Sunday, November 16, 2014

If Roxane Gay is a "Bad Feminist", what am I? | Thoughts

I am a feminist.

This is not news to anyone who reads this blog. At least, it shouldn't be. I talk about feminism all the time. Feminism is important! Many people are feminists, even if they don't realize it, just because the word "feminism" carries with it so much baggage.

Roxane Gay seems aware of this. In the introduction to Bad Feminist, she discusses the unfair standard to which we hold feminism, writing: "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." With this sentence (so early in the book), I was hooked. "Roxane Gay gets me," I said aloud. I read the quote to those sitting around me. I started to read more quickly, more excitedly.

And then... everything started to come apart.

So many readers recommended Bad Feminist so convincingly. I knew ahead of time that Gay's writing was supposed to be conversational and casual, that her feminism is modern, accepting and scattered. The publisher blurb (which is not actually found anywhere on the book, because why) has a quote in which Gay describes how she likes pink, so of course that makes her a "bad feminist". I was supposed to be all over this book (even though I really should have known otherwise, because why should liking pink make you a bad feminist?). This, after all, is a book by the woman who writes in the introduction that she's a bad feminist because she never wanted to be on the "Feminist Pedestal", a sentiment I not only agree with wholeheartedly, but have never found the words for. This is the writer who wrote succinctly: "I disavowed feminism because when I was called a feminist, the label felt like an insult. In fact, it was generally intended as such." All of this in the introduction.

Alas, it turns out that the Roxane Gay who wrote the introduction and the Roxane Gay who wrote the rest of the essays in this collection are two different women, with contradictory takes on feminism and some pretty awful pieces.

So I'll start by being as blunt as possible: I hated much of Bad Feminist. Not disliked, not "didn't enjoy", not just "was disappointed by". No. I hated a good chunk of this collection. To start with, it's a bad collection: these essays are largely disconnected, unrelated and have no flow, coming almost verbatim from whatever website they were originally posted to in 2013. Bad Feminist doesn't actually have a strong central thesis, making the whole book feel a little worthless - why not just track down the original posts? The essays themselves are often out of place as well - much as I enjoy a good story about Scrabble (and I actually did like that anecdote quite a bit), it doesn't belong in a feminist text. Whoops, sorry, no.

Some essays, it's true, flow into each other remarkably well. Altogether, a few paint an important portrait of Gay herself. There were moments where this became powerfully central, like in "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence". Gay has references to her own life and experiences in surrounding essays that give further meaning to her discussion of sexual violence. Moments like those made Bad Feminist feel like a legitimate whole, with a quiet continuity and consistency. Had the whole book been like this, the review you're reading now may have been very, very different.

Yet "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence" also exemplifies all too well another aspect of the book that I seriously did not like: a total lack of citations. Gay at some point criticizes another feminist critic for referencing bad sources and statistics. That's a good, worthwhile point that is demolished by the fact that Bad Feminist contains zero sources, citations, references or even link suggestions of any kind. When Gay discusses gang rape in "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence", I have no doubt that someone has researched the fact that the victim's "reproductive system is often damaged" and that they have "a higher chance of miscarrying a pregnancy". These are almost certainly true facts. However, Gay loses credibility by not citing the research. Writing something loosely like this may be good enough for a blog post (and even then, I'm realizing that it's always better to link to sources than assume your readers are familiar with the research), but it's not good enough for a wide-release book publication.

This hope for a more critical approach is likely a problem in my own expectations than a flaw in Gay's writing, however I cannot pretend that it didn't disappoint me. Gay is a critic, yet she seems to utterly avoid any chance for real, hard-hitting criticism. Most of the essays provide little more than entry-level understanding of the subject. Many readers have praised Bad Feminist to the sky for this trait, but I find myself thoroughly unimpressed: there's a way to write critically about pop culture, and Roxane Gay just isn't doing it.

The topics frustrated me as well. Beyond the fact that there was little here I wasn't familiar with (again, Gay rarely goes beyond surface level exploration), Gay and I seem to have opposing views on many, many issues. Her essay on weight (and how to write about being overweight) actually disgusted me, not simply because of how sloppily written it is. The essay skips between legitimate criticism, personal storytelling and a discussion of how modern culture looks at fat people. Gay simultaneously talks about how it's bad to judge, while judging every aspect of the author and the character of the book she's referencing, referring to the fact that "no one who shops at Lake Bryant or the Avenues or Catherines is going to feel empathy for someone who is thirty pounds overweight". The entire essay is extraordinarily reductive, and I actually wanted to punch the book while reading it.

There's also the little issue of spoilers. I'm a fair believer in spoiler alerts, mostly because it's unfair to expect everyone to have been exposed to the exact same pop culture as other people. I also do not object to people discussing plot points at length when properly pointed out (hey, it's part of criticism!). Yet Gay opts for the mix - she spoils endings and character development and everything about certain books, without ever considering that what she's doing might be, oh, wrong. It was extremely frustrating, and it's just sloppy. Again, this might be good enough for a Jezebel blog post, but it's not good enough for a print-and-bound book that I paid $16 for.

It boils down to two main concepts: One is of the content, writing and editing - the technical matters which I felt had issues (and content, of course, includes personal disagreements - this is a feminist text, after all). The other is of how the book was presented. Truthfully, I am not so impressed by the mere fact that Gay is tackling pop culture in her criticism. Not because I feel that there's something inherent about "lowbrow" culture that excludes it from criticism, but rather the exact opposite. I have never believed in the sort of highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy that Gay perpetuates in these essays. She repeatedly points out how lowbrow X is a guilty pleasure, but that doesn't stop her from being a good literary critic (something which, again, I'm not convinced of after reading this collection). Gay flaunts herself as a rule-breaker (her publishers seem to agree), but she sticks very closely to the original definitions of low/highbrow and doesn't challenge them in any meaningful way. To be perfectly blunt, I've read lowbrow criticism on Tumblr that's at least 50 times better than the ostensibly intellectual approach Gay takes (which is actually extremely shallow and, dare I say it, timid).

I really, really disliked Bad Feminist, and it has taken me many months to come out and say this. I respect that readers will have different opinions, and I am well aware that Roxane Gay is considered one of the foremost feminist critics at the moment. The point of this review is simply to say that I disagree with Gay on too many points to be able to call Bad Feminist a remotely worthwhile text. I have read other essays of hers that angered me as much as Bad Feminist did (most noteworthy was her recent Guardian essay about who should be allowed to advocate for feminism, an article which not only made my blood boil, but made me wonder if Gay even recognizes how utterly contrary to feminism much of her "criticism" is), and I have simply concluded that while Gay and I agree on the basic ideas of feminism - namely that it should exist, that there should be a greater discussion of issues such as equal rights (whether in gender, race, sexuality, etc.), that women's "issues" need to be treated with the same gravitas we treat men's, etc etc etc - we fundamentally disagree on the details of these issues, and on many other topics that surround feminism. Gay furthermore writes from a purely American perspective of the world, a narrowing that I simply will not accept from a movement that should be defined by its global-ness.

So here it is. The review that took over a month to write, in which I cannot go into as much detail as I'd like about what angered me so much (without writing a feminist manifesto myself), in which I mostly am trying to explain why I feel that Gay is a mediocre literary critic (at best), in which I recognize that many readers I respect and admire will so violently disagree with me that we may never speak again. Goodness knows I've received some harsh feedback on my negative reviews in the past, but I don't recall ever coming this close to criticizing the writer - this is the main problem with reviewing nonfiction, unfortunately. But I feel it's important to share my thoughts on Bad Feminist. I'm curious to know what other readers feel about my disagreements with Gay, and how they interpreted the book. I doubt that I will ever come to love this collection, but I may be more forgiving of its flaws and focus on the handful of worthwhile moments, far and few between as they may be.

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