Roxane Gay’s writings capture the zeitgeist.
An Untamed State, her chilling debut novel of a woman kidnapped and held 13 days for ransom, garnered praise from coast to coast after its release last May. Flavorwire recently named Gay one of the Internet’s most influential writers. To her 18,000 followers on Twitter, she tweets about episodes of The Barefoot Contessa, poker games with men, or her latest bout with insomnia. She founded and co-edits PANK, a literary journal. And on Tumblr, woven within step-by-step instructions for recipes of her favorite dishes, she ruminates on self-worth.
In Bad Feminist, her highly anticipated collection of more than three-dozen essays (some appeared in The Rumpus, Salon and Jezebel, among other publications), Gay casts a critical eye on entertainment and culture, particularly the consumption of television, news, movies, sports, literature and comedy. Bad Feminist abstains from non-evidentiary link-bait rants (a veritable genre of commentary), but it delivers a collage of insightful, irreverent and intelligent arguments with the no-nonsense, unfiltered straight-talk of a favorite aunt who catches you with your hand in the cookie jar before dinner.
Daughter of Haitian immigrants, Gay hardly embodies a bad feminist. The term reflects her staunch feminist beliefs coupled with a few guilty, non-feminist pleasures (reality television), and the acknowledgment that feminism, like all philosophies, has a history of exclusion, too.
“Women of color, queer women, and transgender women need to be better included in the feminist project. Women from these groups have been shamefully abandoned by Capital F-Feminism, time and again.” Still, Gay refuses to throw the feminist baby out with the bathwater. “No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism.”
In her superb collection, Gay’s instinct, acumen and wit coalesce. She parses artistic intent from racism, sexism and misogyny in pop culture. In “Blurred Lines, Indeed,” a castigation of Robin Thicke’s eponymous hit song, Gay writes, “Critics have been vocal about the sexual violence undertones in the song and they’re not wrong. Robin just knows you want it, girl. He just does, so shut up and let him give it to you.”
In “Some Jokes are Funnier Than Others,” she condemns rape jokes (and their dire consequences) in stand-up comedy. “Humor about sexual violence suggests permissiveness . . . for the people who have whatever weakness allows them to do terrible things unto others.”
Her criticism of The Help, the film based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, stems from the oft-employed device of “magical negroes” to enlighten white characters about the evils of the world. Meanwhile, the help rot in a prison of bigotry. She draws parallels between Mammy in Gone with the Wind and Minny Jackson, a principal black character in The Help. “There are certainly exceptions, but all too often critical acclaim for black films is built upon the altar of black suffering or subjugation.”
Gay also disapproves of Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained, where she characterizes the excessive use of the N-word as “a new conjunction.” She takes on with equal ardor 12 Years a Slave. Despite its direction by a black director who shoots the movie from a slave’s point of view, the movie for Gay evokes a “fetish for depicting the mortification of black flesh,” and “a rape scene that carries little narrative relevance.”
No movie, no matter how widely acclaimed, evades her incisive analysis or sarcasm. Gay’s commentary at times feels exasperated, only because she goes to considerable lengths to expose the truth about an artist’s motives.
Her equal-parts-cerebral-and-raunchy scrutiny of television recalls the reviews of Emily Nussbaum, the immensely talented television critic for The New Yorker. With respect to Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series, Gay writes, “‘Girls reminds me of how terrible my twenties were – being lost and awkward, having terrible sex with terrible people, being perpetually broke, eating ramen.” On the Netflix series widely touted for its diverse cast, Orange Is the New Black, Gay counters, “… it is diverse in the shallowest, most-tokenistic ways. … This is the famine from which we must imagine feast.”
Gay does give credit where she feels it due. She extols Fruitvale Station, the true story about the shooting death of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day, 2009, by Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle. “Fruitvale Station could have been an angry movie, but [its director] Coogler has crafted an intimate, at times exuberant, portrait.”
She raves about Girlfriends, the series that debuted on BET in 2000 and ran for 172 episodes. “The writing was smart and funny, and the show did a good job of depicting the lives of women of color in their late twenties and thirties.” If her praises for the small and big screen seem spare, it’s likely because she can’t bring herself to ignore harmful depictions of women and people of color in the name of entertainment.
Bad Feminist showcases Gay’s wicked sense of humor, particularly with respect to her personal life.
In “To Scratch, Clay or Grope Clumsily or Frantically,” she describes the brutality and hilarity of competitive Scrabble. “I have a Scrabble nemesis. His name is Henry. He has the most gorgeous blue-gray eyes I have ever seen. The beauty of his perfect eyes only makes me hate him more.” When respect to her relationships with men, she ponders, “I have never really dated anyone I have a lot in common with. I blame my astrological sign.” The hilarious “How to Be Friends with Another Woman” lists keen observations about female bonds. “If you feel like it’s hard to be friends with women, consider that maybe women aren’t the problem. Maybe it’s just you.”
The same could be said for Gay’s stalwart collection. If you don’t appreciate Bad Feminist for its brilliant dissection of culture, and for its clarity and razor-sharp wit … well, maybe it’s just you.
Anjali Enjeti is a recovering attorney, novelist and MFA student in creative writing at Queens University in Charlotte. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kirkus, Huffington Post, XO Jane, PANK and many others.