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Bad Feminist

I recently picked up Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and really, really loved it. It made me laugh, made me say “YES!” in public spaces, made me cringe, made me sad to me core and soothed me at the same time. I hadn’t read Gay’s work before, but there are a lot of things to love. Her essays are real and timely. She’s honest, vulnerable, funny, and critical. I thought I’d just share some snapshots from various essays here because I’m still processing a lot from this book.

As an academic (who experiences and participates in various iterations of this discussion regularly), I appreciated her opening comments on privilege:

To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered. (17)

As I sat in an uncomfortable airplane seat en route to job interviews, I was oddly reassured by the essay “Typical First Year Professor” (and see myself reading it again and again). I was humbled by the reflections on evaluations and how sometimes bad evaluations—“I assign too much work, they say. I expect too much”—are not really bad at all but are perhaps an indication of how much we care as teachers. I was humbled by the vulnerability of wanting to be a good teacher:

I want to be a good teacher, and most days, I think I am. I give a damn. I want students to like me. I am human. I am so full of want. (26)

I found myself emphatically nodding my head and whispering “YES!” (still on an airplane, no less) with her thoughts on humor:

It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you light up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; tit’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly. (189)

I don’t know how many times I’ve been told to lighten up, that I’m too sensitive when someone is simply “joking” or paying me a “compliment” or God forbid telling me to smile. For years, when people ask me what I want to watch on TV or what kinds of movies I like, I have stated very clearly that I don’t like comedy, that I don’t like funny things. Yet my three favorite shows (Bob’s Burgers, Parks & Recreation, and Community) are all comedies. But I don’t like comedy. Or maybe it’s that I don’t like the majority stand-up comedians, rape jokes, jokes that objectify women, jokes that are casually racist or homophobic or transphobic or ableist or…

It’s not even that I don’t like them. It’s that I don’t tolerate them. Gay writes, “When women respond negatively to misogynistic or rape humor, they are ‘sensitive’ and branded as ‘feminist,’ a word that has, as of late, become a catchall term for ‘woman who does not tolerate bullshit’” (180). I don’t tolerate bullshit, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of Gay’s points.

But I was also disappointed—for example, with the discussion(s) of trigger warnings:

Many feminist communities use trigger warnings, particularly in online forums when discussing rape, sexual abuse, and violence. By using these warnings, these communities are saying, “This is a safe space. We will protect you from unexpected reminders of your history.” Members of these communities are given the illusion they can be protected. (149)

I think of trigger warnings more in terms of “This is a safe space. Lots of us have traumatic experiences and histories, and we will protect you from any startlingly graphic depictions of some of these more common experiences because we don’t want to alienate members of our community.” But then, the usefulness of trigger warnings is subjective, particularly in conversations about rape by people who have been raped. As Gay notes, “I also know trigger warnings cannot save me from myself” (149), and of course that’s fair but arguably not the purpose of trigger warnings. I’m partial to Melanie Yergeau’s discussion of trigger warnings as a cripped kind of metada that anticipate a disabled response, that are intended not for avoidance but for preparation, to give an audience time to prepare to access that content more equitably.

I was most disappointed by Gay’s impeccable ability to call out casual racism and then reinforce casual ableism—to acknowledge that women of color, queer women, and transgender women have been failed by (capital-F) Feminism and who need to be included in these conversations but then to exclude disabled women.

Should I expect everything from her? No, but as she argues so succinctly throughout these essays, we still hold these expectations and make these demands because we need more:

We want, and rightly so, to believe our lives deserve to be new, relatable, and important. We want to see more complex, nuanced depictions of what it really means to be whoever we are or were or hope to be. We just want so much. We just need so much. (60)

I wanted that discussion so badly because she identified so clearly the ways we’ve failed many other women.

I don’t know if I have ever seen the R-word in print and, in her defense, it was a quotation (from Caitlin Moran), but it still hurt to read and not be addressed, particularly when on the next page Gay writes, “I am fascinated by the silence surrounding [the N-word], how people will turn a blind eye to casual racism for the sake of funny feminism” (104).

I am also fascinated and dismayed by the reinscribing of casual ableism.

In her opening essay, Gay grapples with defining feminism(s) and writes, “For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices” (x). And I agree, but at the same time the constant insistence that we must do better made it particularly disappointing that there was no accountability to disabled women. I thought about the Daily Beast article I read last semester about how #YesAllWomen—and the feminist movement more broadly—excludes disabled women. I thought about domestic violence statistics and of the critiques of underreported cases of rape and sexual violence against disabled women. And Gay talks very beautifully, in multiple spaces, about these topics, but disabled women are excluded from this critical attention.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t love the book. Gay’s analyses and critiques are so great in part because she’s so reflective about her own beliefs and practices. And quite frankly, it’s great to read someone writing about race and gender and politics and embodied experiences in ways that are thoughtful. And it goes without saying that I want to be best friends with me so we can play Scrabble together and get tattoos and brainstorm ways to topple the patriarchy.

But at the same time, I wanted a little bit more from a book that was careful in so many other ways.

I want so much more from feminism because we need so much more because there’s being a bad feminist (& having a complicated relationship to/with feminism) and then there’s being a bad feminist (& excluding whole communities from the conversation).

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