On 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.