Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

71BKpcWC4bLBad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014) by Roxane Gay is a collection of essays, many of which have appeared online at places like The RumpusJezebel, and Buzzfeed. The book is broken into sections:

  • Me
  • Gender & Sexuality
  • Race & Entertainment
  • Politics, Gender & Race
  • Back to Me

Each section has a number of essays that address the topic of the section.

Several times, Gay tries to define feminism and understand her relationship to the idea. She notes, “Feminism has helped me believe that my voice matters, even in this world where there are so many voices demanding to be heard.” This is from the introduction, which first tells the reader that Gay is a bad feminist–someone who believes in equality and thinks sexism is institutional, but who also contradicts what some people believe is feminism.

A number of essays seemed without a thesis, which caused the content to seem only loosely related. “Bad Feminist: Take One” (which appears at the very end of the collection) begins by defining feminism (though I’m not sure why she’s doing this again–to come full circle?). Gay quotes a number of women who identify as feminist and then those who don’t due to the harsh connotations. Gay admits she has trouble being called a feminist for the same reasons: “I sometimes cringe when I am referred to as a feminist, as if I should be ashamed of my feminism or as if the word ‘feminist’ is an insult. The label is rarely offered in kindness.” She discusses stereotypes of feminists and how “sex-positive feminism” was born (to show which feminists don’t hate sex). She gives examples of wealthy or famous women who have made it who don’t call themselves feminists. Then, Gay describes how discouraged she is that feminism doesn’t really include women of color who face different kinds of struggles that white women don’t. The essay then describes Elizabeth Wurtzel’s idea that feminism needs to have work/life balance followed by an introduction to Anne-Marie Slaughter, who wrote an article about the struggle of feminists to have it all. Finally, Roxane Gay ends with discussing the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg–and spends about 6 pages discussing the problems with this book and when the author should be forgiven. Why is so much time dedicated to just Sandberg’s book? By the end of the essay, I wasn’t sure what the point was that Gay wanted to make. Did Gay work to define feminism, give a brief history of recent views of feminism, or mean to deconstruct Sandberg’s book?

The various essays have differing tones. I tended to like the articles that were personal. For example, “Bad Feminist: Take Two” seems much more heartfelt. Roxane Gay writes about her own struggles with feminism and the way she doesn’t quite fit into what she thinks the definition of a feminist is. This essay is a breath of fresh air, one that seems honest and suggests that readers not simply follow her advice, but to consider their own positions. However, I’m not sure why she discusses her own views on feminism in multiple essays and felt that editing to create one essay on Gay’s “bad feminism”–even if she did write about it multiple times on various websites–was needed. The essay on Scrabble also gave some great insight into the author’s personality. When she beats a man whom she considers her personal Scrabble enemy, she runs into the bathroom, hides in a stall, and does a fist pump while repeatedly whispering “I beat you!” Here, Gay shines as a unique personality that I wanted to get to know better.

Many of the essays left me feeling just…bad. I get that we have to go to uncomfortable places to understand societal issues, but sometimes the negativity left me with no direction. For instance, when Roxane Gay discusses movies, she hates the recent movies that discuss black lives because she’s tired of seeing stories about slaves. She’s over it. But, she barely talks about movies about contemporary black lives that she does support. She lists a few–Love & Basketball, The Best Man, The Best Man Holiday–but she doesn’t say much about them. She gives more attention to Fruitvale Station, but it wasn’t always clear what made this movie better. I do understand that Gay is pointing out that people of color shouldn’t feel thankful simply because they’re included: “Here is popular culture about people who look like me. That’s all I should need, right? Time and again, people of color are supposed to be grateful for scraps from the table. There’s this strange implication that we should enjoy certain movies or television shows simply because they exist.” However, I felt that without some guidance as to what kinds of movies/TV she feels would be successful representations of black lives, the book left me just feeling grumpy, and not supportive.

Some of the articles brought together media quotes, such as “The Alienable Rights of Women”. What was interesting is that Gay used quotes from articles off of social media that I remember seeing when they first were released, typically stupid things conservatives have said about rape, contraception, and abortion. The essay puts these quotes together and adds some information from how abortions were conducted centuries ago, but I struggled to see what Gay was contributing that was new. Part of the blogging world is collating information and adding our two cents; however, in book form, the essay had less impact because it is now a “million” years old in internet time. Mostly, I gathered that the current politics around reproductive rights scares the author.

Where Roxane Gay shined the most was when she was right in her element: discussing literature. Gay analyzes her love of the Hunger Games series and how damaging the Fifty Shades series is to women. She looks at how women who behave badly are hated by critics, and that people often attribute mental illness to such characters. In another essay, “Beyond the Measure of Men,” Gay explores the publishing industry and how it is gender biased:

“There are books written by women. There are books written by men. Somehow, though, it is only books by women, or books about certain topics, that require this special ‘women’s fiction’ designation, particularly when those books have the audacity to explore, in some manner, the female experience, which, apparently, includes the topics of marriage, suburban existence, and parenthood, as if women act alone in these endeavors, wedding themselves, immaculately conceiving children, and the like.”

In this essay, she gives the readers something to chew on, something we can do:

The solutions are obvious. Stop making excuses. Stop saying women run publishing. Stop justifying the lack of parity in prominent publications that have the resources to address gender inequity. Stop parroting the weak notion that you’re simply publishing the best writing, regardless. There is ample evidence of the excellence of women writers. If women aren’t submitting to your publication or press, ask yourself why, deal with the answers even if those answers make you uncomfortable, and then reach out to women writers.

Although I can’t expect one author to offer solutions to every issue that plagues a nation, when she does give some ideas, I finished the essay and wanted to take action. I’m not asking to leave each essay with warm and fuzzies, but in contrast, so many were negative and without suggestions that the collection began to wear on me, like someone telling me I’m unhealthy and saying I should do something about it, but not brainstorming suggestions to get me started. “Beyond the Measure of Men,” with its advice, gave me room to breathe.

In the end, I wanted more breathe room, more Roxane Gay herself. Unfortunately, at times, she drowns out her own voice by quoting media and bringing up enormous issues with no hope of addressing them or working to correct those problems, even in small ways, even in ways that she herself practices.


  1. Really enjoyed this thoughtful review. Thanks for pointing me towards it. “The book just left me feeling grumpy and not supportive” is a great summary! I will also check out your review of Shrill, which sounds much more up my street.

    Liked by 1 person

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