I recently finished Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. I have not been this excited to read a book in a long, long time. They tell you not to judge a book by its cover, but who isn’t excited about such a striking title, the crisp cover and neon pink lettering? What even is a bad feminist? I immediately think of someone in high school who aced AP US History and Calculus, but skipped gym to smoke cigarettes in her leather jacket off campus. You know, the kind of girl who is effortlessly cool and also clearly possesses the ability to disintegrate ignorant people with a look. She’s a bad feminist as in bad ass; she gives absolutely no fucks.
But of course, no one is that girl. Even the person who is that girl, doesn’t think she is.
For me, this book suffered because it couldn’t be the print version of that imaginary girl. I wanted Bad Feminist to be all things. I wanted a book that was equal parts deeply moving memoir and feminist manifesto, something that both spoke to the depths of my soul and rallied the masses. I wanted reading this book to feel like joining hands with Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, and bell hooks as we danced and sang around the maypole (only something less phallic). In other words, I had entirely reasonable expectations.
All of this, of course, is one of the very things she’s writing against—the fervent and impossible hope we all carry around—for one voice to speak for and to us all. Structurally, I think Gay is at her best when she includes her personal, which ranges from funny—an essay about competitive scrabble, another about her hate/love relationship with Shades of Grey—to heartbreaking—a haunting discussion of sexual assault, her own, the language used to discuss others. I think these are the moments she shines, which may say something about me, but it may also say something about what we want from feminism today. The 60s told us “the personal is political,” a phrase that has always felt strangely hollow to me. This is probably because I am a child of the 90s and we came of age, politically speaking, to see a president impeached over an affair, a lie, and something about a blue dress. The personal is obviously political to us, although perhaps not in the way second wavers meant. On top of that, we learned what politics was in the same breath that we saw it as a system, primarily investment in protecting and promoting its own self-importance. That kind of political awareness doesn’t bode well for the spirit of the early motto.
The truth is that feminism is inherently personal; it always has been. In the current age of feminism, I am most interested in the way we struggle to live feminism in our daily lives. How does feminism shape, inform, and help in the space of the personal?
An outspoken male co-worker speaks over and/or down to you at work? How can feminism be a tool to navigate that? The truth is, (and here I’m getting away from Gay’s book, but I like to imagine she’d agree with the idea), the response is different, even if we’re all feminists. Personally, I’m bossy as hell. I’m going to excitedly practice for the next opportunity to put you in your place. (Another way to read that: I’m going to obsessively dwell on your sexism until our next encounter, thereby carrying the burden of your idiocy with me on a near daily basis.) Another woman may see the man’s misogyny and also recognize that her colleagues see this guy for the moron he is. She may use feminism as a lens to place his shitty behavior, and then laugh the situation off, on her way home to her happy life and an OITNB marathon. Feminism is personal; it’s a tool we use to navigate life and sometimes to navigate politics.
Because of this, I like, not only that Gay writes about her personal experiences of living as a woman, as a feminist, but articulates the reality that living feminism means many things. Ultimately, Roxane Gay uses bad feminist to mean something other than my imaginary super smart “bad girl.” She’s talking about an inability to live up to the measure of what a “good” feminist looks like, in much the same way some of us struggle with the desire to be the “good girl.” This “good feminist” ideal, she recognizes, is an ugly combination of our own demons, the unfortunate influence of “feminazi” conspiracy theorists, and other anti-women narratives. Perfectionism is an ugly version of self-hatred-cloaked-as-ambition that I am all too familiar with. So, while I am personally very comfortable to be the feminist in glitter and neon pink lipstick, with a closet full of dresses, I understand the roots of Gay’s anxiety. Wading through that anxiety, Gay comes to an interesting and important place:
I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be 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—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.
Roxane Gay is “bad” at being a feminist—so bad that she’s written a collection of brilliant essays on the topic. This book made me want to sit up straighter and be part of this conversation. It made me want to look inward, at my own preconceived notions and the issues I’m sitting on the sidelines for, and it made me throw some shade at some idiots in the world around me. Ultimately, Bad Feminist made me think and it made me want to write; it inspired me to make some noise and to be myself.