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lip lit: bad feminist


Bad Feminist is, like feminism itself, not just about one thing, one experience, or one kind of woman.

Roxane Gay’s new collection of essays is difficult to condense into a single sentence. There are essays on the topics you’d expect: she deals swiftly and cuttingly with the ever-pervasive subject of rape culture; she writes lucidly and forthrightly about what it means to own your privilege; she  addresses the nature of female friendship; and she wades into the debate on representation of women in popular culture, writing about the tricky notion of the Strong Female Character through the lens of her all-abiding love for Katniss Everdeen and The Hunger Games trilogy. But Gay writes about other things too; things that would not, on the surface, seem immediately or obviously relevant: her love as a teenager for the Sweet Valley High series and her horrified devouring of its terrible 21st-century reboot; her introduction to the world of competitive Scrabble.

Gay’s frank approach to feminism and its limitations are at the heart of this book, and this blunt honesty is what makes it such an engrossing read. Gay is upfront about her flaws and her quirks; she is not unapologetic, but she understands that every human is a work in progress, and is ever-ready to admit that she won’t get it right on the first try. Feminism won’t get it right, not every time. As she writes in the introduction:

I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in the world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground. I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal.

It is lovely, relaxing even, to read a book about feminism that admits the possibility of getting it wrong. Gay admits freely, throughout the book, that she makes mistakes, sometimes accidentally and sometimes knowingly out of laziness or fear. She is not trying to construct a flawless argument for feminism’s future, but simply grappling with her own experiences with the patriarchy and her attempts to negotiate it.

In an essay entitled ‘How We All Lose’, Gay writes:

In response to these limited ways in which we talk, write, and think about gender, these vacuums in which we hold cultural conversations, no matter how good our intentions, no matter how finely crafted approach, I cannot help but think, This is how we all lose. I’m not sure how we can get better at having these conversations, but I do know we need to overcome our deeply entrenched positions and resistance to nuance. We have to be more interested in making things better than just being right, or interesting, or funny.

Although her essay is about gender, the sentiment could easily be applied to feminism.

Roxane Gay has already made a name for herself in the literary scene with her confronting novel An Untamed State; now, with this excellent collection of essays, we see her cementing her already strong position as a feminist writer of great skill; a discerning, insightful writer who is both humble and humbling to read. Bad Feminist deserves a place on every feminist’s bookshelf.

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