I found another review of Bad Feminist by Lauren Oyler on bookslut.com entitled With and Against: Bad Feminist and its Discontents. The first sentence begins with “I have always hated Roxane Gay’s writing…” and so before I could read any further, I saved the article to Pocket and vowed to come back to it once I’d finished the book myself. I finished Bad Feminist in the cold, rainy hours before the dawn, huddled beneath blankets in my living room while I pumped breastmilk (motherhood, I am learning, is endlessly luxurious). Before I delve into Oyler’s thoughts on the book, I want to offer my own.
I greatly enjoy Roxane's writing. I regularly scroll through her Twitter feed just to catch up on what I’d missed. I’ve always appreciated writers with quick, sharp wit and droll demeanor, and so she has quickly risen to the top of my list of favorites. A college professor (soon to be tenured), novelist, holder of a doctoral degree, among numerous other accolades - what I truly have come to love about Roxane is her frank, no nonsense diction and tone. You do not need a dictionary and a highlighter and several hours to dissect and dilute lofty psychological and philosophical ideas when she is writing about race or class or gender. She communicates with a plain, direct urgency that demonstrates her feelings and does not alienate the reader. Her responses to pop culture are sarcastic and hilarious and her responses to tragic news are swift and piercing. Obviously, we share many of the same stances on the “hot button” issues. It is easy for me to agree with her findings and retweet her snappy summations on popular media.
That said, I expected to love Bad Feminist, and I did. She opens the book with something like a disclaimer, in regards to the tricky ‘f’ word:
“In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. 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. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.”
I found this quote interesting, but in the sort of wearied way that I find most quotes about feminism ‘interesting’ or ‘nuanced’ or ‘okay, true’. I do not disagree; I think that feminism is indeed a relentlessly thorny issue/idea/word/movement that has undergone such a brutal pounding by decades of people claiming feminism that it has almost been rendered meaningless. Everyone has their own brand of personal feminism and everyone believes that their own brand is the only correct one. Personally, I consider myself a feminist, in so that I believe all people should be afforded equal rights, and that includes all colors, genders, sexualities, abilities, and religions. Some would qualify my feminism as ‘intersectional’ and some might eschew the word entirely for what Alice Walker deemed ‘womanism’ (or, God forbid, ‘womynism’). Ultimately, I use the ‘f’ to describe myself out of a rallying sense of “go, team!” for the oppressed minority, because it is simply easier to say ‘feminist’ than list all of the political ideals that I hold. It is a signifier that I use to assert my own personal beliefs - that economic equality is necessary, that intersectionality is paramount - and even in that use of the word, I am subscribing to what I find so exhausting about the word. I’ve made it mine, and that makes it mean something slightly different than how my next door neighbor defines it. It's simply the nature of the beast, and one that I've come to accept.
In this respect, I do not fault Roxane for the myriad contradictions and addendums she reveals in her own definition of the word that spurred her to coin the term ‘bad feminist’. She is doing what she has always done: living her truth, and attempting, in her own way, to define her beliefs and share them with people who want to read them. I understand her compulsion to brand herself ‘bad’ - she is a public figure in the era of the social media takedown. At any moment, she is liable to having her wig snatched and being read for filth because of an insensitive tweet that pisses off the wrong group of people. Despite her current status as black feminist KWEEN and thousands of adoring followers, I do not think she is immune. She needs to be clear about the potential hypocrisy in her opinions so that others will not feel the need to point it out for her. She warns that her essays are “political and they are personal. They are, like feminism, flawed, but they come from a genuine place.” Disclaimer: I am a human just like you. Please don’t burn me at the stake for being imperfect.
Some of Oyler’s quarrel with Bad Feminist is stylistic: the so-called “blogginess” of her essays that, I suppose, read as lowbrow and repetitive. I certainly noticed the repeated use of certain terms and phrases that I attributed to the format of the book: these are essays that were written at different times but often overlapped in subject matter, scattered throughout the internet. This did not, to me, seem like an issue worth quibbling over. Much more compelling, however, was Oyler’s frustration with Roxane’s seeming inability to stick to a singular moral code:
"What Bad Feminist does in espousing consistent inconsistency is something irresponsible, and it then creates a space in which no one can call it so. Responsibility -- what it is, who has it, and especially: do artists? -- comes up several times in the book, but as with every issue, political, artistic, or otherwise, Gay’s verdict is out: just as she vacillates on whether she wants to act an example, she vacillates on what kind of morality we can and should expect of our popular culture more broadly. Her readiness to come to only the easiest of conclusions -- that unreasonable expectations are “unfair” -- in response to two conflicting truths ends up rendering most of what she says meaningless."
I can understand what Oyler is saying here, but I don’t think Roxane’s hesitation to come to any definitive Truths is so worthy of reproach. Her responses to phenomena like 50 Shades of Grey and Girls are just that: her responses, and she, understandably, feels strongly about them. However, she is rarely polemic in her opinions on controversial media; there are the good parts and the bad parts, and even if a thing is mostly bad, Roxane takes the time to point what is good, or tricky, or valuable about it. She is also honest - to the detriment of, I don’t know, definitive markers of Good and Evil? - about the reality of her and our collective expectations with the problematic media that we consume. In discussing Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, she speaks to both sides of debate concerning Sandberg’s privilege relative to the majority of working women in America:
"Sandberg’s life is so absurd a fairy tale, I began to think of Lean In as a snow globe, where a lovely little tableau was being nicely preserved for my delectation and irritation...Common sense dictates that it is not realistic to assume anyone could achieve Sandberg’s successes simply by “leaning in” and working harder-but that doesn’t mean Sandberg has nothing to offer, or that Lean In should be summarily dismissed.”
In broader terms, it is rare to encounter a book, or movie, or stand up routine, or television show that is totally awful, holding zero merit, should be banned completely. It is similarly difficult to find a perfect piece of entertainment that is all things for everybody. What Roxane seems to be doing throughout this book is picking through and inspecting what makes so much of our media captivating and examining the negatives and positives. Her opinions are not perfect, by virtue of them being opinions. Yes, her tone changes and moods shift, as our own tones and moods are wont to do. I do not approach a book expecting flawless commentary and analysis that cannot be argued or refuted. I appreciate Oyler for continuing an important conversation about responsibility and nuance and rhetoric. I appreciate Roxane for continuing an important conversation about fallibility, and pain, and progress.
In The Hobbit, Gandalf says, "Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay." And in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore echoes the sentiment: "It is important to fight and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then can evil be kept at bay though never quite eradicated." This is how I read Bad Feminist: not as a conclusive text that answers the question of what feminism has to be or do, or that serves as a strict moral guidepost; rather, it is one passionate, strident voice in a sea of voices - trying, sometimes failing, and then trying again, to speak what feels right, right now. Maybe Roxane could have said this thing more clearly or that other thing less obscurely. But that’s not the book she wrote. For me, the challenge that she extends through this series of essays is clear: be your best self. Do right by others. It's simple, really. She expects everyone to get it wrong sometimes, just as she often does. But this, I feel, is not a shortcoming at all. She's still keeping the evil at bay. Pushing it back, bit by bit.