A collection of essays spanning politics, criticism, and feminism from one of the most-watched young cultural observers of her generation, Roxane Gay. "Pink is my favorite color. I used to say my favorite color was black to be cool, but it is pink, all shades of pink. If I have an accessory, it is probably pink. I read Vogue, and I'm not doing it ironically, though it might seem that way. I once live-tweeted the September issue." In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman (Sweet Valley High) of color (The Help) while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years (Girls, Django in Chains) and commenting on the state of feminism today (abortion, Chris Brown). The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture. Bad Feminist is a sharp, funny, and spot-on look at the ways in which the culture we consume becomes who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms of all the ways we still need to do better.
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Gay is an avowed pop-culture addict. I am not.
I was not, however, prepared to hear that one of her foundational stepping stones to feminism was Sweet Valley Twins and Sweet Valley High. Team Jessica!
So okay, Gay is maybe half a generation or so behind me. Those SVH books she was gobbling up as a girl I was selling in my first ever job as a bookstore clerk. And I hated them. I loathed them. I wanted to spill something gross over Jessica's outfit and slap Elizabeth off her moral high ground. (At the time I was in a torrid love affair with a radical lesbian feminist, so I needed an outlet.)
But really, once I got past my incredulity, I had to admit I had nothing on her. I cut my fictional teeth on the classic science fiction stories of th sixties and seventies. And let me tell you, the original Star Trek doesn't win any prizes for feminist role models. As a girl I was reduced to pretending that Uhura was my best friend.
So I got over the enthusiastic story line recaps of SVH, and the Hunger Games, and the other crap culture that Gay unabashedly admits to loving. Partly, because Gay is not blind to their faults, and indeed outlines them in painful detail. She acknowledges and confronts the problem of liking the stuff that is bad for you....which as her entire book seems to underscore, is where women find themselves all the time.
Plus, Gay is a Scrabble geek, and I can totally get that. It would be fun to play her, because she is an avowed "bingo player" -- always looking for the big seven-letter word score, whereas I am one of those people who likes the two-letter words, and likes to play long strings of words alongside each other, thereby reaping the benefits of not only the word I played, but the words that were created as a by product.
And, Gay is a savvy and perceptive cultural critic, who is also emotionally honest--a rare combination I find irresistible. She's upfront about the exhaustion and burnout she feels fighting the good fight for students who don't seem to want it or care. About the tiredness she feels when confronted with what passes for critically acclaimed black feature films. Her devastating evisceration of "The Help" -- both movie and book -- is so thorough that I almost felt sorry for the dead horse that was Stockett's story after Gay had finished beating it to a pulp. Almost. Her assessment of the films of Tyler Perry, Quentin Tarrantino, of the blockbuster 12 Years a Slave, of Orange is the New Black, are just as relentless. I was reminded--I'm sure she'd be pleased by this-- of James Baldwin's reaction to watching The Defiant Ones, first in a theater with a white audience, who cheered, and then in a theater with a black audience, where the general consensus was for Sidney Poitier to leave that white boy's ass behind. Ultimately, in the eyes of Baldwin, and of Gay, Hollywood makes entertainment where black people forgive white people pretty much anything. Roxane Gay is dissatisfied with this. She wants more. She wants us to want more.
In fact, I'd say "we should want more" is the call that rings through most of her writing. More realistic depictions of the full range of the black experience. The female experience. The black female experience. More demand that we recognize the dignity in all people, rather than just paying lip service to the idea. More justice for victims of rape. More outrage over "rape culture" -- her discussion on this subject are the most searing and inescapable in the book, ranging from the dreadful coverage of the gang rape of an eleven year old girl in Texas by the New York Times (if the reporter, James C McKinley, Jr., hasn't already crawled under a rock out of shame, Gay's pointed response should have sent him scurrying), to the books of E. L. James, to the failure television to portray rape to realistically on their dramas and edgy "ground-breaking" shows (from Luke and Laura to Law and Order SVU), to her own experience being gang raped as a young girl. She wants to know why we still live in a culture where rape jokes are considered funny, where a football team's standing is more important than the charges of sexual assault accumulated by its players and coaches. She want to know why we live in a society where "rape culture" is an actual thing. She wants more defiance. More outrage. More.
Ultimately, there was nothing in the book I hadn't already learned from and entirely different set of books and movies and tv shows. From reading Mary Daly, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Andrea Dworkin. But Roxane Gay does feel like part of my tribe -- the kind that kicks at labels but calls bullshit when she hears it. In fact, she's probably more a part of that tribe than I am. After reading Bad Feminist, I'm starting to think I'm too nice.
And I do find it encouraging that a woman can come of age in the era when 50 Shades of Gray is touted as the epitome of female sexuality, and still be sane. And still be willing to demand that we all do better, and do more.
Gay's essays explore race and class and sexuality as well as gender. I found myself laughing out loud at times, googling certain personalities or events to learn a bit more, saying "amen" under my breath. Her writing is deft and accessible, which is not to say that it's not sophisticated. It is. Her voice is steady but nuanced, suggesting that she is exquisitely conscious of various audiences. I love her boldness. I love her frankness. I love her vulnerability (although I suspect she would have something to say about why I love that latter quality). I loved the essay about the Scrabble tournament.
Here's one favorite example of her straightforward writing style:
In "Some Jokes Are Funnier than Others," she is exploring the ongoing debate about comics' and others' "right" to tell jokes at others' expense, especially rape jokes, racist jokes, etc. I hear this debate a lot on college campuses where the tension between "free speech" and "safe spaces" is palpable, and students all too frequently want their own free speech protected but not necessarily the free (and often hurtful) speech of others to be controlled by the administration. Gay simply says "We are free to speak as we choose without fear of prosecution or persecution, but we are not free to speak as we choose without consequence." I will be repeating this sentence.
The essay collection is divided into sections and the one called "Race and Entertainment" was where I learned the most. This is probably because, as a white woman, her musings on gender and feminism fit within my longer-term consciousness. Also, I'm in my mid-50s (well, I'm probably more accurately in my late 50s but who's to say?) so many of the pop cultural references were less familiar to me. I googled. I learned. I resonated and appreciated and considered my own reactions to some of the films or songs or tv shows with which I was familiar. This was an enlightening read.
I can't wait to read more of Gay's work.
Among my favorite parts of this book are the parts where Gay discusses the books she's read, and it's clear that Gay reads as voraciously as anyone here. She's even read Fifty Shades of Grey and her comments on the series are tremendously funny. Gay also writes about writing and the publishing industry (there is really very little not touched on in this book.)
If readers discount certain topics as unworthy of their attention, if readers are going to judge a book by its cover or feel excluded from a certain kind of book because the cover is, say, pink, the failure is with the reader, not the writer. To read narrowly and shallowly is to read from a place of ignorance, and women writers can't fix that ignorance no matter what kind of books we write or how those books are marketed.
If you're looking for a textbook on feminist theory or for something unrelentingly serious, this isn't the book for you. Of course, this is also the wrong book if you just want something light and easy and amusing. Gay's book may be a hodge podge, and she may consider herself to be bad at feminism, but this is very much a book worth reading, whether or not you consider yourself a feminist.
I enjoyed this book of essays about feminism and discrimination very much. I admit to skimming some of the chapters which analyzed current shows or media that I was not familiar with, but there was more than enough to draw me in. Sections include Me (about
I absolutely loved this book! It's a book that every woman should read, especially any woman who calls herself a feminist but feels guilty for maybe not being the model feminist that she feels she is supposed to be at all times. Yes, sometimes we tend to like things that we probably shouldn't. I was a fan of Outlander even though it contains some rather questionable scenes. I've liked songs with a catchy beat that didn't paint women in a positive light. Everyone has done it! No one is immune, and Roxane Gay makes sure that we understand that in this collection of short essays. We are only human after all.
Throughout this collection, I found myself laughing at Roxane's often sharp and critical wit, crying through descriptions of injustice and violence that she and millions of women are faced with, and angry that we are still fighting a battle that has been going on for ages. Gay covers a myriad of topics including gender issues and race relations, and makes it very clear that we still have a long way to go. There are so many in this country who are treated as second class citizens. Many who have to work twice as hard to get half the success or attention. Many who never even get the chance to prove themselves. Yet many call this the "land of equal opportunity". How can we say something like this while inequality stares us right in the face?
I got the pleasure to read a viewpoint that is different from mine, and it was one of my better reading experiences. Sure, there were times that I disagreed with her on minor things, (I doubt there are two people in the world who would agree on absolutely everything) but that never made this book any less poignant to me. I respect her opinions, and I know that she would respect mine. At times, I even felt more like I was having a discussion with her. This could be because I have had many of these conversations with my friends, but it's also because I never felt like she was talking at me, but rather talking with me.
Roxane Gay has taught me that it's okay to be a "bad feminist" sometimes. We can't be perfect, and no one can expect us to be perfect feminists all the time. We slip up. That's part of being human. We shouldn't let these moments of doubt stop us from claiming feminism. Instead, we should use these moments to become better people in the future.
So then... Why is the entire premise of her book basically supporting that idea of an essential feminism? She calls herself a bad feminist because she doesn't live up to those "ideals" that she has just declared are not the actual ideals of feminism (and she's right, they aren't). To end the book, she tells us how she's failing as a feminist because she likes pink, shaves her legs, knows nothing about cars, fakes orgasms, and loves babies. That's right—she gives herself the title of Bad Feminist because she wants to have a baby. Just... What in the hell.
Roxane Gay brings up a very important point - that women are complex and feminism is not the same set of principles or beliefs for everyone. The author listens to music that undermines and
I didn't always like the writing style and I didn't connect well with all the chapters but I feel like she has an incredibly valuable and powerful voice. I think it's really important for me to read feminist books written by women I don't always agree with, because it challenges me to support my own perspectives and provide evidence for them.
She brings up a lot of problems in modern society and culture - and she doesn't always offer answers, that's true. Instead, what I think she tries to do is to bring awareness to these issues because so many of them go unchallenged.
I found this book really readable and she can be quite intense and bitter, but she's also honest and vulnerable and compassionate.
Note: More books on feminism coming up soon.
Although it is, I think, necessary to note that this collection was published in 2014. It's astonishing how much that shows, and not just in the essays towards the end where she talks about then-current news stories, or even in the couple of more-or-less neutral, offhand references to Bill Cosby. There has been so much more to talk about in the last six years, and I find myself thinking I'd like to seek out more of Roxane Gay's writing, to see what she has to say about it all.
A must read for ANYONE in the
Qui tacet consentire videtur.
Many of these essays were originally written for the web and have that feel about them. And that’s not a bad thing by itself - it’s the tone her readers are familiar with and if it makes it more inviting, then I’m all for it. However, sticking to that tone to the extent that she did sacrificed a level of complexity that I was looking for. It made me feel like I was reading a collection of blog posts, not essays. At times it was scattered, redundant, confusing, contradictory, and surface level. At other times it was hilarious, biting, urgent, powerful, nuanced, and moving. There were also several essays that could have been reworked and combined to create one longer, harder hitting, more in-depth essay.
That said, I’m probably not her primary audience and I was bringing expectations to this book that Roxane Gay never promised. This wasn’t billed as a collection of peer-reviewed, scholarly research articles. It’s a collection of personal essays. She’s not having this conversation in the academic realm, but with a broader, popular culture based audience. Which is absolutely a good thing. The feminist movement has stalled out and needs fresh voices and perspective. It needs to shift in order to stay relevant, and Gay is helping that shift take place.
I’m already 100% on board with Gay’s definition of feminism and have been for as long as I can remember. I don’t need convincing and I don’t need it to be friendly. BUT, to a young girl or a young woman who has never heard these opinions articulated before, I can imagine how mind blowing it would be. To readers who had a misconception of feminism or could never discuss their feminist beliefs without being met with hostility, I’m sure this book was a godsend. To girls and women who are vastly and embarrassingly underrepresented in broader conversations on feminism, I can see how validating it must be to read these essays and see your own frustrations and struggles given a voice. For that alone, Bad Feminist is an important book and worth the read.
Plus I thought the Scrabble tournament essay was hilarious.
One other thing I noticed is that some of these essays aren't displayed to their best in this type of collection -- I felt like they needed the context of when and why she wrote them and where they originally appeared.
The author’s essays cover everything from her love of Sweet Valley High books to her scrabble tournament skills. She's funny and witty and she is brutally honest about herself. This is not a book about what everyone else is doing wrong as a feminist. It's a book about her, what she likes and doesn't like and the issues she feels passionate about. I really enjoyed it.
BOTTOM LINE: A wonderful collection of essays! I’m looking forward to trying her novel “An Untamed State” though I’ve heard it’s much darker.
But Bad Feminist is just repurposed pieces from online publications (Salon, etc.), and it shows. So many of the four-page essays are the
Perhaps I'm harder on Gay simply because I share so much of her politics, but giving a generically-progressive opinion leavened by personal anecdotes doesn't meet the bar of what I'm looking for in an essay. Maybe I've been spoiled recently by reading Sontag and Solnit, but there's definitely a gap between their writing and most online-first writers. I really really want to see Gay tackle a subject at book-length, since I think that approach would push her writing in more interesting and rewarding directions, or at least ones better suited for printing and binding and reading years from now.
But as is, these are essays that manage too often to feel insubstantial even though they're dealing with big subjects: feminism, race, media representation, etc. They already feel dated (and not in a good way), now in 2015, and likely even when the book was first printed in 2014. Read something better.