I have previously read Gay’s short story collection Ayiti, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Her writing has such a startling beauty to it. I was therefore looking forward to reading her first collection of essays, Bad Feminist, and expected to be similarly blown away.
My interest was piqued particularly after I read the thoughts of one of my favourite authors, Elizabeth McCracken, on the book. She writes: ‘Bad Feminist shows this extraordinary writer’s range… Roxane Gay is alternately hilarious, full of righteous anger, confiding, moving. [It] is like staying up agreeing and arguing with the smartest person you’ve ever met.’ Indeed, there is a lot of high praise surrounding Bad Feminist. In the quotations published at the front of the book, Gay and her work are variously described as ‘alternately friendly and provocative, wry and serious’, ‘[She] playfully subverts the borders between pop-culture consumer and critic, between serious academic and lighthearted sister-girl, between despair and optimism, between good and bad’, and as ‘a necessary and brave voice when it comes to figuring out all the crazy mixed messages in our mixed-up world.’
The book has been split into five often overlapping sections. Two of these concern Gay as an individual, and the others are ‘Gender & Sexuality’, ‘Race & Entertainment’, and ‘Politics, Gender & Race’. In these essays, Gay deals variously with such topics as the language surrounding sexual violence, ‘The Trouble with Prince Charming’, homosexuality, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Twitter.
In her introduction, Gay justifies her reasons for writing such a collection of essays, using the term ‘bad feminist’ as she is both ‘flawed and human’. She posits, as one might expect, that in large sections of culture and the workplace, women are overlooked and subjugated: ‘Movies, more often than not, tell the stories of men as if men’s stories are the only stories that matter. When women are involved, they are sidekicks, the romantic interests. the afterthoughts. Rarely do women get to be the center of attention. Rarely do our stories get to matter.’ I feel as though this all-or-nothing viewpoint is a little limiting, and can think of many films and books written before Bad Feminist was published, which do demonstrate the strength of women; the film Erin Brockovich is a striking example.
The style of Gay’s writing in Bad Feminist did not really work for me. I found it rather repetitive at times, particularly from one essay to another, and some of the things which she said were, I felt, a little obvious. Evidently, the book has been aimed at a general audience, but the odd balance struck between relatively highbrow, academic and data-informed writing and the chatty tone which Gay adopts felt a little awkward. I also had an issue with the pop culture references which are used often throughout; they were, as one might expect, geared solely to a US audience, and I had no knowledge of some of the programmes and people whom she mentioned.
Bad Feminist was not at all what I expected it to be. The beginnings of each essay failed to grab my attention, and I felt that sometimes more interesting points which Gay made were overlooked, or not worked to their full potential. Few of the essay subjects really jumped out and grabbed me, and nothing had me on the edge of my seat as her fiction so often does. Despite my largely negative feelings about Bad Feminist, I do intend to read her newest book of non-fiction, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture.