note, I found Gay’s essay “How We All Lose” to be critically fascinating. It examines pop-feminism books like Rosin’s The End of Men and Moran’s How to Be a Woman, and calls out their problems (mostly a certain strain of out-of-touchness that leads Rosin to claim that patriarchy is dead and Moran to compare the term “strident feminist” to the N-word). It’s a great essay on its own, but an additional layer is added when you consider that many are cataloguing Bad Feminist right alongside these pop feminist books. Thankfully, Roxane Gay avoids the pitfalls of the genre that she points out, and Bad Feminist is inclusive, genuine, and thoughtful, filling a gaping hole in accessible cultural critique.

Frankly, I cannot recommend this collection enough. It should be required reading for all high school and college students. The essays within are spot-on. Gay tells us what we need to hear, even if it is difficult to bear, yet this book is not an admonishment—it is a call to action. It is hopeful, and entirely human. It is precisely what this kind of book should strive to be.

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Pub date: August 2014


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