“When you can’t find someone to follow, you have to find a way to lead by example.”
Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist had been on my TBR list on Goodreads for over three years, and a physical copy of the book sat on my TBR pile for nearly two. As a self-described feminist who has enjoyed a wide variety of other feminist essay collections that have cited Bad Feminist as inspiration, I was very interested – I just never made the time to get to it; something else would always get in the way. And all I have to say about it now that I’ve finally read it is: what a problematic, convoluted mess.
I think a large majority of self-described feminists identify at least in some part with the definition of “bad feminist” that Gay describes in the book’s introduction. Feminism isn’t easy, especially when we still live in a very male-dominated and misogynistic society and culture where misogyny is very much ingrained into our psyches. In other words, I feel like even the most diehard of feminists have experienced some sort of internalized misogyny in everyday life. That being said, I’m still not entirely sure what Gay’s goal was with Bad Feminist – was it to point out how problematic our society and culture still is when it comes to feminism, was it about how she herself is indeed a bad feminist, or was it a book of contradicted rants about how everyone else is a bad feminist and she wants some sort of medal for pointing it out? For me, I believe, it is the latter. I really did not enjoy Gay’s prose. She strikes me as someone who thinks hating popular things makes her a more interesting person. And I get it, the vast majority of popular things are misogynistic and anti-feminist. I GET IT. But, for the most part, that doesn’t seem to be what Gay is pointing out. Bad Feminist is full of contradictions to the point that it made my head spin.
The thing that bothered me the most was that Gay constantly points out that she is not the target audience for the pieces of fiction or media that she has chosen to pick on. She rants relentlessly about the HBO television series Girls and how it’s a very non-intersectional view on women in their twenties (in other words, it doesn’t consider the perspectives of people in that age category outside of privileged white women). And that is more than completely fair. Girls was at times a very problematic series for those reasons and more. But she just continues to go on and on about things that clearly weren’t made for her. I get it, these things are problematic regardless of who they’re made for. Believe me, I get it. But she nitpicks at the smallest things and even does additional research to back up why these things bother her.
To top it off, she rants about her issues with the films The Help and Django Unchained and doesn’t even really describe what she thinks is wrong with those films, except for stating her opinion that she thinks white people who loved The Help were “longing for a better time.” I know that recent period drama films like The Help have come to be viewed as though they were made from liberal white guilt of how black people were treated back then, and I get that it’s frustrating for black people to often have their struggles exploited and watered down by big budget Hollywood films. But you know what? It’s better than nothing. Filmmakers who put the time and money into making films like those are at least trying to understand and sympathize with the struggles that minorities like African Americans have gone through, often at the hands of white people. The end results may not be perfect, but it’s something. At least they’re trying. It’s better than nothing. I would like to know what exactly Gay does enjoy watching, because she seems to find fault with everything – even things that we could say were in fact “made for her,” like Tyler Perry films or series on BET. And, again, I get it. Even things that are made for you are not perfect. Nothing is perfect. But I know for a fact that people are trying, and we have to put our faith in that as “bad feminists,” something Roxane Gay clearly does not do.
As much as I believe Bad Feminist was fairly well written, I don’t think it knows whether it wants to be an essay collection or a memoir. The first few chapters read as though they have nothing to do with what Gay just so eloquently described in her introduction. They are interesting and well written, sure, but what do they have to do with being a bad feminist? This is something I’ve come to dislike in a majority of recent essay collections that are published and sold under a certain premise – being a bad feminist, for example – and then include way too many personal anecdotes that have nothing to do with what you promised us in your introduction. This was my main problem with Heather Havrilesky’s What If This Were Enough? and I got similar vibes while reading Bad Feminist. If you are going to include personal anecdotes in an essay collection, you have to at least make sure they tie in with what you are writing about. Otherwise, save it for your autobiography. And based on how special Roxane Gay feels she is for pointing out everyone else’s flaws in Bad Feminist, I can only assume a similar autobiography is forthcoming. 2/5 stars.