I chose an interesting time to read Roxanne Gay’s book of essays, Bad Feminist. We’re getting into primary season here in the U.S., and the feminist discourse around the Clinton campaign–on both the with-her and not-so-with-her sides–has been complicated, to say the least. In just the last two weeks, Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright made headlines with their comments about women who choose to cast their vote for someone other than Secretary Clinton. Steinem, a 1960s feminist icon, drew particular ire by suggesting that young women were turning to Sanders to follow the boys, stating on the Real Time with Bill Maher:
“When you’re younger, you think: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’”
(PS, if you choose to click the link to watch the interview, don’t read the comments. Trust me. This should be an unspoken rule of YouTube, but just…Just don’t do it.)
I’m not going to pretend that a ton of the criticism Clinton has received over the course of her campaign hasn’t been sexist and gross, because let’s be real, it has. But there have also been plenty of feminist writers who have tried to call Clinton (and her supporters) in on the ways that they feel her policies and voting record have disenfranchised communities of color and poor Americans. This isn’t to say that the strides she’s made for women in politics aren’t worth acknowledging, just that the message of Clinton, Steinem, and Albright’s feminism doesn’t necessarily connect to feminists coming of age today.
It’s been in this mindset that I approached Bad Feminist. In the titular essay, Gay embraces the “bad feminist” label that we so often throw around these days, and has in fact been flung towards Clinton and her contemporaries left and right in the past few weeks. Gay writes,
I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain… interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.
In Bad Feminist, Gay doesn’t step away from the feminist idea that the personal is political. She explores issues of gender, race, sexuality, and the myriad intersections of those identities; she talks about being the only woman of color in her faculty department and navigating academia as token representative, about the fear of being called the Affirmative Action candidate. She writes humorously about competitive Scrabble and with heart-wrenching rawness about her own experiences of sexual assault; she rips Fifty Shades of Gay a new one and acknowledges the importance of diverse faces on screen. She shares what she has learned about female friendships (spoilers: they don’t have to be bitchy, and in fact, shouldn’t be) and pointedly declares that women should not be required to justify their reproductive choices to anyone but themselves.
Coming away from Bad Feminist, I’ve been working hard to look at the older feminists who paved the way before us, to acknowledge their achievements and to not judge them to harshly by standards that may feel unfamiliar to them. Shasta Willson writes that Steinem “is one of the heroes who moved culture so effectively that her work eventually outgrew her,” and maybe this is true. But just as importantly, Steinem helped to create a movement that was able to grow, and this is no small thing.
I’m a writer by nature, and like all writers, I appreciate symmetry. Gay begins her book with a disclaimer to declare herself a Bad Feminist:
I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal. 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. Consider me already knocked off.
This paragraph is witty, and heartfelt, and true. It seems like every other week I read something about the “feminist voice of a generation” who becomes a “problematic fave” by the next week. We are bad feminists if we’re into BDSM, bad feminists if we like That One White Actor (it doesn’t matter which one), bad feminists if we call other women out, bad feminists if we don’t. To declare ourselves bad feminists is freeing, and opens us to the ability to explore our feminism and grow with it, to be open to learning and listening rather than burying our heads in the ideals that our movement has outgrown.
But at the end of the day, Gay ends with a point that is just as important as the one she starts with, and gives us a lens with which to view the speakers and activists who, bad feminists or not, give a face and a voice to our movements:
I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.