Aug 21, 2014

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist by Roxane GayBad Feminist by Roxane Gay

How do we reconcile the imperfections of feminism with all the good it can do? 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.
Bad Feminist: Essays collects Roxane Gay’s writing on topics such as gender and sexuality, pop culture, race and entertainment, politics, inequality in its many forms, and occasionally her own life. I’ve been avidly following Gay’s writing online for years, and the reasons why I liked this book so much are pretty much the reasons why I like her in general. It was interesting to see slightly different versions of pieces I’d read previously, as well as to read new-to-me pieces that further elaborate on ideas Gay has addressed before. But mostly I was just grateful to have the opportunity to bask in the sheer brilliance of her thoughts and words.

Here’s why I love Roxane Gay: she gives herself permission to be human and messy, vulnerable and contradictory. She reminds us that it’s okay to say “I don’t know”. She acknowledges that living according to your beliefs is hard, and that we all occasionally fail, and that we get to pick ourselves up and try again. Reading about how a writer and thinker I admire negotiates some of the same issues that keep me up at night, not so metaphorically speaking, made me feel less alone. I’m always grateful for writing that achieves that.

The essay that gives this collection its title is one whose importance to me I’ve discussed before. When Gay vows to embrace the label “bad feminist”, she’s not giving herself or her readers a free pass to stop aiming for a better, more inclusive feminism. The intersection of sexism and other forms of oppression is at the centre of everything Roxane Gay writes, and race in particular is one of the main themes of the book. But being mindful of these intersections doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes mess up — an inevitable result of living in a world that encourages all sorts of blind spots. And feminism, Gay reminds us, is too important for us to walk away from it because we’re human and make mistakes:
I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.
It’s hard for me to pick my favourite bits of Bad Feminist, as there was something I found valuable in pretty much every essay. I want to highlight a few sections I made notes of, though: for example, I love how a short essay titled “How to become friends with another women” starts with “abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive” (I live for the day when this myth will die a horrible death). And I love what she says about privilege here:
We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone. Of course we resent these accusations. Look at white men when they are accused of having privilege. They tend to be immediately defensive (and, at times, understandably so). They say, “It’s not my fault I am a white man,” or “I’m [insert other condition that discounts their privilege],” instead of simply accepting that, in this regard, yes, they benefit from certain privileges others do not. To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgement of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.
I especially like how Gay acknowledges that it’s human to struggle with this — yet surrendering to this acceptance would make it so much easier for discussions about power and marginalisation to move forward.

Another favourite piece was the one about unlikeable female protagonists (which you can still read online). Gay puts it perfectly when she says,
An unlikable man is inscrutably interesting, dark, or tormented, but ultimately compelling, even when he might behave in distasteful ways. This is the only explanation I can come up with for the popularity of, say, the novels of Philip Roth, who is one hell of a writer but who also practically revels in the unlikability of his men, with their neuroses and self-loathing (and, of course humanity) boldly on display from one page to the next. When women are unlikable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike. Why are these women daring to flaunt convention? Why aren’t they making themselves likeable (and therefore acceptable) to polite society?
In “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence”, Gay addresses the darkness of her own novel, An Untamed State, and discusses, with honesty and care, some of the same questions about rape in fiction that were at the forefront of my mind as I read it:
As I write any of these stories, I wonder if I am being gratuitous. I want to get it right. But how do you get this sort of thing right? How do you write violence authentically without making it exploitative? I worry I am contributing to the cultural numbness that would allow an article like the one in the Times to be written and published, that allows rape to be such rich fodder for popular culture and entertainment. We cannot separate violence in fiction from violence in the world no matter how hard we try.
And in “Beyond the Measure of Men”, she gives voice to all the frustration anyone who cares about gender parity in the literary world is likely to have experienced when seeing the same conversations reoccur periodically with no visible concrete action to follow:
The time for outrage over things we already know is over. The call and response of this debate has grown tightly choreographed and tedious. A woman dares to acknowledge the gender problem. Some people say, “Yes, you’re right,” but do nothing to change the status quo. Some people say, “I’m not part of the problem,” and offer up some tired example as to why this is all no big deal, why this is all being blown out of proportion. Some people offer up submission queue ratios and other excuses as if that absolves responsibility. Some people say, “Give me more proof,” or “I want more numbers,” or “Things are so much better,” or “You are wrong.” Some people say, “Stop complaining.” Some people say, “Enough talking about the problem. Let’s talk about solutions.” Another woman dares to acknowledge this gender problem. Rinse. Repeat.
The solutions are obvious. Stop making excuses. Stop saying women run publishing. Stop justifying the lack of parity in prominent publications that have the resources to address gender inequity. Stop parroting the weak notion that you’re simply publishing the best writing, regardless. There is ample evidence of the excellence of women writers. Publish more women writers. If women aren’t submitting to your publication or press, ask yourself why, deal with the answers even if those answers make you uncomfortable, and then reach out to women writers. If women don’t respond to your solicitations, go find other women. Keep doing that, issue after issue after issue. Read more widely. Create more inclusive measures of excellence. Ensure that books by men and women are being reviewed in equal numbers. Nominate more deserving women for the important awards. Deal with your resentment. Deal with your biases. Vigorously resist the urge to dismiss the gender problem. Make the effort and make the effort and make the effort until you no longer need to, until we don’t need to keep having this conversation. Change requires intent and effort. It really is that simple.
If I had to pick an absolute favourite essay, though, it would probably be “Tragedy. Call. Compassion. Response.” — an honest piece about the dangers of the quick cycle of response the Internet can sometimes encourage that felt all too familiar. An excerpt:
At a time like this, tragedy is used for political posturing. Righteousness gets in the way of what is right. Righteousness gets in the way of valid observations that might be better shared more carefully, more thoughtfully, under different circumstances. The tools of the modern age afford us many privileges, but they also cost us the privilege of time and space and distance to properly think through tragedy, to take a deep breath, to feel, to care. Tragedy. Call. Heart. Response. Tragedy. Call. Mind. Response.

I followed many conversations about what happened in Norway and the death of Amy Winehouse because they happened one after the next. Too many of those conversations tried to conflate the two events, tried to create some kind of hierarchy of tragedy, grief, call, response. There was so much judgment, so much interrogation of grief—how dare we mourn a singer, an entertainer, a girl-woman who struggled with addiction, as if the life of an addict is somehow less worthy a life, as if we are not entitled to mourn unless the tragedy happens to the right kind of people. How dare we mourn a singer when across an ocean seventy-seven people are dead? We are asked these questions as if we only have the capacity to mourn one tragedy at a time, as if we must measure the depth and reach of a tragedy before deciding how to respond, as if compassion and kindness are finite resources we must use sparingly. We cannot put these two tragedies on a chart and connect them with a straight line. We cannot understand these tragedies neatly.
(…)
I have never considered compassion a finite resource. I would not want to live in a world where such was the case. Tragedy. Call. Great. Small. Compassion. Response. Compassion. Response.
I’ll finish by returning to “Bad Feminist”, the essay that not only titles but kind of ties this collection together:
At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are—militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humourless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better. I’m not proud of this. I don’t want to buy into these myths anymore. I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done. Bad feminism seems like the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself, and so I write. I chatter away on Twitter about everything that makes me angry and all the small things that bring me joy. I write blog posts about the meals I cook as I try to take better care of myself, and with each new entry, I realize that I’m undestroying myself after years of allowing myself to stay damaged. The more I write, the more I put myself out into the world as a bad feminist but, I hope, a good woman—I am being open about who I am and who I was and where I have faltered and who I would like to become.
Roxane Gay’s openness moved and inspired me. It gave me solace in the best way books can. I, too, have been guilty of at times deciding I’m not good enough to call myself a feminist, even though not a single day goes by when I don’t think about how gender and power function in this world. This helped, and I’m grateful.

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10 comments:

  1. This sounds like a must-read for all sorts of reasons and not only the feminist: that paragraph on Winehouse/Norway is so spot-on.

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  2. Does she address the misogyny of Philip Roth? Because to me, that is way more egregious (but perhaps a part of) his unlikeable female characters. And yes yes yes re "I live for the day when this myth (encouraging bitchy, toxic, or competitive female friendships) will die a horrible death" - so awful!

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  3. I'm reading this now and LOVING it. As you said, I admire that she allows herself to be messy, contradictory, and multi-faceted but always shooting for being better. She's human. Right on!

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  4. I've seen a couple of reviews of this one and it looks so interesting.

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  5. This sounds really fascinating and worthwhile. Roxane Gay. I love that she's having such a moment -- I've been loving her writing for a while, and I'm thrilled that she's (presumably) gaining a wider audience this year.

    I have to say, though -- and I hope you won't think I'm callous -- compassion IS a finite resource. Your brain won't keep accepting tragedy. At some point you will run out of sympathy. It's the reason I sometimes screen out particular news stories in a given week, because it's too much for me to handle that week, and I want to continue feeling compassion rather than exhaustion. I've been all Ferguson and Ebola this week, and I haven't been paying as much attention to ISIS, and I haven't been paying ANY attention to the Israel/Palestine thing. Compassion fatigue: It is real.

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  6. Vicki: Yes, all sorts of reasons - there's just so much she gets right.

    Jill: She does a bit, but the essay is more centred on how what's admissible and even admirable in male characters will be a deal-breaker in female ones (and of course misogyny is very much a part of that).

    Andi: Looking forward to your thoughts, and so glad you're enjoying it too!

    Caroline: She's amazing - do read her if you have the chance.

    Jenny: That's an excellent point, and of course I don't think you're callous at all! I agree with you and I have experienced that sort of exhaustion, too. I stand behind the sentiment she expresses in that quote, but the wording could be made more precise by saying instead that compassion is not a zero-sum game. Does that make sense? That's what resonated with me: the idea that even though we do get exhausted and can only care about so many things at the same time, it's unhelpful to suggest that the compassion people felt for Amy Winehouse directly took away from their availability to care about what happened in Norway. You can't identify a single event as being the last straw. I also think that she was getting at the fact that sometimes Internet discourse (for reasons that are human and understandable, like people being frustrated that the world seems so indifferent to things that are vitally important to them) can lean a bit towards policing other people's priorities. I remember, for example, when people made unhelpful comments about Veronica Mars fans donating to the kickstarter instead of to charity, as if we couldn't do both (which isn't to say everyone did, of course). At the end of the day money, like compassion, IS finite, and we can't invest in movies we love and treat ourselves to a slice of cake and support every worthwhile cause in the world - so we make the choices that allow us to go through our lives. I think she was calling for acceptance of different sets of choices, and also an understanding that to talk about x doesn't mean you're always and forever indifferent to y - and despite the imperfect wording I really needed to hear that.

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  7. This is the first review I've read that makes me want to read it. I've put it on the list then talked myself out of it. I've talked myself out of it because I didn't want to read something too preachy. I know I'm not perfect but don't need to be always reminded of it. So maybe she's not so preachy?

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  8. Chris, not even a little bit!

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  9. I do really struggle with the unlikable female character in novels. I KNOW that it is wrong of me to dislike them so vehemently, but it's hard for me to like a book with an unlikable female at its center. Though, maybe to be fair to myself, I don't like books with unlikable males, either. I think Gillian Flynn wrote something similar about how people are so bothered by violent women, so much more than violent men. It was quite eye-opening for me. So I am aware of being a bad feminist, too, but working towards getting better.

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  10. Hi yes hello long time etc etc.

    This sounds wonderful and I really want to read it. It sounds like a book I would benefit from.

    I... I have mixed feelings about the compassion quote. I don't know, it's probably just because it brings up 22/7 and even though it's been three years and nothing even happened to me it's just still so raw. I don't mean to say that people shouldn't have been upset about Amy Winehouse, of course not, people get to be upset about whatever they want, and she was a human being who mattered a lot to a lot of people, and she died, tragically. I don't even think my reaction is to the meaning of the quote, compassion is not a zero-sum game, I agree. I think it's just, it's strange, seeing it written about from such a far away perspective, as "just another tragic event", as a factor in an analysis, when I remember the bang and the shaking windows and the saw dust that fell from the ceiling, and the fear, and being told about the shooting from friends in the youth politics crowd long before the news reported it, and the panicked text messages and tweets to friends in AUF, and the ones that never got responses, and not being able to get home, and having lived in Oslo for less than a month, and holding each other on the couch in a cramped apartment and eating pancakes and popcorn because we needed to eat something, and not being able to cry. I just, I... Yes. Yes, she's right, infinitely so, love and compassion are not zero-sum. It's just strange, I suppose, that for some people that day was just a day. Because my world changed forever, it's hard, important, but hard, to remember that's not the case for everyone.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.