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Review: Roxane Gay's 'Bad Feminist' is ruthless, often funny

With the news full of Hobby Lobby and Ray Rice and sexual harassment at Comic-Con, not to mention such dire events as the abductions and killings of girls by radical fundamentalists, I'm floored by people like the posters on websites such as Women Against Feminism who seem to think the battles have all been won and the world is safe for women. Seriously?

So it's refreshing to turn to Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay's tartly tongue-in-cheek-titled essay collection, in which she declares, "I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all."

Gay is a professor at Purdue University and a prolific young writer whose essays and commentary have been published in Salon, the Rumpus, the New York Times and elsewhere. She's also the author of Ayiti (2011), a collection of fiction, nonfiction and poetry; and An Untamed State, her first novel, published this year. An Untamed State is the devastating story of a woman who is kidnapped and gang raped while she is held for ransom. Ruthless in its honesty and skillfully written, the novel demolishes the absurd notion that rape victims and their loved ones can easily, or ever, get past the trauma.

Bad Feminist is far less harrowing — indeed, it's often LOL funny — but no less ruthless. Its 41 essays range widely, from book and movie reviews to political issues and, in some of the most charming pieces, Gay's accounts of a few of her personal passions, like tournament Scrabble and the color pink and The Hunger Games and the Sweet Valley High teen books.

All of the essays revolve in some way, though, around that other f-word and all the ways in which it gets misinterpreted, misunderstood and intentionally twisted. For some people, she writes, "feminism suggests anger, humorlessness, militancy, unwavering principles, and a prescribed set of rules for how to be a proper feminist woman, or at least a proper white, heterosexual feminist woman — hate pornography, unilaterally decry the objectification of women, don't cater to the male gaze, hate men, hate sex, focus on career, don't shave. … This is nowhere near an accurate description of feminism, but the movement has been warped by misperception for so long that even people who know better have bought into this."

In its place, Gay offers her favorite definition, from an Australian woman: Feminists are "just women who don't want to be treated like s---."

Gay writes about other problems of privilege and oppression as well. She is black, the child of Haitian immigrants, overweight, single and childless — all categories that get one marginalized in varying degrees. That can make her angry, no question, but that anger only sharpens her humor and her insight.

She finds many of her subjects in pop culture. She's hilarious on Fifty Shades of Grey, especially its execrable writing style and the author's limited knowledge of kinky sex: "This analogy might help illustrate the difference between BDSM in the real world and BDSM in the world of E.L. James — Fifty Shades : BDSM :: McDonald's : Food." Yet she also makes a clear point about the story's disturbing basic nature as "a detailed primer for how to successfully engage in a controlling, abusive relationship."

She takes on the question of why Lena Dunham's TV series Girls has almost no nonwhite characters and finds that, as usual, a woman is being held to a higher standard than men in the same position: "It is unreasonable to expect Dunham to somehow solve the race and representation problem on television while crafting her twenty-something witticisms and appalling us with sex scenes so uncomfortable they defy imagination."

Gay's takedown of The Help for its racial and gender caricatures and emotional manipulation is scalpel sharp, as is her analysis of Django Unchained as "a white man's slavery revenge fantasy … where black people are, largely, incidental."

"Bad Feminism: Take One" examines a number of contemporary views on feminism, including Sheryl Sandberg's bestselling book Lean In and Anne-Marie Slaughter's chatter-inducing 2012 Atlantic article "about the struggles of powerful, successful women to 'have it all.' " (Can women have it all? No, and neither can men.)

A group of essays deals with comic Daniel Tosh's infamous rape joke, singer Chris Brown's abuse of women, the "pickup artist" phenomenon (Gay wrote the essay before the mass shooting by Elliot Rodger in Santa Barbara, Calif., in May) and the controversy over Robin Thicke's song Blurred Lines. "We should all lighten up. … These are just songs. They are just jokes," Gay writes. "It's hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you're going to float the f--- away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it's that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly."

"What We Hunger For" begins as a light-hearted account of how Gay fell in love with the Hunger Games books and movies. She's Team Peeta, she announces proudly, and she is drawn to Katniss because "I am fascinated by strength in women."

But the essay turns dark as she reveals the source of that fascination: In seventh grade, she was lured into the woods and gang raped by boys she knew from school. She was a straight-A student, the shy churchgoing daughter of loving parents, but none of that protected her. "I knew things," she writes, "but I knew nothing about what a group of boys could do to kill a girl."

For years, she told no one, but Gay found ways to recover and to turn her own trauma into empathy. Her life now, she acknowledges, is one of many privileges: She has a Ph.D. and an academic position and a thriving career as a writer. But, as Bad Feminist makes clear, she is one of the lucky ones, and for women that status is always provisional.

"Sometimes," Gay writes, "when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods." Until every girl is safe in the woods, feminists have work to do.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Bad Feminist: Essays

By Roxane Gay

Harper Perennial, 320 pages, $15.99

Review: Roxane Gay's 'Bad Feminist' is ruthless, often funny 08/07/14 [Last modified: Thursday, August 7, 2014 11:00am]

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