I bristled a little at the title of Roxane Gay’s new collection of essays: Bad Feminist. Was that “bad” a backhanded boast, a Cool Girl’s rejection of all the supposedly militant and humorless “good” feminists out there?
Then I started reading the book, and I realized the professor cum novelist cum voice-on-the-Internet isn’t proclaiming herself a chiller, smarter, funnier feminist than anyone else. She is exploring imperfection: the power we (we people, and especially we women) wield in spite and because of it. Her essays, which are arresting and sensitive but rarely conclusive, don’t care much for unbroken skin. They are about flaws, sometimes scratches and sometimes deep wounds. Gay studies the cracks and what fills them.
“I am failing as a woman,” she writes, half seriously. “I am failing as a feminist … I am a mess of contradictions.” Gay, the author of one novel, An Untamed State, which came out in May 2014, despises rape jokes but loves crappy exploitative television. She thinks misogynist songs like “Blurred Lines” are catchy but writes an impassioned letter to the girls who say they would let Chris Brown hit them. There is no effort to reconcile these inconsistencies. The “bad feminist” moniker turns out to have a special magic—it allows Gay to resist the pressure to be perfect, and points out the irony of women fighting the sexist idea that they must be other than what they are (more beautiful, more agreeable, more maternal or professional or fill-in-the-blank), yet still demanding flawlessness from their feminist idols. Heaven help the young actress who tweets the wrong thing about Woody Allen, or the corporate executive with socioeconomic blind spots. Feminism’s rules, Gay observes, are different from the patriarchy’s, but they can be equally strict and screw-up-able.
In essay after essay, Gay ably diagnoses our desire for female role models to symbolize all things to all people. On Girls: “It is unreasonable to expect Lena Dunham to somehow solve the race and representation problem on television while crafting her twenty-something witticisms and appalling us with sex scenes so uncomfortable they defy imagination.” On Sheryl Sandberg: “If she chose to offer career advice for working-class women, a group she clearly knows little about, she would have been just as harshly criticized for overstepping her bounds.” On the privileged perspective of the narrator in Kate Zambreno’s memoir Heroines: “No book can be everything to everyone.”
The peculiar and gracious back-and-forth in which Gay specializes—exposing faults in order to embrace that which is fallible—works on movements too. For all her loyalty, Gay allows that feminism itself is “bad” sometimes. She rightly suggests that one of its biggest failures involves not taking women of color, queer women, and transgender women seriously. Her delicious, tour-de-force takedowns of The Help (“There is not enough height in the atmosphere for us to suspend our disbelief”) and Django Unchained (“My slavery revenge fantasy would probably involve being able to read and write without fear of punishment or persecution coupled with a long vacation in Paris”) are in part correctives to the centering of white people in social justice crusades. But even there, Gay wants to complicate things: “My real problem is that The Help is written by a white woman,” she admits, despite an earlier essay arguing fervently that writers of all backgrounds should be permitted to imagine and talk about experiences of all stripes. She isn’t oblivious to the hypocrisy—she wants to disclose her own weak spots. “I think constantly about connection and loneliness and community,” Gay confides in “Feel Me. See Me. Hear Me. Reach Me.” She bares her faults because faults make you human, and humanity means you belong.
Much of what makes this book work—and the loose essays hang together—is Gay’s wry and delightful voice. Here she describes her teaching debut as an English professor at Eastern Illinois University:
When I walk into the classroom, the students stare at me like I’m in charge. They wait for me to say something. I stare back and wait for them to do something. It’s a silent power struggle. Finally I tell them to do things and they do those things. I realize I am, in fact, in charge. We’ll be playing with Legos. For a few minutes I am awesome because I have brought toys.
I have no particular reason for picking this passage out of a hundred others to demonstrate Gay’s humor, honesty, or the way the deadpan plainness of her sentences belies the artful rhythm with which they build on each other. Toys, however, along with games and fairytales, do seem relevant to how Gay processes the world. Her lovely essay on Scrabble shows her at her most complicated: competitive, shy, fierce, conflict-averse. Throughout Bad Feminist, you can see her arranging the letters of her thoughts, trying out new combinations, building on ideas before wiping them away and starting over. “I love Scrabble so much I don’t care if I lose,” she declares, and then changes her mind: “My heart gets broken more than it should.”