“Bad Feminist”: A Lesson in Discomfort

Reading Bad Feminist made me feel the same way I used to after leaving my Fictions of Black Identity class in college. I spent the first two classes speaking up, as I usually did in small seminars, and then stewing with this nauseating feeling of discomfort knotting in my stomach. The knot grew bigger and more tangled as I offered my insights, only to have Professor W– cut through them like they were made of tissue paper. To be fair, my arguments were made of tissue paper. It was a sad fact that I had skated by for five semesters at a “public ivy” on convoluted arguments that I had developed from spending too much time on the Internet and an ability to write mildly thoughtful and decently constructed term papers.

In my defense, I was still learning and that’s what you go to college to do. Another of my professors fought back just as hard with me and my sometimes questionable views, but I never worried about the grade I would make that class. However, this professor’s expectations could only be reached with a space shuttle.

As Roxane Gay recounts in her book of essays, Bad Feminist, she, too, is like the professor that I had that pushed hard because she knew what we were capable of. In order to think critically, you must be pushed: you must be exposed to new ideas and should you be so audacious as to produce your opinion, you must have the wherewithal to defend. You must be flexible in your knowledge.

That’s what I understand from Bad Feminist. Gay states that it is her human contradictions that make her a bad feminist, because she likes pink and listens to music that objectifies women. But I believe that is what makes her a good feminist. She’s not rigid in her definitions; what she is rigid in is her sense of self, and she makes everything accommodate her and who she is, rather than conforming to some essentialist theoretical version of what feminism is.

In “Bad Feminist: Take One,” Gay uses Su’s definition of a feminist: “women who don’t want to be treated like shit.” (P. 303) She goes onto say that it gets harder to expand the definition, but I believe it’s fine the way that it is.

Gay puts to words what any woman with a strong sense of self and self-worth struggles with on a day to day basis: how to be strong and a woman. Centuries of relentless gender stereotypes tell women our duty is fragility and the only thing we need to be strong enough to do is bear children. It’s time to expand our definition of what constitutes strength, what constitutes femininity and what constitutes female strength. Roxane Gay does just that in her brilliantly witty essays. She folds lessons and social critiques into commentaries about her favorite TV shows and movies, tricking you into thinking she’s just reviewing them. The essays read like conversations, conversations, for me, that are reminiscent of the semester that I decided to listen and learn before I spoke in Fictions of Black Identity.

She is doing, I’m slowly realizing, what I want to do with my life. Gay analyzes popular culture to see how we are representing difference in our every day life. She pointedly tells us that every day, we are consuming media that demeans Black women, restricts Black stories into the category of the struggle, and makes light of such things as sexual assault and bigotry.

What I think is brave about her work, especially as an academic, is that she fearlessly declares that though she is able to make these critiques about the texts she is encountering in her every day life, she is still able to enjoy them. When I made the decision to go on to grad school and become a professor and study graphic novels, I worried that I would no longer find joy in them. My hobby had now become my work. When I sat down to watch the latest episode of the Flash, I was simultaneously taking notes in case there was something that I could incorporate into my next class.

It’s about inspecting the pieces, yes, and in order to do that, you must break it apart, but Roxan Gay gives me the courage to say, “I love Superman though I recognize the problematic legacy he leads.”

Reading the book was a long process of me laughing out loud and startling my dog, occasionally murmuring my agreement with her assertions and every so often, a “hm” because I’d never thought about it like that. The only thing I even remotely take issue with is her love of fairy tales but her cynicism about heroism, and how the term has become diluted because we use it as a blanket term for everything.

What I counter with is, if it weren’t for people like Gay, and myself, who love fairy tales and happy endings, wouldn’t we have less of a need for every day heroes? Less of a need to bestow an undeserving title on our so called heroes? I need every day heroism in my life because I know that life can’t be a fairy tale, but those small moments of elation when there is such a magical moment, sustain me through hard times.

I walk away from Bad Feminist feeling good about the space I occupy in the world, what I have contributed, how much I respect myself. It took me awhile, many sessions where I sat with a nauseating pit in my stomach, before I recognized as the feeling of growth. It took me a while to realize that I am worthy, valuable, and like Gay, a bad feminist–mostly because I walk with my head held high, pleased with my contradictions and my strength of character, ready to encourage other women to feel the same.


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