Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Bad Feminist" Is A Badass Book

Here is the short list of topics covered by Roxane Gay in Bad Feminist: racism, the slave narrative, rape, domestic abuse, pedophilia, police profiling, the (in)justice system, abortion, reproductive rights, the side effects of birth control, Paula Deen, misogyny in music, sexual violence in language, offensive humor, BDSM, female friendships, body image, the (mis)representation of African Americans in film, coming out, likability in literary protagonists, professorship, and politics.

Bad Feminist is a collection of whip-smart, pointed, and relatable essays, the kind of writing I was clamoring for when I initially picked up (and subsequently ripped apart) Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl last week. Gay's book is so good that I would've gotten back in bed and binge-read it cover to cover had I started it on the weekend. Alas, like Gay, I do most of my reading while exercising, so it took several days to get through it. It was all I could do not to throw my hands up in praise and shout, "YES! YES! YES!" in the middle of the gym at 5 a.m. If Dunham's book was marshmallow fluff, Gay's is a 34-ounce Porterhouse steak.

Gay leads the reader through a slew of timely, thorny issues via an accessible medium: pop culture. Most of her essays begin with a book, television show, movie, or song that relates to the deeper problems she'll soon dive into. While this format was unfamiliar at first (mostly because I have not seen or read much of the entertainment she discusses), you gotta love a writer who takes an appreciation of "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke and turns it into questioning whether or not appreciating that song--even in a lighthearted way--is condoning sexual assault. Or wonders why the one of the few places we see racial diversity on the small screen is inside a prison, a la Orange is the New Black. Or reads and live-tweets Vogue, "and I'm not doing it ironically, though it might seem that way." Or concludes of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, "It would have been useful if Sandberg offered realistic advice about career management...It would also be useful if we had flying cars."

Gay also addresses Dunham's Girls, though she's much more diplomatic and kind when criticizing the 28-year-old who, as I claimed previously, squandered an opportunity to say something important about womanhood. Gay sees Dunham's point of view differently, acknowledging that while she's not Girls' target demographic, she does believe that all of our voices deserve to be heard, even if they are not voices that resonate with us. "Public women, and feminists in particular, have to be everything to everyone; when they aren't, they are excoriated for their failure," Gay writes. I aspire to be that restrained and mature. Part of me believes women should not tear one another down and must remain united in what Gay calls "the sisterhood," but like Gay, "the idea of a sisterhood menaces me." Besides, for feminism to be "successful," I believe we need more than a sisterhood. We should include men who want to participate in the efforts for gender equality. We should feel free to disagree and debate and argue with one another. Just as I do not feel that electing, say, Anne Coulter as the first female president would be a "win" for women, I do not feel that Dunham's book is an asset to feminism. Thus, I stand by my rant.

Little Lena could learn a lot from Professor Gay, like how to cite sources (other than one's family), to use statistics to support a thesis, or to look up from one's navel from time to time and consider a broader perspective. To be fair, I could learn to critique people, popular culture, and institutions without demeaning them. Gay is so adept at this, it's an art. She limits self-disclosure and comes nowhere near TMI (Too Much Information) territory. She even makes critical thinking fun, like when she suggests a drinking game for reading Fifty Shades of Grey that involves taking a swig every time Anastasia exclaims "Jeez" or bites her lower lip or remarks how handsome Christian is. Gay graciously dismantles the racism inherent in The Help and even made me laugh when she described her heart turning into "cardiac jerky" as she watched the film adaptation of that novel.

In all of her essays, Gay hits the point home without shoving an agenda in the reader's face or shaming those whose need to improve. I did not just find kinship in Gay's words, I got educated as well. I was reminded that while I might be a feminist in theory, I am also an ignorant white person. We all benefit from hearing that which makes us uncomfortable. Revolution begins with awareness.

Two chapters in Bad Feminist stood out for me--one, on the New York Times' major misstep in reporting on the horrendous gang rape of an 11-year-old girl with an article titled "Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town." I had not heard of this case, in which an 11-year-old girl was raped by 18 men. Eighteen men. The assault was also videotaped, which is what led to the apprehension of the rapists. Stories like these are why I avoid the news when I can, but the newspaper's blatant dismissal of the victim's suffering (and even suggesting she might some how have been at fault for its occurrence) was appalling. How many sets of editorial eyes saw that headline and didn't even hesitate to question it? And what of the reporter who apparently didn't challenge the hospital worker's statement that "These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives"? They have to live with this?! Jesus Christ! As if I wasn't pissed off enough about the state of publishing, that chapter was a kick-in-the-head kind of wake-up call.

The other chapter that still haunts me is "What We Hunger For," an essay seemingly about The Hunger Games. I almost skipped it as that's a series I have no intention of ever reading, nor do I plan to watch its film adaptations. But by this chapter, I trusted Gay as an essayist, and I suspected that what appeared to be an intellectual analysis of a YA novel would develop into something more profound. It did, when Gay examined the strength of women and disclosed her own experience of being gang raped. My throat felt tight and my eyes turned wet as I read her painful account. I wanted to write her a letter after reading it but all I could think to say was, "Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing. We need you." Gay is definitely the voice of a generation, and she is an essential, evocative, and persuasive one.

Bad Feminist does what essays should do: motivate the reader to make a change or take a step, no matter how small, in the right direction. (This must be why they call feminism a "movement.") After reading the aforementioned chapter, I contacted my daughters' father and informed him I would be having "The Talk" with them ASAP and that I hoped he would do the same. Granted, a talk doesn't guarantee that a young girl won't be raped (if only it were up to us females), but I realized it's not too early to start talking about the fact that men and boys can and do hurt girls and women. Gay herself says she doesn't believe in safety; she thinks it's an illusion. Maybe she's right, but I believe that expressing honestly the things that form us and break us and bond us is a way of creating safe space, and she has done that, for so many overlooked and underrepresented groups, in Bad Feminist. We can each create safe spaces--whether on the page or in our homes, schools, and communities--so that women can feel freer to speak up.

Gay doesn't have all the answers. She is open about the fact that she's a contradiction in terms, a feminist who dates assholes and willingly gives blow jobs. She openly admits she comes from a privileged background as far as her education (she has a Ph.D.) and her financial upbringing (middle-upper class) are concerned. But she's asking the big questions, she's clear in her call for action, and she doesn't sugarcoat that which is hard to swallow.

All that said, I was left wanting a few things after finishing Bad Feminist. Like Dunham, Gay fails to examine spirituality. Figuring out who God is and where to find Him/Her/It is an endeavor just as important to many 20- and 30-something women I know as finding Mr. Right is. I believe the only time Gay mentions God is during her rape, when she prays to Him to save her. He doesn't. (I, and other people of faith, might respond by saying that God gave man free will. I might also say that God makes mistakes, and this was perhaps one of them. When an atrocity happens, the question is not, "Why did God allow this?" but "What the fuck is wrong with people?!" God does not cause suffering, but He does give us the strength to move forward and turn adversity into something good. Rather than "Why?", He encourages us to ask "What now? How do we respond compassionately?") Addressing all of that might require a book-length tome of its own, but I would have been curious to hear what happened to Gay's idea of God as she grew into adulthood.

There were two other huge, gaping absences in Bad Feminist: marriage and motherhood. This is, presumably, because Gay is not married and does not have children (though she expresses the desire for the latter in the last chapter). I am married with two daughters and three step-sons, all in or approaching the tween and teenage years. I have a lot of questions and not a lot of feminists to guide me through them. For example: What might a feminist marriage look like? How does money factor into a marriage where there is an income discrepancy between the two parties? How does one raise children to be feminist adults? How do you unpack feelings like "He's such a sissy" or "She's such a drama queen!" about one's own children? How do you prevent stereotyping genders without pretending that there aren't real, observable differences between boys and girls? What will the effect of technology be on our children's abilities to have meaningful relationships offline? How do we cultivate compassion in the selfie generation? And what of raising multicultural kids?

I know I cannot expect each female essayist to address every issue women face, but I think both Dunham's and Gay's books serve as a call to response for those of us who recognize that there is still so much left unsaid and unexplored about womanhood.

Bad Feminist is an intense, intelligent example of what good writing can be. It's so robust and raw, I really wish Gay had called it Badass Feminist to reflect her own power on the page. Gay has published before and, given the bestselling status of Bad Feminist, there will be more to come from her. I can't wait.