Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist” Pointedly Talks Gender, Race

As I read Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay’s recently released essay collection, I found myself consistently writing, “Yes!” in the margins. And it wasn’t just because I agree with her. It was because I can see myself in her. We have very different life experiences—she is a successful writer, college professor, woman of color, and Scrabble champion. I am a writer at her very beginning, an administrative assistant, a white woman who can probably count the number of times I have been made uncomfortable by other people on one hand. But in Gay’s writing, I found a place to connect with another feminist woman with a passionate belief system who does not practice those passions perfectly.

What makes Bad Feminist a great book is the diversity of issues Gay manages to cover while reminding us that she is a fallible human being:

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying – trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself…”

Her collection opens up with several essays in a section titled, “Me.” We learn a little about why she considers herself a “bad feminist.” We learn about Roxane Gay, avid Scrabble player and competitor. We learn about her experiences as a woman of color in a predominantly white field. We learn she is a first generation American and we see how her outward persona has had an effect on her inward self.

The book is then broken up into three sections—“Gender & Sexuality”, “Race & Entertainment”, and “Politics, Gender, & Race”—before returning again to herself in her concluding “Back To Me” section. Her discussions and criticisms run the gamut of entertainment from Sweet Valley High to Django Unchained. She examines the way social media is now a viable complement to traditional journalism that too often is either colored by internal politics or too slow to catch up. She pulls apart Fifty Shades of Grey, laments women who wish they could put up with Chris Brown’s abuse just to be with him, and discusses body image through a variety of lenses. And at many points throughout the book, she remembers to point her own finger at herself and show us that she, too, is not free of “guilt:”

“I’m fat but I have eyes and I judge people too. The other day I was in a clothing store, and there were three very fat people on motorized carts congregating near the cash register, laughing merrily, and I thought, How can they be so happy when they are immobile? Then I felt guilty. I considered all the terrible things people must think when they judge me. We’re all complicit in these matters…”

Gay’s essays are short and to the point. She does not get bogged down in overly academic prose and she isn’t afraid to say simply: “But.” and turn the conversation on its head. If you need a primer on issues of race, gender, sexuality, “Bad Feminist” is an excellent place to start. I could write whole essays on each one of Gay’s essays. There are points where I agree, points where we diverge, points where I wish I could call her up on the phone and say, “Hey Roxane, I have no context for this in my experience, can we talk it out more because I just don’t get it.” Specifically, there are several occassions where I would love to be able to ask her more questions about how, as white writers, we can serve people of color better in our narratives. I didn’t think “The Help,” for example, was using the same tired mystical black person character motif, but Gay sets out to prove me wrong. It made me realize that there are many aspects of history and people within history that I still may not perceive accurately.

The book touched me on a very personal level. I have not always been a feminist. I admit that I used to be one of those people who would say, “No no, I am not a feminist,” because I did not want to be associated with man-hating, equality-bashing people. I didn’t understand the nuances of what I was saying at the time. Now, however, I am proud to say I am a feminist. I wish I could have read these essays back in college when I was struggling to find my place amid complicated, hard-to-follow feminists tomes that always made me feel more alienated than accepted.

I was also made uncomfortable at many points throughout the book. There were places where I was starkly reminded of my whiteness, my comfort, my ease of moving through the world. There were many times I paused to make reflection on ways where I probably didn’t behave as best I could. Isn’t that the makings of a great essay? Isn’t the root of true learning in discomfort? But what Gay does at these moments is remind us that it is OK that we may have felt uncomfortable once as long as we learn and grow and become better people as a result.

Gay’s essays show us that we are all complicated people with many layers of feelings and opinions. We are people who lead both private and very public lives, especially with the advent of social media. She reminds us that we can—and should!—stand up for the things we believe in. We should stand in arms with the people in the world who are also fighting the good fight. But god damn if we’re not going to groove along with some Kanye West while we do it because it’s catchy as hell.

“The more I write, the more I put myself out into the world as a bad feminist, but, I hope, a good woman – I am being open about who I am and who I was and where I have faltered and who I would like to become… I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.” – Roxane Gay

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