REVIEW: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

29 Sep 2014


BACK in the day, I wrote a piece in Dawn op-ed on feminism, saying something like feminism needed to be more inclusive. If it had been published today and not 2007 (which admittedly isn’t so back in the day but seems a lifetime ago), I’m sure I would have been eviscerated by the lovely folks on social media. And of course, the Big Word to have been thrown my way would have been “privilege” i.e. that I’m writing from a place of privilege, so what do I know? I’ll admit to not knowing a lot, thereby saving you the trouble of tweeting that I’m a privileged idiot, but I believe that most people have some form of privilege and that shouldn’t prevent us from engaging in issues.

What I do remember from back then that has stayed true to date, is the number of women who took great pains to distance themselves from feminism or added a lot of buts when describing themselves as feminists. I’m a feminist but … “I’m not militant, I shave, I read chick lit, I like my couture, I don’t hate men.” Why do women fear the consequences of calling themselves feminists or feel the need to define the parameters of their feminism? I’m guessing because feminism either failed in its definition, sent a message that it only wanted One Kind of Feminist along for the ride or women could not relate to the issues feminists were talking about. If we’re to look at Merriam-Webster’s definition of feminism, it says it is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” To be anti-feminist should thus be absurd.

Aah, if only life was that simple.

Perhaps feminism has not been so inclusive and, as Roxane Gay writes in her collection of essays in Bad Feminist, “historically been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others.” It is for a reason like this, and more, that she calls herself a Bad Feminist. It is an acknowledgment of her allegiance to feminism but also of her hu-manity, her imperfections and her being a “mass of contradictions.”

Gay is a feminist whose favourite definition of feminism comes from an Australian woman named Su who said feminists were “just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.” However, Gay says that she runs into trouble when she tries to expand on that. “I feel like I am not as committed as I need to be, that I am not living up to feminist ideals of who and how I choose to be.”

She’s a feminist but she reads Vogue and once live tweeted the September issue. Gay’s collection of essays is honest, funny in moments and thoughtful. She writes, “Public women, and feminists in particular, have to be everything to everyone; when they aren’t, they’re excoriated for their failure.” It goes back to this notion that feminists can only be XYZ.

It also speaks volumes about the expectations placed on women to fit the mould of being a good woman. Anyone who strays from this notion of being a good woman who works, raises kids and is a perfect wife, is relegated to rebel, someone unacceptable, unlikeable. She cites examples from popular literature, notably the character Amy in the best selling thriller, Gone Girl. “This is what is so rarely said about unlikeable women in fiction — that they aren’t pretending, that they won’t or can’t pretend to be someone they are not.… They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices, and those consequences become stories worth reading.”

In an essay on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which received a lot of flak for the writer talking from a place of privilege so could thus not be applicable to women everywhere, Gay wrote: “Assuming Sandberg’s advice is completely useless for working-class women is just as shortsighted as claiming her advice needs to be completely applicable to all women.”

Gay’s critique on film / TV are especially noteworthy; the essays on ‘Girls’ and ‘Orange is the New Black’ and her discomfort at watching ‘The Help’ and ‘Django Unchained’ are likely to cause you to pause and reevaluate your thoughts on the stories being presented on screen. Her collection of essays also includes some personal ones — on her growing up as a Haitian American, the challenges of wanting to fit in, to become a beauty queen. She also writes about her teaching experience in a small town in the middle of nowhere (a Google search tells me she teaches English at Purdue now). Whether she is writing about race, reproductive freedom or violence against women, she approaches her subjects with honesty and compassion, reminding readers of the importance of humanity, of forgiveness, of inclusiveness but also of celebrating individuality. It may sound like contradictory but perhaps that’s what makes her a bad feminist.

Bad Feminist


By Roxane Gay

Harper Perennial, US

ISBN 978-0-06-228271