What We’re Reading: Bad Feminist
Harper Perennial: paperback (1st Edition)
Amazon free two-day shipping strikes again. I’ve been meaning to read Bad Feminist; I’ve heard nothing but praise for it, and I’ve enjoyed what of Gay’s work I’d previously read online. Roxane Gay was just in Detroit, and reading her collection makes me all the more disappointed that I missed her visit.
I was disappointed with Roxane Gay’s collection of essays, “Bad Feminist.” That is not to say that Gay’s collection of essays isn’t wonderfully funny at times and always on-point. It is. It makes many great points about feminism, “Capital-F Feminism,” race, popular culture, and human experience. Gay’s writing itself is brilliantly crisp and succinct, and she is capable of encapsulating complex concepts in one or two lines. Because of subject matter, Gay’s work is a work of zeitgeist, but the writing itself is also zeitgeist-y in the best possible way. It speaks directly to me as a modern feminist, one who also sometimes forgoes the highroad for the easy one. And maybe therein lies the rub. Maybe I identified too closely with her and her witty and honest charms. As Gay herself says: “We put a lot of responsibility on popular culture, particularly when some pop artifact somehow distinguishes itself as not terrible.” But if you’re going to stake claim in being part of the queer community (or say you are “a woman who has been queer identified at varying points in her life”), I’m going to expect you to discuss it somewhere in your 300 page collection.
That’s what it boils down to, I liked Bad Feminist, I liked it a lot, which made it all the more disappointing when only one of the forty-one essays in the collection—with a section titled “Gender & Sexuality”—was about, not even queer issues, but issues of coming out as a prominent (read: white gay) celebrity (though in all fairness, she does mention Frank Ocean as well). On the one hand, she does have a lot of other issues to talk about, which she discusses with depth, nuance, and sincerity: privilege, intersectionality, race, and higher education (“Typical First Year Professor”); female representation and expectation in television, the cult of beauty, and race or lack-thereof (“Girls, Girls, Girls”); sexual violence and rape culture in its many ugly forms (“The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” “What we Hunger for,” “The Illusion of Safety/ The Safety of Illusion,” “Some Jokes are Funnier than Others,” “Dear Young Ladies who Love Chris Brown so Much They Would Let Him Beat Them,” “Blurred Lines, Indeed,” “The Trouble with Prince Charming, or He who Trespassed Against Us”); and the lack of variety in roles for black characters in movies (“The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help,” “Surviving Django,” “Beyond the Struggle Narrative”). And then, some of Gay’s essays are so nuanced and subtle they cannot be described in a succinct four or five word phrase. But it’s because of her deft handling of these other subjects, that I was so disappointed in what seems like a shallow discussion of queer issues by comparison in “A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories.”
I expected “A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories” to be a personal account of Gay’s queerness and her experiences with it. What the essay turned out to be was a reflection on public versus private and our expectation of full disclosure of celebrities’ lives. In my opinion, it’s one of the weakest essays in the entire collection. I’m not saying that Gay owes me her story. That’s exactly what Gay is scrutinizing in her essay. No one owes anyone their stories, especially ones that can be so fraught personally such as ones about queerness, sexuality, gender, and race. But that’s the thing. Gay delves into all of these other subjects, willingly sharing other stories about deeply personal subjects. Though sexual violence is a subject of deep importance to Gay, one would think in a collection with room for seven essays on the topic, there would be room for at least one essay devoted to queer issues and the media. With a talent like Gay’s, I would love to see her thoughts on queer representation in the media, on Glee or GBF, or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or any number of mainstream shows I can think of that make a farce of queerness.
The thing is, I don’t think Gay considers herself part of the queer community. I try very hard not to question people’s claim to the community (it’s one of the ways in which I’m still trying to make myself a better member of the community), but it’s the literary analyst in me that’s stuck on one little word: “we.” In the last and second to last paragraphs of her essay, “A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories,” Gay uses the word “we,” the first person collective pronoun, to directly address her audience, and in doing so takes her part of the responsibility for not doing enough for queer human rights, but also aligns herself with her general (read: assumed cis-heteronormative) audience. She is distancing herself from the queer community she claimed belonging to earlier in her collection, making her mention of her flirts with queerness an honest yet disappointing attempt to cross “party lines” at best—or yet another queer-baiting ploy at worst. I don’t sincerely think Gay set out to hurt me personally or the queer community with this seemingly minor issue, but that doesn’t take the sting of disappointment out. In this instance, I feel Gay’s collection could have done with another editor’s opinion; if I were her editor, this is what I would’ve said: “Listen, there are some great points in ‘Three Coming Out Stories,’ but if this is all you’ve got, I would cut it. I would rather see you cut a weak essay than include it just because it discusses queer issues. We deserve more than this.”
((tl;dr: I recommend Bad Feminist for pretty much everyone, especially young women—self-identified feminists or not—but I won’t be shelving Bad Feminist with my other queer books and authors))