Can a true feminist love the color pink, men, Vogue magazine, and hairless armpits? These are some of the questions Roxane Gay tackles with her signature humor in “Bad Feminist,” her fascinating, if uneven, essay collection. Gay suggests that the word “feminist” is “rarely offered in kindness.” It is, by nature, a polarizing term, and “Bad Feminist’’ sets out to unpack it.
Gay weighs in on subjects as wide-ranging as the saccharine blond protagonists of the Sweet Valley High books and what they inadvertently taught a young black girl about desire; to a persuasive argument against the need for “likeable” characters in literature; to Gay’s experiences with strident definitions of beauty at “fat camp”; to a poignantly funny discussion of the strange life of an academic who feels like an “affirmative-action” hire.
That Gay is unable to come to definitive conclusions about the meaning of the word feminist is unsurprising, but to attempt such an enterprise marks her as an important and pioneering contemporary writer. Gay “cringes” at the feminist label, while actively seeking to embrace it. This ability to see identity itself as a “both/and” instead of an “either/or” issue makes this collection both highly evocative and occasionally reductive.
While there is much to admire, there are other disappointments. Gay admits that she is “not terribly well versed in feminist history,” but giving readers a more solid background in the movement’s historical roots would have given the book more depth and power. After all, the sweeping generosity of the book — intellectual, emotional, and literary — is its strength.
The essays, some of which were first published in Salon, The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, and other publications, are divided into sections (“Me,’’ “Gender & Sexuality,’’ “Race & Entertainment,’’ “Politics, Gender & Race,’’ “Back to Me’’), and their organization here lacks an overall narrative trajectory or arc.
The personal essays are at once too chatty and not revealing enough, and the more overtly political pieces often could go deeper. Readers will, however, immediately understand the appeal of Gay’s intimate and down-to-earth voice.
Gay is at her best when she leads the reader through a situation or dilemma in a focused way, relying on personal anecdote and research. In “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” she brilliantly examines the ways in which the representation of sexual violence on television, where “the trajectory of victimhood is neatly defined,” has profound and devastating effects on how real-life victims are mistreated in the nation’s most respected news outlets.
In the insightful and original “What We Hunger For,” Gay aligns herself with what she calls her “favorite” definition of feminists as “just women who don’t want to be treated’’ poorly and teases out the culturally sanctioned idea of “woman power.”
Most women struggle with the feminist movement and its meaning — partly, Gay makes clear, because asking an individual, regardless of gender, race, class, ability, or sexual orientation, to choose one “side” or the other of a movement is always reductive. What Gay does well is show the ways in which all of us have internalized an “essential feminism” that either doesn’t exist or is so riddled with stereotypes as to no longer deserve our attention.
Gay makes clear that a decision to accept or vilify the label of feminist continues to be a relevant issue for everyone. In this sense, she humanizes a word — and its attendant cultural movement — that has been flung like a curse by pop culture commentators, political pundits, scholars, and writers alike.
That Gay is so dismissive of the stereotypical constraints of the word is a call to action as well as a gesture at inclusivity. Nobody who reads “Bad Feminist’’ can avoid thinking about the position and role of women in the world, and what it costs every person who is allowed to claim identity in one category and disallowed in another.
Despite its flaws, “Bad Feminist” signals an important contribution to the complicated terrain of gender politics. From the book’s beginning to its end, Gay struggles to define the parameters of the very movement she claims to eschew by being “bad” or contrary to and within it. There’s a lesson in that struggle for all readers. In a personal and political way, the book tracks one woman’s journey to avoid categorization in any form, all the while knowing this is impossible. Gay expands our definition of what being a feminist might be someday; namely, “the most honest of all things — human.”
Emily Rapp is the author, most recently, of “Still Point of the Turning World.’’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.