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cover_bad_feministFeminists know a lot about name-calling. If you call yourself a feminist, you risk getting called a manhater or a humourless prude or a ball-breaker; if you do so online, you’ll probably cop a more vicious epithet. Name-calling has always been a quick and dirty way to enforce the gender status quo, to say, I don’t like who you are, lady. Hag, crone, slut, the fun-police: such terms help stigmatise those rotten feminists who have the temerity to ask for the vote, for reproductive rights, for equal pay, for respectful use of language, for safe streets. In the introduction to Bad Feminist – her collection of essays on gender, race, politics and contemporary culture – Roxane Gay writes, ‘I was called a feminist, and what I heard was, “You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person.”’

Who would want to pin that label on their lapel?

Instead, Gay, an American novelist, academic and critic, claims the title ‘bad feminist’ and makes it her own. It’s a clever manoeuvre, one which allows her to speak both to critics of feminism and to over-zealous policing of women’s behaviour by feminists. After all, women can be called bad just because they’re feminists – and they can also find themselves exiled to the naughty corner by other feminists because they’re not feminist enough. Gay’s bad feminism riffs on the adjudicatory streak that has emerged in popular feminism and tends to judge doctrinal lapses, linguistic slips, and certain behaviours and desires very harshly indeed.

Gay sets out by noting that, ‘feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others’. Gay grew up in a Haitian–American family and has identified as queer at certain times in her life; she has no truck with the orthodoxies of High Church feminism and seeks a much broader constituency for her feminism than heterosexual white women. She explicitly refuses here to align herself with any particular activist or academic tradition of feminism such that it would be a nonsense to accuse her of being a bad feminist of the ideologically impure variety. There’s no dogma to slide back from.

The bad feminist who emerges in these essays is an oppositional figure who is fallible, contradictory, and, ultimately, human. Gay is a funny, warm writer who embraces this inconsistency; her dexterity as a critic is matched by an emotional intelligence alert to the way pop culture makes us feel. Gay’s sharp, idiosyncratic commentary has made her a familiar figure to readers of online publications such as The Rumpus, Salon, Jezebel and Guardian Online. In 2014, her profile rocketed. Gay’s novel An Untamed State was published by Grove Atlantic in May to great acclaim, and Bad Feminist has enjoyed a rapturous reception in the United States since its publication in August. Gay writes, ‘I hear many young women say they can’t find well-known feminists with whom they identify. That can be disheartening, but I say, let us (try to) become the feminists we would like to see moving through the world.’ She’s just been appointed editor-in-chief of The Butter, a new online publication associated with the weird and wonderful website The Toast. Twitter shook with glee at the news: in other words, Gay herself, bad feminist and all, is becoming a well-known feminist.

Save for a handful of references to figures such as Judith Butler, Audre Lorde and Margaret Sanger, Bad Feminist is pretty light on feminist history and scholarship, and the political sensibility at work in Bad Feminist doesn’t start and stop with gender. Crucially, Gay’s criticism is as attuned to the nuances of class, race, sexuality and disability as it is to gender identity.

In recent years the Stella Count and the VIDA Count have drawn attention to the ways in which reviewers ignore books by women. No such mechanism exists for quantifying the consideration of work by writers of colour. Gay undertook some investigation of her own on this front and reported her findings in a 2012 article for The Rumpus that’s not included in Bad Feminist. Of 742 books reviewed by the New York Times in 2011, 655 were by Caucasian writers. In that article, she wrote, ‘If we want to encourage people to be better, broader readers, that effort starts by giving readers a better, broader selection of books to choose from.’ She does exactly this in Bad Feminist: the books, films and TV shows she elects to review manifest a commitment to diversity. It makes you wonder why other editors and reviewers struggle in this regard.

Not that Gay wants to be put on a pedestal for her efforts. ‘People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up.’ The bad feminist regularly fucks it up – and allows her readers to do so as well. This tolerance of imperfection extends to the work she critiques. For example, even as Gay disparages the blindness to race and money in Lena Dunham’s Girls, she wonders why Dunham has to carry the heavy expectation of being perfect, of doing it all: ‘Why is this show being held to the higher standard when there are so many television shows that have long ignored race and class or have flagrantly transgressed in these areas?’

Staple topics of online feminist discourse such as rape culture, the politics of privilege, trigger warnings, the subversive effects of desire and misogyny in popular culture feature prominently in Bad Feminist. Gay’s tone, however, is notably milder than many of her online counterparts and she avoids the judgement and name-calling that can at times make feminist debate online wearisome. ‘We need’, she writes ‘to get to a place where we discuss privilege by way of observation and acknowledgement rather than accusation.’ Her measured manner invites readers who may be shy about such accusations to bear with her; this hospitality is ultimately a political tactic, a mode of inclusion.

I first read many of the essays in Bad Feminist when they were published online and I experienced a few jolts reading them in hard copy. The op-eds are clearly the product of a digital publishing environment and not all of them make the transition into print so easily. Where are the hyperlinks? I found myself asking. Why haven’t I read half a dozen other think-pieces on this topic this week? Details about the first publication of the essays aren’t provided. This is an unusual omission: collections like this usually do acknowledge where essays first appeared, even if they’ve been revised. It’s not that this information is any big secret: most of Gay’s essays are easy enough to find in their original form online, and most of them can be read for free. What a list of acknowledgements would reveal is the way the internet has shaped Gay’s career. It would signal the importance of online publications and journals beyond the mainstream media as incubators of new voices. In the perpetual hand-wringing over the changing state of the media, it’s common to hear online publication equated with sloppy work. These essays are a powerful counter-example. Bad Feminist is absolutely a product of the internet and I would like to have seen those origins celebrated.

For Gay the personal is where writing begins. Gay does not conceal her inclinations: she is the academic who loves – really loves – the Hunger Games franchise and the Sweet Valley High books; she is the cultural critic who can’t get enough crap telly; she is the bad feminist listening to music she knows is misogynist. On Kate Zambreno’s 2012 book about women and modernism, Heroines, Gay writes, ‘It is appealing to see a writer so plainly locate the motivation behind her criticism.’ What she means is that Zambreno doesn’t pussyfoot around about having a stake in her subject: women marginalised in the literary scene. This is a commendation that well applies to Gay’s work too. Neither critic pretends to be uninvolved in the act of criticism.

The essays in Bad Feminist are grounded in personal experience: this is cultural criticism that is alert to the specificities of lived experience, to the ways our lives inflect the way we read, and to the difficult truth that the differences between us upend generalisations, even those with the best of feminist intentions. And so when Gay reviews Diana Spechler’s Skinny, she also tells us about being sent to fat camp as a teenager. When she writes about working with black college students, she tells us about overhearing another student referring to her as the affirmative action student in a graduate program. She writes often about sexual violence and, in one shattering essay, tells her own story about being gang-raped as a teenager.

Women writers are often upbraided for being confessional; the term carries a whiff of dismissiveness and I don’t think it’s quite right for Gay’s work. For Gay, culture is personal. We live in the same world as the books we read and the films we watch. Rather than holding her subjects at arm’s length, Gay makes it clear that she lives with them. As she discusses The Help in an essay on ‘magical negroes’ (the African American characters who appear in films to help white characters along) she tells us about being the only black person in the theatre at the screening: ‘My faith in humanity was tested,’ she writes. There’s an implied rebuke here to those who don’t take popular culture personally, who try to boil this complexity into easy answers or, worse, to keep a distance from it in the name of universalism.

Gay is a university lecturer in English and she doesn’t cordon off her professional life, either. One of the most engaging essays in the book deals with Gay’s first academic job after finishing graduate school. It’s a frank meditation on the complexity of the teaching contract; on the way that students baffle, intrigue, frustrate and worry their teachers; on the way in which teachers, who are supposed to be the responsible people in the lecture theatre, scramble as much as students do to keep the ground from falling from beneath their feet. It reminded me of Phillip Lopate’s classic Being with Children (1975), a book about Lopate’s years as writer-in-residence at a New York primary school.

Taken as a whole, these essays not only reflect on Gay’s teaching experiences, they embody an understanding of the essay as an instructive form. As a writer, Gay does not climb onto that dreaded pedestal and communicate as if through a megaphone, nor does she stand at a lectern and address a roomful of muted students; rather, she invites her readers to participate in the act of criticism with her and draw their own conclusions. She allows us to watch her turning over her ideas, equivocating, changing her mind, especially about feminism. Reading these essays, you get the sense that she’s an excellent teacher. By revealing her doubts and insecurities, by letting us know she is in two minds on a topic, Gay’s use of autobiographical material subtly undermines the authority of brash and confident evaluations, and indeed of ideological purity.

‘I want students to like me,’ writes Gay. Again and again these essays return to the fraught question of likeability; it’s political and it’s personal. A staple theme of the teen fiction and film of the 1980s, when both Gay and I grew up, from Sweet Valley High to Judy Blume, from John Waters to American Pie, is the quest to be popular, to be liked. As Gay makes clear, this is a complex issue for feminists, and indeed, she devotes an essay to likeability, ‘Not Here to Make Friends’: ‘Even from a young age I understood that when a girl is unlikeable, a girl is a problem.’ Likeability, as Gay’s analysis of unlikeable women in fiction and on television argues, is a feminine virtue. Mouthy feminists run the risk of being unlikeable, a gendered transgression. Feminists writing for a popular audience must contend, in one way or another, with likeability, with being hated by some readers and loved by others.

Gay doesn’t just acknowledge that feminists, whether they’re striped good or bad, like to be liked, she is plain-spoken, alarmingly intimate about her own need to be liked. ‘I care what people think,’ she writes quietly in the closing essay. Not everyone will agree with Gay’s emphasis on the cost of being a feminist. Who cares what people think when you’re trying to change the world – right? Why take the name-calling personally? And yet this vulnerability is the human heart of Bad Feminist. It challenges us not necessarily to be likeable but to be kind, to be patient with each other’s shortcomings, not to stick labels on each other. The personal is political and the political is personal – because we feel it. For Gay, bad feminists are human. They care what people think. They are contradictory. They don’t pass every test. Bad Feminist makes it clear that bad feminists such as Gay can encourage a humane, plural, and inclusive feminism – and that sounds to me a lot like a good kind of feminism.