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Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist: Essays - Roxane Gay

I chose to read this book after hearing a radio interview with the author, in which she was absolutely amazing. So my expectations were high. Too high, because while I agree with almost everything Gay says, I wasn't as impressed as anticipated.


This book contains essays on a wide range of topics; only a few are about being a feminist, though plenty of others discuss subjects of interest to feminists, such as the representation of women in the media (books, movies, music, the news media), portrayals of sexual violence, and the state of reproductive freedom in the U.S. Many are also about race - mostly on portrayals of African-Americans in the news media and in fiction. Then there are a few miscellaneous topics: happy endings, global tragedies, Scrabble tournaments. Some of the essays have a personal focus, but the majority concentrate on cultural commentary.


So the essays do feel a bit scattered, as if they were thrown together from a blog archive. Some are very relevant, such as the essays on how to deal with privilege or the insistence on "likeable" female characters. Others are less so. Some arrive at no conclusions: for instance, the essay on trigger warnings that boils down to "I find them kind of counterproductive and condescending, but if other people want them, well, okay." Others date themselves with their focus on cultural moments with little lasting relevance: what do we care, now, about Todd Akin or Jerry Sandusky?


The essays about representation in the media also underwhelmed me, perhaps because I read many articles and reviews on these topics online. When Gay turns her attention to well-known works, her analysis adds little to what many others have said before: yes, Fifty Shades romanticizes abuse; yes, The Help turns the lives of black maids into feel-good stories for white people. When she focuses on works with which I'm unfamiliar (and outside of my areas of interest I pretty much live under a rock. I haven't seen Django, or anything by Tyler Perry. I've never heard of Diana Spechler's Skinny. I don't know who Daniel Tosh is), she lost me. Like most academic criticism, her analysis tends to focus on the specifics of the work in question, with the assumption that readers are already familiar with it; and since most of these essays are about problematic works, you probably won't come away with a reading list either.


In the end, my favorite essays were the personal ones, while the others were a mixed bag. This is a worthwhile read, perhaps especially so for those who are immersed in pop culture but haven't given much thought to it; the writing is accessible without being simplistic. And I think Roxane Gay is a great person and am glad other people are reading this and loving it. Unfortunately, very high expectations made it a disappointment for me.