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APW Book Club: Bad Feminist, The Discussion

Are you a bad feminist?

As a former media studies major, I was chomping at the big to get into Roxane Gay’s collection of essays, Bad Feminist, so I was excited when we made it our APW Book Club pick. Roxane Gay’s is a voice I frequently seek out on the Internet, particularly when it comes to discussions of race, class, and popular culture. Plus, she and I watch a lot of the same TV, and I wanted to hear what she had to say about it (because it’s about damn time we did some critical discourse on Grey’s Anatomy, amiright?). Mostly though, I was drawn to the title of the book. I like the idea of being a “bad feminist.”

I think so much of what I enjoy about Roxane Gay and her writing is the nuance and contradiction in her values and identities, and the relative comfort with which she inhabits those contradictions. She says herself, “I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong.” And I like the idea that I can get feminism wrong, while also getting it right.

In Slate’s review of Bad Feminist, Katy Waldman writes, “Gay’s essays are more beginnings and middles than they are ends. They pose a question or problem (‘The Alienable Rights of Women,’ ‘The Trouble with Prince Charming’), turning it under the light. Solutions don’t seem to be the point, maybe because Gay doesn’t think they exist, but probably because the path from inquiry to neat answer accosts her sense of complexity. ‘And yet,’ she is always writing, elevating the two-word pivot into its own sentence. ‘But.'” Which is about my takeaway from Bad Feminist too. I have fewer conclusions about the book than I do questions, or at least, I have conversations I want to start. So I figured, let’s just jump right in and get talking. Here are a few big picture questions I walked away from Bad Feminist with. I’d love to hear yours too.

  • On Bad Feminists: In her opening essay, Gay talks about the traditional perception of feminists as being “angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady [people]” I hear this argument every time a young celebrity denounces feminism. “But I like men!” How do we get past this terrible stereotype of what feminism means? And is it helpful or harmful to have celebrities like Beyoncé as de facto feminist icons?
  • On Privilege: In her essay, “Peculiar Benefits,” Gay describes the process of accepting her privilege as “ongoing.” And then she proceeds to list the varying factors that play into her privilege or lack thereof. It was a much more nuanced exploration of privilege than I’ve seen almost anywhere else. She also broadly rejected the way privilege is policed online, as a way of silencing people’s varied experiences. I found it very interesting that Gay talks about growing up middle class with parents who were divorced, while also being a queer black woman in America (i.e., she has a mix of privilege and lack of privilege). How can we bring that level of nuance to discussions of privilege online (for starters, do we need more nuance?) Related: Gay’s essay reminded me a bit of this article on calling out vs. calling in.
  • On Hollywood’s Many Issues: Bad Feminist takes Hollywood to task for its many sins against the black experience (from lack of available roles, to Hollywood’s obsession with black suffering, and creating black narratives for white audiences.) Judging from this year’s Oscars, mainstream Hollywood is at least…beginning…to take note of the issue. But it also feels like mainstream Hollywood has no stake in changing things. TV, thanks in huge part to Shonda Rhimes, at least offers some options that are closer to reality than not (or at the very least, present a more varied experience.) But how do we get film to catch up? Will it ever?
  • The Big Picture: Roxane Gay advocates for bad feminists. She herself talks about the contradiction between her feminism and her love of rap songs with misogynistic lyrics. But she does draw some lines in the sand. When it comes to a cultural phenomenon like the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which have been criticized for glamorizing abusive relationships, is there a real cultural danger at play here? Does Fifty Shades of Grey, as Gay argues, “[reinforce] pervasive cultural messages women are already swallowing about what they should tolerate in romantic relationships?” The way Gay tells it, Fifty Shades of Grey might be legitimately dangerous or bad for society. Do you agree? (I think I do. I also thought Twilight might be legitimately dangerous, too. And I watched all four movies just to make sure.)

Those are just a small smattering of the many, many big picture questions I left pondering after reading Bad Feminist. I’m not even sure they have answers. But I don’t think that’s the point of Gay’s writing anyway.

Let’s discuss! What did you think of bad feminist? (And note: this is the internet. Don’t say anything in a comment that you wouldn’t say to roxane gay over a drink, because she might well read it. On APW We aim to treat all our authors as people we respect.)

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