These essays are political and they are personal. They are, like feminism, flawed, but they come from a genuine place. I am just one woman trying to make sense of the world we live in. I’m raising my voice to show all the ways we have room to want more, to do better.
Like most people, I am a mass of contradictions.
Roxane Gay’s Hunger was one of my favorite books of 2017, one of my favorites in awhile, really. Bad Feminist collects some of her earlier essays on race, gender, her personal experience working in academia, pop culture and criticism, relationships, identity, and what it means to be the kind of feminist the title indicates.
Gay has an amazing ability to incorporate something of the personal into what she’s writing on very different topics without making the entire essay about her. I’m not sure how she does this so deftly where I’ve seen so many others do it disastrously. Something in her structure and perhaps merely that the connections she’s making are so strong and apt.
The essays are grouped by topic, beginning with the personal and moving through gender and sexuality, race and entertainment, politics, gender and race, and a final section returning to Roxane.
I tell some of the same stories over and over because certain experiences have affected me profoundly. Sometimes, I hope that by telling these stories again and again, I will have a better understanding of how the world works.
I love her writing voice, which is blunt but emotional, haunted but strong and willful, and always so smart. That’s what comes across most strongly even if some of these essays don’t seem as well-formed as others: she is just so smart. I want to know her opinion and hear her take on social issues, the news, TV shows – whatever. Even if I don’t completely agree (she loves The Hunger Games and it bored me to tears, for example), the way she comes at a topic always gives you something to turn over in your head. She can find the meaningful in the mundane or seemingly shallow, not to mention when she gets going on deeper, gnarlier topics. I want to hear her thoughts on all these things.
But the pieces here recoil before they go too deep – this is no academic analysis of feminism or the sociocultural topics it’s grouped by. This is both good and bad – personally, I don’t enjoy reading deep think pieces on feminism. I agree with feminism, the end. Most of what I read doesn’t add to that significantly, or enhance anything I’m unsure about. So for that, Bad Feminist is great – it doesn’t interrogate issues or ideas beyond the limits I prefer.
I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain…interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.
The drawback is that where Gay is capable of going further easily, and is so well versed in both the academic and the anecdotal, and refreshingly adept at weaving them together, she doesn’t take these beyond a surface level. It’s a thorny issue to identify as a feminist but come up against so many conflicts in what that label means or feel you might fall short of its ideals. What she says is deeply meaningful, helpful for someone like me who sometimes feel similarly, and it does make me wonder where this could’ve gone deeper.
It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away.
These essays are like super-intelligent blog posts. I was mostly fine with that, but it’s worth mentioning that as a deeper work of scholarship this could be disappointing. It’s light even when addressing topics of great heaviness, it’s funny where you might not expect it to be, it’s just fun to hear how much she loves competitive Scrabble.
For her nuanced take on any number of other topics from the high to lowbrow but always imbued with remarkable intelligence, and some glimpses of the kind of material that would eventually emerge, more highly polished than here, in Hunger, it’s well worth reading. 4/5
Some thoughtful lines:
“When someone writes from experiences, there is often someone else, at the ready, pointing a trembling finger, accusing that writer of having various kinds of privilege. How dare someone speak to a personal experience without accounting for every possible configuration of privilege or the lack thereof? We would live in a world of silence if the only people who were allowed to write or speak from experience or about difference were those absolutely without privilege.”
“All too often, suffering exists in a realm beyond vocabulary so we navigate that realm awkwardly, fumbling for the right words, hoping we can somehow approximate an understanding of matters that should never have to be understood by anyone in any place in the world.”
“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.”