Openness is something that isn’t valued enough in contemporary society. When someone asks us the tough questions—you know the ones about race, sex, and faith—we tend to reply coyly. Speaking for myself, I tend to not just play the shy card, I often look the other way and wait until an awkward moment of silence passes by. Roxane Gay, though, is a writer who tackles controversial topics with intelligence and precision. Her new collection of essays, Bad Feminist, is a stunning examination of today’s American culture.
It’s in the early pages of Bad Feminist that Gay describes her own self-labeling. She writes, “I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right.” It’s the kind of statement that makes you step back and ask if someone just admitted to not being perfect. To answer that: Yes, she did. Truly, this kind of selfless expression is a rarity in a time where narcissism floods our lives.
Gay moves easily from topics that are playful to serious. The lighter essays are my favorite. My preference is probably because they make me feel better about myself. In one especially interesting essay, “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically,” Gay describes her experiences in competitive Scrabble. She implements footnotes to further details of the matches. The world she describes is combative, viciously so, and wildly entertaining. Gay writes, “I have a Scrabble nemesis. His name is Henry. He has the most gorgeous blue-gray eyes I have ever seen.” Don’t you want to watch one of these matches? Imagine the staredowns going on.
In other essays that share the same kind of (general) lightness, Gay discusses popular culture in intelligent ways, while still voicing her personal interests. She carefully discusses the appeal, strengths, and weaknesses of HBO’s Girls and Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. She points out the need for diverse programming, but Gay argues that there needs to be more than just diversity to make the shows work. These stories need more development, character, conflict, and (well) physical diversity—much more.
The more serious essays on gender and race show Gay’s voice shining brilliantly. Obviously, she is an educated, African-American woman. When speaking about women in literature, Gay discusses the classification of mean girls. Her essay “Not Here to Make Friends” examines the “mean” protagonists of recent titles such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Megan Abbott’s Dare Me. Men who are villains are often just misunderstood—or maybe it’s simply not their fault that they are damaged. Bad women, though, well, somehow they are deranged, twisted souls. It’s unfair, but it’s certainly accurate.
In discussing race in “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods…,” Gay notes how “race is regularly handled ineffectually in movies and fiction. I have become accustomed to this reality.” It’s difficult to accept that the mishandling of race has become accepted, but it’s true. It shows a state of laziness in our society, but the effort to change closed minds is exhausting. Sometimes, it’s easier to continue than to change.
Gay also speaks openly about dealing with sexual abuse. Her words are personal and brave, but you get the impression that they are not just for her own catharsis. These are essays that are meant to inspire, and I think the collection hits all its goals.
Roxane Gay’s bold essay collection, Bad Feminist, is a triumph in the art of personal expression.