Jan 6, 2015

Book Looks: On 'Bad Feminist', Its Contradictions And Its Triumphs


In the case of feminism, we far too often argue and worry about who is doing feminism the right way, or who's setting women back thousands of years. The definitions of  feminism are too vast and laborious for all that boxing in, as it's seasoned with a mélange of thoughts and experiences to where every woman (and man --- because men can be feminist too!) possesses their own unique definition to what it means and how it applies to their lives. This is why I always find it silly that feminism gets tacked with such petty criteria, that people have the actual gall to formulate rules on how to do feminism the "correct" way, when it truly isn't a one-size-fits-all deal.

Roxane Gay is a personable, vivacious, and talented writer and raconteur --- and with those strong attributes it's super hard to have dissenting recoil about what unfolds in the pages of Bad Feminist. It's why I had trouble writing this review, as while I enjoy Gay's online writings and persona for the most part, her writings in this oddly assembled collection have me dueling in the middle as while reading I was enthralled as well as aggravated.


In the same spirit as as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's pocket-sized essay, "We Should All Be Feminists", Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist stance has recently given some balance to an opinion crammed conversation like feminism. With her first collected work of essays, the Internet darling and former Rumpus curator opens up a window and ushers out all the funk and stifling expectation heat that has become stagnated in the the recent declarations of feminism. Gay actively celebrates the 'flawed feminist', the person who may dispel or even embrace the limp stereotypes that come with feminism, and shines a light towards rejecting such pressure on how to act as a feminist, as a woman, as a human being.

Like most, I gravitated towards Gay and her vibrant personality through her captivating Internet candor. Whether she was for or against a topic, irk, or obsession, she always had engaging, sane opinions that either yanked the chain of the light bulb over my head, or made me feel as if we were swapping stories while knocking back mimosas. With Bad Feminist, Gay once again demonstrates her keen ability to untangle the ratty intersecting webs of social sciences and pop culture, flavoring it with her amiable style and academia know-how, and it makes for brisk reading.

In honesty, Bad Feminist's provocative and movement urging title does a disservice to its content, as the book covers more than just feminism and sexism and the right to fly the bad gal flag, as Gay --- while still writing from a feminist position --- discusses how racism, education, class, politics, and pop culture intersect, with an enjoyable essay on Scrabble tournaments thrown into the mix.  In the over 40 essays presented, Gay proves that she is a capable educator, as even when you may or may not agree with her (which happened to me often), she does make you see the other side, has you build a critical eye to your surroundings, and truly, the introduction of this book, and its coda ("Bad Feminist: Take 1 & 2") are crucial. So crucial, that if I could, I would mural them on a wall for everyone to see as they pinpoint in crystal clarity how feminism isn't as mysterious or constricting as so many thought.

Gay is truly at her best when she tackles commentary on women's roles in reality shows ("Garish Glorious Spectacles"), how she discussed the shit-show that is reproductive rights in the US ("The Alienable Rights of Women"), discussed her intimate struggles with her weight ("Reaching For Catharsis"), and how sexist the literary industry continues to be towards women writers and their works ("Beyond The Measure Of Men"). And even though I was more of a Babysitters Club fan, I did read Sweet Valley High and Sweet Valley Twins back in the day, and I really liked how she blended her journey with the book series and the importance of former Miss America Vanessa Williams while wrapping it up in a conversation about the ethics of popularity in the piece, "I Was Once Miss America".

Yet in her attempts to bring clarity to the feminism narrative, Gay admits to being a mess of 'contradictions' and is not always so staunch on having the 'correct' answer. All of this is fine, brave even, but after the grand opening declaring poignantly why we're all 'bad feminists', the first essay ("Feel Me. See Me. Hear Me. Reach Me.") is an inexcusable utter mess of inconsistent topics that never finds a coherent thesis, and her triggers piece ("The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion") is also thrown together and doesn't make sense when you take into account her other essays about sexual abuse.

Case in point, in "The Careless Language Of Sexual Violence", Gay voices that we must find new ways to "rewrite rape" that restores the actual violence towards these incidents, and chastises writers and other forms of media who bring vague or erroneous voices to the conversation. When Gay gives a raw account of her being gang raped as a young girl ("What We Hunger For") she, oddly, in turn shies away from the exact language she rallies for others to do when discussing sexual violence. To top it, she then swirls in a fangirl gush about the cafeteria food that is The Hunger Games book series. To me, adding that was a bit of a distraction to the dark horror she endured, and though anybody can write their sexual assault accounts the way they so choose, mixing in that element just cheapened things. Gay shouldn't have to disclose every gory detail of her horrendous ordeal, but she had a moment to educate those who don't understand rape and its vile culture, and she needed to just say more than "it was as bad as you might think".

Though Gay is ripe with opinions, she sadly positions her bulk of her essays like this. She mostly tells us how to think, but never truly shows us how we should feel, and doesn't always fully round out her arguments. It becomes too consistent to ignore as when introducing a problem, she'll lay on the facts, and then when a topic goes a bit deeper, when the reader is expecting her to go into detail to take us down another avenue of thought...she darts away. This happened a lot in the pieces where race, gender, and entertainment crossed.

Truly you can't write a few pages on why Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" was problematic, as it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a long history of misogyny in music or why the Trayvon Martin case was a miscarriage of justice and sum it up to "I hate how it happened" and "George Zimmerman lives in a world where Paula Deen lives". With these incomplete pieces you're left with a lot of questions and little answers. Gay assumes you know all the ins and outs about these topics as the pieces themselves were written during the heat of these discussions when they really just skimmed the surface of a much broader topic that was discussed elsewhere. This is where Bad Feminist wants to be several books at once, and where Gay should have saved her more racially driven pieces for a separate book as to look at racism through and the films of The Help and Django Unchained is limiting.

Also nagging is how (and I'm borrowing Book Slut's words, as they had one of the few constructively criticizing reviews of this book), Gay wants to have her "feminist cake and eat her misogynist music too", as in her ardent soapbox cry to be a 'bad feminist', she is feigning on just simple responsibility. Yes, we all listen to bad music, watch bad movies/TV shows, but Gay is arguing against these exact ills, and sometimes you just gotta take responsibility and just say 'enough is enough' and just not crank up the volume, tune in every night, or throw money down for these things, ya know? It's not that what Gay says is totally wrong as it's difficult to like something or somebody that is deemed "bad" for a society as a whole or to separate the art from the "asshole artist", I too struggle with this, but when you're aiming to be editorial, aiming to be a critical thinker it warrants you to be a little less flexible. You have to not back down or "go soft" after you do some major soapboxing, you're just defeating the purpose if you don't.

Then there is this really lopsided piece about Orange Is The New Black where Gay dismisses its diverse casting as tokenism, but in turn she gives a pass to Girls, citing that we shouldn't expect much from it because Lena Dunham isn't responsible to write about ALL 20-somethings from ALL walks of life on her show. Okay. I get that when it comes to ground-breaking television, women of color can only be complex characters when they are in an unsavory setting like prison. Still, I don't look at the show like that especially since the second season (which was released before this book was published) deals with a number of Gay's concerns, especially when it comes to misunderstood characters like Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren.

Girls does have a diversity problem, but in the essays about The Help and her review of Diana Splecher's book Skinny, Gay is salty about Splecher writing about fatness with a thin body, and non-minority writers like Kathryn Stockett writing outside of their racial and culture bracket. On the flip, she champions writers like herself to not limit themselves when crafting stories and characters ("I firmly believe our responsibility as writers is to challenge ourselves to write beyond what we know"). With this Gay also fails to mention that writers of color like Zora Neale Hurston, Kazuo Ishiguro, and James Baldwin wrote well-acclaimed novels (Seraph On The Swanee, The Remains Of The Day, and Giovanni's Room respectively) that didn't have a person of color as the main character or as supporting characters. Thus, these statements Gay makes aren't contradictions --- they are just poorly stated arguments.

While I don't need all my feminists to be foaming at the mouth while they rage against the patriarchy machine or chastise the ways pop culture screws with us, but in the pages of Bad Feminist, Gay while speaking truth, didn't really dig deep into things for me. As a woman of color myself, I did see a lot of my personal experiences and concerns, and liked that Gay comes from the same inter-sectional feminism standpoint as I, but with this, it became tedious because she points out that sexism and racism are horrible, terrible things, but she's really just rubbernecking about them.

Add to that, what Gay writes in Bad Feminist has been addressed feverishly to where they were fresh on the mind, and rife with divergent opinions upon action, but now reading about Daniel Tosh's rape "jokes", Paula Deen's saturated fat racism, and the Sandusky/Penn State scandal, I  just felt dulled towards her salient points, as I had actually moved on from them as have the subjects in question. New closeted celebrity racists, sexists, and child molesters have now over-shadowed the individuals in these pages, it's all yesterday's news.

Maybe it's because I had read a lot of these pieces on various places around the Internet and didn't find them strong then, and was surprised that more powerfully penned essays like "The Price of Black Ambition" were absent, but I wanted to read something new, wanted to hear a new angle to these presented topics, yet I was just reading a rehash of what countless other people have said at the time of their controversy --- and my opinions hadn't really changed. Gay is creatively strengthened when she writes about her personal accounts, and they make for better essays, and sadly there are so few of those. This omission is why Bad Feminist isn't terribly timeless – it's timely. If I kept this book for my future daughter, would she care about Chris Brown, the banality of Fifty Shades of Grey or Hunger Games? I doubt. Gay even states this in her essay about how social media has made our information pool a fleeting one ("When Twitter Does What Journalism Does Not"), and she’s right, but it's a little ironic that this aspect cripples the overall context of Bad Feminist and some of its messages.

Though it may seem like it, my criticisms about Bad Feminist aren't to knock Gay's stance. We wear the feminism perfume, but she smells one way, and I smell another. That's how it’s supposed to be, right? Placing criteria on feminism suffocates its definition which is about equality and the freedom to do so. Still you can't just do any and everything without regard and paint it "feminist!". This is where that nagging cognitive dissonance comes in and why feminist literature will always and forever be difficult to really critique because mostly every reader is on the same page thematically (i.e. we all want women to not be treated like shit; we are all against toxic masculinity and how the same institutions that oppress women also tyrannize men), but if you disagree with even one tiny aspect, you look like an adversary.

I'm not an adversary. I'm an ally. That’s why even in its faults, I feel what Gay has done in the pages of Bad Feminist isn't with malice as it reads like a sincere primer for those unaware of how certain social ills like sexism and racism wiggle into various "harmless" situations and ideals like movies, books, and music. I also forget as an ally that I'm an aware and privileged party towards these things.

As a whole, this essay bundle is more so needed for those who probably weren't aware of the more intricate levels of racial and social privilege, or for those who refused to believe why feminism is important as we can look no further than the 'Why I Don't Need Feminism' Tumblr and 'Meninists' memes for such ignorance to that fact. It's needed for people who (shallowly) thought that feminism was all about bra burning, hating men, scoffing at Barbie, or ditching the pink colored Venus razors. It's for people who need the idea pressed in their minds that women are people too, and that feminism is not just for rich, White women who "lean in" --- it’s for everybody and that we need to make it better for everybody.

I wish for that day where we don't have to tack on a "goodness" or a "badness" to feminism. That it becomes inclusive, where we stop trying to tie ourselves into knots over feminism, trying to find the perfect allies, and such. Still while waiting for utopia, for the flaws acceptable and non, I'm glad Roxane Gay has raised her voice in the only ways she knows how to, spreading awareness to what socially moves and plague us as she scribes a new feminism agenda for the clueless, the jaded, the curious, and for those who thought they had to be a certain "way" to call themselves such. No more, no less, good and bad, and all  human.

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