Bad Feminist
Roxane Gay
Harper Perennial, $15.99 (paper)

An Untamed State
Roxane Gay
Grove Atlantic, $16 (paper)

In our current cultural climate of feminist-defining and not-feminist-enough shaming, Roxane Gay’s ownership of the title is a tongue-in-cheek revolt, to powerful effect. “Bad feminist” is a way for her to claim the title of feminist while distancing herself from the essentialism that she feels has never represented her, that has at times even rejected her. As Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said, “There’s the idea of feminism as a party that’s very exclusive, and some people don’t get to go.” The exclusivity is based on the idea that there exists “one true feminism to dominate all of womankind,” as Gay puts it—a kind of independence to the point of invulnerability, a heterosexual, white, middle to upper middle class, pink-hating Feminism with a capital F.

In an interview with The Guardian, Gay explains how she wanted “bad feminist” to stand for an alternative perspective: “the term acknowledges that it is hard to be an ideal feminist with perfect politics. . . . I’m human, full of contradictions, and a feminist.” The myth of a one true Feminism is underwritten by the misconception, not uncommon among women today, that the word connotes man-hating, bra-burning, and humorlessness. It is in claiming the label of feminism for herself, rather than having it claim her, that the bad feminist finds her power.

Amidst Anne-Marie Slaughter’s talk of “having it all” and Sheryl Sandberg’s talk of “leaning in,” Gay’s Bad Feminist, a collection of essays of cultural criticism, offers a complex and multifarious feminism to answer the movement’s ongoing PR issues, its flaws and its failures. Gay’s is a feminism for the ignorant and misinformed as much as for the historically excluded and ignored. Analyzing a wide range of material—from 12 Years a Slave to the Sweet Valley High series, from the reality TV trope “I’m not here to make friends” to the gendered politics of likeability in fiction, from professional sports to Tyler Perry, from the fallout of mass tragedy to legislative control of women’s reproductive rights—Bad Feminist surveys culture and politics from the perspective of one of the most astute critics writing today.

Women have been distancing themselves from the F-word for a long time, but often out of ignorance about the variety and potentiality the word holds. Gay can relate. “I resisted feminism in my late teens and my twenties,” she writes in the book’s introduction, “because I worried that feminism wouldn’t allow me to be the mess of a woman I knew myself to be.” From this point of view, feminism appears aligned with rigid perfectionism or a reductive single-mindedness. Understanding the wide-ranging impulse to disavow feminism—the label is rarely offered as a compliment, after all—Gay presents the important distinction between the movement and the people who represent it (and who, as humans, inevitably make mistakes).

Calling yourself a bad feminist, in contrast, is a way to “consider all the other factors that influence who we are and how we move through the world,” from recognizing intersectionality—Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term for critical attention to the ways different forms of oppression conspire—to acknowledging and accepting when we inevitably stray from our guiding principles. Gay’s is a liberating reclamation: a way to proudly identify as a feminist while protecting the inevitable messiness and plurality of human experience.

It is also a symbolic way to relieve the pressure we tend to put on the few women who are able to break out of society’s vastly anti-feminist landscape. “Public women, and feminists in particular, have to be everything to everyone,” Gay writes. “We need so very much, and we hope women with a significant platform might be everything we need—a desperately untenable position.” With these expectations, everyone is doomed to be a bad feminist.

The HBO show Girls, for instance, has been criticized for its “stark whiteness,” but Gay asks us to acknowledge that it can’t possibly be expected to represent everyone’s experience. More than anything, the “absence of race in Girls is an uncomfortable reminder of how many people lead lives segregated by race and class.” Justified anger about the show reflects a more general desire for more complex and varied portrayals of women in popular culture. Of Lean In, Gay acknowledges the critique many others have made—“that Sandberg is writing to a very specific audience, and has little to offer those who don’t fall within that target demographic,” and that her advice is “rigidly committed to the gender binary” and “exceedingly heteronormative”—and agrees the book can be out of touch. But she argues it is wrong to conclude that it has nothing to offer women who are not white, upper middle class professionals in heterosexual power-partnerships. “Assuming Sandberg’s advice is completely useless for working-class women is just as shortsighted as claiming her advice needs to be completely applicable to all women,” Gay says. “The critical response to Lean In is not entirely misplaced, but it is emblematic of the dangers of public womanhood.”

Another theme of Bad Feminist is what Gay calls “trickle-down misogyny,” related to but different from Tressie McMillan Cottom’s debunking of “trickle-down feminism.” Central to Gay’s notion of trickle-down misogyny is the symbiotic relationship between legislative and cultural violence:

A culture that treats women as objects, that gleefully supports entertainment that is more often demeaning toward women than it is not, that encourages the erosion of a woman’s autonomy and personal space, is the same culture that elects state lawmakers who work tirelessly to enact restrictive abortion legislation. Or is it that state lawmakers who work tirelessly to enact restrictive abortion legislation encourage their constituents to treat women as objects?

This which-came-first interconnectedness among what we see on television, what we experience in the street, and what rights we are granted by legislators is a Bad Feminist through line. Gay’s essays on the maddening nature of current debates on abortion, birth control, and reproductive freedom now seem even more urgent with the Hobby Lobby decision.

Gay is a voracious consumer and prolific producer of popular culture. (Many of the essays in Bad Feminist were previously published in the likes of Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Jezebel.) She is also an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University and published her first novel, An Untamed State, this May. Written primarily from the perspective of Mireille Duval Jameson, a Haitian-American lawyer kidnapped while visiting her parents in modern-day Haiti, Gay’s first novel is haunted by brutal representations of rape and the power of fairy tales, subjects reflected on throughout Bad Feminist as well. “I definitely see both my fiction and my nonfiction coming from the same place,” Gay told Salon.

With such stringent expectations, everyone is doomed to be a bad feminist.

An Untamed State tells the story of Mireille’s capture. We learn of her beloved son through her longing memories and review with her the history of her relationship with Michael, the white American husband and father of her child. We enter Michael’s point of view for a few chapters and then bear witness to the excruciating brutality Mireille faces during almost two weeks in captivity, while Michael attempts to navigate the foreign system of kidnap negotiations. The novel is reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s Room—of the small, contained world created by the circumstances of imprisonment and sexual violence, in which time and scale collapse and the bond between mother and child is paramount. But unlike Room, An Untamed State is set in a world of extreme poverty, and it both provokes and leaves hanging questions of class and privilege—the anger born of globalized inequality and the use of sexual violence to terrorize and control. “I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men,” Mireille tells us, “with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” An Untamed State offers us not easy comfort but the challenge to look, to consider our own sight and that of others.

Mireille’s navigation of a perplexing dual identity—she is both Haitian and American, from a family that is both elite and immigrant—reverberates in Bad Feminist in Gay’s consideration of her own concurrent marginalization and privilege. Throughout, Gay wrestles with a core question of pop-cultural criticism: how to reconcile what we love about popular culture with its questionable, at times even deplorable, content.

There is no definitive rule, and Bad Feminist generally eschews prescriptions—except in one playful essay, “How to Be Friends with Another Woman,” which teasingly serves up some sharp advice, enumerated and itemized. First on the list is “1. Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses—pretty but designed to SLOW women down.” Later, we get “6. Tell your friends the hard truths they need to hear,” followed by “6B. These conversations are more fun when preceded by an emphatic ‘GIRL.’”

Instead of giving easy answers, Gay allows us to watch as she deals openly with cultural consumption in the face of pervasive sexism (and racism, and classism). In her honesty—admitting her contradictory tastes—Gay grants us permission to be real too. “There are times when Fifty Shades is amusing because the writing is terrible and fun, and then there are times when the book is terrible and infuriating in its irresponsibility,” which she goes on to describe and deconstruct. “Like most people,” Gay admits, “I am a mass of contradictions.” It is this bothness, which Gay embodies, that makes her work so refreshing and powerful. It is the power of radical honesty.

Still, the ease with which Bad Feminist reads doesn’t mean the attitude it takes is always easygoing. There is a clear sense of struggle behind Gay’s forthrightness. “It’s hard,” she says, “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.” When it comes to pop music, Gay reminds us that the songs we listen to are not just songs—not just jokes, not just compliments, not just popular opinion. They are reflections of our culture, and their micro-aggressiveness—their way of occupying a cultural space that is supposed to be trivial and unimportant—is an index of their power.

And we live in this world, where the small stuff doesn’t feel so small and the bigger stuff feels huge. In this world, you can protest rape while you dance to “Blurred Lines”: “That’s why I’m gonna take a good girl, I know you want it,” sings Robin Thicke over a compulsive beat, “I hate these blurred lines, I know you want it.” This phenomenon of listening-while-feminist may be a knotty state of affairs, Gay admits. But, reading Gay, it seems to me more authentic than chasing a party-line purity that isn’t as radical as it claims to be. That you enjoy certain things while recognizing what makes them problematic is something that—on top of it all—women shouldn’t have to feel guilty about. Just don’t let me catch you claiming you don’t need feminism because you’re a humanist, not a misandrist. GIRL.

It is apparent, scrolling through the Women Against Feminism tumblr, that there is a lot of misinformation about feminism—the sort of feminism that pushes back against structural gender-based inequality while addressing interrelated axes of oppression. But it is clear too that many women don’t feel represented by the associations “feminism” has come to carry, however unfortunately or inaccurately, and are disappointed by the ways feminism benefits some women at the exclusion of others—perhaps best exemplified by 2013’s #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag. In the face of these issues, Bad Feminist’s radical honesty is both an answer to feminism’s PR problem and a call for a more engaged intersectional movement.

Reading Gay’s new book, I was reminded of Ellen Willis, the radical feminist writer who was the first rock critic for The New Yorker, starting in 1968. And when I searched for an essay of hers that I remember clearly speaking to the problem of listening-while-feminist, I saw that Ann Friedman had already found in Willis’s ambivalent at first, enthusiastic at last relationship to the Sex Pistols a model for her own enjoyment of Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” “Music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated—as good rock ’n’ roll did—challenged me to do the same,” Willis writes in “Beginning to See the Light,” “and so, even when the content was anti-woman, anti-sexual, in a sense anti-­human, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation.” This may not accurately describe our relationship to “Blurred Lines,” but it begins an interesting conversation. Willis explains that even this “troublesome paradox” of rock-and-roll is more inspiring to her than a politically correct feminist folk-rock too obviously concerned with pleasing its audience: “It seemed to me that too many of the women’s-culture people had merely switched from trying to please men to trying to please other women.”

In an essay that zooms and retracts to show the micro-to-macro of trickle-down misogyny, Gay’s “Blurred Lines, Indeed” discusses the much-debated song, along with Kanye West’s Yeezus: rape humor and Daniel Tosh; the phenomenon of the pickup artist; Kate Upton; 2013 state legislation that encroached on reproductive freedom in Texas, Ohio and, North Carolina; and a New York Times Room for Debate forum about whether abortion rights would grow if women discussed their abortions more openly. (Gay’s answer: flawed question.) The essay mimics the rhythmic relentlessness of everyday sexism by repeating again and again the refrain that “men want what they want.” She concludes, “Sometimes they make their desires plain with music to which I can’t help but sing along. Blurred lines, indeed.” Sometimes the victim is made to feel complicit; other times she is wrongfully blamed. In “The Politics of Respectability” Gay takes up that problem explicitly, demonstrating how “dangerous” it is “to suggest”—as Bill Cosby, Don Lemon, Obama, and Oprah do—“that the targets of oppression are wholly responsible for ending that oppression.” It is dangerous because it threatens to ignore the structural racism and “culturally approved” behavior backed by institutionalized white supremacy. “We should be black but not too black,” she mockingly proclaims, “neither too ratchet nor too bougie.” And yet, as any bad feminist knows, “everyone is, by virtue of being human, some kind of rule breaker.”

Perhaps most disarming thing about Gay’s writing is that her critical powers are underwritten by palpable compassion. For it is her recognition of humanity—her recourse to the fact of our being human—that forms the basis of bad feminist self-definition, a reclamation of (actually bad) feminist shaming.

Such feminist shaming is trained especially on female celebrity, the most visible stage on which the feminist-or-not battle is played out. Beyoncé is a case in point. This past December she released a surprise self-titled album that rocked the music industry and arbiters of feminism at once. Throughout the album she addresses formerly unshared aspects of her several identities, offering new and varied expressions of her sexuality, reflections on motherhood, and comments on the grueling maintenance of female celebrity. In ***Flawless she even samples Adichie’s TEDx Talk on feminism. This mash-up of different identities has been declared everything from liberating to subversive to not-feminist-enough. (The music video of “Partition,” which depicts a married mother enjoying sex in the back of a limousine, might be read all three ways.) Some have argued that the latter judgment mostly comes from a white feminist-with-a-capital-F perspective that dismisses certain expressions of sexuality as incompatible with feminism. Indeed, many have pointed to Beyoncé’s contradictory real-life feminism as an alternative to the strictures of academic feminism or the straightjacket of uppercase Feminism.

Gay makes no mention of Queen Bey in Bad Feminist, but this spring she, along with a handful of feminist pop culture critics, responded to a New School panel on liberating the black female body that included writer-activist bell hooks, transgender writer-activist Janet Mock, novelist Marci Blackman, and filmmaker Shola Lynch. The panel conversation turned to Beyoncé’s cover for Time’s 100 most influential people issue—“not a liberatory image,” said hooks, arguing that it adheres to white, sexist, and infantilized beauty ideals. “Let’s take the image of this super rich very powerful black female,” hooks imagined higher-ups saying, “and let’s use it in the service of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Because she probably had very little control over that cover.”

“Feminism can be pluralistic as long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us,” Gay writes.

Mock, disagreeing, insisted that Beyoncé must have had creative control and that she finds Beyoncé empowering, though not beyond critique. Then hooks dropped the word “terrorist,” which started all the buzz: “I see a part of Beyoncé that is, in fact, anti-feminist, that is assaulting—that is a terrorist in the sense of, especially in terms of the impact on young girls, I mean I actually feel like the major assault on feminism in our society has come from visual media, and from television and videos.” It was an inflammatory and perhaps misguided choice of words, but it was also often reported out of context. Media responses often lacked the bothness that pervades Bad Feminist.

“hooks was, essentially, calling out Beyoncé as a ‘bad feminist,’” Gay responded in The Guardian. Gay acknowledged that success in the entertainment industry demands gratuitous sexualization of women—often internalized by the girls and women watching—and that “Beyoncé is not above critique.” But Gay objected, “hooks’s statements provoke, without creating space for difference or substantive debate. She assumes the worst of people and the best of the oppressive patriarchy.”

Maybe. The past has perhaps made us cynical. In any case, the more complex and more interesting questions the cover raised, largely unaddressed in responses to hooks’s charge of terrorism, are about the extent to which entertainment industry superstars—and, by extension, any of us—retain power within the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” in which we all find ourselves. What are our possibilities for agency and reclamation? What is the difference between winning at capitalism and actual self-determination? Can we conceive of mass-marketed representations of female sexuality that accommodate views besides those of an oppressive patriarchy that profits from the eroticization of celebrity? On this point, Gay takes issue with hooks’s seeming assumption that Beyoncé’s sexuality couldn’t possibly be used to subvert patriarchal oppression. The issue, Gay seemed to be saying, deserves closer examination from the trained eyes of a bad feminist. “We have to trust that women can be feminists, good role models and embrace sexuality,” Gay concludes.

hooks is well-known for exploring feminism’s intersection with other categories of cultural identity. Her groundbreaking Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981) critiqued the feminist movement for ignoring the realities of poor women and women of color and thereby reinforcing racism and classism—a continuing weakness of the movement. Three years later, in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, hooks wrote, “To emphasize that engagement with feminist struggle as political commitment, we could avoid using the phrase ‘I am a feminist’ (a linguistic structure designed to refer to some personal aspect of identity and self-definition) and could state, ‘I advocate feminism.’” This rejection of a monolithic identity-driven Feminism, readymade for conspicuous and uncritical consumption, is at the heart of Bad Feminist, too.

“Feminism can be pluralistic as long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us,” Gay writes in her introduction, “so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.” But what distinguishes between a pluralistic feminism and one that is merely convenient? Does respect for different feminisms inevitably shade into an uncritical regard for all choices and opinions as equally legitimate? In short, how bad a feminist can one be before one ceases to be a feminist at all?

In one of the very few places where Gay approaches instruction about what feminism should unequivocally entail—beyond respect for the messiness and variety of individuals—she writes, “Such willful ignorance, such willful disinterest in incorporating the issues and concerns of black women into the mainstream feminist project, makes me disinclined to own the feminist label until it embraces people like me.” But she backpedals. “Is that my way of essentializing feminism, of suggesting there’s a right kind of feminism or a more inclusive feminism? Perhaps. This is all murky for me, but a continued insensitivity, within feminist circles, on the matter of race is a serious problem.” Because Bad Feminist takes on the one true Feminist dogma, it is not surprising that Gay largely avoids telling women how to be. But even a more inclusive and multifarious feminism—one that fights for equality for all humans, in all realms of society—will ask things of us, and a lack of engaged racial and socioeconomic inclusivity ought to be among the deal-breakers.

“Maybe I’m a bad feminist,” Gay writes in the book’s final essay, “but I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement.” The seeming paradox here emerges from the difference between the politics of an individual and the politics of a movement. “The problem with movements,” Gay has written, “is that, all too often, they are associated only with the most visible figures, the people with the biggest platforms and the loudest, most provocative voices. . . . We forget the difference between feminism and Professional Feminists.”

Gay may be a bad feminist, but her commitment to parsing the cultural-political experience of womanhood is as feminist as can be. In an essay about the Sex Pistols, Willis describes a musician, Ms. Clawdy, who manages that rare successful combination of good rock-and-roll and sincere feminism: she is “political in the best sense—that is, willing to tell the truth about the conditions of her life.”