Roxane Gay “Bad Feminist” – book review

The term “bad feminist” serves as a frame for this collection of Roxane Gay’s essays. The collection begins and ends with a reflection of what feminism means in the US in the 21st century (in 2014, so before the Weinstein scandal broke out). Gay writes

“I was called a feminist, and what I heard was “You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating lady person”

Many of us have had the experience of being called a feminist and it being meant as insult. Equally, a lot of us have a fear of the other side of the barricade – can you really be a feminist and read the Vogue? How can you be a feminist and listen to rap music which objectifies women?

Gay’s take is funny and self-deprecating – but it is also wise.

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy… I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in…. trying to makes some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.”

Her writing style is clear and unpretentious. She has that lovely “classic American writing style” that makes you feel as if you were listening to a flowing conversation.  I read the whole book in two sittings.

It would be wrong to give you the idea that feminism is the overwhelming subject of this essay collection – it is rather a returning theme that appears from time to tim.

The book features Gay’s reviews of contemporary cultural phenomena: HBO’s Girls , E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, the Hunger Games, Django and  the Help. This is why it was difficult to get a copy of this book in a bookshop such as Blackwells or Waterstones in the UK – I had to buy it off Amazon. I worry the booksellers suspect it has dated. I don’t really think that’s the case – unless of course you are too young to remember 2014, in which case – sorry…

Gay’s reviews are not anything like the attempting-to-be objective reviews I used to write for the newspapers (perhaps this is why I’m not writing reviews anymore). They are very much akin to personal essays. In fact this collection contains a fair share of more straightforwardly personal essays too. One of my favourites is “Typical First Year Professor” which describes the acute pains of the first year of Gay’s teaching in a small town in the middle of a cornfield. I also loved another essay describing Gay’s passion for Scrabble. By the time I’d read both, I added Gay’s autobiography, Hunger¸ to my reading list.

Gay’s essays often explore the racial and gender prejudices prevalent in the United States. Most of the issues she discusses are even more of a problem now. Take women’s rights and the attacks on Planned Parenthood. Take the structural racism. Take the excessive police violence against black men. It is almost depressing to think of how these issues have escalated rather than disappeared.

For me, Gay’s essays offered a new point ofview. The only reviews of Django I had read were positive. I enjoyed it. I thought it was a revenge fantasy of sorts. But I never looked at it from Gay’s perspective. The black women portrayed in Django have little to say for themselves- and arguably only one is of structural importance to the plot. And even then she functions rather as the princess to be saved than a character in her own right.

On the other hand, Gay was incredibly enthusiastic about the Hunger Games, in a way that has made me think I should actually go and ready the books, not just settle on the movie. The movie was fine but one of my main concern was Katniss’s cat, a secondary character to say the least. I found the film version of Katniss herself idealized a little too much for my taste.

You don’t always have to agree with Gay says – but she’s okay with it. She herself says she does not want to be put on a pedestal. Her essays make you think about things. Their magic lies in the fact that they do it with such ease that it is often impossible to take the book down.

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