Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
I had to read this book of essays because I’d seen Gay’s TED Talk in which she discusses how publishing the book led to her being called The bad feminist. I am of the generation of women who were told that we had to have it all, achieve it all, if we were to lift women into the atmosphere where men resided. Mostly, my quest to have it all was really just a quest to do it all, that is, a quest destined to failure and exhaustion.
I always felt that it wasn’t fair that to be a feminist one had to be a perfect feminist. So when Roxane Gay finally came out and publicly decried this judgment of women, I was relieved–the public image of a feminist was changing.
Like me, Gay says she’s a bad feminist because she doesn’t meet that marker of perfection. But because she is a member of a younger generation than I am, her ‘failures’ take a different form–she listens to woman-hating rap music (the beat is so catchy!), reads mind-junk fashion magazines like Vogue that portray unrealistic women as the ideal, devours lousy movies with stereotypes, and more. And yet Gay has it right–whatever a woman does, she is a man’s equal, deserving equal pay, equal rights, and equal consideration.
Most of Gay’s essays had me cheering. Much of this book is funny; the pieces on Scrabble fanatics are hilarious. This wasn’t so much true of her movie reviews. Not that she was wrong; it was just that the movies she discussed were usually not any more significant than Vogue magazine is in terms of elevating the conversation of gender and race because their entire purpose is entertainment. I did think for awhile on her scorn of The Help. That book was OK, the movie less so because the end was too tidy. It does position itself to discuss gender and race, and so the wide criticism of it is deserved. But I think of books (and movies) like it–all the way back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin–and ask whether they do achieve anything beneficial albeit in an uncomfortably paternalistic way. (Think of the apocryphal story of Abraham Lincoln telling Harriet Beecher Stowe that she was ‘the little lady who started the big war’ with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) As a literary piece, the book is a failure. And the African American characters are cringeworthy with their over-the-top piety and submissiveness. But it does seem to have done the trick; Was it a sort of necessary transitional piece into something better? How large are the leaps that consumers of entertainment and ideas can manage at any one time (particularly if their goal is to be entertained and not to be enlightened)?
High school housekeeping: Sadly, although my high school students should be better informed and more open to gender equality than my generation, it is much more likely for me to hear girls say with disdain, “I’m not a feminist.” They might as well add the word ‘yuck.’ This is because they still have that stereotype of feminists that, in her TED Talk, Gay describes as ”hairy, angry, man-hating, sex-hating women.” So I bought Bad Feminist for my library. And I will talk into reading it as many students as I can.