I’m not the biggest fan of nonfiction, partly because it’s what I have to teach in my classes. Also because, a lot of the time, I find nonfiction depressing.
But I loved Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. I felt, as I was reading the essays, that I was in Roxane Gay’s brain, and that she was talking to me like she would a friend, and sometimes schooling me like she would a student in terrible need of a reality check.
The best part about this collection of essays, I think, is its relatability, a thing that is directly connected to Gay’s clear, honest, and reflective voice. Her topics are varied and many—wide-ranging social commentary; criticism of Girls, OITNB, The Help; light reflective pieces about Scrabble (she is a veritable powerhouse of words. I think our record on Words with Friends is something like 50-2; it’s sad); and most importantly, essays about heavy social issues that make you think. Not just “Oh I’d never thought of that before” thinking, either, but, “Damn, I have to change the way I think and act” thinking. As I read, I pronounced myself guilty accepting things such as entertainment without examining the myriad implicit social issues. But, I also felt vindicated in some other respects.
One of the most important lessons Gay imparts is that it’s not a crime to admit inconsistencies, fallibility, flaws, brokenness—and sometimes willful or inadvertent ignorance. As long, that is, you’re willing to learn and then change your actions as a result. She says that she’s “mortified” by the “thuggish rap” she chooses to listen to that often degrades women, and that she knows “nothing about cars.” Also, Gay criticizes the Fifty Shades series, but admits that she “want[s] to be in charge and respected and in control, but [wants to] surrender, completely, in certain aspects of [her] life.” All of those contradictions, those intricacies of human character and desire, are part of being human, yet also part of being a “feminist.” Even if the book is not wholly inclusive of the complete history of feminism, it gives people like me a starting point, and provokes a curiosity for further study of the topic.
Do I consider myself a “feminist?” Well, I really hadn’t even thought about it before reading this book. But after reading the essay “Bad Feminist: Take Two” I realized I might be one after all. I learned it’s okay to be conflicted about certain things, to like some things while not liking others. I share Gay’s love of maxi skirts and (sometimes) offensive music, and I consider a lot of the outside jobs at our house to be my husband’s domain. It’s ok that I do laundry every weekend while my husband does the outside jobs. It’s ok that I let him make certain decisions while I tend to the “female” aspects of our relationship and marriage. But I don’t want my daughter to have to fight for her voice, or—more importantly—any of her rights. Any. Of. Them. I know now that feminism is really a nuanced, multi-faceted thing, and that it’s ok to think of it that way, and okay to think of myself as a feminist. I want equality. Part of it is that simple.
I walked away from this book thinking about so many issues relevant not only to my life (as a woman-wife-mother), but to the lives of my underrepresented and underserved students. I plan to teach some of her work (her essay “Not Here To Make Friends” is a perfect fit for my class of twenty-five girls and four boys, and “A Tale of Two Profiles” is on tap for my unit on politics and society), to present my students with ideas that will challenge their way of thinking and their acceptance of society as it is, and hopefully empower them to find their voices and not always go for the easy, popular, or “safe” option.
I do not think there is any way to properly stress the importance of this collection of essays on so many fronts—feminism, race, gender, culture, and, simply, reality. As I read it last fall, I recommended it to everyone; I carried it around, cover out, so people would see the hot pink title and think, if not say, “Oooh, what’s that?” It worked.
*Note: This review was written in September of 2014, but for various reasons has remained unpublished until now. Sorry for the delay!