English MA student Billi MacTighe recommends Roxane Gay’s nonfiction collection, Bad Feminist.
Why should we read this, Billi?
“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” —Roxane Gay, “Introduction; Feminism (n.): Plural”.
Roxane Gay’s recent book, Bad Feminist—a collection of essays—contains a sassy vigor reminiscent of grade-school war-stories told in ten-year retrospect; just enough time has passed to make the nostalgia wane into humor, but all of the details are still there, still potent. But the book is more than recollections and reflections, it’s a commentary on Feminism and Feminists, and, as Gay so eloquently puts it, the idea of an “Essential Feminism—one true feminism to dominate all of womankind” (and the lack of existence of such an all-encompassing feminist community). Gay gives an insider’s view of what it means to be an outsider. As we follow the catalog of her experiences- tackling being an upper-middle class black woman in academia- we take a journey through cultural shifts and pop culture highlights (or low-lights, depending on where you think Chris Brown and Robin Thicke fall on the musical spectrum).
While the language is less than poetic—bordering on plain—the concepts discussed are food for thought. Rather than walking away from the book with answers, I only had more questions. Each new essay left me with a sense of being gutted. In the span of a chapter, I was forced to rethink my own conceptions of (F)eminism, race, and most of all, privilege. Gay’s book is less about taking on the world of Feminism as much as it is about accepting what being a feminist means in connection to her personal identity, forcing readers to ask themselves the same difficult question that Gay herself wrestles with: what does it even mean to be a feminist? Gay perfectly sets up the collection with a closing remark to her first essay, “Feel Me. See Me. Hear Me. Reach Me.” in which she writes:
“[T]he complexities of race and culture are often irreducible. They cannot be wholly addressed in a single essay or book or television show or movie. I will keep writing about these intersections as a writer and a teacher, as a black woman, as a bad feminist, until I no longer feel like what I want is impossible. I no longer want to believe these problems are too complex for us to make sense of them.”
Following this sentiment, the collection takes on the form of her so mentioned “writing[s] about these intersections.”
Broken up into six sections, Bad Feminist resembles a memoir if it were bred with a peer-edited diary. While the content is based on Gay’s personal experiences, the reflective essays within these sections revolve around intense self-analysis, musing on how it is possible to represent one group (i.e. feminists) while still maintaining one’s sense of individuality. Each essay starts off with an observation—an opinion based on how a person, group, or concept is represented in society—then moves into an anecdotal connection between the aforementioned idea and Gay’s idiosyncratic experience. This then disseminates into a personalized rant tying back in with the essay and section headings. As a result, each essay feels like a connected, if not a bit redundant, part of a whole while still sustaining a personalized identity within the collection.
A major criticism that has come of Gay’s essay collection is that it fails to enact a deep enough analysis of Feminism and its current happenings in society. The title, Bad Feminist, might cause one to think that this book is meant to be something other than it is. At first glance, the title implies you are about to read a book reporting on the Feminist movement —perhaps, even, an article on the downfall of Feminism (implied by the prefixed Bad). But Gay’s book does neither of these things. Instead, taking a deeply personal turn, it dares to ask the difficult questions: What if I don’t fit the criteria of feminism? If I like feminine things, does that make me anti-feminist? In the title works (which, oddly, fall at the very end), “Bad Feminist: Take One” and “Bad Feminist: Take Two,” Gay offers two memorable quotes that address these concerns head on:
“Judith Butler writes in her 1988 essay, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,’ ‘Performing one’s gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect, and performing it well provides the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity after all.’ This tension—the idea that there is a right way to be a woman, a right way to be the most essential woman—is ongoing and pervasive” (Bad Feminist: Take One).
“Take One” analyzes a number of quotes on feminism, such as this one from Butler, but it fails to address the heart of the book—the personal connections to feminism and identity—the way that “Take Two” does with its honesty and sense of vulnerability in the face of capital “F” Feminism. Gay doesn’t sugar-coat her difficulties with facing feminism, race, and privilege, but she also doesn’t offer answers to herself or to anyone else struggling. From the get-go, she addresses the flaws in humanity and in the feminist movement, leaving us with the quotable segment: “We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us” (“Introduction: Feminism (n.): Plural”).
If you want to peek into the mind of someone else coming to terms with their faults and blemishes, read on; and don’t expect to walk away with a better understanding of anything other than yourself.