The Book We're Talking About: 'Bad Feminist' By Roxane Gay

08/05/2014 05:51 pm ET | Updated Aug 12, 2014
Harper Perennial

Bad Feminist: Essays
by Roxane Gay
Harper Perennial, $15.99
Publishes August 5, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think:
Feminism needed Roxane Gay.

She certainly isn’t the first writer to point out that our contemporary conception of the movement is flawed, in that it can be exclusive. Plenty of books have addressed this inadvertently -- Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi comes to mind. Gay, on the other hand, spells out her qualms in explicit terms.

She writes in the introduction to her new essay collection, Bad Feminist, that she, like many young women today, was at one point hesitant to call herself a feminist: "I decided feminism wasn’t for me, as a black woman, a woman who has been queer identified at varying points in her life,” she recalls. “Because feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others."

She goes on, in a series of essays that center on anecdotes, and are bolstered by research and literary criticism, to explain her own attempts to understand what it means to be a self-respecting woman.

In “Reaching for Catharsis: Getting Fat Right (or Wrong) and Diana Spechler’s Skinny,” Gay cringes at the tendency for weight loss shows to attach a heartwarming story -- an explanation -- to contestants’ obesity. She writes that, in her case, there was a desire after a violent incident to “fill as much space as possible,” but notes also that she’s “naturally lazy too so that didn’t help.” Her frankness and unwillingness to balloon her personal experiences into universal truths is refreshing, and the theme continues throughout the collection.

In “I Once Was Miss America,” she recalls her pride when the first black Miss America was crowned in the '80s. Born to immigrants from the Dominican Republic, she happily took on her mother’s nickname for her: Miss America. But when she shares what she believes to be her rightful future title to a crew of teasing kids, she’s met with even more bullying. She remembers, also, her obsession as a preteen with the Sweet Valley High series, a collection of books about popular blonde twins, who she came to both admire and envy.

Gay rockily switches gears between these topics, but she relates her stories and opinions humorously and shamelessly -- adding later that she was first in line when Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later was released -- and her nonchalance is touching, making it clear that what ostensibly appears as a funny childhood recollection was actually a pivotal, formative moment that still gives her life its shape.

While Gay’s anecdotes are affecting, and are arguably the collection’s unique strength, she also smartly and objectively addresses what she believes are the problems with how we talk about feminism. In “How We All Lose,” she examines a number of gender-themed books published in 2012, and why each of them fails. Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men cherry-picks facts to argue that the patriarchy is effectively over; Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman sacrifices truth for laughs.

In a short essay that’s useful, deceptively simple and hilariously funny, Gay outlines “How to Be Friends With Another Woman.” She guides women to move away from preordained stereotypes about how they should treat one another, and, in a few asides, admits that she’s guilty of committing the crimes she’s chastising.

In sharing the gritty, heartbreaking details of her own experiences and unrealized desires -- in showing us how, exactly, she is a “bad feminist” -- Gay reminds us what feminism can and should be: A space where women can realize their difference and their nuances.

What other reviewers think:
TIME: "Roxane Gay is the gift that keeps on giving."

Slate: "The professor cum novelist cum voice-on-the-Internet isn’t proclaiming herself a chiller, smarter, funnier feminist than anyone else. She is exploring imperfection: the power we (we people, and especially we women) wield in spite and because of it."

Who wrote it?
Roxane Gay is the author of An Untamed State and Ayiti. Bad Feminist is her first nonfiction book. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories and the New York Times Book Review.

Who will read it?
Feminists, and, hopefully, everyone else, too.

Opening lines:
"The world changes faster than we can fathom in ways that are complicated. These bewildering changes often leave us raw. The cultural climate is shifting, particularly for women as we contend with the retrenchment of reproductive freedom, the persistence of rape culture, and the flawed if damaging representations of women we're consuming in music, movies, and literature."

Notable passage:
"...I needed to come up with a snappy retort to show them they couldn't push me around, to show them I was cool too, to stand my ground. I pointed my fingers at them like Miss Celie laying a curse on Mister in The Color Purple, and I shouted, 'One day, just you wait and see. I'm going to become Miss America.' That was my mother's nickname for me, Miss America. I'm her beloved firstborn, her first child born in these United States. I loved my nickname. Those popular kids laughed and laughed."

Rating, out of ten:
8. Gay's essays expertly weld her personal experiences with broader gender trends occurring politically and in popular culture. Her meandering, sometimes cobbled-together style is eclipsed almost entirely by her poignancy and nuance.

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