Non Fiction Review: Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist
Roxane Gay
Corsair Publishing 2014 (I own a copy)

I wasn't aware of Roxane Gay prior to the release of this book, but many others would have been.  She is the author of two other books (a novel and a collection of short stories) as well as being published in numerous other places in print and online.  She is a Professor of English and a championship Scrabble player.  Bad Feminist is a collection of essays which draw on her own personal experience, navigating the modern world as a woman, and as Haitian American, through the broader lens of how she sees herself (or not) reflected in popular culture.

Image from Goodreads

Bad Feminist earns its title from the idea that 'Feminism' as it has come to be understood in the broader scheme of things, has gained common use as a kind of insulting stereotype-- angry, unattractive, militant women who don't shave their legs, wear make up etc.  In her opening essay 'Feminism, plural', Gay states that she does not have all the answers to the questions about representation and gender; what matters to her is standing up and having a voice on the issues that are important to her.  She says,

"I disavowed feminism because I had no rational understanding of the movement.  I was called a feminist, and what I heard was, 'You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating, victim lady person.'" (pxi)

What becomes apparent throughout the collection is that feminism, to the author, is just one part of a grander scheme of humanism, and the right to be an individual, in a world where no one has the right to restrict anyone else's rights.  We life in a culture which can vilify singer Chris Brown for domestic abuse one minute, and let him perform at major music awards the next ('Dear Young Ladies Who Love Chris Brown So Much they Would Let Him Beat Them'); this is fundamentally skewed.  Repeatedly, the point is made that we have terms like 'rape culture' because we do have a culture in which attitudes to rape and to women's bodies invite the wrong sorts of discussion.  We have rape jokes ('Some Jokes Are Funnier Than Others'), and we have victim blaming and victim shaming ('The Careless Language of Sexual Violence').  As I read the essay, 'The Careless Language of Sexual Violence', in which Roxane Gay recounts a news item about the gang rape of an eleven year old girl which focussed on the tragic waste of the lives of the young men who actually committed the act, I found myself thinking it was too horrific, and thank goodness we do not have that kind of thinking here.  Then, a few days ago a story hit our own newspapers about a woman who was murdered and dismembered by her partner, who later committed suicide.  One newspaper (they know who they are) focussed not on the tragic death of this woman through domestic violence, but on the fact that she was transgender, calling her a she-male.  I felt as if my eyes had been opened.  Granted there was enormous backlash against the paper, but clearly we are not going to be throwing stones from our glass houses down under.

The essays are divided into sections, along line of personal essays, essays on gender, essays on race and politics, and a few more essays about Roxane herself.  This structure works nicely, but I found the first half of the book a lot more interesting than the last half.  Her essays on race were full of passion and anger, but as I had not seen many of the films that she was critiquing, I found it difficult to engage (and this did happen with a few of her gender essays as well, but not as many, as her pop culture references were a lot more well known).  The one essay that I am STILL thinking about now is her essay 'The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances of 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help', in which Roxane angrily decries the inaccurate caricatures of African American characters in the film The Help and the novel by Katherine Stockett on which it was based.  I was taken aback by her upset, because I loved both the film and the book, but I had to second guess myself.  I'm white, and fairly privileged, so am I more likely to accept that these characters are accurate?  Gay talks about the trope of the 'magical negro', who functions as a cathartic personality in the spiritual or moral journey of the white person, in this case Skeeter Phelan. The Help had a cast of at least a dozen characters who fit this bill, and Gay took issue with the use of elements of racial stereotypes, such as a predilection for fried chicken and a sense of joy in raising the children of white people.  It's certainly made me think, and I think when I finally get around to reading Sue Monk Kidd's newest book, this is going to be on my mind.

What I loved most about this book is it is so full of honest emotion.  Less academic essays and more structured conversations, Roxane Gay invites the reader into her life and tells them candidly about her experiences-- including a horrific sexual assault she suffered as a teenager-- and invites the reader to think twice about what they read, watch and dance along to in the car.  Whether it's celebrating Katniss Everdeen, deciding which twin from Sweet Valley High she wanted to be, or lamenting the ever increasing level of violence needed to shock viewers of Law and Order SVU, Roxane Gay is careful, and critical consumer, and these essays have hopefully taught me to be one too.  At times she's angry, but at other's she's very very funny, and although I still don't know what her essay on Scrabble has to do with anything, I would really love to have a cup of coffee with Roxane and ask her about it.

Four stars.