Bad Feminist

Great collection of essays that loop around the inherently toxic themes of misogyny and racism, sprinkled with lighter bits of personal narrative (competitive Scrabble tournaments, memories of fat camp). A perfect book to surreptitiously slip your non-feminist-identifying friends (if they’re women, they’re destined for an awakening at some point). A necessary reminder that we don’t experience the world like anyone else – easy to be blissfully unaware how narrow the entertainment IV drip is for non-white women even though I’m very aware about how egregious the portrayal (or absence of portrayal) of women in TV/films is. If I were a woman of color, I’d be nearly incapacitated by rage. Gay deals with these issues with calm aplomb and wit. Skewering books, film, TV shows, and music, she also gives us glimpses of life in academia, life as a black woman surrounded by “other,” recognition of her own privilege after visiting Haiti as a child, exposes her teenaged trauma in the woods. Excellent and readable essays that are strong without stridency. She struggles with the feminist label (hence, “bad feminist”), settling on her favorite definition, “feminists are just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.”

Even from a young age I understood that when a girl is unlikeable, a girl is a problem. I also understood that I wasn’t being intentionally mean. I was being honest (admittedly, without tact), and I was being human. It is either a blessing or a curse that those are rarely likeable qualities in a woman. (p 84)

Disagreement, however, is not anger. Pointing out the many ways in which misogyny persists and harms women is not anger. Conceding the idea that anger is an inappropriate reaction to the injustice women face backs women into an unfair position. Nor does disagreement mean we are blind to the ways in which progress has been made. Feminists are celebrating our victories and acknowledging our privilege when we have it. We’re simply refusing to settle. We’re refusing to forget how much work there is yet to be done. (p 102)

We live in a strange and terrible time for women. There are days when I think it has always been a strange and terrible time to be a woman. Womanhood feels more strange and terrible now because progress has not served women as well as it has served men. We are still stymied by the issues our forbears railed against. It is nothing less than horrifying to realize we live in a culture where the “paper of record” can write an article that comes off as sympathetic to eighteen rapists while encouraging victim blaming. Have we forgotten who an eleven-year-old is? (p 132)

Often in literary criticism, writers are told that a character isn’t likeable, as if a character’s likeability is directly proportional to the quality of the novel’s writing. This is particularly true for women in fiction. In literature, as in life, the rules are all too often different for girls. There are many instances in which an unlikable man is billed as an antihero, earning a special term to explain those ways in which he deviates from the norm, the traditionally likable. The list, beginning with Holden Caulfield… is long. An unlikable man is inscrutably interesting, dark, or tormented, but ultimately compelling, even when he might behave in distasteful ways… When women are unlikeable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike. Why are these women daring to flaunt convention? Why aren’t they making themselves likeable (and therefore acceptable) to polite society? {Claire Messud is asked about her unlikeable protagonist, the interviewer says, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Messud’s response includes “What kind of a question is that?… If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”} (p 88)

But men want what they want. We should all lighten up.
It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening, it’s that they’re all happening, concurrently and constantly.
These are just songs. They are just jokes. It’s just a hug. They’re just breasts. Smile, you’re beautiful. Can’t a man pay you a compliment? In truth, this is all a symptom of a much more virulent cultural sickness – one where women exist to satisfy the whims of men, one where a woman’s worth is consistently diminished or entirely ignored. (p 189)