AUGUST 3, 2014
AMERICA HATES WOMEN and women experience that hatred every single day in myriad ways. We are raped, assaulted, condescended to, objectified, undervalued, diminished, shot at, bullied, and bullshitted every day, everywhere. It happens on TV, in boardrooms, and bedrooms, in publishing, on the street, on the internet, too. Maybe it took Elliot Rodgers’s misogynistic shooting spree in Isla Vista back in May to get everyone talking about it, but misogyny, like climate change, is getting harder and harder to deny.
Roxane Gay’s first collection of essays, titled Bad Feminist, brings an inclusive and modulated voice to what has been, at times, a shrill conversation. Fifty years have passed since the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and we are further away from having it all than we ever have been. So many waves of feminism have crashed on the shores of our culture that the beachhead feminism once proudly claimed is now littered with the flotsam and jetsam of misguided dogma and unflattering stereotypes. Now here comes Gay to open the door and offer an entry point to younger women (hello Shailene Woodley!) who may have been put off by what she calls “Capital ‘F’ Feminism.” She herself once avoided the label because all she heard was, “You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person.”
I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. 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 and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.
We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try and minimize the fractures among us.
Gay’s larger point — for women, life is hard enough; feminism should be easy.
It’s hard 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. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.
These are just songs. They are just jokes. It’s just a hug. They’re just breasts. Smile, you’re beautiful. Can’t a man pay you a compliment? In truth, this is all a symptom of a much more virulent cultural sickness — one where women exist to satisfy the whims of men, one where a woman’s worth is consistently diminished or entirely ignored.
Gay’s subtext is that to be female in this age and not be a feminist is to be a victim of internalized misogyny. This is how they get us: we are made to believe empowerment just isn’t sexy; in a misogynistic culture, if we become unlikable, and hence, unfuckable, we have failed in our primary purpose as women.
In essay after essay, Gay smartly dials in on all the moral concessions we have to make if we’re going to participate in said culture. If we are to, say, shake our moneymakers to a little hip-hop music, or enjoy the soft-porn fare on cable television, or even read a literary review in a magazine where women’s issues and critical voices are fractionally represented. Gay’s collection bears witness to the frustration, sorrow, and outrage that any intelligent woman feels when looking to be entertained or understood by the patriarchy. We search for ourselves and each other in the margins of the culture, where women are accorded mostly supporting roles. Sometimes that means we have to take what we can get.
And yet Roxane Gay is not here to shame us for feasting on crumbs. Should we relate to Girls or get just the tiniest bit aroused by Fifty Shades of Grey, we still get to be feminists. Gay’s example of bad feminism allows for our humanity and tolerates us as flawed, confused, and pissed. “I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human,” she writes.
The collection gets off to a slowish start, with essays that seem to lack a driving emotional point. She explores, for instance, her obsession with competitive Scrabble and the trials of teaching at a Midwestern college. In “How to Be Friends with Another Woman,” Gay gives us a 14-point set of operating instructions for female friendship beginning with “Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be toxic, bitchy, or competitive,” and covers loving your friends’ kids, splitting the check, telling the truth — all of which are bromides worth repeating, though they amount to a tepid warm-up for a writer who, it turns out, is not afraid to turn up the heat.
However, organized as it is, the book allows us to get to know Gay by slow degrees, giving us sideways glimpses of her emotional history as she addresses broader social issues. With her description of her obsession with the Sweet Valley High teen series, and her thoughts on Girls or Bridesmaids or Junot Díaz, a picture emerges of a woman shaped by a lonely, bookish girlhood, and animated by a profound desire to be loved. “Even from a young age,” Gay tells us, “I understood that when a girl is unlikable, a girl is a problem.” By offering up her imperfections and failures, she allows each of us to embrace our own at no risk to our empowerment; we can be feminists and still be loved — even by men.
Gay is culturally voracious and omnivorous, and makes no secret of her affection for the lowbrow. Intellectually limber, she clearly has read and watched everything (one wonders how she finds the time to write so prolifically) and tackles a wide range of topics, citing varied sources that include aforementioned pop culture icons as well as Miss America, Catcher in the Rye, Claire Messud, and customer reviews on Amazon. It’s this all-access pass to an entire cultural smorgasbord that makes the book so surprising and pleasurable. Gay allows sources and ideas to mix, flow, and pair themselves in unexpected combinations that are fresh and insightful.
For example, in “Garish, Glorious Spectacles,” Gay pairs up Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl with Joan Didion’s novel Play It as It Laysto examine two different fictional characters’ responses to the constraints of gender. She writes:
If, […] gender is a performance, Green Girl is a novel about a young woman who is learning how to perform her femininity, who is learning the power of it, the fragility. […] Green Girl reveals the intimate awareness many women have about the ways they are on display when they move in public about the ways they perform their roles as women. […]
That we have internalized the male gaze is not a new idea, but it’s one worth revisiting in a time when pornography seems to have hijacked the male imagination, and women along with it. Who is watching us and why? And in what ways are we complicit in our own distorted semiotics of self?
Zambreno demonstrates the self-absorption and vanity of the green girl, her insecurities, the mask(s) she wears, her conflicting desires. At times, Ruth wants to shield herself from the gaze of strangers. She closes in on herself, tries to occupy as little space as possible whether walking down the street or taking the tube. At other times, she wants to be seen, desired, loved.
Gay presents Zambreno’s protagonist as a green girl in ascension, learning the tropes of her gender, playing the part rather than having an authentic experience of herself, and then introduces Maria Wyeth, the protagonist of Didion’s Play It As It Lays, as a green girl in free fall, exhausted by the effort of the role, detached from herself, and in an ongoing state of longing for things and people she cannot have.
What the people in her life label, throughout the novel, as insanity or selfishness reads quite clearly as weariness — a weariness of playing her part properly, of being on display, of being the ingénue and good green girl.
Gay could well have concluded her essay there, with this insightful comparison, but her intelligence is more prismatic and frankly more fun than that. An unabashed fan of TV trash, she brings into this literary disquisition the buffed and shiny women of reality television, and, in wrestling with Jennifer Pozner’s book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, she confesses,
I had to question what it says about me that I take so much pleasure in the drama of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or the drunken, weave-snatching antics of Rock of Love or Flavor of Love. These shows exist because audiences need reminders of the wrong turns our lives might take.
Gay brings these women hissing and flailing into her feminist argument, presenting them as
green girls interrupted, green girls at their most garishly exposed, cut open for the cameras, performing the best and worst parts of themselves for attention, to be seen, for love, to be adored, for fame, to be wanted.
As she indicts herself, so she indicts the reader. Perhaps we watch reality television to reassure ourselves we are not that desperate; but even as we revel in the spectacle of watching women “break themselves against each other, against the camera, against the ways they are expected to perform their gender,” we are actually seeing a reflection of ourselves, unfettered and exposed. Green girls that we are, we want it all.
Because these essays were first published in Salon, The Rumpus, and a variety of other outlets, there is some overlap and a diffuse quality to the writing. Gay often meanders, only to discover her real topic halfway through a piece, at times making odd leaps from one topic to the next. Take “What We Hunger For,” which appears halfway through the book, and begins with an examination of The Hunger Games, a series that she adores in a canny, fan-girlish way. But a few pages in, she swerves from her exploration of women’s strength, and what it costs them, to reveal that she was brutally gang-raped in middle school. This gut-wrenching scene galvanizes the book, grounding it in emotional truth and giving it much-needed coherence. Consequently, the second half of the collection resonates in a way the first half does not.
“Just because you survive something does not mean you are strong,” Gay writes, but like Katniss Everdeen, like all of us, Gay is “a heroine with issues” — a woman whose strength is forged from vulnerability.
Similarly, her feminism is not armor-clad; rather, it coheres around a soft, deeply wounded center.
This idea of unknown depths of endurance is a refrain in most of my writing. Human endurance fascinates me, probably too much because more often that not, I think of life in terms of enduring instead of living.
Endurance is a good word for what it feels like to be a woman these days in a culture where misogyny has gone metastatic. “The time for outrage over things we already know is over,” Gay sagely writes in Bad Feminist. Except that there are new generations of young women, who need to experience outrage for themselves, so that they too can join the fight for our collective best interests.
As a feminist who has been around a while I have a message for these girls: it’s okay — you can skip the rigors of Betty Friedan and Andrea Dworkin and go straight to Roxane Gay, where feminism is not just friendly, but more relevant than ever.
Erika Schickel’s book reviews, journalism, and personal essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Rattling Wall, LA Observed, and numerous literary anthologies. She is currently at work on a memoir.