This post is part book review/part communication manifesto. Roxane Gay’s 2014 collection of essays, Bad Feminist, is undoubtedly one of the best books that I’ve read in the last year. Gay, whose work has been featured on countless media outlets, and in 3 published books, now teaches creative and professional writing at Eastern Illinois University.
When I first picked up this book, the glaring pink letters, BAD FEMINIST, almost seemed accusatory. But it doesn’t take more than a few pages to dig into the deep, messy complexion of that title. In a TED Talk last year, Gay plainly unpacked what exactly she means when she calls herself a “bad feminist.” Mainstream feminism, she says, has become an exclusive and unattainable pillar of perfection, to which the average women, nay, the average feminist, shamefully cannot measure up.
Gay has long identified as a feminist, and has done a lot of work to further the cause. However, she also admits to many classic “no-no’s,” like singing along to extremely offensive rap music, watching shows like The Bachelor, and occasionally faking orgasms. To the extent that Gay doesn’t always practice what she preaches, she unapologetically embraces the title of “bad feminist.” And this is precisely why I am so in love with her writing. The more elitist and idyllic feminism becomes, the more women, as imperfect humans, feel they cannot identify with feminism. As Gay says in her TED Talk, “bad feminism” is really just “inclusive feminism.”
A central theme in Bad Feminist is communication: how women communicate with each other, how feminists communicate with everyone else, and how society communicates around important issues. Her use of the phrase “bad feminist” is just the beginning of, what I see, as a major shift in the greater-feminism conversation. We need to move as far away as possible from the notion that feminism, and other social justice movements for that matter, is an exclusive club for educated, straight, perfectly-anti-patriarchy, white women.
In one of the essays from Bad Feminist, “How to be Friends with Another Woman,” Gay provides a witty, but tremendously helpful, guide to navigating female relationships. However, I would take it a step further and claim that several of these rules are directly applicable to learning the art of “How to Talk About Feminism without Being Elitist.” Really, it’s very simple. It all comes down to balancing honesty, criticism, jealousy and anger, with compassion, understanding, and a common goal to building each other up. We feminists are so quick to judge and attach. What if we employed some of the most basic communication skills that we teach pre-schoolers? Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Treat others how you want to be treated.
The whole point of Bad Feminist is this: flawed feminism is still feminism. A fear of perfection or criticism is no reason to shy away from the label. And on the other side of the coin, imperfection and mistakes are not reasons to exclude someone who wishes to identify as a feminist, or learn more about the movement. One thing unites us all, and that is Gay’s favorite definition of feminism: “women who don’t want to be treated like shit.”
If Roxane Gay is a “bad feminist,” in the way that she so eloquently describes it, then so am I. I am human, I am flawed, I am full of contradictions and imperfections. I often do not practice what I preach. But I still believe, to the depths of my soul, in equality for all women, and for all people. As Gay said herself, “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”