Bad Feminist was the book all of my female colleagues were talking about at the latter half of 2014. Not since Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedX talk, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ (popularised by it’s role in Beyonce’s song Flawless) have I heard such fervour and open discussion about feminism. In fact The Guardian called Bad Feminist ‘the most persuasive feminist recruitment drive in recent memory’. With Roxane Gay to appear in Australia in March, I wanted to understand her writing and popularity further. It was finally time for me to embrace my bad feminist.
Roxane Gay divides the book into three main sections - ‘Gender and Sexuality’, ‘Race and Entertainment’, ‘Politics, Gender and Race’ - which are bookended by ‘Me’ and ‘Back to Me’. These personal essays at the start and end of the book contextualise the background and beliefs of the author to start, and bring these main sections of commentary to conclusion at the end, with a look to the future. From ‘Me’ we get a sense of the manifesto that Gay will cover in the essays to come:
I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. 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. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.
Gay may not be well-versed in feminist history, but this actually gives her an advantage in connecting with generations X and Y. Because quoting the difficulties of previous generations (and particularly that of our parents in the sixties and seventies) only reinforces what comes before us. Gay remains truly in the present, giving popular culture a feminist gaze, and in doing so makes feminism relatable and digestible. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedX talk, she states “Culture does not make people - people make culture.” By examining contemporary culture and calling out music, film and television for it’s misrepresentations and prejudices against women, race and class, we help to change these cultural products in a truer representation of our own culture. For example, Gay writes incredibly powerfully on difference, in particular how white voices have succumbed to cultural appropriation of black Americans in films such as ‘The Help’ and ‘Django Unchained’:
Django Unchained isn't about a black man reclaiming his freedom. It’s about a white man working through his own racial demons and white guilt.
Gay also shines a light on the misogyny prevalent in the publishing industry, which as a reader and book lover hit me even more strongly than some of her essays about music, film or television. As she states: “In literature, as in life, the rules are all too often different for girls.” She speaks of the focus on the likeability of female characters or the characters in books written by women, and how this exists as a double standard that does not apply to male authors. For example, Bret Easton Ellis is rarely questioned on the likeability of his characters, whereas the number of think pieces that have been published ruminating on the likeability or otherwise of Amy in Gone Girl makes me want to throw my computer off my balcony. But what truly grates, is that surely we do not wish for a world full of likeable characters. As Gay says, “If you're reading to find friends, you're in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.” Gay ultimately brings this double standard back to an issue of a patriarchal society:
When we look beyond publishing and consider that the United States is a country where we’re still having an incomprehensible debate about contraception and reproductive freedom, it becomes clear women are dealing with trickle-down misogyny.
As Gay shows here, although feminism has in many ways come a long way since my mother’s generation and since female contraception became widely available, it is easy to forget that in many parts of the world (including in many parts of the US), this remains an ongoing fight. Women still battle for their right to reproductive freedom, and even in a progressive city like Melbourne women are regularly confronted by protesters outside abortion clinics, or by conservative politicians wanting to reverse access to women’s health services.
A point that stood out for me in Bad Feminist was that women shouldn’t need to rely on health arguments for access to contraception and reproductive choices: women shouldn’t have to fear saying that they want access to these choices and services because they want to be able to express themselves sexually without consequences. I’m often infuriated by arguments against contraception and reproductive choices because for me they are a health argument. I have been on a number of forms of contraception since I was fifteen, because as I have written previously, without these medications my standard of living is pretty miserable and I would suffer through regular bouts of chronic pain. Although this is not an uncommon experience, it is not the only experience. In order to treat women and men equally, we need to look at contraception and reproductive choices as a way of allowing equal access to sex and a sexually active lifestyle.
Although Gay avoids quoting feminist theory and for the most part chooses instead to put these theories into context using every day examples from popular culture, there is some excellent examination of Judith Butler’s 1988 essay ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’ in which Butler writes:
“Performing one’s gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect, and performing it well provides the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity after all.”
Gay then uses this theory within the context of contemporary feminism, and the argument that there is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feminism:
Butler's thesis could also apply to feminism. There is an essential feminism or, as I perceive the essentialism, the notional that there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist and that there are consequences for doing feminism wrong.
To again quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be, rather than recognising how we are.” The powerful argument Gay displays in Bad Feminist is that it’s time to stop shaming women into thinking they are doing feminism wrong; that there is a right or a wrong way to be a feminist, and by association, a right or a wrong way to be a woman. These theories come from both male and female voices, but are equally as toxic. By giving women the freedom to be the person they are, we display the ultimate form of feminism. And this comes from a freedom of access: to education, to contraception and reproductive choices, to safety, to have our voice represented in a true and fair way, without appropriation of race, class or gender.
But importantly, Gay also reminds us to keep our privilege in check. As a white, middle class, heterosexual cisgendered woman, I may still be affected by misogyny and may need to fight to retain my access to women’s health services, but I am also free from many disadvantages. I have never experienced racism, and do not experience misogyny that is compounded by race, as Gay powerfully explores. I have full access to education, employment and housing. My neighbourhood is safe and I do not feel threatened being out at night on my own. Though I suffer from health problems, I am financially able to cover these expenses (many of which, it is important to note, are not covered by the Australian government’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme as they are treated as experimental treatments, and therefore require me to maintain a certain level of privilege in order to maintain my health, something I find infuriating whenever I require treatment).
Gay also reminds us that we sometimes place too much pressure on ourselves in regards to representation. For example, Lena Dunham has received a lot of criticism for Girls’ all white, all upper middle class characters with a level of privilege that lets them live in an incredibly expensive city while young and earning unrealistic incomes to maintain their lifestyles. While Gay agrees with this criticism, she also points out what this show has achieved: a female writer, director and producer on television is still a rare feat that deserves recognition. The show celebrates female friendships and shows women exploring their sexuality without guilt or shame— again something that is more revolutionary than it should be in 2015. Through arguments such as this, Bad Feminist ultimately reminds us that while women have indeed come a long way, there is a still a long way to go. It’s up to us to celebrate victories, but also to keep these in check, knowing that there’s always further to go.
This is not a book I read cover to cover - it’s one I chose to dive in and out of. Firstly to savour Gay’s writing and perfectly formed essays, but also because it is not always an easy read. Some essays will make you laugh out loud, some will make you connect with Gay like a wise female friend you bond with over gin and tonics and proceed to spill your heart and soul to, but some will make you squirm in your seat, make you confront your privilege and question the west’s endemic sexism, misogyny and racism. In her recent interview at The Wheeler Centre, Gay was questioned about the graphic sexual violence in her novel The Untamed State and responded that this is her intention— to make you need to put the book down. Because if you can sit through it, you don’t understand the power of it. This is a sentiment that carries through to Bad Feminist: for every pop culture reference and with every drop of Gay’s sharp humour, there is a sharp kick in the guts. Because we need to understand the true consequences of the culture in America but also of the west more widely, in order to help shape it into a culture that not only represents us, but also becomes one that we are proud to praise, share and love. As Gay writes in her essay about the publishing industry, “Books are often far more than just books.” This is undoubtedly the case for Bad Feminist.
As I finished Bad Feminist, it was a beautiful autumnal Friday. Melbourne is at its best in March: past the humid, stifling days of January and February, but not quite the brisk and often rain sodden months of April and May. It’s a sweet spot where the days are clear and mild, before the cool nights make for perfect uninterrupted sleeping weather. I was spending the day writing, reading and cooking, after going out for a late breakfast with my partner - in many ways, my perfect way to spend a day. I was also trying to beat off a cold, so wanted to ply myself with a generous amount of garlic. So, after blanching two handfuls of kale in boiling water for a few minutes, I softened some garlic in olive oil before adding the drained kale, sautéing for a few more minutes until the kale was softened and infused with the garlic. I then topped it with a fried egg, but if the eggs in our fridge had been more fresh, I think a runny poached egg would be great too. Nothing says middle class privilege like eating kale for lunch while spending the day writing— I am completely aware of the irony in posting this with Bad Feminist. But this is not a fancy meal - it is very everyday, throw some stuff in a pan and get on with the day. I continue to read, write and think about the lessons of Bad Feminist and in doing so look at the world around me differently, more inquisitively and more critically, knowing there is no right or wrong way to be a feminist, or a woman.