Review of Bad Feminist: Essays by

Book cover for Bad Feminist: Essays

Bad Feminist has been on my radar for years, but as with many such books, it took someone physically putting it in my hands for me to get around to it. In this case, my best friend Rebecca (with whom I have started a podcast!) gave this to me as a going-away present when she moved to Montreal (I’m not sure she understands how going-away presents work?). She inscribed it, “To our first book, for our Feminist Book Club.” So I guess I’m in a feminist book club now! It’s interesting, because Rebecca and I both call ourselves feminists, but we have very different experiences, of course. Her lived experience as a woman is very different from mine as a man. And while we both share a voracious appetite to learn more (about everything, not just feminism), we sometimes have different ways of going about this. So I love discussing our experiences and ideas with each other, and I enjoyed reading Bad Feminist if only to get her take on it.

I’ve only actually read one other book by Roxane Gay: Difficult Women, a collection of short stories. I loved it. I’ve also read a non-fiction article here or there by her. I don’t follow her on Twitter but occasionally see some of her stuff retweeted into my timeline. That sort of thing; I’m aware of who she is and how she approaches these subjects, but Bad Feminist is the first time I’ve sat down for an extended visit in her mind. And this time I even sipped this book rather than chugged it, like I do with most essay books, which I’m aware isn’t the ideal way to consume these things.

I appreciate Gay’s honesty, the way she is upfront when she explains that she has not set out to create a manifesto, or the next Visionary Feminist Book. Too often writers (either earnestly or because they think confidence is the key to marketing) pitch their writing in a way that makes it seem like they and only they have the revelation that’s going to make feminism (or whatever subject) make sense for the reader. Gay is having none of it. These are personal essays, she says. They are published, public, but they are political in the sense that being a person (and especially a Black woman) is political within the context of American society. In this sense Gay is continuing a long tradition of essays written for the sake of a writer expressing her opinion, as opposed to essays written for the sake of a movement.

I really like the first section, “Me,” in which Gay ruminates upon some facets of her life, such as professorship and Scrabble. Some of her comments about teaching resonate with me, a high school teacher of adults. As she confesses her feelings of inadequacy trying to make class “fun,” or her reservations about the way so many of her students appear to be there only because they’ve been told (by parents, by society, by companies) that college is the only route to success, I think about my own experiences in the classroom. The specifics of our experiences overlap very little, but the overall feelings are familiar.

As the collection goes on into broader topics, most of the essays are OK but not outstanding, in my opinion. More specifically, they are fine pieces of writing, but they fail to unify into any particular set of ideas or perspectives that really get me thinking differently. There are a few exceptions to this, of course. I appreciate a lot of the content around race, including the essay on Chris Brown’s abusiveness and how women sometimes still gravitate towards such abusive celebrity, or her critiques of acclaimed movies like Django Unchained and The Help. Basically, these make me feel like I’m reading someone’s blog. Their thoughts are fresh, somewhat unfiltered, and coming from someone whose ideas and experiences are quite distinct from mine.

Sometimes I disagree with her. Gay mulls over whether or not trigger warnings are useful. Now, I like the essay, because she explains quite well why she doesn’t want to use them. In so doing, she makes me think about trigger warnings, and I understand what she’s seeing. I also think she makes a salient point that a lot of people who eschew trigger warnings don’t grasp or refuse to grasp: just because she doesn’t believe in them doesn’t mean she wants others to stop using them, in the same way (her analogy) an atheist doesn’t necessarily think a Christian should stop believing in the Bible. So while she didn’t convince me (and I’m not sure that’s what she set out to do anyway), it was interesting hearing her perspective on that issue.

Some of the pop culture stuff, the essays about Orange is the New Black or Girls, feels less relevant now. If you watch these shows then I suspect you would find these pieces more interesting. For me, though, I have to rifle through my brain of five years ago to dredge up my incomplete understanding of those shows.

Overall, I appreciate the way Gay labels herself a “bad feminist” and, at the end of the book, dissects what she means by that. I, too, am a bad feminist of course. In particular, I am a white, cis man, which means I have a lot of privilege in this patriarchal society, so sometimes I don’t even realize when I’m flexing that privilege or stepping over a line. If I’m lucky, one of my friends notices and warns me—but it shouldn’t be someone else’s job to educate me. That’s my job, and it’s why I read books like this one. It’s why I identify as a feminist, even though I know I’m going to mess up—because I believe feminism is for everyone.* If we restrict it only to people who are doing it “right” then no one could be a feminist at all.

(*Except TERFs. Fuck right off with that bullshit.)

Bad Feminist is a solid three stars from me. I liked it, didn’t love it. Might leaf through it again in the future, or if someone asks me about a particular essay, or maybe I’ll lend my copy to an interested friend at some point. I have read much worse books that purport to be about feminism, and I have read some far more interesting ones as well (interesting at least to me). I enjoyed getting to know Gay’s non-fiction writing a bit better. I don’t think you can go wrong reading this, but I also don’t want to hype it up and make it more than what it is.

Engagement

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