When Roxane Gay’s essay “Bad Feminist” first appeared in the September 2012 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), we were sitting at brunch somewhere in Brooklyn losing our mind over the coming zombie apocalypse and the fallout of the Citizens United decision and its very visible impact on electoral politics, sipping mimosas and occasionally nodding our heads to the break beat of a Kanye song. Kanye brought back the boom bap with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, mixed with all kinds of problematic lyrics. Autumnal equinox brought about a cool gentle breeze after a summer of ridiculous rhetoric from GOP–some dude tried to make a distinction between legitimate rape and rape; a Republican candidate for VP claimed that rape is just another form of conception–while feminists argued about whether or not we could have it all if only we just leaned in.
I read a few paragraphs of the Gay’s essay and we howled and mhmm’d as cosign. Gay’s elegant and exacting assessment of the complicated and complex community of feminists was so precise, and we breathed a sigh of relief that we weren’t alone in feeling these things we admit to ourselves in our own private company.
“I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are—militant, perfect in their politics and person, man hating, humorless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better. I’m not proud of this. I don’t want to buy into these myths anymore. I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done.
Bad feminism seems like the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself.
Two years later, we get to sink our teeth into Bad Feminist, a meaty volume of personal essays and criticism from one of the great storytellers and smartest cultural observers out there–and one of our favorite writers here on Feministing. Exploring how we live our -isms through the culture we consume from books (Sweet Valley High, The Hunger Games, Battleborn, Skinny), music (“Blurred Lines”), television (Private Practice, Orange Is The New Black) and movies (Django, The Help, Fruitvale Station) Gay is as critical and as she is admiring. That balance is what actually makes these essays so enjoyable and honest. Gay thoughtfully takes on the fans of Chris Brown, trigger warnings, herself, body politics, race, and rape culture.
Delightfully, we get to see previously published essays reprised here to savor every word and spend time with every question raised. In “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” Gay discusses the responsibility writers have in addressing rape culture. She calls for developing a language that is authentic and unflinching in reporting the crime of rape that does not sanitize the violence victims experience:
In the Times article, the phrase “sexual assault” is used, as is the phrase “the girl had been forced to have sex with several men.” The word “rape” is only used twice and not really in connection with the victim. That is not the careful use of language. Language, in this instance, and far more often than makes sense, is used to buffer our sensibilities from the brutality of rape, from the extraordinary nature of such a crime. Feminist scholars have long called for a rereading of rape. Higgins and Silver note that “the act of rereading rape involves more than listening to silences; it requires restoring rape to the literal, to the body: restoring, that is, the violence—the physical, sexual violation.” I would suggest we need to find new ways, whether in fiction or creative nonfiction or journalism, for not only rereading rape but rewriting rape as well, ways of rewriting that restore the actual violence to these crimes and that make it impossible for men to be excused for committing atrocities and that make it impossible for articles like McKinley’s to be written, to be published, to be considered acceptable.
Gay’s essays aren’t belabored by theory or history–their contemporary-ness is their strength. The women’s studies crowd who has encountered dissonances in feminisms lacking intersectionality will find themselves in these essays. Gay’s voice–a mix of interrogation, warmth, and deadpan wit–vibrates throughout the collection. While I quibbled with her assessment of the film 12 Years A Slave, I appreciate her critique of Hollywood’s love affair of slave narratives. “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s: Thoughts on The Help” is bitingly hilarious and sharply on point, a glorious takedown of America’s detestable nostalgia and quest for racial innocence of white folks and edification of the magical negro trope in film and books.
(An aside: We’re living in incredible times, friends. Some of our most prominent, high-profile feminists are women of color–from the clarity and eloquence of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to the messy, cyborg lightening rod of Beyonce Knowles Carter to the contemplative Roxane Gay. Can you feel it?)
Bad Feminist is a title that is as tongue-in-cheek as it is truthful. Gay eschews having “the answer.” Essentialized feminism bristles. In part one of the collection’s title essay, she writes, “So much responsibility keeps getting piled on the shoulders of a movement whose primary purpose is to achieve equality, in all realms, between men and women. I keep reading these articles and getting angry and tired because these articles tell me that there’s no way for women to ever get it right. These articles make it seem like there is, in fact, a right way to be a woman and a wrong way to be a woman. And the standard appears to be ever changing and unachievable.” Gay’s essays seek to explore the nuanced spaces between our ideals and our lives. Her personal experiences are living testimony, as she wrestles with the same questions we all have about how to be better people and allies to our friends and communities, bravely engaging the challenge of applying a complete feminism that acknowledges the full breadth of humanity.
We aren’t perfect–we’re all still trying to figure this shit out and hold our contradictions and multitudes with both hands.
Syreeta McFadden believes that we are living in the best and worst of times.