By Kjersti McDonald
“Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay is a collection of essays addressing a laundry list of social issues, ranging far beyond what most people would consider “feminist issues.”
I got the book as a present from my boss last Christmas (thanks Jen!) and admittedly, it was a slow start for me. I’m going to go ahead and blame my procrastination on the hellish year that was 2018 and the fact that reading anything but fiction was just too much for my fragile psyche.
After reading the first few pages, I thought I knew what to expect. Gay briefly lists the ways in which she is an imperfect feminist: she listens to and likes degrading rap music, she doesn’t know all of feminism’s complex history, she likes pink and pretends to play dumb with mechanics and repairmen because “it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.”
But the sentiment in the first couple pages that hooked me – and I think an important caveat all around when assessing the feminist movement – reflected on the inherent imperfection of feminism itself and how our lofty expectations of a movement started, driven and perpetuated by imperfect humans can cause rifts that unnecessarily undermine the movement rather than improving it.
Gay writes: “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.”
Although the essays’ topics often veer onto unexpected paths (including an entire essay on competitive Scrabble), this imperfection of both feminism AND the people who make up the feminist movements was the underlying message I found myself coming back to.
“Bad Feminist” does so much more than detail the ways feminism and feminists are imperfect, though.
Gay does an impeccable job of reviewing and critiquing various popular pieces of entertainment: books, TV shows, movies, songs. Her reflections are honest and imperfect, and she acknowledges this. She consistently admits her biases and privilege as the lenses through which she takes in media. Still, she is fair in her assessments of even the most seemingly-preposterous pieces of art, giving credit where credit is due, even if her overall opinion is unfavorable.
I’ve added quite a few books to my “Want to Read” list on my Goodreads app, per her recommendations and critiques.
Some of my favorite essays, unsurprisingly, have to do with the more traditional feminist issues: gender, sexuality, politics. Her essay entitled “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” is a well-written commentary on rape culture and the victim-blaming tendencies most of society is guilty of, as well as the careless way we – even those who mean well – talk about those issues.
“We talk about rape, but we don’t carefully talk about rape.” She writes that, as a writer who consumes inadequate retellings of rape, she is left considering what her responsibility is when it comes to critiquing rape culture intelligently without exploiting the very sensitive issue. I found myself considering the same.
Her essay “Peculiar Benefits”, which discusses privilege, should be required reading. She explains the concept of privilege in a non-accusatory way and attests to the fact that privilege is something that all of us – regardless of class, race, gender, sexuality, religion, or any other identity – cannot avoid. We all have privilege. We just need to recognize it and not play, as she calls it, “Oppression Olympics,” a competition of who has the most or least amount of privilege.
More than anything, I think “Bad Feminist” is a great introductory piece of intersectional feminist literature. Many of the essays focus on race. Each and every piece on race offered me perspectives I had been ignorant to, even as a self-avowed intersectional feminist. If nothing else, I recommend every feminist read this book simply for the insights into race issues that it offers.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Gay’s perspectives. She’s got opinions and boy does she share them. Her writing is balanced, intelligent and conversational. Seeing as it was published in 2014, I found myself craving an updated version of many of the essays, as our world and country have changed in many ways in the past four years. Still, it was interesting to see how much really hasn’t changed in the time since these essays were written.
After finishing her book, I was happy to admit that I, too, am a “bad feminist.”