Why Bad Feminist Roxane Gay Is Actually The Best

In Intervention, Lifewriting by Angelina Eimannsberger

By Angelina Eimannsberger

Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist performs an inclusive, accessible, illuminating feminism that is aware of its own limits and allegiances, uses pop culture to discuss society in easy but deep ways, and tackles the reality and discourse of sexual violence forcefully. For a brief introduction to what exactly is bad, or less than perfect, about her titular bad feminism, watch Gay explain this self-given label in her TED talk.

Bad Feminist beautifully articulates one of our intentions behind this September focus on women’s memoirs and essays: “The label ‘women’s fiction’ is often used with such disdain,” Gay writes, “I hate how ‘woman’ has become a slur. I hate how some women writers twist themselves into knots to distance themselves from ‘women’s fiction,’ as if we have anything to be ashamed of as women who write what we want to write” (174). Rejecting this slur and its repelling force, Indulgence focus on women’s life writing has used the ‘women’s’ as a badge of pride, an expression of joy about the object of study. Much of this positive connotation comes from conscious resistance against how usually ‘women’s’ anything indicates a limitation, a lack of power, or a lowering of expectations. Usually, those limitations are neither logical nor true because “[t]here are books written by women. There are books written by men. Somehow, though, it is only books by women, or books about certain topics, that require this special ‘women’s fiction’ designation, particularly when those books have the audacity to explore, in some manner, the female experience, which, apparently includes topics of marriage, suburban existence, and parenthood, as if women act alone in these endeavors, wedding themselves, immaculately conceiving children, and the like” (173), as Gay precisely analyzes.

Besides being astonishingly smart and able to break down abstract complexities into clear lessons, Gay is also a very funny writer. Her chapter “How to Be Friends with Another Woman” is a list of hands-on advice that could easily be made into a stand up comedy show: “1. Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic,or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses–pretty but designed to SLOW women down […] 5B. If you and your friend(s) are in the same field and you can collaborate or help each other, do this without shame. It’s not your fault your friends are awesome. Men invented nepotism and practically live by it. It’s ok for women to do it too” (47 – 48). All great advice, and the deconstruction of myths and mindsets that slow us down is some of the most valuable feminist work that can be done. The list ends on a solemn note: “13. My mother’s favorite saying is ‘Qui se ressemble s’assemble.’ Whenever she didn’t approve of who I was spending time with, she’d say this onimously. It means, essentially, you are whom you surround yourself with” (50). Sisterhood is very valuable to Gay, and she doesn’t mystify it as a flawless girlsquad or an impossible dream. Gay isn’t afraid to make light of the matter at hand when she can as in this list; however, she also knows how to come down hard when she has to.

Gay is at her most serious, personal, and intensely warning when she discusses the reality and discourse of sexual violence: “I once wrote an essay about how, as a writer who is also a woman, I increasingly feel that writing is a political act whether I intend it to be or not because we live in a culture where McKinley’s article is permissible and publishable. I am troubled by how we have allowed such intellectual distance between violence and the representation of violence. We talk about rape, but we don’t carefully talk about rape” (132). To put this into context, McKinley’s article about the gang rape of an eleven year old focuses on the perpetrators; when it turns eventually to the child, it can’t muster more empathy than this: “Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said. ‘Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?’ said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. ‘How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?’” So the mother and the victim’s choice of friends are what the problem is here? Gay goes on to dissect ‘rape culture’ and ‘trickle down misogyny’ very forcefully.

Bad Feminism uses journalism, pop culture, and social media to show that sexism isn’t just a pay gap or catcalling but a systematic structure. She doesn’t see it in black and white, and is more than willing to criticize pop culture’s favorites, such as Dunham’s Girls with the now familiar but freshly presented critique of being too white and a too limited experience of womanhood (also discussed in my life writing blog). More surprisingly maybe, Gay also criticizes Orange Is the New Black. She gushes about Laverne Cox’s groundbreaking performance but swiftly moves on to her qualms: “Laverne Cox is unequivocally outstanding as Sophia Burset, a transgender woman with a wife and a son […] Their story line is the one thing on this show that is genuinely unlike anything else on television, the one element that lives up to the hype” (251) Gay knows that her own Haitian heritage is a factor when she’s especially disappointed by the “Haitian character, Miss Claudette, quite the rarity, but her accent is inconsistent, bizarre, and bears no resemblance to a Haitian accent” (251). Yet, a poorly done accent by a Haitian character truly is disheartening in a show that prides itself on diversity and representation, and only one of several criticisms Gay has. She ultimately concludes that “Orange Is the New Black is a lovingly crafted monumentum to White Girl Problems” (252) in spite of its attempts to go beyond.

Bad Feminist wants us to do more, have more, be more– and leaves us better educated and with more empathy so we might actually able to rise to the challenge. Gay tells us: “I’m tired of feeling like I should be grateful when popular culture deigns to acknowledge the experiences of people who are not white, middle class or wealthy, and heterosexual. I’m tired of the extremes. So few movies or shows fall between those extremes, but thankfully the ones that do–The Game, Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, Love & Basketball, The Best Man, Jumping the Broom, Peeples, and the like–are good, not always great, but well within reach. We need more.” (253) This list, by the way, is also a great study in intersectionality, a buzz term that Gay avoids doesn’t rely on but a concept of true feminism that this bad but great feminist truly performs by focusing on the weaving together rather than the differentiation of the different strands of identities. Bad Feminist is a highly readable introduction for those who haven’t majored in gender studies but still want to be a knowledgable part of the debate. It’s a great reminder for the more seasoned feminist to check her own qualifications and see if she might be worthy of the proud label that is being Roxane Gay’s fellow bad feminist.