Brain Pickings

Bad Feminist: Roxane Gay on the Complexities and Blind Spots of the Equality Movement

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“Feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.”

“Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers,” science correspondent Shankar Vedantam wrote in his excellent exploration of our hidden biases. “Those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.”

Roxane Gay, one of my favorite minds, has been swimming against the current in many ways — female, black, large, queer. She steps firmly ashore in Bad Feminist (public library) — a magnificent compendium of essays examining various aspects of “our culture and how we consume it,” from race and gender representations in pop culture to the way revolution and innovation can often leave us unfulfilled and unheard to the gaping blind spots of what we call “diversity.” To be sure, Gay isn’t writing to and for women only — what is perhaps her most piercing clarion call to men is made sidewise and subtly, as a comment about privilege in an essay about the class asymmetries of the education system, where she writes: “The notion that I should be fine with the status quo even if I am not wholly affected by the status quo is repulsive.”

Illustration from the 1970 book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' Click image for more.

In the introduction, Gay examines the state of feminism, half a century after Margaret Mead contemplated its future, and justifies her identification as a “bad” feminist:

The world changes faster than we can fathom in ways that are complicated. These bewildering changes often leave us raw. The cultural climate is shifting, particularly for women as we contend with the retrenchment of reproductive freedom, the persistence of rape culture, and the flawed if not damaging representations of women we’re consuming in music, movies, and literature.

[...]

Feminism is flawed, but it offers, at its best, a way to navigate this shifting cultural climate. Feminism has certainly helped me find my voice. Feminism has helped me believe my voice matters, even in this world where there are so many voices demanding to be heard.

“With more people, there are more voices to tune out,” the narrator in Susan Sontag’s short story Debriefing observed with hollowing poignancy. Gay’s greatest feat is precisely the ability — the willingness — to tune in what we as a culture chronically tune out, to expand the constantly constricting boundaries of our bubbles as we struggle to navigate an increasingly peopled world of growing complexity. She writes:

How do we reconcile the imperfections of feminism with all the good it can do? In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement…

Feminism, as of late, has suffered from a certain guilt by association because we conflate feminism with women who advocate feminism as part of their personal brand. When these figureheads say what we want to hear, we put them up on the Feminist Pedestal, and when they do something we don’t like, we knock them right off and then say there’s something wrong with feminism because our feminist leaders have failed us…

I openly embrace the label of bad feminist… I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. 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.

I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal. People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up. Consider me already knocked off.

“Feminist,” Gay admits, is a label to which she objected early and vigorously — a label that “felt like an insult”:

I disavowed feminism because I had no rational understanding of the movement. I was called a feminist, and what I heard was, “You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person.” This caricature is how feminists have been warped by the people who fear feminism most, the same people who have the most to lose when feminism succeeds.

'Feminist, adj' by MariNaomi, from 'The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism.' Click image for more.

And yet, as a kind of born-again “bad” feminist (elsewhere, in a different but fittingly resonant context, she observes that “being good is the best way to be bad”), Gay laments the backwardness of such dismissals and gets to the point — the difficult, complex, nuanced point — with remarkable elegance:

I get angry when women disavow feminism and shun the feminist label but say they support all the advances born of feminism because I see a disconnect that does not need to be there. I get angry but I understand and hope someday we will live in a culture where we don’t need to distance ourselves from the feminist label, where the label doesn’t make us afraid of being alone, of being too different, of wanting too much.

[...]

Feminism is a choice, and if a woman does not want to be a feminist, that is her right, but it is still my responsibility to fight for her rights. I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.

Noting what a poor job “the feminist project” has done of celebrating diversity and multiplicity — how it has largely failed to include women of color, queer women, transgendered women — Gay argues that these failures of inclusion, even if not deliberate exclusion, have resulted in a great deal of resistance on behalf of some women, including her own younger self:

For years, I decided feminism wasn’t for me as a black woman, as a woman who has been queer identified at varying points in her life, because feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others.

But two wrongs do not make a right. Feminism’s failings do not mean we should eschew feminism entirely. People do terrible things all the time, but we don’t regularly disown our humanity. We disavow the terrible things. We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come.

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 to minimize the fractures among us.

And yet Gay lives up to her disclaimer of deeply human messiness and imperfection. In one of the essays, titled “Girls, Girls, Girls,” she examines Lena Dunham’s television series Girls — a “woman-oriented pop artifact being asked to shoulder a great deal of responsibility these days” — and launches at it critiques that, while measured and thoughtful and wonderfully nuanced, nonetheless fall victim to the very idea that feminism is a one-size-fits-all belief system that Gay herself so vehemently opposes. She writes:

I admire how Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, doesn’t have the typical body we normally see on television. There is some solidity to her. We see her eat, enthusiastically. We see her fuck. We see her endure the petty humiliations so many young women have to endure. We see the life of one kind of real girl and that is important. It’s awesome that a twenty-five-year-old woman gets to write, direct, and star in her own show for a network like HBO. It’s just as sad that this is so revolutionary it deserves mention.

It’s poignant sentiment on the surface, and no doubt a culturally necessary lament, but it also bespeaks a subtler dismissal of the notion — the fact, really — that a meritocracy could and should exist even within an ideological movement. (Surely, even the irreverent discussion of “bad” vs. “good” feminism acknowledges some layer of that.) Gay doesn’t allow for the fact that maybe, just maybe, the enthusiasm about Dunham’s work and its acclaim as “revolutionary” isn’t because of what she is but because of who she is — namely, that she is simply really good at what she does, and not because she’s doing it against the cultural current of the patriarchy but despite that.

Another critique jabs at Dunham’s casting choices, which include a number of her childhood friends:

People resent nepotism because it reminds us that sometimes success really is whom you know.

We are all the sum total of whom we know, with whom and what we have chosen to surround ourselves — those are the building blocks of what William Gibson termed our “personal micro-culture.” I, for one, would never have met my closest human beings — those whom I trust to be there when the sky crumbles and for whom I’d do the same in a heartbeat — were it not for what I do and what they do. People who have little separation between “life” and “work” — whose sense of purpose and identity is closely entwined with what they do for a living, which they do out of love — create a centripetal vortex that attracts kindred spirits and builds friendships that are both personally fulfilling and fertile ground for professional collaboration. NPR’s Robert Krulwich captured that importance of honoring this mutual indebtedness in his fantastic commencement address about “friends in low places.” It should be no different when those friends rise to “high” places like the popular television screen. To work with one’s friends isn’t a passive privilege but a hard-earned human gift (yes, a paradoxical phrase, because gifts are supposed to be given freely — but evidently not in this culture and not in this context) and one that should be celebrated rather than condemned.

And so it may seem easy to object that to call oneself a “bad feminist” is fair, but to call others the same is antithetical to the premise and precipitates a vortex of judgment, a kind of fractal finger-pointing reflective of Joseph Brodsky’s searing assertion that “a pointed finger is a victim’s logo.” But that, I trust, is not what Gay is doing — indeed, what lends her writing such poignancy is precisely her capacity for nuance and her ability to hold a multitude of perspectives in nonjudgmental consideration. Her rhetoric offers, above all, assurance for our ambivalences, consolation for the ripping of the psyche that happens when the vectors of the choices we make in real life and those made for us by millennia of cultural mythology and public policy pull us in opposite directions.

She is, in fact, remarkably self-aware of the limitations of these very criticisms:

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.

[...]

The incredible problem Girls faces is that all we want is everything from each movie or television show or book that promises to offer a new voice, a relatable voice, an important voice. We want, and rightly so, to believe our lives deserve to be new, relatable, and important. We want to see more complex, nuanced depictions of what it really means to be whoever we are or were or hope to be. We just want so much. We just need so much.

She echoes the same sentiment in a different essay, an intelligent critique of the “continued insensitivity, within feminist circles, on the matter of race” and the “willful disinterest in incorporating the issues and concerns of black women into the mainstream feminist project,” as she writes:

Is that my way of essentializing feminism, of suggesting there’s a right kind of feminism or a more inclusive feminism? Perhaps. This is all murky for me. . . .

Illustration from 'Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework,' a proto-feminist children's book by pioneering artist and writer Wanda Gág. Click image for more.

In another essay, titled “How We All Lose” — a survey of those rare examples of “writing about gender that is unapologetically sprawling, that reaches both backward and forward and tries to explode the vacuum of cultural conversations” — Gay considers the artificial and limiting nature of polarities:

Discussions about gender are often framed as either/or propositions. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, or so we are told, as if this means we’re all so different it is nigh impossible to reach each other. The way we talk about gender makes it easy to forget Mars and Venus are part of the same solar system, divided by only one planet, held in the thrall of the same sun.

The most damaging belief at the root of such polarization, Gay argues, is that universal rights are a zero-sum game and equality is always at someone’s expense — a belief that blinds us to what Milton Glaser so memorably framed as the choice, the active daily choice, to perceive the universe as one of abundance rather than scarcity. Considering arguments that perpetuate such toxic mythology, namely Hanna Rosin’s questionable The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, Gay writes:

If women’s fortunes improve, it must mean men’s fortunes will suffer, as if there is a finite amount of good fortune in the universe that cannot be shared equally between men and women.

Touching on the unconscious biases even the best-intentioned of us hold, she adds:

In response to these limited ways in which we talk, write, and think about gender, these vacuums in which we hold cultural conversations, no matter how good our intentions, no matter how finely crafted our approach, I cannot help but think, This is how we all lose. I’m not sure how we can get better at having these conversations, but I do know we need to overcome our deeply entrenched positions and resistance to nuance. We have to be more interested in making things better than just being right, or interesting, or funny.

'The Hunger Games' by Suzanne Collins

In an essay titled “What We Hunger For,” Gay recounts the harrowing experience of being gang-raped in middle school (“Just because you survive something does not mean you are strong,” she remarks in one of the most haunting moments of honesty in the book) and points to The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins as one such unexpected example of bettering the cultural conversation, folding into it a beautiful meditation on the broader gift of reading:

Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds… The trilogy offers the tempered hope that everyone who survives something unendurable hungers for.

This tussle between remembering and forgetting, and the promise of better alternatives, bears a striking parallel to the feminist movement itself. In the penultimate essay, Gay circles back to the movement’s essential paradoxes and the dominant cultural narrative about womanhood itself:

This tension — the idea that there is a right way to be a woman, a right way to be the most essential woman — is ongoing and pervasive. We see this tension in socially dictated beauty standards — the right way to be a woman is to be thin, to wear makeup, to wear the right kind of clothes (not too slutty, not too prudish — show a little leg, ladies), and so on. Good women are charming, polite, and unobtrusive. Good women work but are content to earn 77 percent of what men earn or, depending on whom you ask, good women bear children and stay home to raise those children without complaint. Good women are modest, chaste, pious, submissive. Women who don’t adhere to these standards are the fallen, the undesirable; they are bad women.

[This] thesis could also apply to feminism. There is an essential feminism or, as I perceive this essentialism, the notion that there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist and that there are consequences for doing feminism wrong.

[...]

The most significant problem with essential feminism is how it doesn’t allow for the complexities of human experience or individuality.

She returns to her own resistance to the label “feminist” — a label, she keenly observes, “rarely offered in kindness” — and examines the inherent ambivalence many of us confront in deciding whether or not to identify with it:

I’m not the only outspoken woman who shies away from the feminist label, who fears the consequences of accepting the label.

Once again, she examines the impossible pressure on women — particularly successful women, particularly successful public women, or what Gay so elegantly terms “the dangers of public womanhood” — to reconcile the conflicting norms of female achievement:

I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong, at least according to the way my perceptions of feminism have been warped by being a woman… I want to be in charge and respected and in control, but I want to surrender, completely, in certain aspects of my life.

[...]

My success, such as it is, is supposed to be enough if I’m a good feminist. It is not enough. It is not even close.

Because I have so many deeply held opinions about gender equality, I feel a lot of pressure to live up to certain ideals. I am supposed to be a good feminist who is having it all, doing it all. Really, though, I’m a woman in her thirties struggling to accept herself and her credit score. For so long I told myself I was not this woman — utterly human and flawed. I worked overtime to be anything but this woman, and it was exhausting and unsustainable and even harder than simply embracing who I am.

Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement. I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that consistently places women at a disadvantage, the inequity in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, the repeated attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women, and on and on. I am as committed to fighting fiercely for equality as I am committed to disrupting the notion that there is an essential feminism.

Illustration from the 1970 book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' Click image for more.

Doing that, Gay reminds us, is a matter of not buying into the myths of feminism — the myths that depict feminists as “militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless” — and choosing to reclaim a pluralism of definitions rather than dismissing the notion of feminism altogether. In the concluding essay, she writes:

I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done. Bad feminism seems like the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself… The more I write, the more I put myself out into the world as a bad feminist but, I hope, a good woman—I am being open about who I am and who I was and where I have faltered and who I would like to become. . . .

I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.

Therein lies the layered richness of Bad Feminist, which should be required reading for people of all genders — in Gay’s willingness to stand up as a critical optimist, inhabiting both meanings of “critical” fully and unflinchingly, and to remind us that the multitudes we each contain are not a cause of weakness but a source of our essential humanity, that embracing them in ourselves is the greatest act of personal bravery and embracing them in others the bravest political act.

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