If you follow Roxane Gay on Twitter, you probably already love her as much as I do. She’s forthright, unabashed, and gives voice to the best and worst of the little voices inside our heads. So, I picked up Bad Feminist – her 2014 essay collection – fully expecting to love it. After all, if she could cram so much into 280 characters, surely this book would be brimming with brilliance.
For those of you who aren’t already familiar: Gay was born in Nebraska to Haitian parents, who had moved to the U.S. and worked their way up to middle-class comfort for themselves and their children. Gay has two younger siblings, and grew up in a comfortable, though strict, household. Though she was a lonely and slightly weird child (as per her own recollection), experienced a terrible sexual assault in her early teens, and had a couple of wayward years in her youth, she is now settled as a respected academic, writer, and critic. Plus, she’s a total boss.
This collection, Bad Feminist, catapulted her into the limelight. It’s a bunch of stand-alone essays, most published individually elsewhere prior to the 2014 release, grouped thematically. They’re all loosely tied to the overarching ideas of feminism and womanhood, what it means to do it well, and what the consequences are for doing it badly.
Gay starts Bad Feminist by explaining to the reader her personal understanding of feminism: what it is, what it means, and its guilt by association with provocateurs who have made it part of their ‘brand’. “We forget the difference,” she says in the introduction, “between feminism and Professional Feminists,”. I couldn’t help but think of Mia Freedman when I read that (here’s why). Gay’s central thesis is that there is no Essential Feminism, no one true feminism to rule all of womankind. And – as she circles back around to, in her epilogue – it is better to be a “bad” feminist than no feminist at all.
The essays in Bad Feminist blend academia and pop culture seamlessly. Gay is just as comfortable citing professors and academic papers as she is pop stars and Law & Order: SVU. In fact, my very favourite essays in this collection were her arts criticism, a notably hybrid field, in which she examines our culture and how we consume it.
She takes aim at 50 Shades Of Grey, The Help, Django Unchained – rather than boycotting these books and films, as many Feminists(TM) do on spec, she gives them a fair shake and owns up to what she likes and what she doesn’t. Some of the cultural references (e.g., TV channels and their programming) flew right over my non-American head, but I could still catch her drift.
I was really surprised to see glimpses of David Foster Wallace in Gay’s style and tone. I’m not likening Bad Feminist to Infinite Jest (though it’s a cool off-rhyme), but Gay’s essay about Scrabble, for instance, was definitely Wallace-esque. What was truly refreshing about her writing and her approach, however, was her willingness to concede her vulnerabilities, her peace with being wrong or imperfect or “bad”. I read another review that said she “punctures the need for perfection”, which sums it up perfectly. That gives her so much room to maneuver, and to invite the reader in (as opposed to herding them in a certain direction). She is able to recognise and appreciate other points of view, without discrediting or discarding her own. The real masterstroke is that she does this without any faux-humility or self-deprecating bullshit.
The only real downside to Bad Feminist is that some of Gay’s points of reference have dated really badly (the example that stuck in my mind is a couple of glowing references to Bill Cosby – yikes). It really frustrates me that the world moves so quickly that a book like Bad Feminist, one so good and from such a brilliant mind, can feel dated in just five-or-so years. I read Bad Feminist in a post-Trump, post-#MeToo, post-George Floyd, and (very nearly) post-pandemic world – a very different world from that in which Gay wrote it.
I really wish she’d release another essay collection (like, today! right now!), so that I could get her thoughts fresh out the kitchen. As it stands, Bad Feminist is one of the very few back-list titles I’ve encountered that I wish I’d read as soon as it was released. It’s still worth a read, but it would’ve been better at the time.
So, let that be a lesson to you all: if a new Roxane Gay book hits the shelves, buy it and read it IMMEDIATELY. Failing that, follow her on Twitter for her up-to-the-minute hot takes.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Bad Feminist:
- “You should read this book if you’re thinking about reading this book.” – Peyton Stanley
- “Bought for my liberal feminist wife who reads a lot and teaches English. She thought the book was just okay.” – Matt
- “So thought provoking. I aspire to be a “bad feminist”.” – S. Shane
- “Enjoying the ever-lovin’ daylights out of this!” – Brenda N Lively