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

badfeminist

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

Advertisements

Book Review: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Title: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda
Author: Becky Albertalli
Series: N/A
#: N/A
Year of Publication: 2015
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.3
Goodreads Rating (Mine):
5

simon

Plot Summary: A slice of life novel told in the first person narrative, centering around Simon Spier, a sixteen year old gay boy who’s dealing with coming out, with crushing on a boy he’s never met in real life, and the Defaults in our lives.

“It’s a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost don’t realize I’m being blackmailed.”

This is a great way to start a book. It has all the classic hallmarks of a very good opener, and it sucked me in instantly.

A successful first person narrative needs an engaging protagonist who’s likable on at least a few levels. Simon is that protagonist, and he’s likable on a whole bunch of levels.

As a closeted gay boy in a not particularly liberal high school, Simon keeps his crushes a secret – especially his ongoing non-relationship with an anonymous batchmate identified only as ‘Blue’. As a fan of unconventional narrative devices, I’m especially delighted every time an author successfully conveys at least part of a story in emails or via instant messaging. There’s so much to discover in these narratives – especially in emails: the screen names and email ids used, the constantly changing subject line, the use – or non use – of contemporary internet slang, and the things we choose to put into email form. These are all subtle hints about the characters, left around like Easter Eggs for the readers to hunt around and find.

Simon swears a lot, and it’s not weird or crude, but what I would designate ‘artful use of language’ to ‘create quite the effect’.

“What are you trying to say?” I ask.
“Nothing. Look, Spier, I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just not that big of a deal.”
Except it’s a little bit of a disaster, actually. Or possibly an epic fuckstorm of a disaster, depending on whether Martin can keep his mouth shut.

As the book proceeds, Simon keeps trying – unsuccessfully – to unearth Blue’s identity. This brings me to one of the book’s many beautiful truths – that we always imagine someone to be who we want them to be. Simon wrongly assumes Blue is a guy he’s already crushing on, something which Blue picks up on, and seems slightly miffed about. On the other hand, Blue points out that he was able to guess Simon’s identity correctly because he was already crushing on Simon.

And when Simon’s crush hints at liking him, Simon is torn. After all, Blue is proving reluctant to reveal his identity or meet in real life, and his crush is right there – tangible, real, and reciprocating. Ultimately however, there’s no running or hiding from the very real love into which Simon and Blue have fallen.

The romance is well crafted, drawing the reader in and getting them to fall in love with both Simon and Blue. The scene where they meet for the first time is especially lovely, and I think I’m not wrong in suggesting that even the most astute of guessers would feel their worlds tilt a little before righting itself. I did guess Blue’s identity right, but the thrill of the mystery unraveled had me in its grasp for a moment or two before I could indulge in exultant fist pumping.

Simon v. THSA is also a wonderful coming-of-age novel. Simon getting drunk for the first time, Simon coming home drunk and freaking his parents out, Simon drunk texting. It’s all portrayed extremely realistically, as I can attest to from my own not-so-long-ago teenage years. Drunk Simon, might I add, is a riot, especially thanks to his tendency to go all Social Justice Warrior.

Here’s Simon engaging in an intellectual discussion on race:

“Leah, did you know you have a really Irish face?”
She looks at me. “What?”
“You guys know what I mean. Like an Irish face. Are you Irish?”
“Um, not as far as I know.”
Abby laughs.
“My ancestors are Scottish,” someone says. I look up, and it’s Martin Addison wearing bunny ears.
“Yeah, exactly,” I say as Martin sits beside Abby, close but not too close. “Okay, and it’s so weird, right, because we have all these ancestors from all over the world, and here we are in Garrett’s living room, and Martin’s ancestors are from Scotland, and I’m sorry, but Leah’s are totally from Ireland.”
“If you say so.”
“And Nick’s are from Israel.”
“Israel?” says Nick, fingers still sliding all over the frets of the guitar. “They’re from Russia.”
So I guess you learn something new every day, because I really thought Jewish people came from Israel.
“Okay, well, I’m English and German, and Abby’s, you know . . .” Oh God, I don’t know anything about Africa, and I don’t know if that makes me racist.
“West African. I think.”
“Exactly. I mean, it’s just the randomness of it. How did we all end up here?”
“Slavery, in my case,” Abby says.
And fucking fuck. I need to shut up. I needed to shut up about five minutes ago.
The stereo kicks back in again.

The book, as evidenced by the above passage, is full of humour. And the humour isn’t in your face – it’s casual and laid back, and jumps out at you when you least expect it. Like here:

It’s chilly and unnaturally quiet—if Abby weren’t with me, I would have to drown out the silence with music. It feels like we’re the last survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Wonder Woman and a gay dementor. It doesn’t bode well for the survival of the species.

I couldn’t explain how funny this book is, unless I chose to quote unquote like, 85% of the book. It’s a MUST-READ. Just for the humour. Oh, Simon. He’s downright freaking HILARIOUS.

And here he is, discussing coming out with Blue:

Simon: As a side note, don’t you think everyone should have to come out? Why is straight the default? Everyone should have to declare one way or another, and it should be this big awkward thing whether you’re straight, gay, bi, or whatever. I’m just saying.

Blue: It is definitely annoying that straight (and white, for that matter) is the default, and that the only people who have to think about their identity are the ones who don’t fit that mold. Straight people really should have to come out, and the more awkward it is, the better. Awkwardness should be a requirement. I guess this is sort of our version of the Homosexual Agenda?

Simon: The Homosexual Agenda? I don’t know. I think it’s more like the Homo Sapiens Agenda. That’s really the point, right?

And there you are. Challenging the Defaults. The pure core of intersectionality. The heart of this book.

Simon v. THSA is that one of a kind YA Fiction novel that makes you want to run through the streets, raving about the genre and the good it does in the world. It’s that book you’ll keep going back to, over and over again, because it keeps you laughing from start to finish. It’s that romance that turns even the most hard hearted of cynics all gooey and giggly. It’s the book that makes you believe in love and in the spring of youthful innocence again.

Simon v. The Homo Sapiens Agenda: Proudly carrying on the torch first lit by Harry Potter and staunchly carried forward by Perks of Being A Wallflower before it – at least as far as my reading list is concerned.

Next: Shifters #1 – Stray

Book Review: #Scandal by Sarah Ockler

Book Title: #scandal
Author: 
Sarah Ockler
Year of Publication: 2014
Series: N/A
#: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.56
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

scandalsaraho

Plot Summary: Lucy Vacarro’s phone is stolen on prom night and a bunch of inappropriate pictures uploaded to her Facebook account through it. All the subjects in the pictures – along with the rest of the school – is pissed at her, and resort to an extremely dirty bullying campaign for revenge. The novel follows her as she tries to figure out who did that, tries to deal with the fall out, and tries to repair her relationship with her best friend Ellie, while simultaneously trying to deal with her feelings for Cole, Ellie’s ex boyfriend.

I picked #scandal rather randomly from a reading list without even bothering to look at the blurb. And I’m glad I did that, because blurbs often give you a mini summary that is supposed to give you pre-conceived notions about a book. And #scandal isn’t a book you can enjoy if you have pre-conceived notions about it. This is also possibly because the blurb gives off an obnoxious vibe.

Lucy Vacarro learned how to avoid the spotlight by observing celebrity Jayla Heart blah blah blah.

Stop a moment, blurb writer. Let Lucy tell me what she wants to avoid and how she does that.

#scandal is deliciously subtle in a lot of ways. One thing I’ve come to appreciate about YA fiction is the emerging diversity trend. I’m aware that there are people who mock this trend as a jumping-on-the-liberal-bandwagon kind of thing, but it’s necessary. Even if authors are doing it now because everyone else seems to be doing it, that’s a GOOD thing. Issues of race, sexuality and disability need to be visible, and not in a put ’em on a pedestal and stare at ’em kind of way. These issues need to be acknowledged as very real parts of the very real life we live.

Take Asher, the head of (E)VIL – a school society dedicated to fighting ‘vanity based technology and social networking’. Asher is a high school kid in a wheelchair, something that wasn’t immediately obvious to me because there were no neon stickers pointing to his character going “HEY THIS GUY IS DISABLED TAKE NOTE”. I happen to be the worst kind of speed reader – I skim through everything. (I really want to know what happens next, and it makes re-reads so much fun). So when something’s not pointed out to me in neon stickers and capslock, I slot those characters into the default – into all of our default, because let’s be honest, we all do it.

So Asher Holloway was white, straight, and walked on two legs, as far as I was concerned, until I figured it out halfway into the book. And I like that, because the book made me challenge my shameful assumptions, reminded me that I’m making an ASS out of UMPTION, whoever Umption might be. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that little joke, but you’re going to have to read the book to get it.) Like with Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, the reader is forced to confront intersectionality.

The major theme of this book is obviously not intersectionality, but cyber bullying. Now, I’m going to have to take the author’s word for it that American high schools work the way they’ve been portrayed in the book. That said, from all of my reading of troubling news reports on high school rapes and cyber bullying in the US of A, it does seem an at least slightly relevant portrayal. (Steubenville, anyone?)

I read a lot of reviews on GR that opined that the book hadn’t taken the issue of cyber bullying seriously. I don’t see how, to be honest. It portrayed an issue that becomes slightly meta, because everyone involved is simultaneously both victim and perpetrator. And not only does #scandal manage to get its anti-bullying message out loud and clear (mostly in the form of Asher Holloway and the rest of (E)VIL telling people it’s not okay), it also shows you how the average strong minded teenager might realistically react to nonsense being thrown at them. Lucy Vacarro is no one-dimensional heroine in the sense that she doesn’t stick to just (a) being stoic and ignoring the haters, (b) breaking down and crying all the time, or (c) getting angry and yelling at everyone. In fact, she does ALL THREE, because all three are legitimate responses that might occur to the average human being. No one is stoic through and through. No one is emo through and through either.

While maintaining that she didn’t post those pictures, Lucy also refrains from pointing fingers until she had hard proof – which turned out to be a good thing, because her guesses as to the culprit were all wrong. And despite her constantly putting herself down as a judgmental bitch, – and before you ask, yes, she is quite judgmental in a non malicious kind of way – it’s also ultimately clear that Lucy’s a very good person at heart.

The romantic aspect of the book was kind of a drag for me, but I don’t think that was the author’s fault. I just happened to be really into the whole mystery solving and fighting of social injustice aspects of the story. So I kinda got annoyed every time all the sleuthing was interrupted just so Lucy and Cole could mouth sweet nothings at each other or make out a little bit.

I noticed one GR reviewer state that Cole is definitely her New Literary Boyfriend. In my opinion, Cole’s not literary boyfriend material because we don’t really know anything about Cole except that he has a penchant for making witty remarks. You know who is literary boyfriend material though? Asher Holloway, that’s who. [Yes, that guy’s made a major impression on me. If you read the book, I’m ninety five percent sure you’ll like him too.]

In fact, with the exception of Cole, practically all the guys who’ve been introduced were awesome. Asher. Franklin, the editor of the largely unread school newspaper. John, the dude who’s going to be America’s second black president. 420 aka Lucas, school stoner and Dorito expert. I mean, Cole’s great, but he’s terribly boring and also he puts his foot in his mouth a lot.

The book touches on a number of social issues without pushing them in your face. Ellie has two awesome moms, actress and school alum Jayla Heart is forever being punished by the tabloids, Lucy (while still a minor) was hit on by an older dude at her sister’s party and then insulted for rejecting him… All issues that would merit 2000 word posts on social justice, but the book gets the message across all the same by not engaging directly with them. Instead, the reader is left with a niggling irritation that’s gotten under your skin, and which makes you examine yourself AND the story so you can figure out why you’re bothered by it.

#scandal is a great light read, especially for those who prefer YA fiction. It’s also a good take on important and relevant issues, it’s realistic, and none of its characters can be accused of being truly uni-dimensional. In short, it’s a great way to pass a few hours without having to numb your mind completely.

Next: Bibliophile Mystery #2 – If Books Could Kill by Kate Carlisle