She wants to break the glass ceiling but also wants to be loved. She sings along to pop songs that degrade women but speaks up about sexual violence against women. This is the ‘bad’ feminist that Roxane Gay is reaching out to, a character that many women can probably identify with.
Published in 2014, the book is structured into five chapters of first-person essays: Me, Gender and Sexuality, Race and Entertainment, Politics, Gender and Race and Back to Me, all of which achieve a seemingly impossible task. Gay manages to fuse film critiques and intimate discussions of the reproductive rights of women with anecdotal experiences of scrabble tournaments and humorous takes on dating apps. Such topics might seem too incompatible, especially for a piece of literature with ‘feminist’ in the title, and yet it is one of the most compelling non-fiction books I have ever read.
Despite the book being structured into individual essays, it is weaved from start to finish with intimate details of Gay’s own personal life. In the first group of essays, Gay unpicks the binary choice that describes womanhood: to be the high-driven, goal-orientated career woman and deal with the loneliness of such a choice, or to be the family-orientated mother that can leave you feeling ‘stuck.’ At the same time as presenting this dichotomy, we learn about Gay’s own experience with the first option, and she intimately describes the loneliness that haunted her career as a tenured college professor. And yet, in the same section of the book, Gay humorously tells us about her experiences in the competitive world of scrabble, from humble beginnings as an amateur to regional competitions and meeting her ‘scrabble nemesis.’ However, there is no hidden message in this story and no unpacking of the experiences of womanhood. Gay really is just telling us about the rules of scrabble tournaments in the hopes of making you laugh. Perhaps this in itself is representative of the character of the ‘bad’ feminist – sometimes there is not a feminist angle to everything we enjoy, sometimes we just do things because they make us feel good, like the occasional game of scrabble.
It would be insensitive to ignore that in reading this book you are vicariously living through the concerns and worries of a Haitian woman living in the US. Although Gay dedicates sections of the book to matters of politics and race, the book is carried by the thoughts and experiences of a black woman. Gay’s assertion of her identity is what manages to make a film and book review of The Hunger Games series such a gripping read (see ‘Race and Entertainment’). Film and literature reviews make up a large part of the book, and once again Gay demonstrates her ability to write insightful essays on the issues of black cinema. For example, the misogyny and classism of Tyler Perry’s cinematography, whilst also reviewing The Hunger Games books and films just because she enjoyed them and wants to write about how much she resonated with the protagonist, Katniss.
Gay addresses her fusion of political essays with supposedly ‘neutral’ writing in the introduction and final section of the book ‘Back to Me,’ and I don’t think it is a coincidence that her most explicit addresses to the ‘bad’ feminist are at the start and end of the book. At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to a ‘bad’ feminist and why Gay herself identifies as one. She likes to shave her legs while also caring about the gender pay gap, she sings along to rap songs with misogynistic lyrics but actively cares about systemic racism. We are then invited to read a variety of essays, some more anecdotal and some more political, before arriving at another reflection on what makes a ‘bad’ feminist.
Ultimately, the ‘bad’ feminist enjoys things that make her feel good, that are not ardently ‘feminist,’ while also being confident in her belief that women should have reproductive rights and earn the same salary as men. In a world where women are constantly made to feel ‘bad,’ I think this is a powerful message of humility: being a woman is exhausting, so enjoy whatever it is that makes you feel good and makes an unfair world slightly more bearable, like the occasional game of scrabble.