Am I a bad feminist? That’s probably the question a lot of people asked themselves when they saw the title of Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist (2014). The insidious nature of contemporary sexism – veiled in ancient gendered representations, in advertising and the media, and in the rise of ‘irony’ as a catch-all phrase for dealing with accusations of misogyny – certainly makes it difficult to tell at all times whether sexism is actually happening, whether we’re unconsciously (or even consciously) accepting stereotypes of gender as they are handed to us.
The title of Roxane Gay’s collection of essays instantly intrigued me, because it seemed to be addressing this issue face-on. It seemed to be considering what it means to identify as a feminist in a world where a song about rape (‘Blurred Lines’) can be a chart-topper, and where young women can write on the internet about being perfectly willing to let a man beat them simply because he is a celebrity (which Gay addresses marvellously in an essay entitled ‘Dear Young Ladies Who Love Chris Brown So Much They Would Let Him Beat Them’). Existing in this kind of world as a self-identified feminist is tricky enough, but it doesn’t help when we are daily exposed to such content and, even worse, sometimes find ourselves humming the chorus of ‘Smack Ma Bitch Up’ (in case you can’t tell, my taste in music is almost pathetically out of date) without even realising.
But before I begin to wax lyrical about this collection of essays – and there is a great deal to say about it – I want to stick with the idea of ‘bad feminism’, of what it means both for Gay and for her readers.
‘Bad Feminist’ is an interesting label to adopt, because it seems to suggest that there is one ‘essential’ feminism, and you either meet its requirements or you don’t. Of course, Gay clearly doesn’t believe this; the title of her introduction (‘Feminism (n.): Plural’) clearly points to her own personal viewpoint, and in this section she writes that she is suspicious of the idea of an “Essential Feminism”. Everyone will inevitably interpret feminism differently, and as long as they’re concerned with the same things – namely, the equality of the sexes – they can and should be considered feminists.
Of course, one of the big criticisms of feminism(s) is that it/they tend to focus solely on the needs, rights, and experiences of white, middle class women. For Gay, this is another reason for calling herself a ‘bad feminist’:
Calling myself a bad feminist is tongue-in-cheek, you know, saying that I’m not that good at feminism but I am a feminist, I do believe in the equality of women and I’m going to fight for that. But the term ‘bad feminist’ also represents a rejection of mainstream feminism that only concerns itself with the needs and wants of white middle-class women. If being a good feminist means continuing to ignore transgender women, women of colour, queer women, working-class women, then, yes, I’m a bad feminist.
(From ‘Roxane Gay is Making Feminism Cool Again’ on NowToronto)
This interesting comment is from an online article whose title rather misguidedly suggests that feminism is somehow not ‘hip’, as if it’s something that goes in and out of style like a pair of shoes. It’s kind of sad that people would necessarily think of feminism as something outdated or unnecessary, or at the very least a ‘trend’ that people subscribe to for a brief period, like hipster glasses or lemongrass frappuccinos or Myspace (remember Myspace?).
Admittedly, these are small quibbles, and it’s Gay’s words that are actually important here. It’s certainly (and sadly) true that feminism in the past has often focused on the problems faced by a very specific, often privileged, group of women, to the detriment of other groups. And although I’d like to think that this is no longer the case, it’s probably fair to say that a great deal of the time, it still is.
Yet for Gay, despite mainstream feminism’s flaws, it nevertheless offers “a way to navigate this shifting cultural climate”; she writes that “Feminism has certainly helped me find my voice. Feminism has helped me believe my voice matters, even in this world where there are so many voices demanding to be heard” (Introduction). This is a particularly powerful comment, because I often feel the same way. I remember ‘discovering’ feminism at the beginning of high school; I’d never really thought about the word before, but there’s probably something about that teenage period which makes self-esteem so very difficult to come by, and which feminism taps into. Discovering feminism in your teens gives you the tools to build self-esteem at the very point that social pressures seem primed to take it away from you. Not to mention that it offers you the opportunity to build stronger and better relationships with the women in your life, both family and friends, at a time when you arguably need them the most. So I agree wholeheartedly with Gay’s support of this aspect of feminism.
Coining the term ‘bad feminist’ suggests that feminism, like almost everything, is open to our interpretations, and we have the power to control what we believe, what we identify with. And although there was a part of me that was reluctant to embrace the term ‘bad feminist’ – because despite Gay’s assertions that there is no one ‘Essential Feminism’ to me it suggests that there is one feminism and you either subscribe to it or you don’t – Gay’s later assertion that the term is tongue-in-cheek certainly helps ease some of my concerns. Sadly, there are doubtless many who continue to believe that feminism is an all-or-nothing deal, that you’re either in or out, and that if you’re ‘out’ then you’re breaking the fundamental Codes of Womanhood.
Movements, as Gay points out, are only as flawed as the people that run them. And people, we shouldn’t forget, are always flawed. This is one of the things I liked most about Gay’s collection; her continuing assertion that human beings are messy and complicated, but that we can be better – and feminism is one of the ways to be better. Human complexity and diversity is one of the things that defines us, and yet, as Gay writes:
We want to know everything. In this information age […] we feel entitled. We also like taxonomy, classification, definition. Are you a man or a woman? Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Are you married or single? Are you gay or straight? We don’t know what to do when we don’t know the answers to these questions or, worse, when the answers to these questions do not fall neatly into a category.
(‘A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories’)
Are you a feminist or aren’t you? These sorts of binary oppositions are perhaps part of the reason feminism has become, if some are to be believed, ‘uncool’. One of the reasons that I love living in the twenty-first century (and despite the reasons I don’t – terrorism, human trafficking, global warming, and Robin Thicke) is that the postmodern sense of reality as subjective, fractured, impossible to essentialise means that people are free to interpret things in different ways, to express why a movement or a story or a song is meaningful for them, because of their particular experiences, thoughts and feelings.
This kind of thinking suggests that there’s no ‘good’ way to do feminism, and that feminism itself isn’t just one thing to everyone who subscribes to it. Gay’s collection touches on what binds various feminism(s) together: a belief in equality, in a society free from sexual violence and prejudice. The term ‘bad feminist’ may be slightly jokey, but Roxane Gay’s collection is anything but.
I loved Bad Feminist; I loved Gay’s style, I loved the way that she critiqued society’s prejudices, whether they’re based on gender, on race, or on body size and shape. Her observations were always smart, succinctly voiced, and coloured with touches of humour that never ever took away from the seriousness of her subject-matter. In just about every way, it was the perfect essay collection. Feminism is deeply important in this collection, but more than that her essays argue for a more tolerant, accepting, and open popular culture, one which revels in difference rather than writing it out.
Rating: 5 Stars