“On my more difficult days, I’m not sure what’s more of a pain in my ass—being black or being a woman. I’m happy to be both these things, but the world keeps interfering.”
Roxane Gay is a novelist and a professor of English, but I came to her work through Twitter. In the midst of many a heated discussion about racial issues, feminism, and pop culture, I would stumble across her thoughtful comments and observations. Eventually I started following her, and reading both her opinion pieces and personal essays. Many of those essays are reprinted here in Bad Feminist, a loose, wide-ranging collection of cultural commentary and personal reflection.
Gay titles her work Bad Feminist, but the collection is really very intersectional, particularly dealing with race and Gay’s experience as a black woman in America. She opens with an essay about her experience advising a black students association while she was a graduate student, and how rewarding and exhausting that experience was. This essay was striking because it conveyed both how much help some of her black students needed to achieve the success they wanted, and how much they feared being seen to care about education. Race remains an inseparable part of the conversation throughout the book.
The title Bad Feminist is controversial, because of course it implies that there is a contrasting good feminist, but this is precisely what Gay is fighting against, in herself as much as in others. Feminism can be undermined by more than baggage about supposedly hating men and sex; it can be undermined by our own internalized sense of insufficiency, the feeling that we aren’t strong enough to live up to the expectations feminism sets for us. We have to fight our own expectations about what it means to be a feminist as well as deal with the cultural baggage that has been attached to the term. Gay points out reflections of this problematic attitude throughout our culture, seeing its echoes in the demand for likeable female protagonists while male characters are allowed to be anti-heroes.
Gay is both an avid consumer and a thoughtful critic of popular culture, and one that is capable of critiquing a novel or television show’s problematic aspects while also delighting in the enjoyable parts. She enthuses about The Hunger Games, but notes “It is disturbing that within the world of The Hunger Games, it is perfectly acceptable for teenagers to kill one another or die or otherwise suffer in really violent ways, but not at all acceptable for them to explore their sexuality.” Likewise, Gay’s pieces aren’t without some of their own problems. On the importance of speaking up about rape culture, Gay quotes the Latin adage qui tacet consentire videtur (he who is silent is assumed to consent) which seems like a particularly ill-chosen proverb given how much time feminists have spent trying to hammer in the idea that silence is not consent. But even when we disagreed, I found her funny, thoughtful, balanced, and above all, passionate about her topic. However, her concern with the fast-moving world of pop culture also means that her essays are, in many cases, of-the-moment rather than lasting critical reflections.
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