Chosen by one of my book groups, Bad Feminist a collection of essays by American writer and academic Roxane Gay has given me a great deal to think about. Firstly, however it surprised me, I hadn’t quite expected to be as enthralled by it as I was. I had left it a little bit late to begin reading, the evening of my little Feminist book group’s meet was only a few days off and I had only read two or three essays, which might have been enough to at least take part in a discussion, but I was hooked and for the next three days I read it insatiably. When I met up with my friends I hadn’t much left to read and in fact finished it after work the following day. I had immediately engaged with Gay’s easy, straightforward style, her honesty and her realistic feminist standpoint.
“In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.”
Even in 2015, Feminism can get a rather bad press, is sometimes spoken of tongue in cheek or with undisguised derision. I think for some people, Feminism can feel like something for others; people who are cleverer, more politicised, academics and campaigners. Of course that isn’t so, and in this brilliant collection, of funny, brutal, deeply personal, and superbly accessible essays Gay demonstrates, how really feminism is for us all, that we can find reasons to uphold it, and think about what it really means in the most unexpected places. This book is not an academic text; it is deliberately more accessible and relevant than that.
“Feminism is a choice, and if a woman does not want to be a feminist, that is her right, but it is still my responsibility to fight for her rights. I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves. I believe women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.”
Gay explores feminism within the confines of modern popular culture, as well as her own experiences. Sweet Valley High, Fifty Shades of Grey, and films such as Bridesmaids and Django Unchained all come in for scrutiny. While the many American popular culture references went right over my head – I had seen only one of the TV shows talked about and seen none of the several films alluded to – it really didn’t matter at all. The cult of celebrity, the expectations of female perfection, issues of gender and race and the depiction of the black experience by Hollywood screenwriters and directors all come in for criticism. This criticism although sometimes angry is balanced however, Gay freely admits where things work, where writing is good even if she hates the finished product as a whole.
Throughout this collection, we are given ample opportunity to get to know the woman who wrote these essays. Roxane Gay; a woman of colour, born to Haitian parents, teaching at a university which she describes as being ‘in the middle of a cornfield’ a place where as a black woman she rather stands out. We see her as a new professor, starting out on her university teaching career, we experience American fat camps (shudder) with her, the world of competitive scrabble – (so, so funny). She explains how she struggled for acceptance at High school, and in a deeply personal account how she was victim of a horrendous sexual attack. Gay admits to rather admiring Countess Olenska from The Age of Innocence, and preferring Nellie Olsen to Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“We’re not supposed to like her, but Countess Olenska intrigues me because she is interesting. She stands apart from the blur of social conformity. We’re supposed to like, or at least respect, May for being the proper and sweet innocent she carries herself as; but in Wharton’s skilled hands, we eventually see that May Welland is as human, and therefore as unlikeable, as anyone else. This question of likability would be far more tolerable if all writers were as talented as Edith Wharton, but alas.”
It is very hard to sum up a whole collection easily – and really I suppose I could talk at some length about many of the ideas in this book, some of which really made me sit up and think. Much of what Roxane Gay writes about here is firmly rooted in American life, as my friends and I discussed the other night though, some of those experiences may have been quite different over here, that’s not to say these essays are only relevant to a US reader I obviously don’t think that at all. I felt I learned an awful lot, and I think I shall go on thinking about the issues raised in this book. I realised that there were things I had taken for granted and others I had never considered – because as Gay points out, for some time feminism has not been doing a wholly perfect job. Feminism and privilege it would seem have walked shoulder to shoulder, and therefore Feminism has not always done much for women of colour, or for transgender or gay women. So in this collection, Feminism itself comes in for criticism, Feminism is imperfect, and some of us are still figuring out what it is anyway, Gay herself describes herself as a Bad Feminist, probably most of us are.