by Roxane Gay
2014 • 336 pages • Harper Perennial
In Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, you will find three versions of the eponymous essay. The final product opens the collection and two of its preceding drafts close it. They’re different enough that it doesn’t feel repetitive, but bookending the entire collection with them makes perfect sense. It shows how rocky the terrain of our current culture is, humanizes the writing process (which can feel sterilized in the seemingly permanent spaces of either the Internet or print), and drives home Gay’s point: that she “would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all” (318). For Gay (and, I would hope, for us all) being a feminist is an active process.
To be a feminist in the digital age is to be easily able to find both your community and those who would stand against you—even (and perhaps especially) those who also consider themselves feminists but are not committed to the cause as to a version of it that benefits them. There’s always that moment when a new acquaintance brings up Caitlin Moran and I tense up, wondering if they, too, subscribe to the same kind of cissexist feminism that doesn’t believe in intersectionality. To quote Flavia Dzodan, “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” I have, in my long time on the Internet, sought out, found, stumbled across, and otherwise just looked up to find myself in complex feminist (and if not explicitly feminist, feminist-minded) spaces that have much more to teach me than I have to teach them. Reading Bad Feminist, I was reminded of nothing more than that online feminist universe that I haunt, to the point that discovering where versions of the collected essays had been previously published in the acknowledgements read quite a bit like my Feedly.
I don’t say this to pat myself on the back about the construction said online feminist universe (precocious fandom queer has surrounded herself with ladies since the fifth grade, news at 11), but rather to highlight the impact of seeing Gay in print. While the Internet can seem permanent (cue Rooney Mara’s tight-lipped “The Internet’s not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink”), it’s also incredibly busy. That can make for exhilarating discourse or exhausting aggression. While I am not happy about the idea of anyone thinking that Gay’s straightforward, human feminism needs to be put into print by Harper Perennial to count, there remains, nonetheless, the sense of validation that comes with both holding the physical object and the high profile of the book. I take approximately forever to get around to what’s on the tip of everyone’s tongues, but the outpouring of love, commentary, and sheer coverage last summer for this was a heartwarming thing.
Many of the blurbs that adorn Bad Feminist’s back cover are quite taken by Gay’s treatment of pop culture—Melissa Harris-Perry’s blurb, in particular, assumes a border between “pop culture consumer and critic” that Gay crosses, although given Harris-Perry’s general awesomeness, I imagine it’s more reflective of blurbs versus Harris-Perry’s understanding of pop culture. As a fan, this is pretty par for the course for me (there was a lot of vigorous nodding on the subway), but Gay’s thoughtfulness offers a rare level of delicate but firm care to her subjects. She’s as passionate a feminist as you could hope for, but she’s also… well, the only word is careful.
All my favorite writers all share an unerring eye for that one detail; Gay brings it to feminism by being able to question exactly the right thing. We can all agree that reproductive rights are important, and Gay is at her fieriest pointing out how they become negotiable come election season and how women often feel they have to justify it beyond “I straight up do not want a baby right now”, but it’s the quiet question of why birth control is so often solely on the head of those who can physically bear children that has stuck with me. Through these questions, she slowly circles what is essentially the thesis of her entire life’s work—the impossible task of being a good woman (according to the kyriarchy) and the impossible task of being a good feminist (in the eyes of those who believe that feminism is a monolith).
So, much like the book itself, I can only circle back to where I’ve started—I, like Gay, “would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all” (318).
I rented this book from the public library.