Feminist author Roxane Gay has something in common with many 21st century women.
“I sometimes cringe when I am referred to as a feminist, as if I should be ashamed of my feminism or as if the word ‘feminist’ is an insult,” she admits.
So she came up with a different label for herself. Roxane Gay is a self-professed “bad feminist.”
“I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a feminist pedestal,” Gay writes in “Bad Feminist,” her new collection of essays. “People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. … Consider me already knocked off.”
Gay’s essays are like emails from a funny, edgy, slightly manic friend you lost touch with after college. They’re topical, imperfect, sometimes outrageous, but always entertaining. As a cultural critic, Gay covers a wide swath of pop culture ground, from Tyler Perry movies to hbo’s “Girls” to the Miss America pageant. Many of the essays, Gay notes, were written while “Law & Order: svu” played in the background, a TV show that Gay appreciates and loathes in equal measure for its frank portrayal of sexual violence against women.
Gay’s resistance to being labeled a feminist — even a “bad” feminist — began during her teens and lasted through her 20s. To young Gay, feminism meant “anger, humorlessness, militancy, unwavering principles, and a prescribed set of rules for how to be a proper feminist woman, or at least a proper white, heterosexual feminist woman.”
As the child of Haitian immigrants, Gay’s early years were defined by contrasts: upper middle class American neighborhoods, the adventures of the idealized blond girls of the “Sweet Valley High” book series, and a successful career in academia on one hand, repeated rejections because of her skin color, alienation from her parents’ homeland and accusations of being an “affirmative action” college student on the other. Today, as an English professor, prolific blogger and author of a novel and short story collection, Gay has opened herself up to the notion that feminism may not reconcile all the contradictions in her life, but it is a key part of her identity. Still, she has grappled with the demands of what she perceives as traditional feminism.
“I fall short as a feminist. I feel like I am not as committed as I need to be, that I am not living up to feminist ideals because of who and how I choose to be,” Gay notes.
Who Gay is and how she chooses to be form the primary subjects of the bulk of her essays, which were originally published by outlets as diverse as the topics they cover: from high-brow literary journals such as Virginia Quarterly Review and Iron Horse Literary Review to irreverent websites including Bookslut, Jezebel and BuzzFeed. Gay weaves failed relationships, conflicts with her students, her obsession with Scrabble and her middle school sexual assault into analysis of the cultural implications of “The Real Housewives” franchise, rape jokes, “Fifty Shades of Gray,” and “The Hunger Games” series. By the end of “Bad Feminist,” the reader feels as if she knows Gay like a close friend.
While Gay is deeply insightful at times in “Bad Feminist” and her opinions come across as carefully considered, her scrutiny of today’s feminist landscape is not of a consistent high quality. She explains that this is because she tries to keep her “bad” feminism simple and acknowledges, “I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist.”
Whether Gay’s bad feminist moniker will catch on with American women remains to be seen. But for Gay, it’s the only label that fits her.
“No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist,” Gay concludes. “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”
Book Review - Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay