Thursday, February 2, 2017

Popcorn Jane: Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

One day while escaping my roommate, I picked up a copy of Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay on a whim in my local bookstore. I had seen the book on a list of books every woman should read before turning twenty-five. At the time, I was starting a new relationship, and I recommended the book to my boyfriend. He finished it in a day, so I am still dating him. That was a year ago. I only recently finished Gay’s collection of essays because I read it slowly and savored every word. Her writing style makes you feel like you are having a conversation with a friend.

Bad Feminist is separated into five parts:
  • “Me" is a section on Gay’s feminism and her experiences involving gender and race. It also includes an essay that makes me want to take up competitive Scrabble.
  •  “Gender & Sexuality" features chapters covering subjects from the HBO series Girls, to becoming friends with other women, to Sweet Valley High, The Hunger Games, and the catharsis of weight gain for survivors of trauma.  
  •  “Race & Entertainment" includes pieces on everything from films, like Fruitvale Station and Django Unchained, to a chapter entitled “The Morality of Tyler Perry,” which explores the questionable moral lesson of Tyler Perry’s films.
  •  “Politics, Gender & Race" where Gay explores respectability, politics, racism, and reproduction rights.
  • “Back to Me" delves into what it means to be a feminist and the idea of being a bad feminist.
While I wish I could talk about every precious word Roxanne Gay wrote, instead I’ll focus on the following two chapters.

“Girls, Girls, Girls” discusses the way women and girlhood are represented in pop culture. Her analysis of the HBO series Girls clarified my mixed feelings about claims that the show represents my generation of women. Like Gay, when I first watched Girls I was impressed by a female lead that doesn't have what television sells us as the average body type. I was so thrilled in fact, that I binge watched the entire first two seasons. Soon, however, my love for the show waned. As a woman of color I couldn’t connect to the show the same way many of my classmates at my private, liberal arts college could. When I read the essay “Girls, Girls, Girls” I had an epiphany of sorts. Gay states, “Maybe the narrowness of Girls is fine. Maybe it’s also fine that Dunham’s version of coming-of-age is limited to the kinds of girls she knows.” She discusses how it is unfair to place broad expectations on a show just because it does something right and points out that many other shows have diversity problems too. Gay’s essay helped me understand that I can still recognize Girls for the many things it does well and accept that it is a cultural touchstone for many women my age, without letting the show off the hook for its many shortcomings, including representation.

“Garish, Glorious Spectacles” explores the performance of femininity and gender and their representation in popular culture artifacts. Gay opens the essay with a compelling summary of Green Girl by Kate Zambreno, a novel about a young woman learning to perform her gender and the pain and power that lies in that journey. She then turns to the subject of women’s portrayal in reality TV. Gay states these women are " their most garishly exposed, cut open for cameras, performing the best and worst parts of themselves for attention...”

I take comfort in reality TV, especially when depression really takes hold of me. I always dismissed it as a guilty pleasure and never bothered to question this habit. Gay admits that when it comes to reality TV she “watches it all." As Gay tells the reader how she felt uncomfortable reading Reality Bites Back by Jennifer Pozner, I also felt a growing sense of discomfort in my choice of guilty pleasures. I began to question my motives for watching reality TV. Why was I so content to watch women expose the messy, manipulated parts of their life? If I am being honest with myself, it’s because it made me feel better in my depressed state. While reading “Garish, Glorious Spectacles” was a truly uncomfortable experience, it helped me pinpoint a harmful habit that I wanted to change.

Many of Roxanne Gay’s essays are mind-opening; Bad Feminist is a foundationally important book to me. It inspired me to make my New Year’s resolution. After reading “Garish, Glorious Spectacles,” my resolution was to simply stop watching trash TV. But after finishing the whole collection, my resolution evolved into being okay with being a bad feminist because all that means is my feminism is “evolving and flawed.” 

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