Recently, I was asked my opinion on a funny topic: If I had a choice, the asker wanted to know, what kind of article would I never want to see again? Easy, I responded. Articles about whether or not a thing, person, or pop-cultural artifact is feminist.
I’ve been identifying myself as a feminist since I was a child and have no personal qualms with the label – it accurately describes my politics and values. But I also have no claim to prescribe the label on anything else, no interest in removing the label as a punishment for “bad” feminist behaviour. Every day, I see more and more articles about who is winning and losing their feminist titles, and I strongly believe it is a detriment to the overall cause; if feminism is a war, the battle that wins won’t be over Beyoncé’s contribution to the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack.
Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay’s new essay collection, makes no sweeping declarations about the fates of feminism, no promises to correct the reader. Instead, Bad Feminist takes the non-fiction works of Gay, a prolific and exceptionally insightful writer, and organizes them around the essay the book is named for. Originally published in the Fall 2012 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, Bad Feminist explored the ways feminism is labeled good, bad, or nonexistent in pop culture and mass media, as well as an admission of the ways Gay once believed she was failing as a feminist.
Bad Feminist doesn’t show us how Gay should be, but something much better: how Roxane Gay actually is. The essays are organized by loose topics – the first, “Me,” takes her personal essays, like Feel Me. See Me. Hear Me. Reach Me. about her years as a student, teacher, and writer, openly admitting her struggle to reject apathy at a great emotional cost. “Gender & Sexuality” has some of her best essays, like What We Hunger For, about Gay’s love for the Hunger Games book trilogy and her own story of surviving a sexual assault, written so simply that the words won’t stop echoing in my head: “They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect. The repercussions linger.”
Other sections collect her essays on films like The Help, Fruitvale Station and Twelve Years A Slave, as well as her perspectives on recent events, like Wendy Davis’s filibuster, the trial of George Zimmerman, the fight for reproductive rights, and even her time participating in a Scrabble tournament, just to name a few. These pop-cultural critiques don’t stand as arbitration on what is or isn’t feminist, but instead show us how Gay came to her own personal definition of feminism, how her personality has informed that label rather than letting the label inform her feminism.
In her introduction, Gay tells us she is “a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal,” explaining that a pedestal is only a precursor to getting knocked off. “Consider me already knocked off.” This stance – that we can only begin the real work of being a person once we’ve recognized our own failings – is the one that unites this entire book. Accuse someone of being a misogynist and it’s like a game: watch how fast they disavow the clichéd signifiers of bad feminism, how hard they cling to an imaginary pedestal. These tokens of good feminist behaviour are just that – tokens, worn to deflect real conversations and critiques and deflect real growth.
What if we, like Gay, acknowledged we are born into societies inherently structurally unequal – and that the work of becoming equal is a consistent struggle of one step forward, ten Internet-comment-sized steps back – and then began the work of viewing our tastes, preferences, and biases as something that we could own, understand, and shape into a better, truer (and, yes, more feminist) identity?
Of all the confessions Gay makes in this essay, for me, the most important was: “I care what people think.” That is the crux of Gay’s writings: no matter what we say, we care what people think and want to succeed at a structure that has no rules, no teachers, nothing until we cross a line and fail. We label ourselves as “bad” or “good” before other people can do it for us, hoping to avoid the embarrassment of hearing what other people think; or worse, the embarrassment of saying we care.
Instead of marking herself as an untouchable feminist leader, Gay has shown us what makes her into a person, all of the experiences and influences that have shaped her into the writer she’s become, and how we can and should look at our own lives instead of searching for arbitrary judgments of what makes someone good or bad.
“When you can’t find someone to follow, you have to find a way to lead by example,” Gay explains. “In this collection of essays, I’m trying to lead in a small, imperfect way.” This is modesty – Gay unquestionably succeeds at leading us in her way.
Haley Mlotek is a freelance writer and the publisher of WORN Fashion Journal.