Review: Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist
Patricia J. Williams
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, a new online-first feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues.
The forum on Bad Feminist will appear in print in the spring 2016 issue of Signs.
Bad Feminist is the musing of a strong but lonely intelligence. Roxane Gay grew up as the daughter of conservative Haitian parents, almost always the only black kid in her school, always reading, always yearning to be popular, always wishing she were … not a bad girl precisely, but just a little less good. If the question is why this book and why now, I think the appeal lies in Gay’s casually colloquial yet highly intellectual takedowns of everything from competitive Scrabble tournaments to Lena Dunham’s Girls. Moreover, since debates about gender, race, and feminism are so often ponderously vexed—all but deadlocked before they leave the gate—Gay’s tone is refreshing. Her writing is funny, smart, accepting, kind. She is unafraid to admit her own inconsistencies, like her ability to “take pleasure in something so terrible” (199) as the terribly written Fifty Shades of Grey.
Gay does not set out to write a “revolutionary” book about contemporary feminism—she explicitly rejects the hyperbole of greeting every singular act of empowerment as such. Indeed, there is nothing new about most of her topics: rape, equal pay, the segregated cultural landscape of television and film. These are fields of inequality that have consumed us for at least a century. But while she analyzes situations that are all too sadly familiar to readers of any generation, her lens is very particular to her own.
I grew up in the generation of women breaking free from the Barbie-doll world of Mad Men. The feminist movement of my time was explicitly if diversely political—from Bella Abzug to Angela Davis to Mary Tyler Moore, and there was at least some common aim at accepting our bodies, ourselves. There was as well at least some common aim of escaping confinement—whether corsets and girdles or marital expectations and limitations in employment. In retrospect, it seems cloaked in a kind of lost optimism, an inevitability of the coming of a world of multifaceted “choice.”
In contrast, Bad Feminist speaks to the experiences of young women who have grown up with much meaner messages playing in the background: Real Housewives of New Jersey, Basketball Wives, Victoria’s Secret models’ diets, Fox News and Flavor Flav. Young women, if they are weaned on television or social media, are growing up inside the kinds of men’s brains who imagine women as perpetually mud-wrestling, always in warring tribes, using the spike heels of their fuck-me pumps to do lasting injury in showdowns in expensive restaurants. That masturbatory vision is everywhere, has been technologically enhanced, is hard to escape. Slut shaming and revenge porn have become new forms of old disciplinary practices, and civility among all humans, regardless of sex or gender, has broken down in increasingly dangerous and invasive ways.
Meanwhile, the rejected aesthetic of conical bras or underwear in which you couldn’t breathe seems to have been replaced by aesthetic endurances of a far more painful nature: dressing up occurs within a cultural bell jar of peculiar insistence that the life of the mind be inscribed on the body—tattooed onto it, pieced through it, or surgically altered—in order to be heard.
Gay speaks to the mean-spirited perfectionism that so many young women must deal with today. The book is peppered with the vocabulary of a generation many of whom don’t know who Shirley Chisolm or Gloria Steinem are—words like “crappy,” “asshole,” “drama,” and “divas”—yet Gay’s message remains quietly humane, gently humorous. It is an instruction manual for the postfeminist, post–Ms. Magazine, post-peace-and-love crowd. Bad Feminist is Miss Manners for messed-up millennials.