Meryl and I hung out, ate some soup and drank some wine while talking about Roxane Gay’s kickass essay collection, Bad Feminist. While discussing this book, we fell into many tangents about past relationships and dogs and humor. That’s the awesomeness of the book— it opens up doors and gets you talking.
Christina: Roxane Gay wrote in the introduction that “I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human.” I needed to hear that. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I even started calling myself a feminist and even then it was cautiously. Like I wasn’t a good enough feminist because I shave my legs in the summer and have only read a couple books on feminism.
This book made me feel more comfortable, that I could be myself and still proudly call myself a feminist. Though the feminist movement is definitely imperfect and has a history of discriminating against people of color and people who are transgender, it stands for something important: women should not be treated like shit.
Meryl: Roxane Gay is very approachable. I don’t know much about feminist theory but you don’t need to know about it to read this book. When I was little, my parents were clear that I could do anything I wanted. They laid a good groundwork. Someone, an aunt or something, gave me a t-shirt that said “Young Feminist.”
But it wasn’t until more recently that I thought about feminism, probably after I moved to Chicago and have had to deal with all this street harassment. The political landscape also has me paying more attention to feminism. It’s also more a part of the conversation and we’re not being shushed anymore.
Gender and Sexuality
Meryl: The essay in this section that really resonated with me was “Garish Glorious Spectacles.” Gay compares Ruth from Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl to Maria from Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays. These women are seen as decoration and expected to act a certain way. But they’re very sad and detached when they’re alone. The point is, there’s a disconnect from what these women are actually feeling and what they’re expected to project. Like women in reality TV. Gay calls them “green girls interrupted.” She watches a lot of awful reality shows and comments in the essay about how women in reality TV are the most exposed.
Christina: Like, how these women are supposedly really be this way because it’s a “reality” show, but it’s still a farce. There’s a role and an expectation placed on women to fulfill the role, even if it’s not really who they are and not how they’d actually behave.
Meryl: Yeah. All I want in life is to not laugh at jokes that aren’t funny.
Christina: “Dear Young Ladies Who Love Chris Brown So Much They Would Let Him Beat Them” broke my heart. The title basically explains why.
Meryl: The book started so fun— she wrote about playing Scrabble competitively!—but got real dark.
Christina: One essay that resonated with me was “Girls Girls Girls,” about the show Girls and Lena Dunham.
Meryl: I thought Roxane Gay was going to tear her a new one, but that wasn’t what the essay was about at all. She writes how the show does need to show more of a range of human experiences, but it’s not fair to expect Dunham to do everything and fix everything.
Christina: Right! That hits at the big theme in the book. Gay brings this up again when writing about Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In. Sandberg got a lot of flack for not being more inclusive, but why should we all expect Sandberg, or Dunham, to speak for everyone? I admit I did a little. But the actual problem is, there’s not enough women in senior leadership positions in companies, or running their own shows.
Of course there are valid criticisms, and Sandberg and Dunham don’t do everything perfectly all the time. That’s impossible and something we easily forget when we see women in positions of power do something we disagree with. They’re human and flawed like the rest of us. And there are so few women in a position of leadership that we expect them to shoulder all these other voices. It’s a ridiculous burden. And it’s important to note that they’re not the reason why there’s so few of us there either.
Race and Entertainment
Christina: I have to admit I haven’t seen any of the films or TV shows Gay writes about here, but I see her bigger point— black women are underrepresented in film and TV. And when they are represented they’re fulfilling a stereotype, like as maids in The Help. Or their story is overshadowed by the male characters and still they’re in stereotypical roles, like as slaves in Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave.
Meryl: Django Unchained was not my favorite Tarantino movie. It was super awful and super violent. And Quentin Tarantino is weird and horrible and insensitive. I remember watching the film in the theater and people laughed at this scene where Quentin Tarantino throws a stick of dynamite at a cage full of slaves, and days later a writer at Gawker wrote about having a very similar experience. It was horrifying.
I do like the show Orange is the New Black. It does have a diverse female cast — but the main character is still a white woman. There are other issues though. In “When Less is More,” Gay critiques the characters of Miss Claudette and Crazy Eyes. Miss Claudette has a bad Haitian accent and with Crazy Eyes, the show was using her mental illness for laughs—though later on it does address the mental illness issues.
Christina: I do need to sit down and watch the show. But I understand Gay’s larger point— there must be more TV shows and films that illustrate the diversity of human experience. So much of what we have is filtered through a white character and still rests on old, familiar tropes that are more a product of white imagination than reality.
Politics. Gender, and Race
Meryl: One kind of crazy thing I noticed in this section was that Gay refers to both Bill Cosby and Don Lemon in her essay “The Politics of Respectability,” about how both men have had controversial opinions on how a black person should and shouldn’t act. Those two were back in the news as a pair this past week. Live on CNN, Lemon told a woman who was there opening up about being sexually assaulted by Cosby how she could have avoided having been so. It did not go over well.
Christina: Ugh. When guys say shit like that I want to ask, what do you think of women, really? That we’re basically all whores who should just sit in our homes and never talk to men ever? Probably.
Meryl: I loved the essay “What Twitter Does That Journalism Does Not.” Twitter is participatory and instant. Journalism is, by definition, decidedly not participatory with exceptions, of course. Gay writes about how she found a YouTube live feed of Wendy Davis’s State Senate filibuster because of Twitter, before major news outlet covered that story at all.
Twitter is obviously not perfect in part because it’s so instant — you can easily get and share bad information. CNN is notorious for missteps that way. But I appreciate it now as a tool, which I didn’t six months to a year ago.
Christina: True. All that information, good and bad, leads to a lot of noise you have sift through. But part of the reason why Twitter is my social media of choice is I’ve stumbled across artists and writers and stories I wouldn’t have found otherwise. There’s just such a huge variety of voices and they’re so easily accessible. And you can use it creatively too, instead of just blasting off about this sandwich you ate. Poet Melissa Broder basically tweets lines of poetry. Teju Cole wrote an essay on twitter. The magazine Creative Nonfiction encourages people to tweet true stories with #cnftweet.
I love finding out that other writers and artists I admire are active on the site. It’s like I can spy on them without being creepy. My heart melts a little whenever I see Roxane Gay and John Green interacting on Twitter.
Meryl: Twitter is definitely Roxane Gay’s medium.
Christina: I found out that The Butter launched because of Twitter!
Meryl: Me too!
Back to Me
Christina: By the end of the book, I found it hard to disagree with Roxane Gay about anything. And I felt such a rush of relief at seeing thoughts I had kept to myself echo back. The essays got me reconsidering the question of what it is to be a good feminist. How can I be a good ally?
Meryl: The only thing I disagreed with Gay on was her opinion of trigger warnings. She wrote that she understood the theory behind them, but made the point that what people have been through is far worse than what they’re going to read. I think everyone’s experiences and feelings are different and I know some really do appreciate being given a head’s up.
But still, Gay doesn’t come out and stay “we should stop using trigger warnings” or anything like that. She questions why we use them and gives us context based on her own experience as a person who has experienced trauma.
Christina: Yes! I loved that the essays are filled with thoughts and questions. She poses questions instead of telling you you’re bad or good or that you should be this way. Humans are messy and what we really should be doing is talking and listening and asking questions of each other instead.
*Image via Novel Sounds