On Being A "Bad Feminist"

By Ashley Lane

In New York Times bestseller Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay brings together a collection of her new and previously published essays, exploring the intersections of pop culture, race, gender, politics, and sexuality. In these essays, she offers not only cultural critique, but also a reflection on her own identity. By drawing on her story and personal experiences, her writing is deeply vulnerable and brave while taking on a refreshingly relatable and down-to-earth tone. Roxane Gay is a self-proclaimed “bad feminist.” While Gay’s essays cover a wide variety of topics, I’m going to focus on her essays written directly on “bad” feminism, as this idea provides the framework for many of her views and essays presented in this collection. 

In the introduction, “Feminism (n.): plural”, Gay writes, “I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human.” Gay, like many other women today, has struggled with her view of feminism and whether or not to call herself a feminist. When she was younger, she viewed the feminist label as an insult, another way to say, “You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person.” She disavowed feminism based on this straw man argument, despite supporting the causes that feminism strives for. Gay felt that she didn’t fit the image of the feminist she saw. She writes that, “For years, I decided feminism wasn’t for me as a black women, as a woman who has been queer identified at varying points in her life, because feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of others.” 

Her rejection of feminism at that point in her life was largely perpetuated by what Gay calls essential feminism, the idea there is “one true feminism to dominate all humankind”, that “there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist.” Gay makes the distinction between this and the pluralistic way she now believes feminism actually manifests itself. Especially in recent years, there has been a large focus on and push for intersectional feminism, aimed at making feminism more inclusive to all people by considering the various identities that shape us. 

Intersectional feminism demonstrates that feminism doesn’t present itself in a single way. Too often, however, we still hold feminism to an unrealistic standard of perfection. Gay uses Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and the criticism this received to demonstrate this. Many critics placed high expectations on Lean In, but Gay argues that it “cannot and should not be read as a definitive text, or a book offering universally applicable advice to all women, everywhere.” She does not believe the criticism of the novel is entirely displaced, but due to the varying ways in which feminism presents itself, Lean In shouldn’t be expected to speak for everyone. Gay believes there is a standard of perfection we hold feminists to, one in which they “have to be everything to everyone.” 

As a “bad feminist”, Gay rejects this standard of perfection, accepting the contradictions that exist in her identity as a feminist, from reading Vogue to not being able to help but sing along to music with degrading lyrics about women. This label is the way in which she accepts and allows herself to be a feminist as a flawed human. In the end, these contradictions and flaws do not matter – it is passion for equality and the ideals that feminism fights for that defines a feminist identity, and Gay demonstrates this passion through and through. 

Although I have considered myself a feminist for a long time, I found Gay’s essays to be a refreshing, human take on feminism. After reading Bad Feminist, I began to allow myself to accept that as a feminist, I am not always going to get it right. Feminists are also humans; as such, I will mess up, but the “bad feminist” label helped me to see that this does not make me any less of a feminist. As feminists, I believe that we can draw strength from our different identities, from all of the beautiful and complex ways there are of being human. There may not be “one” feminism, but “bad” feminism looks pretty good after all. 

Source: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay