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Наоми Вульф - “Bad Feminist,” Great Rhetorician
Roxane Gay’s recent collection of essays, Bad Feminist, did something that few anthologies of feminist theory and cultural criticism ever do: it jumped onto the New York Times bestseller list. And this novelist also managed to accomplish this without bashing feminism or making the case that everyone is overreacting to injustices aimed at women.
What does the success of this volume say about this moment in the fraught life of popular feminism?
While Gay is based on campus, she writes in the way you discuss feminist theory with your best friend; the voice of these essays is a funny, scathing, and colloquial. At the same time, Gay is immersed in the deep, internecine arguments of feminism and exhaustively familiar with campus discourses around issues of race and class, gender and sexuality. One of Gay’s achievements is that she offers a kind of straightforward sensibility that guides readers through what can be a morass of conflicting politically correct discourses—and she does so from a feminist and progressive perspective, which may be a first for a contemporary volume of popular feminist theory.
You can see this through line of retro common sense in her important lead essay on privilege, “Peculiar Benefits,” for example, in which she actually lays out a reasonable and compelling way to understand one’s own privilege while not being held hostage by it. “The problem is, cultural critics talk about privilege with such alarming frequency and in such empty ways, we have diluted the word’s meaning,” she correctly writes (16). She then maps the impact that a rigid wielding of the privilege label on many campuses has and identifies it, I would say bravely, as a potential burden on speech and on writing: “When we talk about privilege, some people start to play a very pointless and dangerous game where they try to mix and match various demographic characteristics to determine who wins at the Game of Privilege.… How dare someone speak to a personal experience without accounting for every possible configuration of privilege or the lack thereof?” (18). After these important mappings of a familiar route, she deploys her sometimes laugh-out-loud, almost Wildean humor, which is often epigrammatic: “On my more difficult days, I’m not sure what’s more of a pain in the ass—being black or being a woman. I’m happy to be both of these things, but the world keeps intervening” (16-17). And finally Gay concludes, as she does with thorny struggles over many issues in this volume, with a resounding cheer for a kind of old-fashioned, pre-postmodern…well, humanism, in the 1950s sense, a humanism in which there is such thing as an individual subject, in which that person’s truth matters, and in which there is even (gasp!) a universal human condition: “We should be able to say, ‘This is my truth,’ and have that truth stand without a hundred clamoring voices shouting, giving the impression that multiple truths cannot coexist…. Privilege is relative and contextual” (19).
This old-fashioned humanism, which for once is not used to transcend knowledge of race, class, and gender injustices but actually to integrate such knowledge and recast humanism in a more evolved way, is a sustained theme, and, I would argue, accomplishment, throughout the book. Again and again, Gay returns to argue on behalf of human compassion and even moral judgment and responsibility in navigating tricky issues such as how to talk about sexual violence (“The Careless Language of Sexual Violence”); how to handle popular dismissal of feminist complaints in the media (“How We All Lose,” which examines the impact of Hannah Rosin’s nonfiction bestseller The End of Men); and how to read such cultural “texts” as reality TV shows (“Not Here to Make Friends”) from a feminist perspective.
Refreshingly, Gay often structures her essays by moving us past what seem to be two unhelpful poles: either an all-or-nothing feminist judgment against the objectification and commodification of women in pop culture or an ill-making, uncritical, trendy support of that same objectification. She also shares her own sometimes not-so-PC inner processes as a reader, dreamer, fantasizer, consumer, writer, and pedagogue. This aspect of her voice really works in moving us past stuck places in some conventional feminist discourses, especially on campus and in the national media. By so transparently imparting her own intellectual and emotional journey, even in ways that are not flattering to herself (“It had never crossed my mind before that it was possible for a child to … make it to college unable to read at a college level. Shame on me” ), she allows us space to explore and reflect upon our own complex reactions. This rhetorical method works because, well, the truth is that we all probably have layered and nuanced reactions to the hot-button subjects in question. Gay applies this analytical, self-revealing voice to a range of sexy and au courant subjects—from the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, to the portrayal of Katniss and female heroism in The Hunger Games (“What We Hunger For”), to the representation of women of color in the hit movie The Help, to her own infatuation with the very suburban, very white Sweet Valley High series of young adult novels. Bad feminist, for paying such serious attention to such “trivial” subjects. Great feminist writing, as it takes courage to take seriously and seriously analyze themes and texts to which millions of other women also pay close attention and also have strong responses.
This book is far from perfect; the essays are often too casually structured, suffering from repetition at times—a carelessness that could reflect a younger generation’s acclimation to the essay form through blogs. The essays of Alice Walker or Susan Sontag seem like another genre in comparison. A particularly distracting stylistic habit is that Gay sometimes uses blank space to separate ideas or subjects, which can feel as if she has not bothered to think of a transitional sentence. A second flaw is that at times Gay seems unaware of aspects of literary history in ways that lead her to strike a false note; the idea that gender is a performance did not originate with Judith Butler but rather with Simone de Beauvoir, for instance. And sometimes a whole essay can misfire from apparent lack of context: “The Smooth Surfaces of Idyll,” for instance, makes the point that unhappiness is more interesting than happiness, and bad characters are more interesting than good ones—“We struggle, as writers, to make happiness, contentment and satisfaction interesting” (121)—as if Leo Tolstoy’s lines “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” had never been written, or John Milton’s Satan never posed this familiar critical question. In another example, Gay writes that Edith Wharton proposes that the bland, conventional May Welland is “likeable” and that “we are not supposed to like … Countess Olenska” (86) – a serious misreading of Wharton’s own ironic and feminist voice.
Finally, twice in the otherwise important essay about standing up for feminism, “How We All Lose,” Gay reads British humorist Caitlin Moran as if she is serious when she is using understated British satire. “Even the most ardent feminist historian … can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck-all for the last 100,000 years,” Moran writes; and: “All women love babies – just like all women love Manolo Blahnik shoes and George Clooney.” When Gay responds, “Again, this is funny, but it is also untrue” (104) and condemns Moran for generalizing about women, I wish Gay had read more P. G. Wodehouse, or David Lodge, or Kingsley or Martin Amis. Yes, these are all old or dead white men, but the British comic novel tradition is the tradition that Moran is writing in, and missing that means Gay misreads Moran’s own scathing feminist satire.
These, however, are quibbles. In Roxane Gay we have a bracing voice from a younger feminist generation, one that is brave and very witty and perceptive. If a critic can, as Gay has, walk us responsibly through the thicket of identity and feminist politics to a newly inclusive perspective, and can argue in a time of caution and self-censoring that “writers cannot protect their readers from themselves, nor should they be expected to” (151), then she has done a new generation of younger readers, along with the rest of us, a service.