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On Liking, Not Loving, ‘Bad Feminist’

bad feminist by roxane gayI want to get on the bandwagon of people who have loved Roxane Gay’s debut essay collection, Bad Feminist (Aug. 5 from Harper Perennial), so bad that I’ve been tossing and turning my lukewarm reaction to the book around in my head for a couple of weeks, trying to figure out what I might be missing. What I’ve finally concluded is this: Bad Feminist is a relevant and worthwhile collection of essays, a collection I’m glad that exists, but a collection I think is organizationally flawed.

It would help, I suppose, to start out with the idea of being a bad feminist. For Gay, being a bad feminist means embracing feminism while also admitting to being human, messy, and flawed. Ultimately, the book argues, being a bad feminist is better than not being a feminist at all. This is from one of the concluding chapters:

Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement. I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that consistently places women at a disadvantage, the inequity in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, the repeated attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women, and on and on. I am committed to fighting fiercely for equality as I am committed to disrupting the notion that there is an essential feminist. …

Being a feminist, however, even a bad one, has also taught me that the need for feminism and advocacy also applies to seemingly less serious issues like a Top 40 song or a comedian’s puerile humor. The existence of these lesser artifacts of our popular culture is made possible by the far graver issues we are facing. The ground has long been softened.

These ideas – feminism isn’t an all or nothing proposition, people who are feminists make mistakes, feminism is still needed given the conversations about women and society we are still having – rang deeply true to me. The first few essays were so spot on in their criticisms of pop culture and politics that I thought for certain this would be one of those collections that bent my brain in a good way. Gay is such an elegant, eloquent writer – she’s a pleasure to read on literally any topic.

But, unfortunately, the collection faltered for me as it approached the end. The essays are organized by theme – Me; Gender and Sexuality; Race and Entertainment; Politics, Gender and Race; and Back to Me – which seems like a good idea. The problem is that by the time I got to the fourth or fifth essay in a section, the arguments start to repeat themselves, just with different topics melded together.

The point where this organizational issue crystallized for me was “When Less is More,” a critique of the television show Orange is the New Black. Basically, Gay argues against that implication that people of color should like all pop culture that is about people of color and that the show, largely, is not as good as the critical gushing implies.

My first reaction to the piece was (I am embarrassed to admit) annoyance… Are you kidding? Is nothing good enough? … I hate that I had this reaction. Hate it. I know that I’m able to have this reaction because of my privileges as an upper-middle class, white, college educated woman. I’ve had the opportunity to see my life experience reflected accurately in pop culture, rather than portrayed in a way that reinforces stereotypes and still privileges another story over mine. These are moments when privilege matters.

Intellectually, I also know that this essay is a good, important piece of criticism. And in the context of the broader critical conversation about Orange is the New Black, it provides a solid discussion on how to think about the show’s portrayal of race more deeply than just, yay, acting roles for women of color! But in the context of this collection, following essays critical of Tyler Perry and Fifty Shades of Grey and The Help and “Blurred Lines,” it felt exhausting.

And that’s, I think, where I come up lukewarm on this book. The ideas in Bad Feminist are relevant and important and absolutely worth considering. But I wish that I had thought more about how to read this book before I started (or, that the publisher would have arranged it differently from the start). If I had, I would have approached it differently, spreading the essays out over a longer period of time, or jumping to read essays in different sections of the book.

Taken individually, the essays are great. Good feminists, bad feminists and questioning feminists will all find food for thought in this collection.

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  • Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader July 29, 2014, 10:46 am

    I absolutely loved reading your thoughts on this book. The book is a critical darling right now and your honesty is incredibly refreshing.

    I consider myself a feminist (equal rights, duh) but there are times when I just like a damn song and don’t want to parse out and argue about every lyric. That makes me feel like a bad feminist indeed.

    Awesome review, Kim. Loved it.

    • Kim July 30, 2014, 5:35 pm

      I think Roxane Gay would say your reaction is totally justified and she even feels that way too. It was refreshing to read a more down-to-earth discussion about how difficult it can be to always match philosophy with real like.

  • Brittany @ The 1000th Voice July 29, 2014, 3:14 pm

    Great thoughts! It’s hard sometimes to be the one who dislikes something, and I completely understand having to mull that over for awhile. Heck, whether it’s something popular or not, I sometimes have to spend a lot of time mulling over exactly why I didn’t like something.

    I’m currently reading an essay collection that wasn’t heavily edited before the previously published pieces were assembled into the book. I’ve encountered the same background description of the author’s father, among other things, multiple times. While I’m enjoying it, I’ve found that a little frustrating! Additionally, the topics aren’t even organized as well as Bad Feminist seems to be with baseball essays scattered throughout and no discernible sequence based on the age the author was at the time of the events discussed. It’s a little weird!

    I will say that I’m at least a little interested in reading this still. Do you think it would be better to just read essay by essay rather than the whole piece at once?

    • Kim July 30, 2014, 5:36 pm

      That’s so frustrating! I think it must be hard editing an essay collection, since there are so many ways people can read it (straight through, jumping around, essay at a time, etc.) I think it can become really apparent if the editor thinks differently than the reader does.

  • Care July 29, 2014, 5:00 pm

    You are awesome. 🙂

  • Stefani July 29, 2014, 7:44 pm

    Interesting take. I’ve got this book on my to-read list and I think even after reading your review I’m still going to give it a shot. I’m sure I’d find the Orange is the New Black piece provocative, since I’ve had mixed feelings about the show too. I agree with you that her essay prose is always a pleasure to ready stylistically.

    • Kim July 30, 2014, 5:37 pm

      I absolutely don’t want to turn anyone away from reading this book — I thought a lot of it was really wonderful and honestly do think if I’d approached it differently it would have worked better.

  • Shannon @ River City Reading July 29, 2014, 9:11 pm

    I really adored this collection, but I think it’s great that you were able to pinpoint your issue with it so clearly. I’m not sure that’s something I would have been able to connect. It sounds like you might help a few other readers pick and choose essays/read out of order and enjoy it more, too.

    • Kim July 30, 2014, 5:40 pm

      That’s what I was hoping!

  • Jennifer July 30, 2014, 1:14 pm

    I’m definitely intrigued by this book. I agree that feminism is important and it sounds like many of the criticisms, questions, and ideas portrayed throughout this collection of essays are important to consume and consider. I can see how a book like this read in one sitting might be a bit difficult to take in. In fact, I remember feeling that way throughout some of my feminism classes in college. I just felt overwhelmed and disenchanted by all the criticism. I most definitely will pick this up when it comes out but I think I will heed your warning and try to read it in small chunks to re-ignite my feminist leanings and mull over each essay for a bit before jumping into another one.

    • Kim July 30, 2014, 5:44 pm

      I like the analogy to a women’s studies class — good information, but an awful lot to take together sometimes.

  • Teresa July 30, 2014, 6:12 pm

    I’ve read the first section of this collection, and I’m already beginning to wonder if it’s a book best read in bits and pieces. I’ve liked a lot of Gay’s essays, but reading a chunk of them at once started to feel a little tedious. I’ll be picking it back up tonight but will keep in mind your thoughts about spreading it out if I find myself getting worn out by it.

    • Kim July 30, 2014, 6:42 pm

      After hearing all the raves, it’s so nice to hear someone having a similar reaction to the book. I liked it, but couldn’t help feeling bogged down when I read so many right together.

  • Jess - A Book Hoarder July 31, 2014, 3:10 am

    Thank you for such an honest review. Also, for pinpointing your hang ups with it. I will be reading this but the way I read it will be different because of you. Much appreciated!

  • tanya (52 books or bust) July 31, 2014, 5:19 am

    I haven’t read Bad Feminist yet, but I do intend to. I think the thing i find with books like this is that it is better to read the essays one at a time, instead of reading the book all at once. Collections like this tend to harp on the same themes, so i need to give myself some space.

  • Andi @ Estella's Revenge July 31, 2014, 2:38 pm

    Really interesting, thoughtful critique, Kim. I am really keen to read this one, and it’ll be my first time reading a book by Gay (haven’t gotten to An Untamed State). I will definitely have this review/discussion in mind.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey August 3, 2014, 7:27 pm

    I’ve been debating picking this book up and am currently not doing so just because I’ve picked up too many other books for August. I think even though reviews have been mixed, I’ll try to get to this eventually because it seems to me, as you point out, that it’s a very relevant and worthwhile book. Even if I don’t love it, I’m sure I’ll learn something from reading it.

    • Kim August 17, 2014, 10:04 am

      It’s a really important book. I think Gay makes some smart points about how philosophy and politics and pop culture come together and conflict, as well as how individuals can respond to those difficulties. I’m glad I read it, even if I wasn’t as in love with it as other readers.