Why Contemporary Feminism Needs Roxane Gay’s ‘Bad Feminist’

If you have been reading The Rumpus, Salon, BuzzFeed, or the Virginia Quarterly Review in the past five years, it’s very likely that you’ve come across, read, and quite possibly shared as some moving truth at least one of the many, many essays by the writer Roxane Gay. It’s almost easy to take Gay for granted, as she can be such a strong voice of reason when the world feels half-mad, whether she’s analyzing Wendy Davis’ filibuster or the continued popularity of Chris Brown among girls who claim that they love him so much they would let him beat them.

If you read Flavorwire regularly, you’ll also recognize Roxane Gay’s name — especially following the release of her critically beloved, must-read first novel, An Untamed State, earlier this summer, we’ve noticed that she runs the Internet and makes being a scarily prolific writer look easy, while also holding down a job in academia. In a feat of excellent timing, Bad Feminist, her first collection of essays, is out today, quick on the heels of her novel’s release, giving the reader lots of options for how to absorb Gay’s work.

While she is clearly a fast writer, a prolific tweeter, and the proprietor of a Tumblr filled with posts that are often soulful, painful, and moving (her recent entry on the racism she faced at Best Buy will make your blood boil), Bad Feminist feels like the product of years of thought and passion. Collecting many of Gay’s pieces that originally appeared in a constellation of publications, it serves as a showcase for a sharp and clear voice arguing for a vigorous, sane personhood in response to the bullshit that our society preaches. It’s a very necessary book, and it’d make a fine gift for the burgeoning big thinker in your life. Here are some reasons why:

It has an intriguing title: What does it mean to be a “bad feminist?” In the introduction and the final essay, both riffs on the idea of bad feminism, Gay admits to her failings as a feminist. For one: “Pink is my favorite color.” She takes herself off of any sort of feminist pedestal, rather, embracing a “bad” feminism that can go beyond the myths of the man-hating humorless bitch, or beyond the limitations and carelessness of feminism, the way it hasn’t given space to the plurality of female voices out there. There’s a generosity to Gay’s conception of feminism, a space for everyone, and it’s a refreshing alternative to the with us or against us black-and-white limitations of the voices out there — particularly in Internet discourse — a huffiness that can devolve into infighting with ease. Perhaps “bad” feminism could be the gateway for a bunch of young feminists. After all, feminism is for everybody.

bad feministIt has a lot of truths: If there are awards for underlineable books and books that had me nodding yes, that’s it! Bad Feminist would win. One example: in her essay “Girls, Girls, Girls,” which discusses the film Bridesmaids and the TV shows Girls and Girlfriends, Gay neatly dissects why female ensembles are required to carry so much weight in the world — whether it’s in their blockbuster status or in their representation. She gets to the heart of the issue, which is loneliness and an ache to see something on screen, twenty feet high, that reflects your life: “The moment we see a pop artifact offering even a sliver of something different — say, a woman who isn’t a size zero or who doesn’t treat a man as the center of the universe — we cling to it desperately because that representation is all we have.”

It’s political and personal: While Gay’s Bad Feminism shines through with her ability to write about pop culture topics as diverse as Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl and the Real Housewives in the same essay, she also works beyond and through pop culture to quietly devastating effect. “What We Hunger For,” is an essay that starts with The Hunger Games series and the strength of Katniss, the heroine, it is an essay that is lulling you into submission with the radical opinion “Team Peeta,” before it turns into a harrowing, moving story about survival under the most dire circumstances in Gay’s life. When she writes, “sometimes, when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods,” there is a history of trauma and pain behind that sentence and it’s absolutely devastating. She’s able to take that same precision to a series of essays about race in America, pulling back the curtain on the mega-bestseller The Help to expose the torment and difficult legacy that the story exploits.

Bad Feminist is a broad, compelling book, with essays that range from Gay’s life as a professor to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death. It’s a book that feels like it needed to be out in the world, so much so that it’s easy to forgive the meandering form of some essays or the fact that Gay is more compelling responding to and interpreting the world than writing about Scrabble. But that’s a small quibble in a book that feels vital, alive, and engaged with the world, and we need more writers as passionate as Roxane Gay.