Right On

Roxane Gay: Not Such a ‘Bad Feminist’ After All

The writer’s book of essays has attracted much, mostly laudatory, coverage. But its title is a misnomer: The far-from-renegade Gay is a very good feminist.

She might be the new Germaine Greer. She could very well be the next Naomi Wolf. But writer Roxane Gay’s new collection of essays, Bad Feminist, suggests that the feminist movement’s rising star might be the next Camille Paglia. And it’s another example of why we should never judge a book by its cover—or, in this case, by its title.

Anyone familiar with Gay’s writing or her Twitter feed knows that while she’s an active and outspoken feminist, she is not, like Paglia, a particularly “bad” or controversial one (unless it is controversial for a feminist to live-tweet the September issue of Vogue).

So what, exactly, does it mean to be a “bad feminist?” What does a bad feminist believe that a “good” feminist doesn’t?

There has long been an instinct to equate feminism with “essential feminism”those militants who hate men and don’t shave their armpits. But to understand feminism requires a more nuanced view of women’s issues.

Gay subscribes to the common feminist belief that the movement has long been stigmatized as one governed by “anger, humorlessness, militancy, unwavering principles, and a prescribed set of rules for how to be a proper feminist woman.”

Essential feminism, she writes, “suggests there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist” and doesn’t allow for “the complexities of human experience or individuality.”

Gay spent much of her young adulthood shying away from the feminist label because she--and those who assigned it to her—associated it with essentialism.

She writes of being “ashamed” of disavowing feminism, professing ignorance of its meaning and mission. This partially explains why she considers herself a “bad feminist” today. It’s the culture’s reductive, pejorative view of feminism, she argues, that suggests there is a good or “bad” way to inhabit an identity.

“I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal. People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly...Consider me already knocked off.”

Gay describes herself as a “mess of contradictions”—a phrase that, in some ways, has become analogous with the movement —and someone who has eschewed the tangle of feminist sub-labels.

“I resisted feminism in my late teens and my twenties because I worried that feminism wouldn’t allow me to be the mess of a woman I knew myself to be. But then I began to learn more about feminism. I learned to separate feminism from Feminism or Feminists or the idea of an Essential Feminism—one true feminism to dominate all of womankind.”

But while pointing out that we need a more nuanced view of feminism—detaching feminism from essential feminism—it’s clear that Gay’s views are still firmly rooted in essentialist theory.

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Society is too quick to judge women on likability. But we should be more ready to celebrate both real and fictional women for daring to be unlikable.

Gay argues strenuously against the need for “likeable” characters in literature, because women aren’t so two-dimensional in real life. It’s a standard that applies too frequently to women in politics and positions of power.

“Good women are charming, polite, and unobtrusive. Good women work but are content to earn 77 percent of what men earn or, depending on whom you ask, good women bear children and stay home to raise those children without complaint.

"Good women are modest, chaste, pious, submissive. Women who don’t adhere to these standards are the fallen, the undesirable; they are bad women.”

In this case, it’s a good thing to be “bad.”

The problem with pervasive anti-women language and imagery in pop culture

It may be Robin Thicke’s most popular song to date, but the R&B singer’s “Blurred Lines”—about a woman who may or may not be sexually interested in him—certainly isn’t popular in feminist circles.

Last summer, critics slammed its “rapey” lyrics and denounced the singer suggesting that no might actually mean yes. And Gay couldn’t help but sing along, “as much as it pains me to admit it.”

“I enjoy the songs the way I have to enjoy most music—I have to forget I am a sentient being. I have to lighten up,” she is told by patriarchal society.

But to “lighten up” would be to pretend these songs are innocuous when, she argues, they’re symptomatic of a “much more virulent cultural sickness—one where women exist to satisfy the whims of men.”

It’s one thing to sing along, says Gay, but it’s another to maintain that the objectification of women in pop culture doesn’t influence the treatment of women.

“A culture that treats women as objects, that gleefully supports entertainment that is more often demeaning toward women than it is not, that encourages the erosion of a woman’s autonomy and personal space, is the same culture that elects state lawmakers who work tirelessly to enact restrictive abortion legislation.”

Don’t blame Lena Dunham for giving us a narrow view of what it means to be a twenty-something woman in Manhattan.

When HBO’s Girls debuted in 2012, critics heaped praise on the show about twenty-something girls navigating that elusive space between post-college life and adulthood and crowning show creator Lena Dunham the voice of a generation.

But critics like Gay heaped scorn on Girls for being too privileged and too white, noting that “there are many of us who recognize that the show’s only speaking to a narrow demographic within that generation.”

Indeed, the show’s premise of a privileged young woman trying to make it in New York City is a world “where young women’s New York lifestyles can be subsidized by their parents, where these young women can think about art and unpaid internships and finding themselves and writing memoirs at twenty-four.”

But Gay argues that critics shouldn’t blame Dunham for providing such a blinkered view of city life, for she’s simply the “product of the artistic culture that created her—one that is largely myopic and unwilling to think about diversity critically.”

Dunham might be “unwilling to think about diversity critically,” but that doesn’t mean the whiteness of Girls is by design.

“It’s not that people of color are deliberately excluded but that they are not included because most communities, literary or otherwise, are largely insular and populated by people who know the people they know. This is the uncomfortable truth of our community, and it is disingenuous to be pointing the finger at Girls when the show is a pretty accurate reflection of many artistic communities.”

Girls might merely reflect unfortunate racial clustering among Dunham’s generation, but the fact that she has a platform on HBO is both laudable and slightly depressing.

“It’s awesome that a 25-year-old woman gets to write, direct, and star in her own show for a network like HBO. It’s just as sad that this is so revolutionary it deserves mention.”