Book Review: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Title: Bad Feminist
Author: Roxane Gay
Year of Publication: 2014
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.88
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5


Plot Description: A non fiction book of essays by Roxane Gay about feminism. While I personally loved this book, I also looked at a couple of critical reviews about it, and I might link or mention them in passing while I’m reviewing this one.

I first started reading Bad Feminist on a friend’s kindle, at random. I had no idea what the topic of the book was. I didn’t even start at the beginning of a chapter. But I was hooked, and I caught hold of the book for myself, and read it cover to cover. It took me a while. Parts of it was overwhelming. I had to take a break in the middle. I now follow Roxane Gay on twitter.

Part of the reason why I found this book so compelling was that it spoke to me before I even knew what it was about. But it’s also because Feminism is an important issue that we speak about these days. Almost everyone has an opinion on it. And everyone is reviled for that opinion, whatever it might be.

Feminism is a bad word. So many people hold up placards which tell us why they don’t need feminism, and put those pictures on the internet. When I see their faces, I think “you poor fool”. It irritates me every time a female celebrity says “I’m not a feminist, but I do feminist-y things from time to time.” Why? Because I’m a feminist, and I’m a feminist because I want gender equality. I want intersectionality to be held up as important. And no, mom, for the hundredth time, I don’t hate men. 

Take another step into this mess, and you’ll see the problems within feminism. The many different people with different ideologies, all crammed together because they all happen to be women who are thinking ‘nobody puts Baby in the corner’. And also, ‘what kind of a name is Baby anyway’. Oh, that’s just me? Well, alright then.

This is why being a ‘bad feminist’ is problematic. If you’re a bad feminist, you lose your right to advocate for the movement. You lose your right to identify with the rest of the women. Feminism is a tough sell, thanks to the patriarchy, so yes, it ends up being an ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ kind of scenario. And that’s a damagingly black and white position to take when it comes the infinite shades of grey that’s humanity. And what is the subject of feminism but humanity?

“In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

Gay’s central theme seems to say that one can still be a feminist without eschewing media that is degrading to women, that perhaps one can still be a feminist even if one’s crushing on a cute but misogynistic guy. But she also speaks about intersectionality, about women of colour, queer and transgender women, about body image and eating disorders, about sexual violence and rape.

Women of color, queer women, and transgender women need to be better included in the feminist project. Women from these groups have been shamefully abandoned by Capital-F Feminism, time and again. This is a hard, painful truth. This is where a lot of people run into resisting feminism, trying to create distance between the movement and where they stand. Believe me, I understand. For years, I decided feminism wasn’t for me as a black woman, as a woman who has been queer identified at varying points in her life, because feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others.
But two wrongs do not make a right. Feminism’s failings do not mean we should eschew feminism entirely. People do terrible things all the time, but we don’t regularly disown our humanity. We disavow the terrible things. We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come.

She argues for a pluralistic feminism that allows for co-operation without further division, and it obviously will not do to waste time criticizing each other while institutional patriarchy lets us do its job for it.

Some of the reviews and criticisms I read about Bad Feminist talked about how the book wasted time on narcissism – how Gay indulgently talked about her favourite things in the world, and how a lot of them were degrading to women (like some pop and rap music). This review at Bookslut is one of them, but what it fails to mention is the sheer amount of space devoted to talking about the issues faced by people of colour in general and women of colour in particular. Or the entire chapter devoted to body image and fat shaming, which only merits a passing mention in the Bookslut review as it was the chapter in which Gay first references the time she was sexually assaulted. That review admits that you cannot demand the someone talk about their personal experience, but goes on to say that all the same, those horrifying personal experiences need to be talked about. We all need to remember the violence that does exist in sexual violence, and how can we do that if the people who’ve gone through those things keep shying away from talking about it.

You can’t force someone to talk about their personal experiences. The Bookslut critic’s disclaimer in this regard doesn’t justify the rest of her paragraph, where she expresses her disappointment that Roxane Gay didn’t talk about her personal experience with sexual assault in an explicit enough manner. She’s not writing a novel. It doesn’t need to be gripping.

Intersectionality is talked about in the same breath as feminism these days, and with good reason. It was white feminism’s incredibly narrow agenda that emphasized the importance of intersectionality, after all. For a feminist critic to ignore the essays on intersectionality in her critique of Gay’s book then, seems like a huge problem. And Gay’s voice is at its strongest when she talks about the problems faced by her black students, or the fact that sports and music, and marrying someone who’s in sports and music are held up as the only viable career options for black people on television.

Gay discusses a book about fat camp and her disappointment that the author wasn’t a fat woman. She knows the author’s appearance shouldn’t affect the impact of the book, but she wishes she could read an account of a fat person’s life actually written by a fat person – one that she can relate to. [The book in question is Skinny by Diana Spechler, and it has received some very scathing reviews on Goodreads which reflect Roxane Gay’s views on the matter – that the author was somehow trying to exorcise her own fatphobia through her writing, and that it stereotypes obesity and contributes nothing new to the subject.]

We need to get to a place where we discuss privilege by way of observation and acknowledgment rather than accusation. We need to be able to argue beyond the threat of privilege. We need to stop playing Privilege or Oppression Olympics because we’ll never get anywhere until we find more effective ways of talking through difference. We should be able to say, “This is my truth,” and have that truth stand without a hundred clamoring voices shouting, giving the impression that multiple truths cannot coexist.

Gay’s statement that multiple truths should be acknowledged and allowed to coexist strikes me as what might be the greatest solution to feminism’s current problems. It is the reason why I can read both Bad Feminist and the Bookslut critique of it; or Diana Spechler’s Skinny and Roxane Gay’s critique of it and allow myself to understand the truths that each of these books and articles state. It’s not a competition, and it’s not a question of who’s right and who’s wrong. They all make points, important points. They’re all putting forward personal experience and opinions, and all those things are each relevant within their own context, and to a certain degree, relevant outside of that context as well.

I get my version of the big picture – my understanding of the truth – by reading all these things at the same time. And Bad Feminist, with the wide range of issues it covers and the deeply personal voice with which it speaks, receives a very important position on the bookshelf of my ideologies.

Next: Book Review – The Help by Kathryn Stockett


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