Friday, April 17, 2015

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

I don’t exactly recall when I first came upon the name of Roxane Gay, but it may have been when I was looking over the book made from blogposts by the essayist and thinker Rebecca Solnit, called Men Explain Things to Me. A critic of that book mentioned Gay and then I came across her name a couple more times in different contexts in quick succession. Intrigued by the opportunity to hear a literate black woman’s take on popular culture, and having recently been made especially aware of my lack of overlap, knowledge of, and understanding of the lives of black citizens in the United States, I ordered this book. I am keenly aware, too, that one literate black woman, articulate though she might be, is simply that: one literate black woman and not the voice of a generation, a culture, or a sex.

Gay’s writing reflects the contradictions and confusion of a real person. That may be her appeal, and her strength. Gay is almost unfiltered, giving herself permission to be humorless about rape, slavery, use of the ‘N’ word. Her opinions on everything from reality television to unlikeable central characters in novels and movies add to a fruitful debate about what really informs our culture. She thinks, and takes the time to tell us what she thinks. She has permission to change her thinking—would relish it, I trust—if someone had a better, more convincing, more nuanced argument.

Best of all, I liked the short blogposts at the end of this book in the section called “Politics, Gender & Race.” In these, Gay discusses “The Racism We All Carry,” acknowledging we all have beliefs formed on impressions of race. In “A Tale of Two Profiles,” Gay compares the investigative reporting of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, with that of Trayvon Martin, the black teen murdered in Florida. She asks if it is queer that in-depth “looking for the good” reportage had been done for Tsarnaev while “looking for bad” had been done for Martin. In “The Alienable Rights of Women,” Gay explains again to those that “still don’t get it” that the burdens of reproduction fall on the woman in the pair, and therefore she should have some say in how it all comes down. Finally, in “The Politics of Respectability,” Gay insists we stop pointing to the exceptions who have managed to penetrate the color bar but look at the teeming masses who are having trouble making that leap from the lowest level to the highest.

Gay’s pronouncements on matters of culture do not have the stamp or weight of convention. She does not constrain herself to write only about the best literature, the finest examples of music or TV, or what will become our classics in film. She talks about what is spilling out of media machines every day…those things we actually watch, or wade through helplessly to find “the good stuff.” For this reason I sometimes found the arguments aimed elsewhere, at an audience with whom I share a world but not a culture. I have a limited appetite for arguments about the relative merits of reality television shows, though I can see how this may inform some.

Opinionated bloggers, myself included, are sometimes best in small doses, when they can prick the conscience by criticizing (both good and bad) things they see, thus arming readers with support for their own views or by challenging long-held but not sufficiently-examined positions. I applaud Roxane Gay for thinking and writing and know she is learning as much as we are by taking the time to do it out loud. Brava!

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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