Title: Bad Feminist
Author: Roxane Gay
The Goodreads synopsis of this book reads: In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman of color while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years and commenting on the state of feminism today.
I can’t help but feel that the premise of this book is supposed to be “there is no such thing as an essential feminism”, but ends up instead being “I am okay with feminism being complex as long as people hold views very similar to my own”. I read a moderate amount of feminist writing—probably not as much as the author, probably more than most of my friends—and I am used to hardline approaches to some issues. However, I expected something different from this book, which appears (from the blurb) to be all about nuance.
I am a feminist. How could I not be? That is not the most important part of how I identify myself (and I find the idea that everyone in the world is just a neat set of identities reductive, anyway), but it’s on the list. I’ve experienced plenty of sexism. My union recently went on strike over the gender pay/promotion gap in academia. I was strongly discouraged from going into an academic/high-powered career, on the grounds that “you won’t want to give it up when you have kids”*. Food and I have a troubled past, one that I think would have been less troubled if I hadn’t grown up in a society that so strongly valued thinness in women. Conversely, one of my earliest memories is my excellent mum telling me that I must always vote because of Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself in front of the King’s horse. Of course I am a feminist, but it is ridiculous that I’ve just had to list some of my feminist credentials to have the right to commentary. Given the content of the book, though, it seemed necessary.
Having said all that, there are a handful of areas in which I deviate from the Official Party Line of feminism. Although I want there to be much better sex education in schools, and I find the way that the US religious right talks about abortion to be abhorrent—I am still pro-life at my heart, which is a conviction that is very deeply held. I really, really hate the word “mansplaining”, conveying as it does the idea that only men patronise people (along with the idea that using a gender-based insult is okay as long as it’s men we’re insulting). These are two examples of mixed importance, but there are a whole host. I’m used to being a disappointment to other feminists, who feel that I am a secret agent for the patriarchy, but this book was supposed to be about the complexities and inadequacies of feminism. I was frustrated to discover that “complexities” is just another way of saying “everybody please think like me or I will write a chapter about how you are wrong”. At times, it felt intellectually dishonest—Gay says several times that there is no essential feminism, but this claim is not mirrored in many of her essays. It is quite difficult to isolate her beliefs from the pontificating that surrounds them, but when it is possible, it’s clear that there is no room for disagreement.
Despite my frustrations, however, there were some aspects of the book that I found very compelling. Like Gay, I have a historically poor relationship with food, having experienced disordered eating, on and off, from childhood into my early twenties. Although I am hundreds of times better now than I ever have been, the portrayal of overweight people and people with food issues still matters to me. It’s something I’ve never heard discussed before, perhaps because mass media so rarely bothers to portray overweight people at all. As with most forms of representation, it’s probably something you don’t notice unless you are overweight yourself. Gay examines the way that stereotypes about overweight and obese people are perpetuated in books as well as TV shows, and discusses books set at fat camps—a subgenre I was blissfully unaware of until now, and one that I certainly won’t be exploring. There are a few chapters looking at this issue from various viewpoints, and it was satisfying to hear someone articulate it so clearly. I respected the author’s frankness on this subject. She describes with uncomfortable honesty how she ate and ate following a sexual assault. It was very difficult to listen to, and also important. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone talk about this kind of subject before, and I think it’s worth reading the book just for these few chapters.
On a lighter note, I also loved Gay’s description of the competitive Scrabble world. I love Scrabble—if I lived with people, I would probably spend even more time playing Scrabble than I do reading. (When I was a student living in a houseful of other geeks, it was probably a pretty close thing). I didn’t know that Gay was a semi-professional Scrabble player, because I didn’t know that was a thing until I started reading this book. I would read an entire book about her experiences in the world of competitive Scrabble, if she ever chose to write one. After I finished this chapter, I even looked into competitive Scrabble in my city—alas, they meet on a night when I am already busy. (Also, it turns out that my city have won the regional league on 9 of the last 11 years, so I don’t think I would necessarily be an asset to the club). Learning about various strategies and plays was fantastic. I am completely serious when I say that I want to read everything that’s ever been written on the subject. Gay’s obvious passion for the game comes through clearly and it is a delight to read.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also note the amount of insightful commentary that Gay provides into the racism and general “whiteness” of feminism. Most of the pop culture she comments on regarding racial issues is US-centric and I’m not familiar with it, so it didn’t really resonate with me as I couldn’t “pin” it to anything. However, hopefully I will be more alert and think about the media I consume more critically as a result of having read this.
These highlights kept the book from feeling like a string of one too many Jezebel articles, but it did mostly read like a series of grumpy blog entries. I don’t feel compelled to go and read everything Gay has ever written. However, I will certainly consider picking up Hunger, her memoir about trying to change the way she relates to food, when it comes out next year. For me, those essays were by far the strongest of the book, and I would love to read more of it–and if she ever does publish that competitive Scrabble book, I will be thrilled to read it.
*Although not by my mum, who is awesome, and always encouraged me to be a scientist/actor/poet/doctor/space cowboy/whatever I wanted. Just thought I should clear that up.