Light Essays on Heavier Topics from Roxane Gay

Book review: Bad Feministby Roxane Gay (Amazon / Book Depository)

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.”

Bad Feminist: Essays
by Roxane Gay
published August 5, 2014 by Harper Perennial

Amazon / Book Depository

28 thoughts on “Light Essays on Heavier Topics from Roxane Gay

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  1. Great review! Definitely agree that the essays in here read as smart think pieces you’d find on an author’s blog. Even though the book is light, I never felt Gay was dumbing down concepts for a mass audience (as in some books of this kind), just that she wasn’t wading as deeply in them as she might’ve, and her voice is memorable.

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  2. This is actually one of those books I’ve been afraid to read because I got ‘feminism 101’ vibes from it but the way you explain this, it sounds like it could be worthwhile to check it out! I’m actually reading Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today right now and it sounds kind of similar – the essays feel like stream of consciousness blog posts that touch on feminist issues but don’t exactly do a deep dive into feminist theory, but I’m finding their brevity and personal touch refreshing. So, I’ll definitely reconsider this one!

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    1. I don’t think this one is the feminism 101 type, it’s more like musings on why she identifies with the movement but not with the rigidity in belonging to it the ‘right’ way. It was refreshing to read what she feels like her relationship to feminism is, and how it’s got its gray areas but has to be that way. It doesn’t feel preachy or academic and that’s exactly what I like to avoid in this kind of material! It’s definitely worth the read, plus it’s just amusing.

      I’m interested in what you think of So Sad Today! I’ve read reviews on both ends of the spectrum on that one and wasn’t sure if it was for me. Curious to hear what you think of it!

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      1. That totally makes sense! But also, my other reason for dismissing this was because I’ve only read one of Roxane Gay’s books, her novel, and I HATED it, so even though I adore her on Twitter and find her so smart and well spoken, I haven’t been drawn to any of her other books, which feels unfair especially since nonfiction is her thing!

        I just finished So Sad Today and I actually adored it – bear in mind that her novel was one of my top reads of last year so I went into it predisposed to enjoying her style, but I loved how candid it was. I’ll try to get a review up soon!

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      2. I haven’t read any of her novels but I’m wondering if it’s the same one I’ve read reviews of on the book blogs, basically that has a lot of extremely brutal rape? The reviews I’ve read weren’t flattering at all, and it was kind of hard to reconcile with what I know of her writing from Hunger. It was just so polished careful and thoughtful, and although the subject matter was also brutal it all felt connected to a purpose, which I gathered that this novel didn’t quite achieve. I promise her nonfiction is very different from that! You should definitely try Hunger, it’s just incredible.

        I’m excited for your review of So Sad Today, I can’t even remember now why I decided not to add it based on another review so maybe your take on it will be helpful!

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      3. (I don’t know how I missed this comment before, sorry!) The novel I read is An Untamed State which is indeed the graphic rape one… I was actually kind of shocked by how voyeuristic it felt, coming from a prominent feminist author. Since I read it though I’ve read some things about how writing about rape has helped Roxane process her own trauma and I retroactively felt a bit bad for judging, but it just really didn’t sit well with me at the time – it all felt so gratuitous. (And on top of that, the characters were REALLY poorly drawn and the dialogue was straight out of a Lifetime movie. I was so unimpressed.)

        But, again, I really shouldn’t judge her entire oeuvre off this! Her nonfiction sounds amazing, I really do need to take the plunge. Maybe I’ll start with Hunger.

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      4. I don’t think you were alone in feeling that way, at least from the reviews I read. It sounded uncomfortably gratuitous and
        without the redeeming characteristics or whatnot that would elevate the main character above it or make it meaningful somehow. But you’re right, she does write her way through things, she mentions that here too, just seems maybe that one was a little much. Hunger is brutal too but the way she writes about it just masterful, really. Maybe that was the end result of working through her trauma so much previously, the way she told her story there blew me away.

        And SO funny that you mention Lifetime movie dialogue because she wrote in Bad Feminist about how much she loves Lifetime and other trashy TV!! Maybe absorbed too much of the style from all that viewing? Or I dunno, maybe fiction just isn’t her thing. She just seems in such prime form in nonfiction. You could definitely start with Hunger, even though this book is older it’s not necessary to have read it to appreciate her memoir.

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      5. That’s hilarious! I mean, I’m not judging at all, I can’t say I watch Lifetime but I LOVE trashy reality tv. I stayed up past my new self-imposed bedtime to watch the Survivor finale last night and I have no regrets. But that really is exactly what her dialogue sounded like, which rubs me the wrong way when a book is supposed to be literary fiction – obviously there isn’t a surefire way to measure ‘good writing’ or ‘literary writing’ but there is just no way in hell anyone could read that dialogue and think anything but Lifetime. You should pick it up in a bookstore some day and flip through it, you’ll see it exactly what I mean. (Are there many English language bookstores there?)

        But yes, you have fully convinced me to give her a second chance! I mean I was always planning on it eventually but I think this review and convo was the push I needed.

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      6. Oh I know, I watch so much garbage that I can’t come close to judging. It’s just so funny that her dialogue struck you that way. I do sometimes worry I’m absorbing too much bad stuff from so much of the trashiness I like, and that makes me think it’s possible! I’m kinda surprised since she’s such an eloquent, gifted writer in general. Dialogue seems hard, though, to put it mildly.

        We do have a fair amount of English bookstores, plus I’m in the US often enough and have library access to ebooks so I can always check it out there to get an idea…I think I need to, I’m so curious! And glad I could give you the push, I promise Hunger is worthwhile and then some. I can’t wait to hear what you think of it!

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      7. Dialogue seems SO hard and sometimes I feel a bit silly criticizing writers for something that I wouldn’t be able to do better, but I guess that’s the nature of book reviewing!

        Ohh that’s great you have e-library access! And of course you come back to the US, I don’t know why my brain has placed you permanently in Austria like planes don’t exist or something 😂


  3. Fantastic review! I loved Hunger too, and I’ve been meaning to read this one for so long. I think Gay’s writing voice is going to work really well with these lighter essays, so I am looking forward to picking it up.

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    1. Thank you so much! It’s a great read, I just like hearing her thoughts on anything, really. It’s less polished and powerful than Hunger, but for such brief delves into each topic she still manages to make such an impact. Excited to hear what you think of it when you get to it!


  4. Gay is one of my favorite authors, so I’m really happy you liked this book. It was the first one of hers that I read (I must have been 15 when I picked it up) and I remember being blown away by every single piece. I’d love to erase all the memories I have of Bad Feminist just so I could have the experience of reading it for the first time again. I still haven’t picked up Hunger — but I definitely need to! If you want to try out her fiction writing, I’d recommend her collection of short stories called Difficult Women.

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    1. I love books like that, that give you the feeling you wish you could read them again for the first time! She has such a singular voice so I can see why this would be a perfect introduction to her. I really liked it too, I hope she does more essay collections in future. You must read Hunger!!! I try not to tell people YOU MUST about anything but really, it’s just extraordinary.

      I’ve read one short story of hers that was in a multi-author collection, Tales of Two Americas, it was a mix of essays/poetry/short fiction and I skipped all the fiction but hers! I liked it in the way that I just like her writing in general, but it’s so hard for me to get into fiction for years now! I basically manage one short story collection a year when a favorite author comes out with a new one and I already used up that quota this year 😂 maybe it’ll change at some point and I’ll go back to reading it, in which case that’ll be top of my list. Thanks for recommending it so highly!

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  5. Ever since I read Hunger earlier this year I’ve been looking for more work by Roxane Gay. I need to read more essays, and I think if I’m looking for more light works that are still inspiring and well-written, I’ll definitely pick this one up.

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  6. Great review! I haven’t read this yet, so it’s good to know what to expect! I thought it would be a little more thorough, I’ll make sure I’m in the mood for somewhat lighter essays when I do pick it up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! It’s still Roxane Gay, so light is relative, I guess, as she definitely doesn’t shy from addressing rougher subjects. They’re just not as analytical as others on the same topics, but I liked the style here. Hope you enjoy it!

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    1. She’s an amazing heroine to have 🙂 I find the way she analyzes things to be very accessible, and as someone who doesn’t have a lot of patience for academic analysis lately, that style just spoke to me. I’ve seen so many complaints about this book, though! Sounding too bloggy, etc. I thought it was worth mentioning so people know what to expect, but I kind of just love her nonfiction in whatever form she wants to provide it. I’m glad you liked this one so much too!

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