With and Against: Bad Feminism and Its Discontents
I have always hated Roxane Gay’s writing, though I often agree with her, sort of, inasmuch as that is possible. This is a dramatic way to start a review of one of her books -- especially because the book in question is both her most popular and among the year’s most popular -- but to begin with anything else feels disingenuous. I don’t need to maneuver into a journalistic introduction for what I could call “Gay’s New York Times best-selling book of essays, Bad Feminist”; if you haven’t already heard of it, read it, and posted a picture of yourself wearing a t-shirt printed with its very catchy title on Twitter, you almost certainly know someone who has.
Indeed, although any book written today would be, Bad Feminist seems particularly a product of the Internet, of the shares and retweets and #sotrues we dismiss as unimportant in the grand scheme of our lives while glancing down, again, guiltily but unstoppably, at our iPhones. Many of the nearly 40 essays in Bad Feminist first appeared online, where Gay has become known as one of the first responders to current events, particularly those related to pop culture, race, and gender. It’s where she’s built an audience of very supportive readers; it’s where I first read her; it’s where what is well-meant but under-considered has the space to exist in relative harmlessness. Bad writing is kind of forgivable on the Internet, where detailed examination often loses the battle with TL;DR. You can, or have to, ignore certain tendencies as unfortunate side effects of having to publish early, often, and in a way that gets you clicks. While Gay’s essays often feature clichés and contradictions, and not in a way that seems innovative or controlled, she is, nevertheless, pretty much always on my team: anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-evil.
This impulse to conceptualize the political/social/intellectual conversation as divided into teams is lazy and reductive, but in this case, it’s a kind of truth: the ideologies we’re collectively against are so bad that they’ve created the illusion of an ideology we’re collectively for. Intensified by the visible morale boosting of the shares and the retweets and the #sotrues as well as by the collective understanding that people like Katie Roiphe are to be immediately #lolno’d, online feminism often feels like a with-us-or-against-us enterprise. And if anyone is with us, it is Roxane Gay.
When I told an acquaintance who works for a more physical publication that I was really, really struggling to write this essay, she scrunched up her face and said, “Yeah, but, like, why do you care?” She didn’t need to ask why I was struggling -- “yeah,” that was obvious. If we -- liberals; feminists; women; liberal, feminist women working in the media -- are on a team, then Roxane Gay is our star player and Bad Feminist the ugly pink hats we have to wear. My response to the acquaintance’s self-satisfied bitchiness was probably deferential and lame, something like a wistful “Yeah, I know…” but I left the bar that night still, like, caring. Games being stupid, I wish there weren’t one at all, but if people are going to play for my well-being whether I’m in or not, I would rather be on the field than under the stands smoking with an undeserving townie, talking about how pointless sports are until a ball eludes grasping fans’ hands, falls through the bleachers, and hits me in the head.
Bitchiness notwithstanding, I can definitely see where the acquaintance is coming from. She sees Gay’s work as unworthy of the emotional energy I’m giving it, lesser for its inherent blogginess, and much of my outrage about Bad Feminist stemmed, initially, from my surprise that it retained so much of the Internet-related lameness that made me hate Gay’s writing online. The essays in Bad Feminist exhibit -- and, given Gay’s prolific, ubiquitous, and early presence on alternative book websites like HTML Giant and The Rumpus, probably has had some role in developing -- the kind of style that makes you wonder whether literature is dead and we have killed it. The language is bland and unspecific, with a tendency toward inaccurate bodily metaphors for emotional issues like grief or trauma. There’s a thread of “brokenness,” as in “I was broken beneath the surface,” and the heart is always being “torn apart” or “torn open,” described imprecisely as having “cracks” to be “stuffed” with coping mechanisms, and, of course, also broken. When Gay is not employing cliché (“dropped the ball,” “in this day and age”), she’s creating it: the adverb deeply is used to convey profound emotion 25 times in about 300 pages.
While the ideas are, yes, well-meaning, they are also obvious and unexamined . As Hannah McGill writes, possibly euphemistically, in the worst review of Bad Feminist I could find, “[w]here Gay is unconventional is as a critic and theorist, and the convention she rejects is that of having a consistent position.” McGill gives some examples; Gay “is rattled… by white writers and directors telling stories with black people in them, and similarly by a ‘thin, gorgeous’ woman writing a book concerned with obesity,” despite her apparent conviction that she “firmly believe[s] our responsibility as writers is to challenge ourselves to write beyond what we know.”
Gay acknowledges her tendency to falter when it comes to what she “firmly believe[s]” in; in fact, if this book has a thesis, “everything is flawed” is it. Not only does Gay declare her “flaws” in content, but she also proves them through her consistent inconsistency in form. In one much-quoted passage, Gay says that with Bad Feminist she’s
not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect… I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying -- trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women.
Later, in the same essay, she writes: “When you can’t find someone to follow, you have to find a way to lead by example. In this collection of essays, I’m trying to lead, in a small, imperfect way.”
I would ask if this is a parody of aggressive argumentation, a worthy convention to reject, but like everything in Bad Feminist, Gay’s sense of humor is spotty, apparently employed only to suit her needs. When another writer’s joke does not jibe with what she is saying, she embodies the humorless feminist in the worst way: instead of rejecting a sexist joke, she rejects one that makes fun of sexism. About Caitlin Moran’s “memoir cum feminist text” How to Be a Woman, Gay says:
[Moran] blithely writes, “All women love babies -- just like all women love Manolo Blahnik shoes and George Clooney. Even the ones who wear nothing but sneakers, or are lesbians, and really hate shoes, and George Clooney.” Again, this is funny, but it is also untrue, and to try to generalize about women for the sake of humor dismisses the diversity of women and what we love.
Because this is the Internet, I’m going to use a cliché here: I can’t even.
Bitchiness notwithstanding, I meant it when I said this piece was very difficult to write. In addition to feeling guilty for betraying a teammate, I’m frustrated. What Bad Feminist does in espousing consistent inconsistency is something irresponsible, and it then creates a space in which no one can call it so. Responsibility -- what it is, who has it, and especially: do artists? -- comes up several times in the book, but as with every issue, political, artistic, or otherwise, Gay’s verdict is out: just as she vacillates on whether she wants to act an example, she vacillates on what kind of morality we can and should expect of our popular culture more broadly. Her readiness to come to only the easiest of conclusions -- that unreasonable expectations are “unfair” -- in response to two conflicting truths ends up rendering most of what she says meaningless.
As Gay writes of the anger gaslighting in Hannah Rosin’s book, The End of Men, this is a “clever rhetorical move.” Her rejection of “having a consistent position” allows her to deflect any potential criticism with a shield of feelings. This strategy has been construed as empowering, a sort of Fuck you! Feminism means I do what I want!, but it’s empowerment for the sake of empowerment rather than for any kind of progress. I don’t want to suggest that feelings -- which are traditionally relegated to the lesser realm of the female but are actually great -- are insignificant material for thoughtful, incisive, and/or valuable essays. Zadie Smith always writes about emotions in her New York Review of Books column; Kathy Acker is full of feelings; Doris Lessing is always brilliantly, lucidly fraught; it could be argued that Elizabeth Hardwick’s critical career is rooted in conflicts among what she thinks should be and what she experiences and what she feels about both. These feelings, examined critically as evidence or counterevidence to larger psychological or sociological or societal or artistic (which is really the same as the previous three) trends, are something very different from the feelings in Bad Feminist. The feelings in Bad Feminist are a series of sometimes-related statements, tossed into the world with only the author to connect them to it .
Suffering years of oppression doesn’t mean we (that’s we “ladies”) should act like bratty teenagers now; our sensitive boyfriends and feminist “allies” may guiltily say nothing as we lament rape culture over drinks we’re not exactly fighting to pay for, as we steadfastly refuse to steadfastly refuse to dance our asses off to music we know is bad for women, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, to go back to the “team” thing, step up to the plate. Besides, a rejection of a consistent position is still a consistent position: if Gay were trying to escape the surly bonds of argument, she has failed to do so. I’m gravitating towards the word “should” here, and that’s because my stance on responsibility is stronger than Gay’s. While it is definitely unfairly inflicted upon certain members of the population more than others, if you’re among those certain members, you can’t really opt out of it.
Despite a professed competitiveness, Gay doesn’t want to play a game, either, at least I don’t think she does. She writes about a “Feminist Pedestal,” which is like my “star player,” and she explicitly says she doesn’t think it’s productive or want to be on it. (Well, except when she says she’s trying to lead by example.) “People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose,” she writes; they “get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up.” Fair enough -- it’s not only feminists who are expected to pose, but women in general, too. Still: the fact that so many feminists get upset when famous women denounce the movement is testament to the unavoidable fact that women are grouped together because we share a quality that has no significance but also kind of does.
Like many feminist writers, Gay believes the problem with feminism’s image is that many people misunderstand it. For her, feminism is a way to answer the question “How do we find the necessary language for talking about the inequalities and injustices women face, both great and small?” Though it wasn’t always that way: Gay “disavowed” feminism when she was in her teens and twenties because she “had no rational understanding of the movement.” “I was called a feminist,” she says, “and what I heard was, ‘You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person.’”
This initial misconception will be familiar to many. Just as most LGBT people “come out,” most feminists “come to” the philosophy; we are forced, strongly encouraged by our peers, and/or have a responsibility to assert the validity of our identities in response to a culture that attempts to marginalize them. To declare yourself a feminist is to declare that being “female” is a legitimate identity, regardless of societal/cultural/legal attempts to make it seem or feel otherwise.
In “Feminism (n.): Plural,” Gay describes how she did it: she realized that the extremism of the feminist “caricature” didn’t have to dictate her behavior, that she could integrate her “flaws” into a version of feminism that she felt comfortable associating herself with: she is not a “feminist,” but a “bad feminist.” “I began calling myself ‘bad feminist’ sort of tongue in cheek,” she said in an interview with the New York Times. “But eventually it was just that I wanted to own feminism and acknowledge that I’m inconsistent and human, but still, my heart and my head are in the right place.” To come out as a bad feminist, then, is to assert that being a female who “fuck[s] it up” is a legitimate identity.
From certain angles -- mostly straight-on ones -- this can look brave, since in the world outside of Internet feminism, women are held to unreasonable standards. But we have known that for a long time, and rather than use that basic idea as a springboard to more complicated, progressive ones, the book seems to simply repeat it, in slightly different accents, for its duration. And because this fuck you! feminism is a seductively easy version, it has, maybe paradoxically, maybe not, placed Gay on the very “Feminist Pedestal” she resists. The “Feminism (n.): Plural” essay sets up the book as a definition of the term, but just as rejecting consistency is still a consistent position, attempting to define feminism by not sticking to a singular definition is still defining feminism. Even within that title exists a tension between what Gay’s saying and how she’s saying it, the wholesomely inclusive plural and the inherently exclusive, declarative nature of Merriam-Webster, where words mean what it says they mean.
The problem with Gay’s manipulation of feminism into a “bad” version, it turns out, is that it’s not so different from no feminism at all; the rejection of “unreasonable standards” for feminism quickly descends into the rejection of standards full-stop. In attempting to reconcile an ideology without sacrificing what that ideology opposes, Gay is trying to have her feminist cake and eat her misogynistic music, too -- not unlike the women who make her “angry,” those echoes of her former self, when they “disavow feminism and shun the feminist label but say they support all the advances born of feminism.”
Gay’s “heart and head are in the right place” -- we’re on the same team -- and I think if her ideology of inconsistency were relegated to bad music, TV, and the obvious problems with our sexist publishing industry, I probably wouldn’t feel a compulsion to write 4,000 words about a book I hated. But Gay doesn’t just settle on low-stakes stuff; her contradictions go from being annoying to bad -- from “forgivable” to “this is a perpetuation of the status quo it claims to resist.”
In “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” Gay states her opinion on rape culture frankly: “not enough victims of gang rape speak out about the toll the experience exacts.” She goes on to say that “language in this instance, and far more often than makes sense, is used to buffer our sensibilities from the brutality of rape…We need to find new ways… for rewriting rape… that restore the actual violence to these crimes.” As in the question “How do we find the necessary language for talking about the inequalities and injustices women face, both great and small?”, Gay implies the importance of how we say/write about political issues. She’s a writer; it makes sense that she would. The next essay, “What We Hunger For,” builds toward what the reader expects will be Gay's enacting of this call to language-as-action: the account of her own gang rape as an adolescent, which she alludes to earlier in the book as “an incident with some boys in the woods.”
As it became increasingly clear that she was going to do this, I began to feel anxious. The entire book had been disappointing so far, sure, save for a nice essay about a Scrabble tournament, but with this it wouldn’t matter. Not because I think we need another graphic, sensational account of violence, but because, as sort-of usual, I agree with Gay: we need a graphic, realistic account of violence that proves it needs to be taken seriously and stopped. If she could give us this, she could turn the book around, I thought, ludicrously, as if the already belabored team metaphor had any energy left.
She was going on a bike ride in the woods with a boy she “thought was her boyfriend”; he “was terrible, but he was also charming and persuasive”; I was, truly, jiggling my foot and sitting on the edge of my seat. This was the kind of boy you “let” “do anything to [your] body” because you just want him to love you. The kind of boy you should not go with on bike rides in the woods, it was clear. I think I had tears in my eyes. I knew what was going to happen; I did not want it to happen; but since it had already happened, I wanted her to be able to avenge it through writing it well, through writing what she felt in a way that would connect it to the many, many other things that have happened and will happen, so that people who can’t or don’t know what this is like can at least imagine it. I was rooting for her.
About a mile into the forest, she and the boy come upon an abandoned cabin, where several of the not-boyfriend’s “popular, handsome” friends are waiting among trash, broken bottles, etc. Twelve-year-old Roxane is confused, and then scared; she tries to leave, and then run, and then she screams. Come on, Roxane, I was thinking, ridiculously, still rooting for her writing. The recounting was going to be terrible, but it had to be terrible; she and I both know this. The boys are “so much bigger” than she is.
Her not-boyfriend pushes her to the ground and takes her clothes off. She tries to cover herself up, but she can’t. She prays. She says no.
“They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect. The repercussions linger.”
Of the physical pain and psychological torment she suffered sitting in French class the next day, she offers something similar:
“It was uncomfortable in every way.”
I threw the book across the room.
If Gay and I are on the same team, it’s like she stepped up to the plate and then turned her back to the pitcher, except this isn’t a stupid baseball game, this is rape. I so, so, so want to agree with her: language is important! It’s a powerful and necessary tool for dealing with inequalities and injustices, of which rape is one of the most egregious and hellish, if not the most! But just as you can’t really argue with Gay’s contradictory points, you can’t support her when she’s right, either; she denounces the vague, easy kind of linguistic buffers to violence that she then employs herself. “Uncomfortable in every way” does not mean anything. In championing a feminism that prioritizes the individual, Gay does something similar to what she does when she misses the Caitlin Moran joke: she ignores the collectivity inherent in sharing an identity label, denying what we all want in favor of what she wants, regardless of the fact that, in the long run, those two things converge. What’s irresponsible about this is that it gives her opponents permission (and an opportunity) to do the same.
Criticizing Gay’s vague language isn’t petty or beside the point at all, in fact. If you don’t want to read between the lines in the account of her rape -- if you’re one of the “people who have the most to lose when feminism succeeds” -- you wouldn’t have to believe it had actually happened. “As bad as you might expect” can easily mean “not that bad.”
The reason no review has mentioned this failure is obvious: no one is obligated to write about a violent trauma. It is personal and painful, and I can’t know how difficult it would be to relay its details. But there’s no way to both succumb to this difficulty and act on Gay’s valid point, the point that I totally agree with, that we need to “restore the actual violence to these crimes.” Someone is going to have to step onto the Feminist Pedestal -- or up to the stupid plate in a game no one wants to be playing -- and do it. That’s “unfair,” because it will probably result in being “knocked off,” but that’s why we need feminism in the first place: to combat inequalities and injustices, things that are unfair. There are many feminist writers calling for “the necessary language for talking about the inequalities and injustices women face.” (Hi!) There are not many victims of gang rape that possess the significant platform that Gay does, as well as the access to editors and common writerly wisdom that could and should have prevented her from describing both violent sexual assault and a game of Scrabble as “brutal.”
In her arts criticism, Gay often finds fault with books and other works for what they lack, the “it would have been better if” mode of criticism, creating a conditional artistic realm in which, for example, Junot Díaz’s book of linked short stories about a man who grew up in a misogynistic culture might flout plausibility and artistic purpose in order to “step out of the constraints of the environment he grew up in.”
This is a selfish, tempting strategy, reading in search of something specific, wanting what we want without being sensitive to the author’s intention. See, watch:
Bad Feminist would have been better if Gay had done what she said someone else should do. Bad Feminist would have been better if Gay had written explicitly about her gang rape: about the terrifying violence during and the excruciating physical realities after. Bad Feminist would have been better if Gay had returned to the definition trope she establishes early in the book (e.g., “Feminism (n.): Plural”) in order to give what initially seems like the heavy-handed use of a tired rhetorical strategy a devastating twist. Bad Feminist would have been better if it had included something like “rectovaginal fistula (n.): an abnormal opening or tunnel that forms from a tear between the rectum and vagina, allowing the foul-smelling contents of the bowel, such as feces or gas, to leak uncontrollably through the opening and out the vagina. It is often the result of rape or sexual assault.”
I can’t say that, though, and I’m not making some sarcastic comment about how the Internet and political correctness have stifled discourse. This is why writing this review has been so hard: I’m essentially doing what I say someone else shouldn’t do, wanting what I want without being sensitive to others. No one has to write about her violent trauma, and I don’t think we can demand it.
But I think we can demand something, and that is not what Roxane Gay has given us. At the end of “Feminism (n.): Plural,” she writes, “I’m raising my voice to show all the ways we have room to want more, to do better.” And so I find myself back where I started: I still hate Roxane Gay’s writing, though I often agree with her, sort of, inasmuch as that is possible.