True story. As a child, I began to call myself a feminist because Gloria Steinem was much cooler than Phyllis Schlafly. Gloria was so pretty with her long, streaked hair, aviator glasses, and stylish outfits. Phyllis Schlafly had that stupid beehive and dressed like a frump. Plus, she looked really, really mean! Gloria was the beautiful, sweet princess, and Phyllis was the evil witch who would probably cast horrific spells on naughty girls like me. My mom taught me I shouldn’t judge people on their looks, but I just couldn’t help it.
Yes, girl child Bookish Jen, a fledgling woman’s libber, was a “bad feminist.”
And thank goodness, I’m not alone because Roxane Gay is also a bad feminist. And she writes about it in her collection of essays called Bad Feminist. Bad Feminist not only focuses on feminism, but also focuses race, sexuality, media, politics, and at times—Gay, herself. Bad Feminist is both heartbreaking and hilarious, and often made me think in whole new ways. And with Gay’s wise and witty writing style you almost feel like you’re talking with a dear friend.
Gay is a professor, writer and novelist. In Bad Feminist’s introduction, she proudly calls herself a feminist, but perhaps not the type of feminist she thinks she should be according the an ever-shifting “concept” of feminism. She loves the color pink, is nostalgic for the “Sweet Valley High” books, has teenage-like crushes on famous dudes, watches cheesy reality television shows, and can’t help but groove out to catchy hip hop songs despite their often misogynistic lyrics.
Gay is bad feminist, and she’s bad enough to realize feminism has its flaws. Feminism is often seen as “middle class white lady” thing. Sometimes feminism is viewed as overtly academic or only for those strivers aiming for the executive boardroom. Feminism has often been accused of ignoring women of color, lesbians, working class women and the poor. However, feminism is better than nothing and is constantly evolving and changing, hopefully, to be more inclusive. And if Gay is a so-called bad feminist it is because she’s a flawed human and sometimes she messes up. Hey, don’t we all?
And lots not forget that a lot of misguided people construe feminists as man hating shrews. The term “feminazi,” anyone?
After the introduction, Gay focuses on herself, as black woman, a child of Haitian immigrants, a long-time college student and finally a professional with a good job. I especially liked her essay “Typical First Year Professor,” in which Gay documents the triumphs and tribulations of being a novice professor. Her love for her students (and her frustrations) is touching and at times maddening. To Gay, teaching means more to her than a decent paycheck every month, though she admits she admits she likes earning that paycheck after years of being a broke student.
Gay’s essays on gender and sexuality focus on how entertainment portrays women. She has opinions on everything from Lena Dunham’s HBO show “Girls” to the huge comedy hit “Bridesmaids,” both praising and criticizing these pop culture sensations. Gay also gives a shout-out to the woefully underrated sitcom, “Girlfriends,” which ran for several seasons portraying black women as multi-faceted human beings. Gay also offers her opinions on the Miss America Pageant and the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, body issues, Hanna Rosin’s controversial book “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” Jerry Sandusky and Penn State, Chris Brown and the girls who still love him, and gay celebrities coming out of the closet. Her dissection of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series of erotica made me realize I could laugh myself silly while also holding back my vomit (Fifty Shades’ writing is just awful). And Gay’s essay “How to Be Friends with Another Woman” should be read by every female by the time she reaches middle school.
But it’s her essay “What We Hunger For” that nearly broke my heart. In this essay, Gay discusses her love for the “Hunger Games” franchise, and her brutal rape as a young girl. Reading “What We Hunger For” made me want to comfort Gay and take all of her pain away while get revenge on her attackers. I was filled with sorrow and filled with rage. This essay also got to me on a personal level because I was also a victim of a violent crime. I was mugged and beaten years ago. Gay’s essay made me ask, “How women stay strong after being so violated?” Well, we just do. We don’t have a choice.
In Gay’s collection of essays on race and entertainment, she forced me to look at the best-selling book The Help and its Hollywood adaptation with a new mindset. Gay admits her reservations about the critically-acclaimed movies Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave. And she takes Tyler Perry to task for his portrayals of black women and the working class.
However, it’s her essay “The Last Day of a Young Black Man” that truly got to me and made me think of the issues of race, privilege and prejudice in our so-called “post-racial” society. In this essay Gay discusses the true story of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was killed by the police on New Year’s Day at an Oakland BART station and the outrage and protests that followed. Oscar Grant’s tragically short life was made into a movie called “Fruitvale Station,” which showed not just Grant’s heartbreaking death, but also showed who he truly was as a son, a boyfriend, a father, and a friend. Oddly, enough I read this essay soon after we all learned of the death of another young black man, Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, at the hands of a police officer and the subsequent cries of outrage and protests, police brutality (often aimed at young black men) and our often misleading 24/7 media.
In another collection of essays Gay calls “Politics, Gender and Race,” Gay discusses the trouble black people have with behaving in the narrow parameters of what black people are supposed to “act.” She discusses Twitter vs. mainstream journalism and how even in 2014 women are still fighting to control their own reproductive rights.
In “A Tale of Two Profiles” Gay dissects the “rock star” treatment of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the less-forgiving portrayals of black victims of violence like Trayvon Martin (and now Michael Brown). This mind-blowing essay is more than food for thought; it is a damn buffet!
In the final collection of essays, Gay circles back to herself, feminism and her place in feminism. In Bad Feminist, Gay readily admits feminism gave women privileges our grandmothers couldn’t even dream of—access to furthering our education, professional success, reproductive rights, the right to vote, having our voices heard via various types of media. Even with all her self-perceived flaws, Gay knows she owes a lot to feminism. Or as she so rightly puts it, “I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t give a big shout out to Milwaukee’s very own Boswell Book Company, a wonderful independent book store. On August 8th, Boswell hosted a book discussion and Q & A with Ms. Gay about her book Bad Feminist and it was an amazing evening. I don’t think I would have discovered Ms. Gay and her book if it wasn’t for Boswell. Thank you Boswell Book Company!