I took Roxane Gay’s collection of essays, Bad Feminist, to a nail salon and read it while getting a pedicure. Though she confesses in an epilogue that her favorite color is pink, I went with a sparkly, jewel-red shade called “Scarlett O’Hara,” because O’Hara is a character made for Gay: high-femme, ambitious, no-nonsense, and yet gloriously messed up about men, women, and love, like a contestant on “The Bachelor.”
While my feet soaked and the massage chair pounded futilely like a toddler at my back, I lost myself in Gay’s wide-ranging examinations of race and pop culture in America, intersectionality and academia, rape and fat camp, Haiti and Nebraska, Trayvon Martin and Melissa Leo. When I took a break to play Words with Friends on my phone, I felt confident that Gay would approve. (Full disclosure: She almost certainly does not remember who I am, but we have faced off at online Scrabble and she once edited an essay of mine.)
Gay—a Haitian-American novelist, short-story writer, professor, cultural critic, competitive game player, Twitter obsessive, devoted viewer of reality TV, and self-described Bad Feminist from flyover country—is one of the country’s foremost public intellectuals. Like an ideal teacher, she is intellectually formidable and yet still feels approachable, as though we could knock on her door during Office Hours and find her rereading, and laughing at, Twilight. Though she is conversant in Judith Butler, she remains, in her own writing, refreshingly jargon-free.
She combines the most interesting aspects of so-called third wave feminism, like sex positivity and a promotion of LGBTQ issues, with the most important, enduring features from the second wave, like politics and reproductive rights. To that mix, she adds her own unashamed embrace of contemporary entertainment, which she revels in even as she points out its flaws. In Bad Feminist, she expresses a mix of admiration and impatience for everything from BET and Django Unchained to Fifty Shades of Grey and “Girls,“ as well as Tyler Perry as a phenomenon.
Although a sharp critic, Gay is also a fan, one that fully understands the near-religious joy that escapist fiction like Sweet Valley High can bring to younger readers and Fifty Shades of Grey can bring to older ones. She doesn’t mask her enthusiasms out of a need to be thought cool. In charming chapters like “How to Be Friends With Another Woman” and “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically,” she channels Mindy Kaling. In devastating ones, like “What We Hunger For,” she uses the entry point of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games to get at a harrowing story from her own life and a psychological explanation of the power of literature:
Life introduces young people to situations they are in no way prepared for, even good girls, lucky girls who want for nothing. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods. You lose your name because another one is forced on you. You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you. … [stories] have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.
If Roxane Gay didn’t exist, the 21st-century would have to invent her.
In some ways, the calendar year 2014, during which Gay has published two astonishing books—this collection and a novel, An Untamed State—did invent her, or at least it has pushed her into the mainstream the same way 2012 did for Cheryl Strayed, whose collection, Tiny Beautiful Things, and memoir, Wild, colonized bookstores within months of each other. The whole Internet, which can sometimes seem like an outrage-and-resentment generating machine, took a break from snark to cheer for Strayed, who labored with only minor recognition for decades before finally breaking through. In the same way, Gay, who writes in her epilogue, “I realize that I’m undestroying myself after years of allowing myself to stay damaged,” has earned her time in the sun, and the serious consideration of every feminist, male, female, “bad” or otherwise.
Are you planning to read Bad Feminist?