The essays in this collection aren’t just about feminism, but also race, culture, (and representations of race in popular culture), scrabble, and Roxane Gay herself. I was expecting it to be more feminism-focused, but the mix of subjects works really well together and still feel like they hang on a common thread that I can’t quite articulate. The only exception is perhaps the essay on scrabble tournaments (Gay plays competitively), but I didn’t care because I loved that essay. It’s really hard to pick out particular essays, though, because so many were interesting and ones that I would recommend to people, even just as stand-alone pieces.
‘Bad Feminist’ basically means being a feminist (which is just believing in equal rights for men and women), but also a human person who has contradictions and flaws and is still trying to figure everything out. I really like this definition. As she talks about in the introduction, “feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed.” If you don’t accept these human flaws, then you end up putting feminism (and individuals) in an impossible position of being at all times perfect and perfectly able to solve all problems. When it (they) can’t meet those impossible standards, it (they) are put are the other extreme, as useless failures. It’s about not knocking yourself or others down if you do make mistakes, but also about always trying to do better.
This idea of not having all the answers, but trying to do better, comes through in a lot of her essays. For example, she talks about her conflicting opinions about writing outside of your own experience, particularly about race. She doesn’t offer any specific solutions and she doesn’t really resolve what her own opinion is, but it feels honest and is still thought-provoking.
The one thing I felt was missing was that none of the ideas in the collection felt particularly new to me. But, even though it didn’t challenge my pre-existing notions of feminism or the representation of race and gender in popular culture, I still got a lot out of it, mainly because Gay writes really well. She’s critical in a nuanced, smart and readable way, so even if the ideas aren’t entirely new, there’s something extra there.
You know how sometimes you read a book and it feels like part or all of it was written just for you, for that exact moment? It’s a rare occurrence but when it happens it’s a bit magic. In her essay ‘Blurred Lines, Indeed’ about misogyny in pop culture, the contradictions of liking some of that pop culture, and its links with wider societal misogyny, she says this:
It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not one of these things happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.
I read this one sentence over and over. I’m not a crier, but I cried a little. And it wasn’t about feminism. I’ve been going through a relapse health-wise and it’s tough. It’s not just the feeling crap stuff, it’s all the other financial, social and personal stresses that go alongside chronic illness. At the time I read this sentence, I was feeling like I only have permission to talk about this crap if I make it into a joke; if I keep it light. The vast majority of the time, I like jokes, it’s how I deal with it; but when what you need is something more substantial, a more serious understanding, and you get told to ‘lighten up’, it feels like a punch in the gut. I’m ok now, but, in the middle of a bad few days, Gay articulated exactly what I was feeling and needed to hear (even if it was about something else!).
Roxane Gay is super smart and funny and angry and I’d definitely recommend this collection.