Book Review: ‘Bad Feminist’ by Roxane Gay
Kristen Pye looks at the essays of Roxane Gay and concludes, not only is ‘Bad Feminist’ an excellent book, but its writer would be a great friend. And a formidable Scrabble opponent.
I couldn’t stop shouting BE MY FRIEND while reading her.
From the outset, I knew Roxane Gay’s feminism was one I could really get into because on top of being a full-time feminist, she is also a part-time competitive Scrabble player. I’ll concede that Scrabble is maybe not the core of Gay’s ideology but the essay devoted to it points to one of the primary reasons Gay’s feminism is one that goes down so easy: she’s so fundamentally likeable. And while, as Gay argues so well, women shouldn’t have to be likeable in that way they’re so often expected to be to earn respect, she just is. She is because she doesn’t give a damn if she is. I know she is because I couldn’t stop shouting BE MY FRIEND while reading her. She is the kind of woman gifted with the ability to engage even while telling you off.
Gay’s writing is chummy, it’s intimating.
Gay’s writing is chummy, it’s intimating. You can imagine her reading a passage out loud to you that you really needed to hear but only after sitting you down and being like, “GIRL.” The philosophy of Bad Feminist is not borne of theory but lived experience so that as a woman reading Gay’s words you feel palpably the world she conjures because you know its parts. Even if our experiences differ in nature or nuance, I understand intimately what it means to be a woman who calls herself feminist and puts it in writing and puts that writing in public. To read the work of a woman doing that alongside essays about Scrabble wins, losses, and the time an opponent played ENTOZOAN across two Triple Word Scores is not just encouraging, it’s rabble-rousing. Gay’s narratives, however apparently different, are not disparate, and stimulate a still underdeveloped one about feminism: that feminism can be pretty casual. Something that goes with board games.
Read the list.
One of the most important essays in Gay’s collection is ‘How to Be Friends with Another Women’. This is the one that lays out in writing that you need to abandon the myth which dictates that all female friendships are characterised by competition, bitchiness, and backstabbing over appletinis. It is written as a list so that it’s SUPER clear even to people who can’t compute writing that isn’t in listicle form. It is the first list I have wanted to frame. Excerpts: ‘Want nothing but the best for your friends because when your friends are happy and successful, it’s probably going to be easier for you to be happy’; ‘Don’t tear other women down, because even if they’re not your friends, they are women and this is just as important’. Let the epigraph of another essay which reads, ‘My memory of men is never lit up and illuminated like my memory of women,’ be true and enable the circumstances which might lead to this. Not trash-talking your lady friends is a good starting point. Read the list.
Gay is comforting but she is also challenging.
Gay is comforting but she is also challenging. She is challenging when she speaks about privilege, pointing out that even the act of reading her book underscores that you possess a privilege of some kind. She breaks that fourth wall and she unsettles. At no point are you safe from her pointy index finger, which is good, because you shouldn’t be and she turns it upon herself just as often. She is all about using that second person pronoun. She says The Things Other People Won’t Say. For instance, she tells you straight up that when someone denigrates something as ‘gay’ and you don’t speak up against that person, you are not doing enough. That when you support an artist like Tyler the Creator, who used homophobic slurs 213 times in his debut LP, you are not doing enough. And before you think her a right square for not letting it slide, she reminds you that ‘humourless’ is the oldest anti-feminist insult in the book so that even in your antagonism you’re not trying hard enough.
Gay’s feminism allows room for its followers to be both critical and happy.
And still Gay’s feminism allows room for its followers to be both critical and happy. Gay concedes that ‘Sometimes, and especially as a writer, I feel like I have no idea what happiness is, what it looks like, what it feels like, how to show it on the page’. I get this. Sometimes the idea of a grand, umbrella happiness to me feels facile. I don’t know how to quell the agitation I feel as a woman living in a patriarchy and I don’t want to because to do so would be to undercut my energy to push back. But you have to make room for happiness even if you can’t achieve some ultimate, comprehensive contentment with the way things are. Right now, I’m happy about my new loose leaf tea infusers. I’m happy that I got the milk to tea ratio right in my morning mug. I’m happy that it’s getting brisker out because it reminds me of home in Canada in the Fall. As Gay argues, ‘Happiness is not uninspiring if we don’t allow our imaginations to fail us’. And she says so even as she admits that now is a “strange and terrible” time for women, and that some days she tends to think it always has been. You take the rough with the smooth.
Like Roxane Gay, I once disavowed feminism.
Like Roxane Gay, I once disavowed feminism. Gay admits that as a young woman, “I disavowed feminism because I had no rational understanding of the movement. I was called a feminist and what I heard was ‘You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person.’” For my part, I denied feminism the same way I gave side-eye to something like eggnog at Christmas in that I hadn’t actually tried it, but the name sounded sort of aggressive and lots of other people seemed to be pretty critical of it and that was enough for me to be like, ‘I’m totally okay not knowing what this is about’. While today I still silently dry-heave at the mention of drinkable egg products, my attitude towards feminism has warmed since my understanding has expanded beyond characterisations of the movement which essentialise it as the ideological equivalent of a mad lady yelling at you. While my reaction to misogyny is often anger—and let’s not suggest anger cannot be productive—Gay’s collection of essays extend the spectrum of reactions to reach a definition of what it means to be a feminist today and why being a Bad Feminist is invariably better than being no feminist at all.
Have you read the book? What sort of books do you read? Let us know: @rifemag
‘Feminism 101’ by Sophie Setter Jerome
‘Eight Things Feminists Feel Guilty Doing, But Really Shouldn’t’ by Adibah Iqbal