Bad Feminist was not what I expected. I thought the book of essays would examine what it means to be intersectionally feminist in 2014. I thought the essays would be related, and would build towards a complicated revelation. Maybe that would be the book Roxane Gay would write today, but back in 2014 Gay was less-known. She was a professor with a decent list of publications, but she’d yet to prove herself as a hurricane force culture critic. Today, publishers trust Gay to opine with intellect and originality, but I can imagine that in 2014 publishers might’ve been risk-averse. So Bad Feminist is a collection of mostly previously-published essays, some of which deal directly with feminism, most of which deal directly with some book, movie or TV series while drawing links to race, gender, bodies, and other ways the dominant discourse really sucks.
The fact that these essays are structured as criticism, that they mostly start as reviews before veering off into more general cultural analysis, grows tiresome. Too much time is spent summarizing plots and wondering if specific pieces are good or entertaining or lazy. Many of these essays were first published online, and there’s a certain tone to that medium. The writing feels aggressive and tough, like it’s preparing for the backlash on Twitter. It’s easier to be vulnerable in a book, where trolls are too lazy to look, but it feels like this writing hasn’t been suitably revised. Many of the essays are also responding to a specific moment. They’ve aged well considering the culture shock of the 2016 presidential election, but some paragraphs and sentences still feel like hot takes that could do with slower thought and hard edits.
Depending on your immersion level in these cultural topics, there’s still plenty to learn from Bad Feminist. We should stop expecting creators to be perfect, just because they’ve done one thing that’s pretty good. Creators should still do better. Representation matters. Female desire is not entirely uniform. There is insight amongst the criticism–particularly in the final two essays which are allowed a looser form. That’s why I still plan to read Hunger, Gay’s 2017 memoir about food and bodies, in the hopes that she’s spread her wings into the space afforded to a writer with 3 years of popularity and success.
Gay writes in a welcoming, clear tone, with honesty and humour. Her topics cross class and genre – everything from The Hunger Games to Judith Butler. Her style promotes thought and conversation, rather than quashing it. The topics are not all stimulating to me, and that’s OK. I’m grateful to have her as a knight in the feminist army, volunteering for battle whenever disaster strikes, taking hits from trolls in the hopes that slowly, one day, her efforts will lead to a better world.
(Photo: Amy Attas)