Bad Feminist

Book cover: Bad Feminist by Roxane GayOn my first night in Naples, I went out to dinner with some kids (the thing about backpacking as a thirty-something is that almost all of the other backpackers are at least a decade younger than you). We were at a restaurant, and somehow the conversation briefly turned to “real feminists,” which, to the guy in our group, meant really believing in/fighting for equality and not being a hypocrite and expecting guys to buy you drinks at bars. There were a few good feminists out there, but too many “feminists” were hypocrites that gave the good feminists a bad name.

I chose to remain silent through this conversation, but this is what my internal dialogue sounded like: “Sometimes it’s nice to have drinks bought for you…haha, I’m Feminist Texican…Also, guys can be feminists…I should probably say something but I just want to drink beer and look at the ocean…Say something…Nope, I don’t want to have this conversation with strangers right now…Mmmm, beer…You are a bad feminist.”

It’s a recurring conversation I sometimes have with myself. I’ve had my Feminist Card revoked many times, sometimes by other Feminists, sometimes by myself, like when Jay-Z’s “Can I Get A” pops up on my shuffle and I’m filled with shame as I sing along (yes, I realize that song is about a million years old). And it’s this kind of feminist backsliding, among other things, that Roxane Gay addresses in her new collection of essays, Bad Feminist.

I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain … interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.

Most feminists, I think, can see themselves in that statement (and if they say they can’t, they’re liars). Gay’s definition of feminists comes from a woman named Su, quoted in DIY Feminism: feminists are “just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.” Adding other qualifiers is where the definition of feminism starts to get murky, and the first and last few essays in Bad Feminist are all about these contradictions. One can love the color pink and know all the lyrics to decidedly unfeminist music but still be passionate about fighting for equality. Sandwiched between these personal declarations about feminism are essays about culture and politics, all written through an incisive feminist lens. The book is split into five parts: Me; Gender & Sexuality; Race & Entertainment; Politics, Gender, & Race; Back to Me. Personally, I liked the last 2/3 of the book more than the first part, but I think that had more to do with how the book was organized rather than the writing itself.

What I love about this collection is that there’s so much overlap; seldom is an essay just about gender or just about race or just about any one theme. As a woman of color with some difficult life experiences, Gay can’t look at things in singular ways because that’s not real life. I read a lot of feminist texts, and what constantly frustrates me is that they’re mostly centered around a (white, often middle class) Mainstream Feminist perspective. Sometimes a head nod is given to people of color or the LGBTQ community or poor people, but all too often, these mentions feel like afterthoughts. In Gay’s case, whether she’s writing about trigger warnings, reality television, Trayvon Martin, women’s fiction, Quentin Tarantino, or abortion, she’s looks at things from multiple angles in ways that so many mainstream feminist books have failed to do (you might have noticed that a lot of my reviews of feminist books on this site are, um, not very nice). I might not always agree with Gay — though most of the time I do — but it’s nice to finally have a contemporary mainstream feminist book that I can recommend to people without any ideological reservations.

Bad Feminist: Essays was released today by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins. Several of the essays were previously published online.

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I read it as a(n): ARC
Source: Publisher
Pages: 336

9 thoughts on “Bad Feminist

  1. It’s so encouraging to know that others share the same struggles, the desire to be an ardent feminist but the basic flaws of being a human being as quoted in the post. I’ll be picking this book up as soon as I get paid on Friday. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. Hi! I came across your blog while looking for other lit students/book reviewers, and I just want to thank you for this review. I’d heard of Bad Feminist, but I didn’t know much about it and was unsure about whether to read it. Frankly, I was put off by the title–not because I’m an especially “good” feminist myself, but because I do worry about the term being used so broadly that it ceases to have any real meaning (e.g. can we really consider a wealthy female executive who underpays her female domestic workers a “feminist” just because she’s successful?). I guess I was expecting an anything-goes tone. From what you’ve said, though, it sounds like Gay is coming from a more theoretical and intersectional (if still accessible) place than I was expecting, so I may have to put this on my to-read list!

    1. That’s one of the best things about the book. It’s *very* accessible and intersectional without being mired in feminist jargon, so pretty much anyone can pick it up and flip through it at random without feeling lost.

  3. I loved the overlap you mentioned, too, It was so great to see films, songs and politics tackled from the same multiple angles. I’m glad to see the book getting really visible attention – I hope that means it will be read by more than just its target audience.

  4. I have been in those conversations before. It’s always a struggle to decide whether it’s worth it to have the argument, knowing I won’t convince anyone because you never convince anyone, but also knowing that I’ll think about it later and worry that I should have said something, if I don’t say something. It is frustrating to be a feminist sometimes.

    I love Roxane Gay, and that passage you quote about accepting your “unfeminist” tendencies. I know I have my own–I’m touched when guys hold doors for me, and I love some movies with totally regressive gender stereotypes, and I’m still a very feminist feminist.

  5. I’ve just started following Roxane Gay on Twitter and tumblr and she’s amazing. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of this book!

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