Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Bad Feminist

I have been waiting for this book since I first encountered Roxane Gay on Twitter (@rgay). I was drawn to her words immediately, glad to have found a feminist willing and able to apply her sharp mind and biting wit to serious issues like sexual violence as well as to questions like why we watch reality television. I finally admitted that I sometimes watch The Bachelorette after realizing that Roxane Gay not only watches it, but live tweets it. Her commentary is both gleeful in its enjoyment and cutting in its analysis.

Have I mentioned that I adore Roxane Gay?

Under most circumstances I refuse to write gushy reviews. Gushy reviews are not helpful to the potential reader, I tell myself. Besides that, I am difficult to impress; I rarely want to gush. The critic in me enjoys finding diplomatic ways to point out flaws. There is no perfect book, and my job as reviewer is not to pretend there is by giving either a thumbs up or thumbs down to a book, as if it were that simple: good book, bad book, end of story. I want to get at the nuance; I want to explore how even the flaws in a book are part of what drives it forward, part of what keeps the literary conversation moving forward. I like flawed books as much as I like criticizing them. “Good” and “bad” are complicated, after all.

I like flawed books, but I LOVE Bad Feminist. Don't get me wrong, the book isn't perfect, but how could it be? A central premise of this essay collection seems to me to be that we would all do well to say "To hell with 'getting it right'" and embrace the fact that our feminisms are all failed feminisms because we are imperfect people.

Gay gets right to the heart of the matter, and the reason for what some might consider a provocative title, in the introduction:
How do we reconcile the imperfections of feminism with all the good it can do? In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement. (x)
She goes on to critique the way in which we tend to fixate on the most visible feminist figures, what she calls "Professional Feminists," blurring the distinctions between feminism as a movement and feminism’s most famous representatives. "I openly embrace the label of bad feminist," Gay writes. "I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain...interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist" (xi).

In embracing the messiness of feminism as a lived, embodied thing, rather than stopping short with an abstract concept or ideology, Gay creates space to embark on a wider conversation, multivocal and multifocused, and always, always, always deeply human. She is honest, and she is brave with her words, even when there is much at stake, even when she is laying herself bare before us. She writes like a person who cannot help but do so, and she does so with both brilliance and heart.

As with any collection, Bad Feminist has some essays I like more than others. And yet, this is one of very few times I have read such a collection and at the end of it realized I did not dislike a single one. There were many I would love to mull over more, to discuss in detail and perhaps build on, or to ask Gay, "What did you mean by ______?" But there we others that hit on intersections and ideas I have been trying to put together, struggling to make sense of on my own, about which finally Gay's words turned on the proverbial light bulb in my mind.

In "The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help" Gay teases out the problems with Kathryn Stockett's depiction of race in the south, her use of the "magical negro" trope, and the challenges of writing across difference. Gay illuminates the problems of the book while going one step further to discuss whether and how and why one can ever write across such differences. Gay challenges the reader intellectually, yet she also induces laughter, as in “The Alienable Rights of Women” when she discusses birth control options and the fact that the responsibilities of contraception continue to fall solely to women, and the reality that none of those options are particularly good (though better than the alternative):
I will take a pill every day when when men have that same option. We should all be in this together, right? One of my favorite moments is when a guy, at a certain point in a relationship, says something desperately hopeful like, “Are you on the pill?” I simply say, “No, are you?” (277)
And then there are the moments Gay delves into gut wrenching tragedy, and there too her words sing, albeit songs of lament. In "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion" and "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence," Gay writes some of the most important pieces I've read on sexual violence, on safety and triggers and protection and the lack thereof, and the horrible ways the media discusses these tragedies. In "What We Hunger For," Gay explores trauma and its effects through personal narrative and her own love of The Hunger Games, in order to consider what it means to endure "the unendurable" (146). All of these essays are in the section of the book dedicated to Gender & Sexuality, and it is telling that so much of a section with that subject heading deals, necessarily, with violence. This, too, is one of Gay's gifts to us as a writer, in days when the language used to discuss rape and abuse is, as she says, so careless. Gay is not careless; she is careful, she is honest, and she is as blunt as she needs to be. If we are going to talk about gender, and about sex, we have to talk about violence. We cannot look away. Roxane Gay is one writer who will not let us.

Gay's essay on Orange is the New Black is another high point of the book. She criticizes the show, while acknowledging why one might think she "should" love it, and pointing out some ways it does succeed, perhaps in spite of itself. Yet as people laud the show's diversity as if she ought to love it just for that, she says, "Time and again, people of color are supposed to be grateful for scraps from the table. There is a strange implication that we should enjoy certain movies and television just because they exist" (250). She goes on to detail all the ways OITNB is "diverse in the shallowest, most tokenistic ways," along with the implication that people of color should simply be grateful to be represented at all. She writes, "I am tired of feeling like I should be grateful when popular culture deigns to acknowledge the experience of people who are not white, middle class, or wealthy, and heterosexual." The bar is set so low, according to Gay, that such shows seem smarter than they are. "The conversation," she writes, "is how much we are forced to settle or, perhaps, how much we're willing to settle" (253). Gay refuses to settle. She refuses to settle for so little from others, and she has given us a book that shows she refuses to settle herself.

I flew through Bad Feminist, but when I reached the final two essays, “Bad Feminist: Take One,” and “Bad Feminist: Take Two” I slowed down to savor these last words. I am glad that I did, because it was “Take Two” that I most needed to read, not as a reviewer, but as a person, as a feminist who tries and fails and is all too aware of the many ways I do not live up to my own expectations for what a feminist looks like.

As Gay begins the essay listing the reasons she feels that she fails as a woman and a feminist, I saw my own list between the lines. I am too soft spoken. I cry so easily, about so many things. I am so shy. I am afraid to ask men out on dates. I tried to quit shaving, but my hairy armpits drove me crazy. I am uncomfortable wearing a swimsuit in public. I subscribe to Vogue. I love to cook, and knit, and though I am not particularly sure that I want a child of my own there are few bad days not improved by the chance to hold one of my friends’ babies. For much of my young adult life I made my living as a nanny. I am an educated white woman and struggle to learn right ways to engage with feminism beyond the white neoliberal version I most often come across. I am a Christian. And, perhaps most notably, I love theology written by dead white guys. I am a bad feminist.

I was glad to read this last essay in the safety of my own home, because in the final paragraphs I wept.
At some point I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman...bad feminism seems like the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself, and so I write. I chatter away on Twitter about everything that makes me angry and all the small things that bring me joy. I write blog posts about the meals I cook as I try to take better care of myself, and with each new entry I realize that I’m undestroying myself after years of allowing myself to be damaged. The more I write, the more I put myself out into the world as a bad feminist but, I hope, a good woman -- I am being open about who I am and who I was and where I have faltered and who I would like to become. (318)
Gay’s life and my life are different. Her story is not mine, and I do not want to pretend that it is. I am grateful for her writing for many reasons, but one of them is that her words here speak to a tension I have felt for much of my adult life, wherein by claiming feminism I have felt a new set of ideals and a new set of pressures that at times feel no less damning than the ideals of a submissive, modest Christian woman, the “Proverbs 31 woman,” that I spent the first 20 or so years of my life trying to be. At some point I started claiming feminism anyway, and I stand by it: I am a feminist, for more reasons than I can count. But there are perhaps more ways of being a feminist than any of us imagine.

“Like most people,” Roxane Gay concludes, “I am full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated  like shit for being a woman. I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”