Review: An Imperfect Fight From a Bad Feminist

badfeministI started reading the Bad Feminist essays on a whim, trying to fluff up my reading with more literature by women after watching one inspired Chimamanda Adichie interview after another. My bookshelves lack of good female authors is a sad situation. Bad Feminist was eagerly thrust down my throat by book lovers and young women who felt they had found the promise land- the bible to being a feminist, albeit an imperfect one.

Many of these essays were originally published on Roxane’s blog with overwhelming response from followers and hashtaggers, this is where she started calling herself a “bad feminist”. The term started off as tongue in cheek but took on new meaning to define the people that have a passion for feminism but can not overcome the inexplicable urge to bop their heads to songs like the Ying Yang Twins Salt Shaker. Songs with lyrics like Bitch you gotta shake it till your camel hurt, that we all know are terribly degrading to women but are also so damn catchy.

Roxane Gay claims she is a bad feminist because she is human therefore flawed and messy, completely unfit to be put on the proverbial pedestal people with the biggest platforms and the loudest, most provocative voice” are forced onto only to be knocked off when they displease the media masses. Though it can be argued that this is the position she occupies now despite her arguments to avoid it. But before becoming the Queen of Bad Feminists, in her teens and twenties Roxane disavowed feminism

because when I was called a feminist, the label felt like an insult. In fact, it was generally intended as such. When I was called a feminist, during those days, my first thought was, But I willingly give blow jobs.

And then Roxane Gay became my favorite writer. For a moment, she was going to take these long repeated issues and breathe new farcical life into them.

These essays do more than muse about the life of a feminist with questionable taste in music and a knack for acquiring enemies at competitive scrabble tournaments, the topics span race, gender, sexuality, entertainment, and politics. I enjoyed light hearted chapters like “How To Be Friends With Another Woman” that takes a look at the myths and truths of women’s friendships. Roxane voices her opinions on America’s love affair with slave movies (The Help, Django, 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, et cetera) and Tyler Perry, our permissive attitudes towards athletes who abuse women with such consistency you would think that was the sport they are paid millions to play, the involuntary outing of gay men and women and why we think we have the right to know, and of course, Chris Brown and the bevy of women who fall over themselves in the hopes that maybe, if the world is kind, they can spend a moment in his company – even if that moment is little more than a thorough beating.

Bad Feminist also dives into feminism as a whole, analyzing intersectionality and emphasizing that, shockingly, feminism should benefit more than middle or upper class white heterosexual women, but has failed in doing so. Non white, working class, homosexual and transgender women are often omitted from mainstream feminism and issues that are most advocated for do not represent their needs. In an essay entitled “Girls, Girls, Girls” Roxane focuses on the “diversity” we see in recently successful shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls, which is apparently set in a mythical New York sans black and Puerto Rican people. And Orange Is The New Black which only features minorities as a side plot, a clown act, to Piper’s world. This, Roxane Gay enthuses, “is a fine example of someone writing what she knows and the painful limitations of doing so”, an already underrepresented audience is not being reached.

I liked these essays mostly for the voice they undertook, funny and honest, and although most of what I read was hardly new information, it is clear how Roxane’s life experiences have formed her opinions. But in all her positive attempts to bring about change, Roxane’s carving out a place for feminism to have flaws that conflict with mainstream feminism is reflected in annoying contradictions in her writing.

She urges artists to write beyond what they know but cannot fathom a white writer and director being behind The Help or how Skinny, a story about obesity, could possibly be written by Diana Spechler, a skinny and attractive woman. About Caitlin Moran’s memoir, How To Be A Women, Roxane loses all sense of humor and writes

[Moran] blithely writes, “All women love babies — just like all women love Manolo Blahnik shoes and George Clooney. Even the ones who wear nothing but sneakers, or are lesbians, and really hate shoes, and George Clooney.” Again, this is funny, but it is also untrue, and to try to generalize about women for the sake of humor dismisses the diversity of women and what we love.

She misses the joke. Roxane Gay bunches women together in similar jokes to advance her writing yet finds it immoral when another writer does the same. She deems shows like Law and Order: SVU irresponsible and unnecessary, using rape as a plot line, but soon after we find out she has watched every episode religiously. How bad is a bad feminist? After a while a bad feminist does not sound like a feminist at all.

One moment in particular bothered me to my core, it was an opportunity for Roxane Gay to “practice what she preached” and give her essays real solidity- propelling them from bloggy YES GIRL! essays to palpable, real actions, but she did not. In her essay “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” Roxane talks bluntly about the lackadaisical ways in which rape is approached in this era where “rape culture” is a term. She calls on literature to use appropriate language to convey the ramifications of rape rather than using language to “buffer our sensibilities from the brutality of rape, from the extraordinary nature of the crime.”

Through the essays there is a lingering, Roxane hints to being gang raped early on by mentioning she had “an incident with some boys in the woods” and eventually reaches the moment where she writes about it. This moment comes directly after “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” essay, so I assumed she would do what she said she would like other writers to do. She did not.

She describes a bike ride with a boy she thought was her boyfriend that takes them to a dirty cabin in the woods. I cringed as I knew what was going to happen next. To her surprise his friends were there when they arrived at the cabin, all “popular” and “handsome”. She asked her not-boyfriend to leave but he would not let her, they pushed her down and took off her clothes. Then Roxane summaries,

They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect. The repercussions linger.

I read this three times over to see if I had missed something. Besides describing the scenery at the time she essentially summed up the event in three short sentences. What were the repercussions? What does “as bad as you might expect” even mean? Can that be considered appropriate language to describe the violence behind rape? Roxane scolds writers for not using the right words to demonstrate the violence of rape, yet describes her own as “as bad as you might expect”. Uh huh…

If I could describe Bad Feminist in one or two sentences I would say it is a discussion piece, one woman’s take on feminism that does not necessarily need to be Essential Feminist Lit. It is an attempt to make a change, but sometimes does not follow through with the risks it calls for others to take.

When I read the book I adored it, why would I not when the meaning behind it is aimed at something so positive? But stepping back and looking at it as a critic there are some obvious flaws with it, but I guess that is what we should expect from someone who calls herself a bad feminist.