More thoughts on Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

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Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

As I’m reading a book, I make notes and mark quotes that I find interesting or might want to review at a later time. In my first post, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, I wrote about my general impression of the book and how it impacted my view of feminism. The following are my thoughts on specific quotes, ideas, and chapters that stood out to me as I read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.

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I enjoy difference, but once in a while, I do want to catch a glimpse of myself in others.

Gay discusses how women, particularly black women, are underrepresented in the media. Everyone wants to a see a version of themselves in a movie, TV show, book, or commercial, even if only for a brief moment of recognition. It’s empowering and reinforces how you view yourself, especially in the context of society.

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To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged.

Her thoughts echo my own on the subject of privilege. Our perspective distorts our idea of the subject, often seeing (and even condemning) privilege in others before being able recognize our own.

Privilege is relative and contextual. Few people in the developed world, and particularly in the United States, have no privilege at all. Among those of us who participate in intellectual communities, privilege runs rampant. We have disposable time and the ability to access the Internet regularly. We have the freedom to express our opinions without the threat of retaliation. We have smartphones and iProducts and desktops and laptops. If you are reading this essay, you have some kind of privilege. It may be hard to hear that, I know, but if you cannot recognize your privilege, you have a lot of work to do; get started.

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Extensive descriptions of her involvement in competitive Scrabble were too frequent and detailed for me to enjoy. It was entertaining for awhile but turned tedious, probably due to my disinterest in the game.

I approach most things in life with a dangerous level of confidence to balance my generally low self-esteem.

I found this insight interesting and applaud her for recognizing and acknowledging it. It confirms my general impression that extreme confidence usually masks insecurity.

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The chapter, How to be Friends with Another Woman, challenges and also confirms some of the stereotypes I’ve heard over the years about women interacting with each other.

It’s okay if most of your friends are guys, but if you champion this as a commentary on the nature of female friendships, well, soul-search a little.

I translate her advice to simply mean: treat people with respect and kindness and don’t be an asshole. Those are my words, not hers. She provides several specific examples of how to do this, gleaned from her thirty-some years of experience as a woman, and I agree with each and every one of them. Many, if not all, can be applied to any friendship or relationship, regardless of gender.

Don’t be totally rude about truth telling, and consider how much truth is actually needed to get the job done. Finesse goes a long way.

Remember that point about finesse going a long way.

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Her in-depth analyses of pop culture, TV shows, and books were mostly enjoyable and informative. I found the analyses of the shows I haven’t seen or books I haven’t read lengthy and less engaging, primarily due to my lack of interest in the subject matter.

Meanwhile, her discussion of The Help (movie) was enlightening. I haven’t read the book, but really enjoyed the movie. Providing her perspective as a black woman made me question why I enjoyed it. What prejudice and preconceived ideology did I bring with me that prevented me from seeing the many issues she outlines? Granted, as a white man, it’s not necessarily easy for me to put myself in the shoes of a black woman living in the southern U.S. during 1962. Gay’s analysis helped me understand things I completely missed and, quite frankly, I’m ashamed to have missed them.

The Help is billed as inspirational, charming, and heartwarming. That’s all true if your heart is warmed by narrow, condescending, mostly racist depictions of the white women who employed the help; the excessive, inaccurate use of dialect; and the glaring omissions with regards to the stirring civil rights movement in which, as Martha Southgate points out in Entertainment Weekly, “white people were the help”; “the architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American. The Help, I have decided, is science fiction, creating an alternate universe.

Her description of reality television, such as The Bachelor, highlights one of the primary reasons the show has never appealed to me.

The genre has developed a very successful formula for reducing women to an awkward series of stereotypes about low self-esteem, marital desperation, the inability to develop meaningful relationships with other women, and an obsession with an almost pornographic standard of beauty.

Ironically, she admits to enjoying such shows, which contributes to defining herself as a bad feminist. In her mind and opinion, a true feminist wouldn’t watch them, let alone enjoy them. One more example of her being a bad feminist.

I recognize this in myself, especially as a white heterosexual man. I enjoy comedy that highlights differences in the genders, things that might be considered anti-feminist by some of the purist feminist crowd. I receive the benefits of white male privilege inherent in our patriarchal society, even if I didn’t set out to attain them. It just so happened that I was born this way. Meanwhile, I’m passionate about equality and women’s rights; to earn as much as their male peers, enjoy society without misogynistic harassment, make their own reproductive choices, state what’s on their mind without judgment, and all the other areas in which women don’t receive equal treatment.

I am not always proud of the things that make me laugh, but I genuinely admire a comedian who can both make me laugh and make me uncomfortable. Such contradictions are thought provoking.

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She discusses the concept of being likable in the essay Not Here to Make Friends. If a girl/woman doesn’t fit the mold of what society deems to be likable characteristics and actions, they’re immediately pigeonholed as a problem.

Even from a young age I understood that when a girl is unlikable, 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 likable qualities in a woman.

In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be. Characters who don’t follow this code become unlikable.

Gay delves into the subject of fictional characters being likable or unlikable and how male and female characters are perceived differently.

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.

An unlikable man is inscrutably interesting, dark, or tormented, but ultimately compelling, even when he might behave in distasteful ways.

When women are unlikable, 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 likable (and therefore acceptable) to polite society?

In her reading, she often finds herself rooting for the unlikable characters because they feel more honest, more alive—even human.

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In How We All Lose, she discusses how men feel disempowered, as if they’re going to lose rights, simply by granting and embracing equal rights to women.

If women’s fortunes improve, it must mean men’s fortunes will suffer, as if there is a finite amount of good fortune in the universe that cannot be shared equally between men and women.

Gay also describes how women dismiss their own equality by comparing their rights, as they currently stand, in the U.S. with those of women in third-world countries. Just because women have it better in the U.S., doesn’t mean that they have an equal standing with men. Throughout this chapter, she provides thoughtful analysis of several other authors’ works that deal with feminism.

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. We’re refusing to relish the comforts we have at the expense of the women who are still seeking comfort.

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She touches on body image, fat camp, and how a horrific experience caused her to turn to overeating as a way of protection. Her description of the event was heartbreaking to read. It’s even more heartbreaking to know that it’s an experience many girls and women have gone through. In discussing the phrase rape culture, she discusses how it becomes dismissive of the ways rape affects the victim, focusing more on the perspective of the perpetrators, primarily men. We should flip the conversation.

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These quotes stand by themselves.

Respectability politics—the idea that if black (or other marginalized) people simply behave in “culturally approved” ways, if we mimic the dominant culture, it will be more difficult to suffer the effects of racism.

Respectability politics completely overlook institutional racism and the ways in which the education system, the social welfare system, and the justice system only reinforce many of the problems the black community faces.

We must stop pointing to the exceptions—these bright shining stars who transcend circumstance. We must look to how we can best support the least among us, not spend all our time blindly revering and trying to mimic the greatest without demanding systemic change.

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Political conservatives have been attacking access to birth control and limiting sex education through legislation for decades now, advocating abstinence as the only option. You only have to look at the recently proposed defunding of Planned Parenthood or the abortion legislation in Texas (and several other states) which is obviously designed to limit access, not improve safety as they claim.

The following quote had me laughing out loud while also thinking “what a stupid double standard.”

In certain circles, birth control is being framed as whore medicine. We are now dealing with a bizarre new morality where a woman cannot simply say, in one way or another, “I’m on the pill because I like dick.”

Gay frames her discussion around the reality that women’s rights are not inalienable when it comes to their bodies or sexual choices.

Often, when I read the news, I have to make sure I am not, in fact, reading The Onion. We continue to have national and state debates about abortion, birth control, and reproductive freedom, and men, mostly, are directing that debate. That is the stuff of satire.

Women have been forced underground for contraception and pregnancy termination before, and we will go underground again if we have to. We will risk our lives if these politicians, who so flagrantly demean women, force us to do so.

What this debate shows us is that even in this day and age, the rights of women are not inalienable. Our rights can be and are, with alarming regularity, stripped away.

An unfortunate truth that is undeniable and that we need to change.

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She ends by reinforcing her dedication to being a feminist, along with her insecurities that she isn’t doing it right or well enough.

I fall short as a feminist. I feel like I am not as committed as I need to be, that I am not living up to feminist ideals because of who and how I choose to be.

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. Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman. I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist the no feminist at all.

After reading this, I find that I’m a bad feminist too.

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Recommended reads from the book:

Recommended movies from the book:

Read my general impression of the book and how it impacted my view of feminism in this post: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay