A Response to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist
By Julia Bifulco
“He’s okay, but he’s trying to turn us all into feminists,” a thirteen-year-old me said when asked about my high school ethics teacher. I suppose I was merely young and naive enough to not understand the magnitude of the word “feminist” and why it was crucial for me to learn it. I must have been under the assumption that there was no need for feminism, because I had yet to give gender inequality much critical thought. The word “feminist” was laced with negativity, because whenever it was thrown around the hallways in between classes, it was constantly meant as an insult. Though further information about the true meaning of feminism was easily accessible online, “feminist” is often used as a means to shut down a woman’s argument without actually addressing the issues present. I learned what “blue-haired feminist” meant long before becoming informed on intersectional feminism.
I have grown up bearing the weight of internalized misogyny passed down through several generations of women, as I assume all women have, but the difference between Roxane Gay and I is that I was lucky enough to have been taught how to unlearn it quite early in my life. I am in no position to criticize Roxane Gay, and I acknowledge that; I think she is a wonderful writer and am glad to have read her work. I have, however, been trying to collect my thoughts on Bad Feminist for months, because there is an aspect of it that sets off a once-unidentifiable alarm in my brain, and I think I may have finally figured things out.
I had been meaning to read Gay’s book for years, but as is the life of a reader, my TBR pile is ever-growing, and some things slip through the cracks. On one fateful day at Indigo, my partner picked up Gay’s more recent work, Hunger, which led me to finally purchase Bad Feminist. Our plan was to each read our respective books and then switch. I finished mine first, and when I lamented my disappointment to my partner, he thought that I would change my mind after reading Hunger. I have since read and ultimately enjoyed both books, but I wish I had read Hunger first, even though it was written later. In this work, Gay’s narrative voice is much stronger, and, in my opinion, it strengthens the essays in Bad Feminist upon a second read.
Out of 318 pages, I am only unsettled by the final twenty. Bad Feminist opens with the section “[ME]” and ends with the section “[BACK TO ME],” with 31 essays in between exploring various tenets of intersectional feminism. The final two essays, however, come from a voice that seems so uninformed that it negates the validity of the content that precedes them. The first essay in the final section is titled “Bad Feminst: Take One,” and it sets up Gay’s definition of feminism, in which she draws on various texts by women that explore gender.
Gay draws a distinction between true feminism, which aims to fight for gender equality, and what she refers to as “essential feminism,” (Gay 304) which misconstrues the goal of feminism and suggests that “there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist” (304). To Gay, essential feminism lacks inclusivity, and “doesn’t allow for the complexities of human experience or individuality” (305). She is correct; modern feminism often lacks intersectionality, neglecting marginalized groups in the process. True feminism must inherently include women of colour, queer and trans women, disabled women, and women of any other historically oppressed group. Any other definition of “feminism” that purposefully lacks inclusivity is invalid.
As a queer black woman, Gay draws attention to this flaw in feminism because she has faced it herself, but the lack of intersectionality is not what she mainly focuses on. Instead, Gay takes it upon herself to make global statements that seem painfully ill-informed. She lists a set of rules that she believes have been set in place by essential feminists: in order to be considered a good feminist, one must “hate pornography, unilaterally decry the objectification of women, don’t cater to the male gaze, hate men, hate sex, focus on career, don’t shave” (304). She immediately adds, “I kid, mostly, with that last one,” (304) and even if these thoughts consciously come from a place of humour, it is clear that Gay is unconsciously dealing with issues of internalized misogyny. Though she is likely describing the feminism that she was initially exposed to in her formative years, Gay is no longer a teenager, and must allow her perception of feminism to evolve with the rest of her.
The final essay in the collection, “Bad Feminist: Take Two” revisits the essentialists’ rules for feminism, and Gay interprets them in relation to her own life. She decides that because she enjoys things that are traditionally gendered as feminine, then she is automatically a bad feminist, because “the sisterhood would not approve” (316). She then admits that she is “not even sure what the sisterhood is, but the idea of a sisterhood menaces” (316) her nonetheless. This imaginary sisterhood, however, does not affect so-called good feminists, “because they know they are comporting themselves in sisterhood-approved ways” (316). I do not know of the personal experiences Gay has had with said sisterhood, and it is clear that enough people have challenged her version of feminism to have affected her severely, forcing her to live in fear of a sisterhood.
That being said, I believe Gay’s scorn for the sisterhood, and its supposed scorn for her, stem from a place of internal sexism. Though it may not be conscious, essential feminists that shame others for not living by their rules are placing the blame for gender inequality on these ‘bad’ feminists, as the title of Gay’s book suggests. Instead of focusing their energy on collectively combatting the sexist systems put in place in our world, Gay’s definition of essential feminists put their effort into shaming other feminists for not being good enough at being feminists. I understand Gay’s frustration with this, as I, too, believe that change will not be made until women are unified against misogyny, and not divided amongst one another. I do not, however, agree with her response to essential feminism.
Gay adopts essential feminists’ practice of blaming women for men’s failings, too, but instead of focusing on so-called ‘bad’ feminists, she shames the essentialists for their version of feminism. This seems counterproductive to me, as the whole argument she is making in the final section of the book revolves around the necessity of unity in feminism. Though she calls attention to harmful divisions between different groups of feminists, she further divides them herself, which not only renders her argument less valid, but forces me as a reader to question the authority with which she speaks on the other topics in the book.
Gay makes a list of that which she believes would make her worthy of shame from essential feminists, and it is composed of things that are traditionally enjoyed by women. She self-consciously admits the following: “Pink is my favourite colour. [...] I have opinions on maxi dresses! I shave my legs! Again, this mortifies me” (315). She enjoys weddings and wishes to have a child and does not know how to fix the problems with her car. All of these, under modern feminism, are more than acceptable. In fact, I do not think that any group of feminists care enough about these trivialities to take the time to shame Gay for enjoying them, despite how intent she is on separating herself from the essentialists.
I feel for her in this final essay, because she lives in fear of a problem created by men that she has projected onto women, including herself. Her internalized misogyny runs so deep that she cannot think her way out of it just yet, and it therefore manifests itself in this preemptive attack on essential feminists–as though she believes that if she strikes first, she will be safe from them. Gay wrote this book in her thirties, which is a long time to live carrying the belief that liking a specific colour, for example, does not make her worthy of the title of ‘feminist’.
Gay explores a myriad of preconceived notions of feminism; though she criticizes essential feminists for living by rules, she herself has created an imaginary rulebook that she shames herself for not following. For example, she sometimes fakes orgasms with men “because it’s easier” (316) and she cannot be bothered to care. Good feminists, however, “are independent enough to care,” (315) not only about their sexual pleasure, but about how to fix their cars as well. Gay is willing to prioritize her role as a mother, instead of her career, when the time comes, because she does not want to focus so intently on her work that she misses out on family opportunities. She scorns herself for having this worry, because she is “supposed to be evolved,” (316) as per her misconstrued definition of feminism. She claims: “my success, such as it is, is supposed to be enough if I’m a good feminist. It is not enough. It is not even close” (316). This again demonstrates how deep her hurt is; she thinks herself into spirals because she tries to combat essential feminism by attacking herself before they have the chance to attack her themselves.
Though Gay’s main argument for why she deems herself a ‘bad’ feminist is largely based on unconscious hypocrisy, she does bring to light truly harmful divides between feminists that I feel compelled to address. She criticizes white feminism, which, for Gay, is different from essential feminism, and is defined as ignoring “the ongoing effects of racism and postcolonialism,” (307) and notes the divide it causes between feminists. True feminism, as aforementioned, is intersectional, but as Gay points out, “white feminists often suggest that by believing there are issues unique to women of colour, an unnatural division occurs, impeding solidarity, sisterhood” (307). In an attempt to prevent a separation, white feminists intentionally cause a much worse one. For these reasons, Gay is hesitant to label herself a feminist, because there is “such willful ignorance, such willful disinterest in incorporating the issues and concerns of black women into the mainstream feminist project” (308). I do not have the authority to speak on this topic, but I do wish that the final essays of Bad Feminist focused more on this issue rather than on Gay’s own issues that are born from an unconsciously internalized misogynistic mindset. I believe that Gay’s writings on her separation from feminism would be more powerful if they revolved around her concerns regarding the lack of intersectionality in certain “feminist” groups.
“Bad Feminist: Take Two” ends with Gay’s admittance that she once believed “that a feminist was a certain kind of woman,” one that is “militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, and humorless” (317). She says that she is ashamed of having once thought this way and does not “want to buy into these myths anymore” (318). Although she may have freed herself from the limitations placed on her by essential feminists, by the end of this book, Gay has very clearly not freed herself from a heavy sense of internalized misogyny. She has created rules for herself knowing that she does not and will not follow them, leading herself down a path of inevitable self-imposed shame. These rules are based on her idea of what a woman, and therefore a feminist, should be; this must not be conscious on her part, given her persistent criticism of the notion of a ‘good’ feminist.
Gay says that she does not want to “cavalierly disavow feminism like so many other women have done,” (318) once again subtly placing the blame on women for issues created by men, such as the negative association with the word ‘feminist’. She eventually labels herself a ‘bad’ feminist due to aforementioned trivialities; she enjoys pink accessories and sometimes fakes orgasms. This is the sentiment I am left with as a reader, and after three hundred pages of important and relevant critical writing, I am utterly disappointed that her argument boils down to this.
The final sentence of the book is “I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all,” (318) which I wholeheartedly agree with. Taken out of context from the rest of this final essay, it seems more relevant, but when the issues we are left to ponder revolve around the shame Gay believes she will face for wanting to have a baby, for example, it is dissatisfying. In a book filled with criticism of the lack of intersectionality in feminism, I believe that Gay could have done much more with her final pages, and I am deciding to chalk it up to her not yet having unlearned some aspects of her internalized misogyny. Bad Feminist was published in 2014, well after the period of feminism that shamed women for wanting to stay home and raise children instead of going out into ‘the man’s world’ and finding a job. Ultimately, I am frustrated with Gay’s conclusion. Feminism is about allowing women the right to choose how they occupy space in the world. Misrepresentations of the movement misconstrue its goal, which succeeds in nothing but alienating women and forcing them to produce work like the final section of Bad Feminist.
Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. Harper Perennial. New York, 2014.