Getting Real about Cultural Illusions: Review of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist

Written by JLM; Published by GENDER FOCUS on February 18, 2015

A title like “Bad Feminist” is about as rhetorically effective as it gets: it’s divisive, it’s evocative, it’s thought provoking, it’s maddening, and it’s badass. The simple act of placing a moralistic modifier before “feminist” pulls you in as much as it irksomely pushes the right buttons of discomfort.

Cover photo of Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist

My initial response to seeing the title of Roxane Gay’s August 2014-released New York Times best seller was one of wary suspicion: I recognized the tactic but suspected, and hoped, there might be something more to it than a bold and kickass rhetorician’s audience savvy.

I also, for reasons not related to my age, felt very much “of the second wave.” To say that I’m not attuned to and immersed in pop culture is an understatement and Bad Feminist, as its title suggests, speaks most directly to those who are active in the mainstream.

I have to start this review by admitting, without an ounce of shame, that I have only a faint knowledge of the majority of the celebrities and popular novels mentioned by Gay. My counter-culturism, sheltered cornfield existence, and tendency toward introversion left me, throughout the entire book, in a state of acknowledgement: the acknowledgement being that, I am not hip and I need to follow Roxane Gay on Twitter to ensure that I keep up on each day’s global atrocities. Talk about a wake up call.

That’s what I think this book is: a wake up call for a fairly young audience to start thinking more critically about everything, to start avidly questioning their cultural surroundings, to pay greater attention to the politics of language, and, most of all, to get real, mainly about the inevitable contradictions and hypocrisies of being human in a vastly imperfect world.

Older readers can take these same things away from the book too, though the developments may not seem so new or earthshattering and the onslaught of pop culture references may not seem so pertinent.

I first encountered Roxane Gay and her work two months ago, when she gave a talk at Western Illinois University. I had not yet read Bad Feminist, but within the first minute or so of her talk, I knew I would be lining up to buy it afterward. She is a charismatic speaker, and she’s funny. Not gratuitously funny; poignantly, relevantly, sensitively funny. If you have not yet read the book, I recommend trying to hear her speak first so you’ll hear her voice while you read the book.

Her voice is what it’s all about. She’s not only a writer but a personality. She’s certainly a performer, in addition to being an educator and a best-selling author. It’s visually obvious that buying Bad Feminist is about getting to know Roxane Gay: half of the book’s cover is the title and the other half is her name. The concept of “the bad feminist” is central to the book, but just as central is the self-proclaimed “bad feminist” herself.

Here’s what she’s trying to say: I am what I am, we are what we are, we don’t fit, we’re failures, but we’re failures who have to try harder to get ourselves out of this rut, in which racial, gender, sexual, class and other oppressions run rampant. There are real consequences to these oppressions that we must remember, and remember again. Imperfectly, but actively.

Gay, like me, is of the belief that, despite our fairy tale wishes, it’s not getting better. Not enough. Not nearly enough. Not by a long shot. Gay demonstrates this throughout the book by critically evaluating treatments of race, sexuality and gender in a slew of films and books.

Each essay is bursting with literary and cultural criticism. It’s a lot to take in, and as I read, I sometimes had issues with balance and cohesiveness. But most of the time, even when I was growing frustrated, she pulled it off and swiftly demonstrated the argument beneath the criticism.

My greatest challenges in reading Bad Feminist were twofold. One: it’s hard to read critical essay after critical essay on books, films, and television shows you have never encountered and/or have little interest in encountering. I did it anyway and found it fairly painless and somewhat educational. Gay’s prose is so sardonic and acerbic and entertaining that the vaguest knowledge of Chris Brown and Sweet Valley High will do. Her criticism was engaging, urgent, accessible, and persuasive. Gay provides the necessary, brutal-but-loving honesty we need in order to go forward in the face of our own and one another’s faults.

The other major challenge for me was in dealing with Gay’s treatment of the construct of the binary, particularly with regard to gender theory. This one was the more frustrating of the two, for me. It may be that my background in gender studies, and in particular my scholarly interest in Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, turned me into a critic of Gay’s use of the theory. I was not satisfied with it for a couple of reasons.

Mainly, I felt she oversimplified, to the point of inaccuracy at times, Butler’s concept of performativity. I feel that Gay, if she were not going to explain the distinction between performance and performativity, could have used the metaphor of gender as a theatrical performance without citing Butler to make her points. I admire her for attempting to introduce Butler to an audience that would otherwise not likely encounter Butler’s work but I also know the complexity of the theory and that it’s not well-suited for surface-level uses.

The weak employment of Butler’s theory aside, Bad Feminist accomplishes what I believe it set out to accomplish: it gets us thinking and talking about a lot of different-but-interconnected issues all at once. It bombards us. Because we need bombardment. Because we live in a world in which we are bombarded daily. Because we need to decide for ourselves where we stand, what we stand for, and why we stand for it. Because bombardment is inevitable, as the book insistently reminds us, and we need to get real about it.

Getting real, in Bad Feminist, means not hiding behind our protective illusions. Like Gay, I feel suspicious about maintaining illusions in order to maintain a status quo that is bad for (most of) us. I was cheering her on throughout the book, in my margins, for going where many others have not gone and for doing it with faith in herself and her voice.

Her critique of the pitfalls of “trigger warning” labels as maintaining a false sense of security, in particular, had me thanking her profusely for saying what others seem unwilling or hesitant to say. She went there. She was willing to risk “being bad” in order to honor her reason and intellect.

I wish she had gone even further; I wish she had not stepped back on the issue, but I know that her concern, as a rhetorician, was first and foremost to reach a wide audience, with sensitivity as the sweetener before doses of harsh truth.

On quite a number of issues, she wavered, purposefully, between tip-toeing around, back-peddling, and unflinching pursuance. These destabilizing factors, I believe, were combined in the book to reveal the nuanced, shifting state of being a… human being.

I did not say “feminist” because that’s not, actually, the point. The point is that feminists are human beings— complex, contradictory human beings, living in a world in which various manifestations of violence are perpetrated on the basis of sex, gender, class, religion and ethnicity, and that we’re all imperfect and failing in this imperfect and failing world, but that we should strive to do all that we can from within our identities and positions to work toward change and improvement.

If saying “I’m a bad feminist” is the only way to say “I’m a human being who believes that women shouldn’t be ‘treated like shit’ for being women,” then Gay is willing to be the one to say it. I did not think it needed to be said, but I should have known better. As humans, we unfortunately function too much on dualistic simplicity: the Us versus Them mentality that allows the hierarchy to reign and for the demonization of those who fall into the “evil” of the “good versus evil” binary. It all comes down to power. Gay shows us that, though imperfect, we can navigate through difficult self-reflective terrain in order to take baby steps toward solving age-old problems.

If anything, Gay has given us more than we can handle. She is a pop-culture expert, an extraordinarily avid reader and an absorber of all kinds of information from the mainstream, all of which serve her prolific career as a daring and politically-aware writer. It’s astonishing how much she soaks up, and doing so serves both her craft and her politics well.

The underdeveloped and sometimes upsetting use of feminist stereotypes as a rhetorical tool to empower feminism and the implications of using such stereotypes are in the book precisely for us to discuss and think about critically. The fact that Gay says that pink is her favorite color, almost sheepishly, as if anyone who read the book would honestly think of her as a “bad feminist” for liking pink, has a rhetorical purpose: to reach out, not to people who are new to feminism but, to those who are still afraid of and ignorant about the word.

Admitting discomfort with the word feminism or with using the identity label is nothing to be ashamed of, Gay reassures herself and us. She also assures us, in telling us that it’s okay to not conform to stereotypes of feminists, that it’s okay to identify as a feminist.

She does so in a straightforward, mostly literal way. While I feel that we should be complicating feminism rather than simplifying it, I completely believe that Gay’s hybrid collection of narrative- and personality-infused critical essays is an integral part of that work and conversation. It is too easy for scholars like me to ignore pop culture and, in doing so, maintain an illusion that the world already “gets” feminism. No, it doesn’t.

The world needs more people like Gay, who are aware of what’s going on, to acknowledge reality and, by that very acknowledgement, make a dent in the machine of oppression.

Now to address the concept of “good” and “bad” feminists. This dichotomy is dangerous and fraught with interpretive mayhem, which reveals just how bold and brave Roxane Gay is for using it. She knows it’s an instigative phrase and she’s not avoiding it: she has used her platform to join a conversation on the subject of essentialism, a conversation that extends beyond feminism.

I don’t feel Gay spent enough time deconstructing or constructing the notion of “the bad feminist.” Some of the essays, which earlier appeared in magazines like Jezebel and Salon, did not bring home enough of a point of connection to the book’s foremost concept, so I was left wanting more. I am left wanting Gay to explore the concept more deeply. I don’t think you can “go there” without fully “going there” when it comes to discussing the influence of binaristic thinking in our lives.

Abandoning the binary of “good and bad” and embracing our failure to be essentialist entities is not as easy as it seems. In fact, sad as it may be, it seems outside of the scope of our species. The reality of complexity is harder to navigate than the illusion of simplicity. Humans’ evaluative and categorical nature keeps us working within a very simplistic conceptual framework that serves us in a pinch but, as we progress, deters our evolution.

But we cannot move beyond it without acknowledging it, speaking to it, and dealing with it courageously. It took one very brave and “bad” feminist to step into the uncomfortable arena of acknowledgement, wearing the label, temporarily, in order to educate us and help us begin to unpack something far more systemic.

Vulnerability, risk-taking and disclosure are excellent carriages for cultural criticism, and, using all three, Roxane Gay calls us to the action of awareness, because we’re just as “bad” as her and we need all the reminders we can get. In doing so, she empowers us to realize that, regardless of what we are or how we identity, we’re not exempt from participating in the effort to move forward. Ultimately, it’s not about who we are as much as it is about how we participate, what we contribute, and that we contribute.

Feature article photo, “SteacieLibrary” by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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