Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Since the release of her widely acclaimed debut novel, An Untamed State, 2014 is shaping up to be the year of Roxane Gay. Next up is her collection of essays titled Bad Feminist, set to be released on August 5. I had the privilege of receiving an advanced e-galley of Bad Feminist and was incredibly impressed with the wide-reaching, profound material found in this collection.

Ms. Gay has separated her book into 5 equally riveting sections: Me, Gender & Sexuality, Race & Entertainment, Politics, Gender, & Race, and Back to Me.
As she explains in the "Me" essays, Roxane Gay is a self-proclaimed “bad feminist”: she believes heavily in the tenents of feminism, yet finds herself not quite able to give up certain behaviors and habits. She advocates for gender equality, but still enjoys listening to rap music with not-so-suitable-to-feminist-ears lyrics. She promotes a culture with positive representations of various races, ethnicities, and genders, yet waxes nostalgic for the whitewashed Sweet Valley series. It’s a conundrum that most modern feminists face and must come to terms with: do I disown things that I enjoy if they don’t align perfectly with my beliefs? Am I “bad” if I don’t loudly protest against every problematic situation I encounter? Maybe so. But maybe we can stake a claim in being bad feminists as Gay has.

From her "bad feminist" manifesto, Roxane leads into an acknowledgment of her own privilege, commenting that, "At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold. Nearly everyone, particularly in the developed world, has something someone else doesn't, something someone else years for." Gay never forgets her privilege, but she also knows where she isn't privileged: as a black woman of Haitian descent she discusses the problems faced by women and people of color in our society, often focusing on their depictions in popular media. 

Ms. Gay's pop cultural commentary is funny and relevant, touching on subjects that still ring in recent memory. The "Gender & Sexuality" section of the book includes commentary on Girls, Bridesmaids, Girlfriends, the Sweet Valley book series, Kate Zambreno's novel Green Girl, VH1's "celebreality" shows Rock of Love and Flavor of Love, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, the Fifty Shades of Grey series, and many more. Gay uses these cultural milestones to discuss the portrayal of women in books, television, and movies, the expectations placed on women because of these portrayals, and the distorted mirror of popular culture through which women begin to see themselves. Her words are heavy, reminding us constantly of the ways women are forced to perform their gender and the barrage of unrealistic or problematic depictions of women in media. 

Similarly, "Race & Entertainment" is comprised of Gay's thoughts and personal experiences with race in film and television. She specifically addresses the popular "magical negro" trope, the supersaturation of media with struggle narratives, and the assumption that positive depictions of people of color here and there - "scraps from the table" as Gay calls them - will ever be enough. Sometimes Gay's prose is lovely, sometimes it's hard hitting, but it always leaves the reader with new information, and new perspective, and ultimately, the desire for more.  

The penultimate section of Gay's book is "Politics, Gender & Race" with essays ranging from women's reproductive freedom as a political bargaining chip to the media's treatment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev following the Boston bombing. These criticisms are brash and fierce, forcing open the eyes of those who may not have considered such topics with a critical lens. 

Gay's final essays are "Bad Feminist: Take One" and "Bad Feminist: Take Two" in the "Back to Me" portion of the book. They tackle the concept of "bad feminist" in more depth, discussing the danger of subscribing to an "essential feminism," a feminism that is black or white, right or wrong, and as Gay notes, "suggests anger, humorlessness, militancy, unwavering principles, and a prescribed set of rules for how to be a proper feminist woman." We all mess up. There are no perfect movements and no perfect feminists, so we might as well admit to our flaws and embrace our bad sides.

Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist is a collection of poignant and thought-provoking essays; she never hesitates, never pulls punches, and we readers are all the better for it. Every page is a wonder, every sentence a revelation. Now that I've finished Gay's essays and have had a few days to ruminate on them, I feel wide-eyed and ready to take on the world. And I am proud to call myself a bad feminist. 
Rating: 5/5
**I received a free e-galley of Bad Feminist from Edelweiss.

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