Review: ‘Bad Feminist’

Courtesy of Buzzfeed

Courtesy of Buzzfeed

Bad Feminist
by Roxanne Gay

  • Date Finished: October 26, 2015
  • Genre: Feminism, Essays
  • Year: 2014
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Fall 2015, 100 Best Books of the Decade
  • Grade: A-
  • Thoughts:

(Preface: I like how, after almost two months of blogging silence, I write a rambling manifesto defending not blogging and not reviewing. A few days later, I finish a book and all I can think about while fixing dinner is, “Oh, and I’m going to say THIS in my review. And this!” Ho hum.)

I don’t want to say I’m disappointed, but I really thought I would like Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist more than I did. I’d still give it an A-, which equates to pretty damn good, however I think I was expecting an A++. Stars. Fireworks. Celebrations. I think I was expecting Why Have Kids? all over again – something righteous and political and feminist, something that speaks directly to me, something I can’t stop quoting and sharing, almost to excess.

This did not feel like that, unfortunately. And I say “unfortunately” because – well, I don’t know. I think it’s because it feels like the flaws I found reflect deeper flaws within myself. A limit to my understanding. A limit to my undying political liberalism and bleeding-heart-ism. A limit to how much of a feminist I really am. I worry that because so many people champion this book and its messages, that when I find myself recoiling from some of those messages, that something must be wrong with me. Why aren’t as offended by these things as Gay? Why aren’t I as righteous?

This is a pretty stupid way to feel because if anything, this book is about feeling like a, well, bad feminist. These were the parts of the book that I loved and identified with the most. Gay’s opening and closing arguments revolve around how a modern woman is supposed to reconcile the moral and political demands of feminism with who we actually are as women. And who are we? Well, we’re imperfect.

Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement. I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that consistently places women at a disadvantage, the inequality in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, the repeated attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women, and on and on.

No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I am full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman.

I responded to passages like that with an emphatic, “GIRL.” I mean, can she sum up how I feel about my own feminism in any better terms? I do consider myself a feminist – very much so, despite the negative and inaccurate connotations people associate with the term. I’m not afraid to tell anyone about my feminism, and I am not ashamed to fight for the issues that matter to women. At times, I will even break my own rules about social media and be obnoxious about it on Facebook.

And yet, I am – in a lot of ways – totally your basic white girl. I am girly. I paint my nails. I like wearing skirts and dresses and heels. My husband and I tend to split our household duties along gendered lines, and it’s only sometimes that I’m bothered by the fact that Joel mows the lawn while I cook dinner and clean the bathrooms. Then I remember that I don’t like to mow the lawn, and let’s face it, I’m the better cook. And I go about my day. Ho hum.

At some point in my 20s, I reached a point where I came to terms with – and accepted – the ways I fell short of the ideals of my youth. I always thought I would be the intellectual and a super-successful career woman. I always thought that I would be completely up to date on both culture and pop culture. I thought I would be the kind of person to have a subscription to the New Yorker and manage to read each issue front to back, while also able to keep up with water cooler discussions of…whatever’s on Netflix or HBO right now. I thought I would find a way to make time for work and hobbies, while also keeping everything in my life neat, tidy, efficient, and effortless.

If only I could be superwoman. Throughout my 20s, I made several important discoveries about myself. I do enjoy intellectual work and pushing myself and the limits of my knowledge, but I’m never going to be a college professor. When I quit journalism, I realized the rigor of a highly-successful career was probably never going to be within my grasp. I asked my parents to stop my New Yorker subscription years ago and felt so relieved when I recycled all that un-read paper. And frankly, I do not have time to keep up with popular, long-form narrative television. Reading is enough for me. I am really terrible at chatting at water coolers, which is OK because I just avoid them.

I love that this book is about coming to terms with one’s highly imperfect self, and how despite all that, one can still call herself a feminist, even if she’s lacking in certain feminist categories. Like Gay, I am a big fan of the rap and hip hop. I won’t apologize for loving Snoop Dogg, even if some/nearly all of his lyrics are degrading to women. Pop music is fun, even if it plays to stereotypes. Sometimes, you just can’t care all the time.

But the thing is, I do care. I want to care more. I have to purposely avoid talking about the current attacks on Planned Parenthood to avoid throwing heavy things at people. Socially-defined gender roles piss me off, and I get very righteous when anyone asks why I, a married 29-year-old, don’t have children yet.

What I love about Bad Feminist is that Gay tells us it’s OK to be imperfect. That it’s OK to be a feminist and still be a human being with un-political tastes in music. It’s OK to be a bad feminist. Along those same lines, I shouldn’t feel inadequate that I can’t finish a New Yorker every month. I do not feel guilty that I don’t have highly ambitious professional goals to which I’m willing to sacrifice 70+ hours a week. I paint my nails, but I also chip them playing roller derby, and I couldn’t care either way. For all these things – for this sense of affirmation – I loved Bad Feminist. Thank you, Roxanne Gay.

And yet. There was something else in Bad Feminist, though, that I couldn’t find myself cheering for. There were things that I found myself recoiling from, in fact, and I wonder if the fault I find is with the book, or with me.

One reason the fault may lie with me is that I have to remind myself that I am a much different person than Roxanne Gay. We have had very different life experiences, and we are different people. She comes from a time and place and culture that is worlds apart from the life I’ve lived, and so there is no possible way that we are going to agree on everything.

However, given how strongly I identified with the central argument of the book (see above), I must have thought that we would agree on much more. I was dismayed to find that we differ on a lot of issues – like, a lot. I found myself rolling my eyes at times, while at other things responding (out loud, of course, because I’m weird), “Come on Roxanne. Why do you have to say that?” At times, when I found myself disagreeing with Gay on some key idea relating to feminism or racism, I would ask myself: “What’s wrong with me that I can’t agree with Gay? Or, what’s wrong with her argument? I mean, I feel like I should agree with her, because she’s so righteous about this. But I just can’t.”

Our opinions on Daniel Tosh, for example. I will not defend Daniel Tosh from accusations of douche-baggery. I’m sure he’s a dick. His jokes are misogynist, racist, and pretty dumb. Gay does not like him one bit. I can see why. However – even though I know I shouldn’t – I still find Tosh hilarious a lot of the time. Do I cringe when I laugh? Yes. Do I tell myself, “Oh God, I’m going to hell for laughing at that?” Yes. Do I laugh anyway? Yes, because sometimes stuff that shouldn’t be funny is fucking hilarious.

And so, even though Gay has told me that it’s OK to be a bad feminist, I read Gay’s diatribe against Tosh and I start to feel bad about myself because I like Tosh.0 (sometimes, when I’m in the right mood). I start to feel bad about calling myself a feminist.

And that thing is, when Gay doesn’t like something, she really doesn’t like something, and she’s heavy-handed in her opinion. In the essays where she rails against something, she leaves very little room for the other side. If you liked Kathryn Stockett’s book The Help, or the movie Django Unchained (like I did), you’re mentally defective and probably racist. Those kinds of opinions hurt, especially because I feel like I’m a pretty good judge of the books I read, and I’m not racist. I know it’s absolutely useless to play the offended white person, because frankly nobody cares. But what can I say? I’m white and I recognize what that means in terms of the privileges I enjoy. But still – it hurts. It alienates. You feel like, “Well, I try to understand and be open and fair. But I guess it doesn’t matter. Because of X reason, I will never be progressive enough.”

There were only a few essays where Gay made me feel this way, and it certainly put a damper on my enjoyment of her book. I also felt she was a little hypocritical when doling out judgment. It’s racist to find a small bit of literary value and enjoyment in The Help, but enjoying misogynistic rap songs is OK. I felt, at times, that Gay was not holding herself to the same standards espoused only a few essays apart. Perhaps if her disapproval wasn’t so mean-spirited. Perhaps if she at least tried to acknowledge the fact that some of her opinions are defined by her experiences and place in the world. Perhaps if she brought back some of the message from her feminism chapters, assuring readers that even if we don’t agree on this or that issue, it’s OK. We’re not perfect, and we’re all different. Just because one person finds something offensive, that doesn’t mean someone who doesn’t is a bad person.

In the end, all that matters is that we try – we try to be good feminists, good citizens of the world, good people. Our opinions are going to differ, and nobody walks through life morally and ideologically and politically and culturally perfect. But fight for the things you believe in, and fight for others when wrongs happen. If you’re doing that, you’re not such a bad feminist at all.

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