Roxane Gay is an unlikely feminist icon.
For one, she’s a self-professed ‘bad feminist.’ The raw honesty of her collection of essays Bad Feminist goes into great detail about the ways she is not good at feminism. She reads the Sweet Valley High books and, despite knowing they are superficial, unrealistic junk that create unrealistic expectations about what women should be, she still enjoys them. She chooses her career over a man but she doesn’t do so easily and she wants to choose the man. She is not always confident and she is often lonely. She cries and falls apart at moments. She has flaws.
Yet although Gay might be bad at feminism, she is convinced she is still a feminist. She writes:
‘I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to set 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-’
In doing so, Gay makes feminism something incredibly more accessible. If Gay can be a feminist despite not being perfect, despite not being well versed in feminist texts, despite not having interests and personality traits that line up with mainstream feminism, then maybe we can be feminists too. Although she says she isn’t trying to be an example, it is ironically through admitting her imperfections that Gay becomes just that.
When I was growing up, feminism was not the most attractive word. It seemed to suggest something angry and bitter. It seemed to be non-conducive with an interest in makeup or clothes. It also seemed to suggest men should not be determining factors in your life and if you were to choose a man over anything you were wrong. But as Gay neatly summarizes, ‘The problem with movements is that, all too often, they are associated only with the most visible figures, the people with the biggest platforms and the loudest, most provocative voices.’ Gay believes feminism doesn’t just have to be the essential feminism represented by the mainstream media. It can be something different.
In recent years, feminism has become a term much easier embraced. I think this is in part due to figures like Gay who demonstrate how it is possible to be a feminist while still being largely imperfect and nonconforming. Bad Feminist is filled with critical essays that explore this possibility of thinking differently but still remaining a feminist.
Despite many hailing the television show Girls as a feminist masterpiece, Gay spends her essay ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ explaining why it isn’t inclusive and doesn’t represent all women, only white women. In ‘What We Hunger For,’ she examines how feminism doesn’t always reside in lofty, academic texts and we can find powerful examples of it in young adult fiction like The Hunger Games. She also takes essential feminism to task in ‘Bad Feminist: Take One’ and ‘Bad Feminist: Take Two,’ exploring where feminism fails as an ideology and why it still matters. Ultimately, feminism is neither completely coherent nor perfect. But neither are any of us.
In the final pages of the book, Gay writes:
’Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement. I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that consistently places women at a disadvantage, the inequity in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, the repeated attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women, and on and on. I am as committed to fighting fiercely for equality as I am committed to disrupting the notion that there is an essential feminism.’
I think in saying this and writing Bad Feminist, Gay has done something astounding. She has made it acceptable to be flawed and contradictory and complicated. She has also made it possible to call yourself a feminist despite being all of these things.
Its for this reason she has become an unlikely feminist icon.
4/ 4 Stars.