The first book of the year has been on my to-be-read list for a while. I haven’t read a feminist-focused book for a while – the last one I read was either Coal to Diamonds by Beth Ditto (a memoir, not overtly feminist) or How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, which whilst an entertaining read, was quite simplistic and not quite the best read if you’ve gone beyond that into intersectional, privilege-aware feminism. By that, I mean, Moran is an entertaining writer, but in places doesn’t check her cultural biases (regarding Muslim women, for example), and simplifies complex issues (but then, we all do, at times).
I knew that reading Bad Feminist would be uncomfortable in places, because I know that I’m privileged in certain ways (class, race, education, sexuality), whilst in others, I’m not (gender, disability, economics). I know that with some things, I don’t know enough, that for some things, such as race, I need to learn more: listen to cultural commentators, be a better ally.
Roxane Gay is a wonderful writer. She writes with heart and soul about topics as diverse as The Hunger Games, rape culture, Scrabble, reproductive rights, fairy tales, her own experiences, and intersections of identity. From reading this anthology of essays, I’ve learnt more than I have for a long time about twenty-first century feminism. Although US-centric (in terms of politics and government), her messages and opinions are far reaching.
I especially related to how she feels about feminism itself. What does it mean to be feminist, when we consume media, music, and hold opinions that might not gel with the idea of ‘essential feminism’? Our ideas of feminism are often flawed and come from unreliable sources. For example, feminism isn’t about women ‘having it all’ – Roxane remarks that this is more a human desire than something feminism advocates for.
Human beings, both women and men, are messy and complicated. At its bare bones, feminism is about three things – women being treated like human beings (not like objects, vessels to be filled, or somehow lesser), economic and social equality, as well as bodily autonomy and the right to act (or not act) upon our own bodies.
Roxane feels that there is a tension between how we actually are, what we like, consume, and do, and the lofty pedestal of some kind of perfect, stereotypical feminist. That feminist might not shave her legs, is angry with (maybe hates) men, is constantly angry about everything, only consumes feminist and woman-friendly media, and has no sense of humour. Of course this is a stereotype, a paste-job of traits from anti-feminist culture. No woman can hope to live up to such a stereotype.
Also, what is mistaken as anger is usually passion, a need to express ourselves – which in men would be seen as enthusiasm. Because we are still advocating for things that are – terribly – seen as either controversial or overdone, such as reproductive rights and freedoms, an end to misogyny and violence – we are seen as angry, humourless women. There is a time to laugh, and a time to be serious.
As a result, understandably, some women may want to distance themselves from feminism, because they believe the bad press. ‘I’m not a feminist, but’ or ‘I wouldn’t call myself a feminist’ are both common refrains. As for myself, a bad experience with online feminism some years ago meant that I stopped seeking out feminism on the internet (I did still follow people on Twitter and read books I found interesting), though I did find a wonderful community of women doing my MA in Women’s Studies. I’m inching my way back into reconciling the contradictions in my life and identity with what it means to be feminist.
My relationship with feminism can be both complicated and simple. Complicated in that there are things I am and things I’m not, and I continue to questions aspects of how feminism is portrayed by feminists and anti-feminists alike (for example, feminists calling out other feminists for not being ‘feminist enough’ or anti-feminists spreading misinformation that enters into popular culture as ‘fact’).
Simple, because, I am, and always will be, a feminist, because women are people – not better or worse than men, complicated, thinking and feeling, who make mistakes and achieve great things. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist is the kind of thoughtful writing about feminism and identity that allows you to think more deeply about what feminism truly is, and I feel that it will continue to be a book I go back to and learn from.
‘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, humorless. 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.’ – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist.