Bad Feminist Summary

Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist

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Bad Feminist Summary

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American writer, Roxane Gay’s bestselling collection of essays, Bad Feminist, covers a range of topics related to feminism and culture, informed by Gay’s experience as a black woman of Haitian descent in America. Its title stems from Gay’s frustration with conforming to a set of rules to which many modern feminists expect all women to conform.

Part 1 is simply called “Me.” Before launching into essays advocating for various culture-related causes, Gay thinks it’s important to set forth various explanations of her own identity and heritage. She explains that despite being a woman of color in America, she is privileged in many ways. That said, her status as a tenure-track professor is something she’s had to work for “three times harder than the white kids to get half the consideration.” She’s been called an “affirmative action student” while also facing the realities of a lack of representation for people of color across industries such as entertainment, the law, and her own area of focus: academia. While it’s important to retain ties to one’s community of individuals with similar backgrounds, Gay also relishes communities that cut across traditional racial or gender lines to include all kinds of people. Gay cites the Scrabble community as one such example.

Gay writes about her simultaneous feelings of privilege and marginalization: “To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.”

Part 2, “Gender and Sexuality,” discusses the myth of the “post-feminist” world, critiquing a number of works of film and literature, specifically those written for women by women, such as Fifty Shades of Grey, Girls, Twilight, and Bridesmaids. Gay writes, “Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses—pretty but designed to SLOW women down.”

To contrast these works, Gay draws attention to a rare example of a popular cultural phenomenon that sets an example of strength for young women: The Hunger Games. Of this book’s heroine, Gay writes that Katniss is a “tough young woman who is forced to become even stronger in circumstances that might otherwise break her.”

Films are just one reason why feminism—despite Gay’s concerns over how some feminists adhere to it—is as vital a movement as ever. Beyond these cultural considerations, however, feminism is also a vital movement because of the continued prevalence of sexual violence perpetrated against women, often without recourse for the victim and without consequence for the perpetrator. Gay speaks of this from personal experience, owing to an incident of sexual assault perpetrated against her while in middle school by a group of male classmates while staying in a cabin in the woods. Gay also reminds the audience that sexual violence occurs not only toward those who identify as women, but also members of the LGBTQ community, across a wide spectrum of gender identifications.

Part 3 deepens arguments made earlier in the book, exploring issues of representation in film and television relating to race. Gay raises major issues with the films The Help and Django Unchained. She uses The Help to critique the trope of the “magical Negro” who seems to exist solely to help white people overcome their own racial attitudes. In the end, the idea of racism is challenged, but not the reality of racism, nor the very real consequences of racism. Meanwhile, Gay admits that her revulsion toward Django Unchained is borne out of less philosophical and more primal concerns: “Any offense I take with ‘Django Unchained’ is not academic or born of political correction. Art can and should take liberties and interpret human experiences in different ways, even if those interpretations make us uncomfortable. My offense is personal—entirely human and rising from the uncomfortable reality that I could have been a slave. I can’t debate the artistic merits of ‘Django Unchained’ because the palms of my hands are burning with the desire to slap Tarantino in the face until my arms grow tired.”

Even within films and television shows created by black entertainments that largely employ black performers, Gay writes that representation is a concern. In the essay, “Is He a Rapper?” Gay bemoans that much of BET’s programming focuses on black individuals within a very narrow range of vocations, like rappers and professional athletes.

Part 4, “Politics, Gender, and Race,” focuses on black and female representation within politics and political media. Gay uses these areas to note the ways that a lack of representation of non-whites and women in these fields leads to a lack of attention paid to issues that affect non-whites and women. When issues related to race and gender are addressed, Gay writes, they tend to be discussed as problems that must be solved by the individual minority community itself, as opposed to being the responsibility of all Americans.

The final section, “Back to Me,” ties together all her previous topics of discussion to better explain why Gay is unashamed of her status as a “bad feminist” among some members of the feminist community. After detailing the complex nature of representation and intersections of race and gender in America, Gay makes a compelling argument for why it’s not helpful to strictly adhere to “one type of feminism.”

Bad Feminism is a fascinating and deeply intelligent discussion of some of the most pressing cultural issues in America today. Although it does indict some aspects of modern mainstream feminism, Gay is quick to note that she would “rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”