Friday, January 29, 2016

If Roxane Gay is a "Bad Feminist," Then so am I

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.”


Meredith Hankins said...

Your post partially inspired my own on being a feminist sports fan. I often feel conflicted (as if I am the titular "bad feminist") for continuing to watch and enjoy male professional sports leagues instead of watching more women's sports. But I agree with you that being a feminist shouldn't mean being held to a standard of perfection.

It reminds me of a line from a WaPo article this week (linked below): "Part of the reason people are having trouble connecting to feminism is because everything you do in your life has to be a big feminist stance." That line, and your article, resonate with me because I think feminism is sometimes presented as some absolute black/white definition, but we all have our flaws and quirks and sometimes quite frankly are exhausted from fighting the ever-present patriarchy. I love Gay's definition of feminism that you quote and I totally agree that "women who don't want to be treated like shit" is the perfect unifying message for today's (tomorrow's?) more inclusive version of feminism.

Amanda said...

After watching the TED talk linked in your blog post I *immediately* bought Roxane Gay's newest book. Of course we can't expect perfection of ourselves or others, but hearing a well-respected feminist say, "it's okay if you're not perfect," lifted some of my feminist angst.

Although feminism keeps shifting in a more inclusive direction--a direction that recognizes an increasingly complex web of discrimination and intersectionality--I think we should also recognize the inherent elitism in expecting all feminists to adopt the same theory or think the same way.

Feminism is complicated, but it doesn't always have to be. At least we can all get behind Roxane Gay's theory that women, simply, don't want to be treated like shit.

Sonja said...

I wonder if the reason for some of this "feminist elitism," that Gay is countering is because so many women experience their feminist awakening in the shadow of academia (which is inherently elitist and classist). I know for a fact that my feminist beliefs and principles were partly formed by my college education, which both encouraged me to criticize patriarchal social norms, and provided a network of people who I could bounce my newfound feminist ideas off of. Since graduating, I've had to work hard to understand different views of feminism, and I've also had to work hard to deconstruct and counter my own white, privileged feminist elitism. This deconstruction has allowed me to forgive some people more easily for their sexist missteps, and it has allowed me to engage with pop culture in a way that I shunned during college. Like Gay, I too now enjoy The Bachelor.

Courtney Hatchett said...

I echo what Amanda commented. I felt like this was the final push I needed to go out and buy a copy of Gay’s book. It’s reassuring to hear someone such as Gay identify as a “bad feminist.” Aren’t we all bad feminists? Because we don’t have a universal working definition of feminist or feminism, at times it seems like we are better equipped to identify that which is not feminist. We can sit around a table and come up with 50 different responses about what “is feminist,” but would likely be able to agree on other responses about what is “not feminist.” Maybe we are more prone to construct what a feminist is as someone who checks off the shortest lists of “not feminist” activities/opinions/etc. I feel like it's taken me the last few years to come to terms with some of my own feelings which I identified as being "not feminist." Yet, the inner turmoil and personal dialogue I would have every time I decided to do one of these things would be more concerned with what other women would think of it and if they would check that off my list of non-feminist attributes and somehow kick me out of the club. Thanks, Gay.

RC said...

I have not read this book, but based on your review and analysis of it, I already appreciate how welcoming it is. There is a really delicate balance between making one’s own feminism as inclusive and conscious as possible while also allowing room for inevitable growth and learning. The growth is made even more frustration from excessive pressure from elitists or even oneself. It’s really hard to enjoy anything in our current society while expecting entertainment to be pure and free of sexism, racism, etc. I know we are trying to push in a direction with less sexism, but while we work at that, it’s nice to be reminded to give ourselves and others the breathing room to become the better feminists that we want to be.