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.”
Breakage is inescapable in Bad Feminist, from the damaged men constellated around Penn State’s football team (“During Sandusky’s trial, we saw just how broken he really is and how he has, in turn, broken far too many others”) to the lurid “green girls” of reality television (“They revel in watching themselves suffer because they have been so irrevocably interrupted they do not know what else they should do”). But Gay writes most searingly about wounds when she turns to her own life. A gang of boys raped her in a cabin in the woods when she was in middle school. “The repercussions linger,” she notes. “Just because you survive something does not mean you are strong.”
Gay understands the stakes of her revelations—over and over, she worries the theme of suffering converted to spectacle, or intellectualized past recognition, while managing to avoid both traps. “I am fascinated by strength in women,” she writes at one point, in a statement so simple it made my head spin. It is a jarringly vacant and unambitious conclusion to come to after such a burden of life experience, such a maelstrom of feeling and thought, but maybe that’s the point. Sometimes words only take you so far.
In this book, at least, they rarely deposit you at a destination. Gay’s essays are more beginnings and middles than they are ends. They pose a question or problem (“The Alienable Rights of Women,” “The Trouble with Prince Charming”), turning it under the light. Solutions don’t seem to be the point, maybe because Gay doesn’t think they exist, but probably because the path from inquiry to neat answer accosts her sense of complexity. “And yet,” she is always writing, elevating the two-word pivot into its own sentence. “But.”
Fear that magisterial “but.” Despite her vulnerabilities and contradictions, Gay summons to each page a kind of grandeur. “I have been thinking about happy endings,” she asserts, with magnificent—if frustrating—broadness. Or: “Human endurance fascinates me.” If these statements can feel unexpressive, it is still rare to hear an author transcribe her thoughts and interests so nakedly, sometimes in a paragraph that consists of a single sentence, as if the seriousness of each claim demanded all that space and more. (Perhaps, as with Karl Ove Knausgaard and Richard Linklater, banal yet meaningful self-recording is having a moment.)
Still, if you are looking for talking points—bright arguments you can sling out when an interlocutor (or editor!) asks you to summarize the book’s thesis—you may be disappointed. Gay is like the best college seminar leader you ever had, and I spent hours after some of these essays contemplating body image and whether Fifty Shades of Grey is absurd or insidious, but her essays are not really pieces of writing that you agree or disagree with. While she shows a refreshing willingness to pose questions, treat them as deadly important, and not resolve them, the true value of her work might lie in illuminating, with startling immediacy and boldness, what it is like to be Roxane Gay, an author who filters every observation through her deep sense of the world as fractured, beautiful, and complex.
The essays are uneven. The best ones, like “What We Hunger For” (about the Hunger Games, sexual violence, and overcoming trauma) and “Garish, Glorious Spectacles” (about representations of women in pop culture), develop their themes more fully. A few don’t get much further than presenting the topic. In “A Tale of Two Profiles,” Gay identifies a strange and evocative parallel between Trayvon Martin, an innocent boy wearing “the face of danger,” and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a criminal whose sympathetic, unthreatening face on the cover of Rolling Stone made young girls fall in love with him. There’s no takeaway, really. Gay seems uninterested in preaching apothegms like “looks can be deceiving” or “that’s why the world is racist.” Instead she invites you into the associative inner workings of her mind, keeps you absorbed through the physical rhythms of her prose, and releases you a few pages later wondering at the souvenirs in your hands.
The few times when the “thesis statements” of Bad Feminist do appear, I didn’t always agree with them. I don’t think that “we live in a strange and terrible time for women” or that unlikable characters are more human than likable ones. To me, it says something that these occasional conclusions feel so secondary to the experience of reading the book. On the page, Gay is captivating and alive. She comes from a place of pain and need and moves irresistibly toward connection and belonging. Read her, maybe, not for what she writes, but how and why.