“I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”
I feel this quote deeply. I have many opinions and feelings about being a feminist and either stand up to or fail at my own expectations, depending on the week, the day, the hour. But I’m taking my own small steps. I read. Obviously. A lot. But until this year I had made almost no move into the feminist side of one of my most favorite ways to spend my time. So I made a goal to do better – thank you Roxane, for writing this book and allowing me to better myself by read it. I had so many thoughts while reading this collection…like if I actually took the time to write them all, the result would be at least half as long as the book itself. And I’ll do my best to keep it all concise for you in the following review. But that quote above, the very last line in the book, brought together everything that had been building in my mind as I read. Maybe, like Gay, we are all a mass of contradictions and don’t always act in perfect accordance with the ideals we espouse. But it’s got to be better to try than to avoid it because we are sure we won’t measure up.
“This collection of essays covered an almost overwhelming number of topics. Gay starts things off a little lighter, allowing the reader time to get to know her, her mind, and her style before fully diving in. We learn about her as a person: a daughter of Haitian immigrants, a professor, a competitive scrabble player, a reader, a survivor. And throughout the book we are allowed further insights into her youth, her traumatic experience as a victim of a gang rape, her soft spot for rap music despite her guilt over enjoying music with such terrible lyrics, and all the times she has been a less than ideal (whether in reality or simply in her own judgement) paragon of feminism.
This collection took me much longer to get through than Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman (a book that is actually talked about in one of Gay’s essays, with an explanation and partial indictment of the levity and single-sidedness that perhaps explains why it was such a faster read). For anyone who cares, I enjoyed both Moran’s and Gay’s writing in equal but different ways and will choose to operate under the understanding that they are both addressing a universally impactful topic in the way they best could – to paraphrase an reiterate, better to be a bad feminist than not one at all. In any case, Gay’s essays are a mix of literary and cinematic critique and insightful (at times scathing) social commentary and opinion. She addresses topics central to the marginalization of women, minorities (particularly in reference to Black people), and the innumerable moments of intersectionality between the two. She addresses general societal expectations and allowances, rape culture, the inequality of women in the workplace and in interpersonal life, reproductive rights (or lack thereof), the lack of realistic and worthy portrayals of women/minorities/minority women in tv and movies, and much more. Everything is written with Gay’s caveat at the beginning that these essays, like herself, like feminism, are flawed, but are what she has to offer.
Although the heavy topics meant it took me awhile to get into it (it’s hard to read about the way real life is failing us…it’s so much easier to jump into a fantasy story and be carried away), I generally loved these essays. Gay made beautiful and well-articulated points on every topic she chose to address. She presented well researched opinions and included guest quotes and examples from extremely varied literary, cinematic, and interview/article sources that show her depth of knowledge and thought, while simultaneously giving us the chance to see that even such wonderful feminist role models (yes, you are definitely one of those, Gay) are allowed to enjoy entertainment that doesn’t necessarily jive with our views of the “perfect feminist.” She references, among others, books and shows and movies from Girls, Fifty Shades of Grey, Tosh (Tosh.0) and Tyler Perry to 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, Chris Brown and Robin Thicke – speaking to both her disappointments and appreciation at what they have accomplished. She speaks about events like the Sandusky case and Treyvon Martin to Anderson Cooper (and others) coming out and women’s clearly “alienable right” to have control over their bodies in the current cycle of reproductive rights repression. Actually, now that it’s been a few years since this was published, I would love to see some of Gay’s thoughts on songs/movies/books/events that have occured more recently, as I feel like her perspective highlights things I likely might never have thought of otherwise (which, straight up, is one of the things I love most about reading).
Often, Gay discusses her own struggles to respect what a book/movie, etc. has accomplished versus her unreasonable expectations of what it could have been, which comes across particularly strong in the chapter she writes about body shape/size. In any case, this is, in fact, probably my biggest complaint about the book. Although she always pointed out the good things, most every critique ended with Gay’s opinion of what could have been better. And mostly that’s fine, that’s what this collection was for. But there was one major contradiction that rubbed me the wrong way every time I read it: that she wants (though she recognizes the impossibility) every book/movie to do/be more, wishes for an “everything to everyone” situation, while at the same time complaining (again with self-recognition of the unfairness) when people write about things they don’t know about. I feel like these are mutually exclusive ideals to hold. For example, she (rightfully, I believe) was upset about the falseness/shallowness of Stockett’s “magical black maid” characters in The Help and mentions Stockett’s skin color in her complaints. At the same time, she complains about Moran’s How To Be a Woman for its’ narrow scope, even though that’s Moran writing about what she really knows, her own experience and perspective. I feel like, as I said, these are mutually exclusive complaints and that frustrated me. So in response, I am trying my own hand at accepting us all as bad feminists. I harken back to Gay’s self-recognition of her contradictory-ness and I try to think that this complaint of mine just proves our unreachable standards of “good” feminism. (I think I learned something here!)
This collection touched on so much, in a very easy (as far as pacing and writing style, not in regards to topics) way that really appealed to me. I want to read more, know more, understand more, take a stand more, as a feminist…but it can be scary. Gay wrote about it all in a very approachable and unintimidating way that. And though it made me feel guilty at times, it was from the cognitive dissonance her writing inspired and not from any tone of accusation in her writing. I want more of this in my life. And I highly recommend these essays.”
There are a few quotes/thoughts in particular that I’d love to pull out because they really struck me. I’ve added them down here because, as I mentioned at the beginning, I recognize that this is one of the longest reviews I’ve ever had and I’d like to give you this “out,” if you’d like to take it. Otherwise, I’d love it if you’d stick around and read these parts that meant the most to me. And if you want to just skim, I bolded the super important parts:
Rape Culture and comedians (in particular here Tosh.0) – humor about violence suggests permissiveness. How many men are encouraged to ignore a woman’s “no” because of a comedian’s comments? And…“what are the consequences if the number is only one?” (in “Some Jokes Are Funnier Than Others.”)
“The Alienable Rights of Women” essay literally made me stand up and clap. Loudly. At home by myself. I don’t care. It was that spot on.
Compassion is not a limited resource (in “Tragedy. Call. Compassion. Response”). We do not have to compare atrocities to confirm which is “worse” or who deserves empathy and assistance more. This is something I have definitely found myself doing and it hurts to think about. This is where I’ve been a bad feminist. This is where I will work to be better.
There is no one type of feminist. Feminism is not necessarily “having it all.” Feminism is supporting the option for women to choose, to be able to decide which parts they want or, if they do want, to try for it all. I can be a feminist and not understand cars or want to take out the trash (true for both Gay and myself). And I can be a feminist even if I don’t want to have a baby or if I’d prefer to be taken care of sometimes instead of only relying on myself. And I am a feminist because I want every women to choose and act how she wants to on those same points, even if it’s different from my own choices or actions. (In “Bad Feminist: Take One” and “Bad Feminist: Take Two.”)
I loved the chapter about happiness and unhappiness as a muse for writing, “The Smooth Surfaces of Idyll.” Why is it that unhappiness is more interesting to read, or easier to write about? Gay’s discussion of looking for the happy, even if it is incomplete or subtle, was super fascinating.
Finally, I’ve found someone else recognizes the contradictory darkness of the Hunger Games vs the sanitization of “love lives” for young adult readers! I enjoyed this trilogy, but have yet to find anyone else who thinks beyond the surface to how absolutely horrible (and kind of possible) the story actually is. And I hate when people assume that young readers have never seen/experienced anything bad and thus refuse to let YA books follow those themes. Ugh. I feel super vindicated right now. (in “What We Hunger For.”)