Julie Christine's Reviews > Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
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bookshelves: social-political-commentary, best-of-2014, read-2014

I became aware of the “I don’t need feminism because . . .” meme several months ago. You know—those photos of young women holding up signs that read things like, “I don’t need feminism because I am capable of critical thinking,” or “I don’t need feminism because I am not a delusional, disgusting, hypocritical man-hater.” I shook my head, rolled my eyes, but still, these weird declarations chilled me. How did a socio-political movement founded on the principles of empowerment and equal rights become reduced to “disgusting man-haters”? Who are these ignorant young women who believe that feminism is a dirty word, something to be ashamed of, and how do they not understand what they owe to the generations before them and how much work there is yet to do?

For the purpose of this review, these questions are purely rhetorical. The answers are there, they are complex, and the subject of many a dissertation, I am certain. Which is probably why Tumblrs of anti-feminist rants exist—we stopped talking about what feminism means on an every day cultural level. Feminism removed itself to the alabaster towers of academe, where concepts such as intersectionality, essentialism, Third Wave feminism, and patriarchal bargaining are no match for the mainstream, which is still shuddering over 80s shoulder pads as wide as an airplane hangar.

Well, thank God for Roxane Gay and her collection of intimate, generous, witty, and wholly accessible essays, Bad Feminist. Her voice is the first I’ve heard say, “It’s okay to be messy, to hold conflicting opinions, to do things that don’t follow the party line, to question and be confused and STILL be a feminist.” As she says in the collection’s closing line, “I’d rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

First, a few things you should know about Roxane Gay: she’s a writer of novels, short stories, essays; a professor of English; a literary and cultural critic; a native of Nebraska, the daughter of Haitian immigrants. You will learn much more about Roxane by reading her essays. Some of what she shares will make you laugh. Some of it will break your heart. At some point, she will hit a nerve and piss you off (though not when she writes about participating in Scrabble competitions-she's adorable and so, so funny here). She ruminates, chats, gossips, but rarely does Gay conclude. Her essays hinge on the ellipses of what makes us human: our vulnerabilities, our inconsistencies, our flaws. Like each of us, she is “a mess of contradictions;” hence, her admission, her claim, to being a “bad feminist.”

Don’t look here for an historical treatise or a modern exposition of feminism. This is not a textbook. It is not a quick and dirty “Feminism for Dummies.” It is one woman’s thoughts (many of these essays have been published previously, giving to a loose and rangy feeling to this collection) on a wide range of contemporary American issues, political and cultural, with the basic theme of how feminism can confound and inspire.

Gay is a pop culture enthusiast and many of her essays examine contemporary race and gender relations through the filter of current cultural touchstones. She is an unabashed consumer of what are pointlessly referred to as ‘guilty pleasures.’ I floundered a bit at times, feeling like I was smushed into a corner booth with a bunch of girlfriends at brunch, squirming and looking around the diner, unable to contribute to the conversation. I haven’t had television since 1993 and I don't read fan-fic.

Still, I soaked up what Gay had to say about the pop culture phenoms, even if I couldn’t relate to the details. She has this raw way of setting forth her opinion, often pointed, contrary, angry, or biting, but without a hint of snobbery. You get that she gets it’s opinion, not gospel.

She makes many points that resonated deeply with this reader. In the essay Beyond the Measure of Men, Gay writes:
The label “women’s fiction” is often used with such disdain. I hate how “women” has become a slur. I hate how some women writers twist themselves into knots to distance themselves from “women’s fiction,” as if we have anything to be ashamed of as women who write what we want to write. I don’t care of my fiction is labeled as women’s fiction. I know what my writing is and what it isn’t. Someone else’s arbitrary designation can’t change that. If readers discount certain topics as unworthy of their attention, then the failure is with the reader, not the writer. To read narrowly and shallowly is to read from a place of ignorance, and women writers can’t fix that ignorance, no matter what kind of books we write or how those books are marketed.”


But in later essays, The Trouble with Prince Charming, The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help and Surviving Django, she takes to task both the writers and readers of Fifty Shades of Gray, Twilight, and The Help and the film Django Unchained. Gay draws the inclusive reading line at irresponsible writing of poor quality that celebrates the subjugation and abuse of women and at writing and film that craps all over the black American experience.

Gay also, naturally, discusses feminism from the perspective of a woman of color. This opens worlds of opinion and perspective that this reader craves. In light of this summer’s controversy over domestic abuse, the NFL, and the punishment Janay Rice suffered at the hands of her husband and the media, as well as the killing of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson, MO, I want to ask these young women of Tumblr, “How’s that ‘I don’t need feminism’ working out for you?” For I do not believe that feminism is the purview of women. It belongs to all who advocate for social justice and human rights.

Gay makes the point again and again, in so many clever and self-effacing ways, that we have isolated ourselves in our narrow categories. Feminism is not spared her scorn: it has largely excluded women of color, queer women, transgendered women, it hasn’t dealt adequately with fat-shaming, it doesn’t recognize privilege, it offers up highly-educated, wealthy, successful white women (Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandburg) as proof that things have changed. But what is most striking about Bad Feminist is to hear a strong, wise, accomplished, vocal woman say, “I’m still trying to figure out what feminism means to me.”
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Reading Progress

August 7, 2014 – Shelved
August 7, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
October 1, 2014 – Started Reading
October 1, 2014 – Shelved as: social-political-commentary
October 4, 2014 –
page 115
35.94% "Good thing I purchased a copy - I've dog-eared a silly number of pages. I do start to tune out when she gets into television criticism - I don't watch tv and I can't fathom wasting a second of my life on reality television. The tv commentary can be interesting , since she of course focuses on women's issues, but I hope there's not much more of it."
October 6, 2014 –
page 215
67.19% "The Help has long troubled me and its popularity baffled--I tried to explain why in my review but it wasn't until Gay's excoriation here that I understood from a black woman's perspective how humiliating a book it is and how wrong it gets race relations."
October 7, 2014 – Shelved as: read-2014
October 7, 2014 – Shelved as: best-of-2014
October 7, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-40 of 40 (40 new)

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Julie Christine There is so so so much I want and need to say about this book, but it will have to wait until after vacation and when I can write on something more amenable to lingering, complicated thought than an iPhone.


Naia I look forward to more of your thoughts on this one, Julie. I'll be reading this soon.


message 3: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl "How did a socio-political movement founded on the principles of empowerment and equal rights become reduced to “disgusting man-haters”? Right. Great review, Julie. I need to pick this one up sometime because I've been hearing great things about it.


Diane Good review, Julie. This book looks interesting and like something I might enjoy.


Julie Christine Cheryl wrote: ""How did a socio-political movement founded on the principles of empowerment and equal rights become reduced to “disgusting man-haters”? Right. Great review, Julie. I need to pick this one up somet..." Would love your thoughts on this, Cheryl. It's so hard to review a collection of essays- each piece took me to a different place. I just love her style, her voice- someone I'm eager to hear speak in person.


Julie Christine Diane wrote: "Good review, Julie. This book looks interesting and like something I might enjoy."
Thank you, Diane! Yes, I think this would be so worth your time and I know you'd have some strong reactions!


Debbie "DJ" Simply fantastic review! I'm reading it right now, and your first paragraph is exactly how I feel...you just put it into the perfect words. Thank you.


Mona Great review! Very thoughtful and nuanced. And it's great to hear someone point out, thoughtfully, how "feminism" has become a dirty word. Anyway, I can't wait to read this book--literally---I've been on the waiting list for it at the local library for months.


Julie Christine Debbie "DJ" wrote: "Simply fantastic review! I'm reading it right now, and your first paragraph is exactly how I feel...you just put it into the perfect words. Thank you."

Thank YOU, Debbie. I feel - thanks to Roxane, Chimamande Adichie, and others, that we're finally talking about feminism again in real terms. That an only be a good thing!


Julie Christine Mona wrote: "Great review! Very thoughtful and nuanced. And it's great to hear someone point out, thoughtfully, how "feminism" has become a dirty word. Anyway, I can't wait to read this book--literally---I'v..."

Thank you, Mona! I was waiting for this in the library queue, too- then on impulse in an airport bookstore, I bought a paperback copy. I actually read this on vacation, of all funny things. But Gay makes learning fun :)


Debbie "DJ" Julie wrote: "Debbie "DJ" wrote: "Simply fantastic review! I'm reading it right now, and your first paragraph is exactly how I feel...you just put it into the perfect words. Thank you."

Thank YOU, Debbie. I fee..."


YES, could not agree more.


message 12: by Margitte (new)

Margitte I so agree with your comment:"Who are these ignorant young women who believe that feminism is a dirty word, something to be ashamed of, and how do they not understand what they owe to the generations before them and how much work there is yet to do?"

Wonderful review, Julie.


Debbie "DJ" I wonder why the history of women's accomplishments is rarely taught in schools. I'm in my early 50's, without the hard fought efforts of the feminist movement, I would not have the opportunities so many younger women take for granted. I often feel if they knew what it took, the backsliding we are seeing today would be met with audacity instead of apathy.


Julie Christine Debbie "DJ" wrote: "I wonder why the history of women's accomplishments is rarely taught in schools. I'm in my early 50's, without the hard fought efforts of the feminist movement, I would not have the opportunities s..."

So true. Just like we have to have a "Black History" month or "Women's History" month, otherwise we'd forget all about historical figures who aren't white and male, because they are so rarely part of standard curricula. Not to mention our Asian and Hispanic heritage. Oh, jeez, don't get me started . . .


Julie Christine Margitte wrote: "I so agree with your comment:"Who are these ignorant young women who believe that feminism is a dirty word, something to be ashamed of, and how do they not understand what they owe to the generatio..."

Thank you, Margitte! I think there are some very strong, loud young voices that are waving important banners- social media is making feminism cool again. There will always be naysayers, but I hope things like these Tumblr rants are anomalies and that wiser heads will prevail.


Michele Cacano Great review. Made me move this book up in the order of my "To Read" pile...


Francesca Marciano Brilliant review Julie, thanks, you made me want to go out and get a copy right now!


Julie Christine Michele wrote: "Great review. Made me move this book up in the order of my "To Read" pile..."

Michele, you can dip in and out, so if you don't mind having more than one book going at a time . . .


Julie Christine Francesca wrote: "Brilliant review Julie, thanks, you made me want to go out and get a copy right now!"

Thank you, Francesca!


message 20: by Cat (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cat Fantastic review, thanks. I agree with everything you said, though you articulated it much better than I did!


Julie Christine Cat wrote: "Fantastic review, thanks. I agree with everything you said, though you articulated it much better than I did!"

Cat, thank you! Lots to consider here. I don't always agree with her, but she always makes me think.


message 22: by Barb (new) - added it

Barb As usual, you've written a fascinating review....thus moving that book to the top of my pile. Thank you!


Sarah Really fantastic review; summed up much of my reflections.


Julie Christine Sarah wrote: "Really fantastic review; summed up much of my reflections." Thank you, Sarah!


Julie Christine Barb wrote: "As usual, you've written a fascinating review....thus moving that book to the top of my pile. Thank you!"
Eager for your impressions, Barb. Roxane can infuriate and encourage. Such a voice.


message 26: by stellajames (new) - added it

stellajames Oh, that 50 shades essay, I'm still laughing. And astounded (not in a good way) by the books and their readership. Scary. Excellent book. Excellent REVIEW.


Julie Christine stellajames wrote: "Oh, that 50 shades essay, I'm still laughing. And astounded (not in a good way) by the books and their readership. Scary. Excellent book. Excellent REVIEW."

Aw, stellajames, Thank you! I know. It's hard to make sense of. Who are these women reading this claptrap, and why? Roxane is so great!


message 28: by stellajames (new) - added it

stellajames Julie wrote: "stellajames wrote: "Oh, that 50 shades essay, I'm still laughing. And astounded (not in a good way) by the books and their readership. Scary. Excellent book. Excellent REVIEW."

Aw, stellajames, T..."

Gay is awesome. Do you read Soraya Chemaly? She's an essayist on HuffPo and elsewhere. Here's a link: http://sorayachemaly.tumblr.com


message 29: by CC (new)

CC This is a good review and I'd like to read the book, but I'm actually commenting to say that quite a lot of people on Tumblr are strong feminists who also support transgender and gay rights with lots of discussions about racism, ableism, fat-shaming, how patriarchy hurts men too, etc. I've actually learned more about those issues on Tumblr than I did in university.... (Where I had more male professors than female ones.) So I think you're a little too quick to dismiss 'younger women' -- enjoying pop culture on Tumblr and elsewhere doesn't mean we're not also aware of the bigger issues in our world or the history of feminism and all its done for us.


Julie Christine Whitelilacs wrote: "This is a good review and I'd like to read the book, but I'm actually commenting to say that quite a lot of people on Tumblr are strong feminists who also support transgender and gay rights with lo..."
Thank you so much for the comment. I so agree- Tumblr is great forum. My rant is reserved specifically for the anti-feminist displays found there, not for users of Tumblr in general. Roxane Gay herself has one of the best Tumblrs out there (INHO) Please let me know what you think of her book!


Julie Christine stellajames wrote: "Julie wrote: "stellajames wrote: "Oh, that 50 shades essay, I'm still laughing. And astounded (not in a good way) by the books and their readership. Scary. Excellent book. Excellent REVIEW."

Aw, ..."


Speaking of great Tumblrs- thank you! I will check out Soraya's!


Bookphile Just wanted to say that this is a stellar review. I thought this was an excellent book, and you bring up many great points about what made it so excellent.


Julie Christine Bookphile wrote: "Just wanted to say that this is a stellar review. I thought this was an excellent book, and you bring up many great points about what made it so excellent." Thank you so much!


Awesomely Alliterative Anna Reading this book could be interesting...your review has me intrigued. I like the concept of this fluid and individualized sense of feminism that you mention as a theme in the essays. I hold a particular stance (which I won't mention specifically out of respect for the fact that this would blow into a huge debate) for which I am often called out as being anti-feminism. But I tend to be more old school feminist. Anyway, just saying I like the review, and I am now considering a book I would have written of as "stereotypical modern feminist propaganda" otherwise.


Julie Christine Awesomely Alliterative Anna wrote: "Reading this book could be interesting...your review has me intrigued. I like the concept of this fluid and individualized sense of feminism that you mention as a theme in the essays. I hold a part..."
Anna, thank you for such a thoughtful response. I'll be so curious to know your thoughts if you do decide to read Bad Feminist.


message 36: by Jill (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jill Melrose Gay is the readership of those books.


message 37: by YA (new)

YA Books You're the ignorant one-- most modern feminists who supported first wave feminism (the reasonable wave of feminism) are abandoning third wave feminism for its deceitfulness and its copious amounts of misandry,


message 38: by Mira (new)

Mira Perhaps you should consider why all the "ignorant young women" feel the way they do about modern feminism. There is in fact a reason. "How did a socio-political movement founded on the principles of empowerment and equal rights become reduced to “disgusting man-haters”?" you ask. Because that's what feminists became. Because of things like #maletears and #killallmen. What feminist have done throughout the history is extremely important and women own them a lot. Whining about manspreading and sexist air conditioning however is not important. Feminists this day and age aren't about gender equality. They want female supremacy. They do not care about women. They care about feminists. As soon as a woman is not a feminist, feminists are very quick to verbally attack that person and even wish them rape "so that they would understand why they need feminism." That is not caring about women. Also, feminism doesn't hold a monopoly over gender equality. A person can support equality even without calling themselves feminists. I you cannot see this and look at things from others' perspectives, then perhaps you are the ignorant one.


message 39: by Aaron (new)

Aaron Wiener I’m curious. I’ll have to borrow this one next.

I consider myself an enthusiastic feminist, and I enthusiastically support feminist causes (albeit in the inactive millennial sense of the word “support” where really all I do is vote and voice my opinion on facebook.)

I’m cool with feminist politics... it’s feminists that I’m not always crazy about, and I can absolutely see how the worst, most awful ones could alienate people from the feminist movement.

There’s a degree of dogmatic orthodoxy (as in any movement) where if you stray from one message any way, phrase something the wrong way, advocate incorrectly, or break an unknown rule where you can be treated like an enemy. It’s kind of unfair, and even thought it doesn’t drive me away (I don’t let douchey individuals affect my overall values), it’s not cosmic to see how it drives others away and makes them feel like “well, if you don’t like having me on your team because I’m not your cookie cutter ally even though I vote exclusively to further your political goals, then fuck you!” Not a great way to play it... but understandable.


message 40: by Siddhant (new) - added it

Siddhant I want to grab a copy of this, thanks for your review Julie


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