Bad Feminist Summary

Bad Feminist is a collection of essays by Roxane Gay. Gay covers a broad range of topics, including race, gender, sex, politics, and popular culture.

  • Gay recalls her experiences as a first-year professor teaching at a university where there were no other professors of color.
  • Gay analyzes how rape is depicted in the media, criticizing comedians who make rape jokes and noting that TV shows tend to use rape narratives to boost ratings.
  • Gay analyzes the way that the entertainment industry treats black people. Black actors receive less opportunities, and narratives about race are often directed or written by white people.


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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1647

In this collection of thirty-seven essays, author and critic Roxane Gay writes about a wide range of topics, including race, gender, sex, politics, and popular culture. Her essays are sharp, honest, and at times deeply personal, recounting her education as a first-year professor and her experience with first love and sexual violence. Early on, she embraces the label of "bad feminist," writing, "I am human. I am messy. I'm not trying to be an example...I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world." In the introduction, she traces her evolution as a feminist, admitting that, when she was younger, she rejected the label of feminist, mostly because she didn't know what feminism meant. Now that she's older, she understands that feminism is about fighting for women to be treated equally in every way: legally, economically, culturally. Feminism is a choice she made to stand up for her civil rights and for the rights of other women (including those who choose not to embrace the label of feminist).

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The collection is broken into five sections: Me; Gender & Sexuality; Race & Entertainment; Politics, Gender & Race; and Back to Me. In the first section, she tells of her experiences attending graduate school, becoming a professor, and building communities, whether on campus or online. Her first job as a professor brought her to a small town, where she was one of few African Americans. In "Peculiar Benefits," Gay explores how her pursuit of higher education afforded her certain privileges (of access, employment, opportunity, status) even as her race, gender, body, and opinions prevented her from enjoying the same privileges of a white male. In "Typical First Year Professor," Gay writes about the joys and frustrations of teaching. Her students didn't know what to make of her at first: physically and intellectually imposing, Gay is a force to be reckoned with and doesn't tolerate laziness in her class. She keeps it fun, however, with games and lessons that are both educational and engaging. She talks with students after class—often about issues of race, gender, and sexuality. She gets tired. She feels invigorated. She strives for tenure. It is difficult to balance her work life and her personal life. Alone and lonely, she turns to Scrabble for entertainment. She plays in the competitive circuit, immersing herself in this strange world, winning on occasion.

In section two, Gay tackles the themes of gender and sexuality. In "How to Be Friends with Another Woman," she offers female readers a list of guidelines for female friendships. Some of the items on the list are obvious (don't have sex with a friend's significant other) and some are drawn from her personal experiences ("Love your friends' kids even if you don't want or like children."). She goes on to discuss the inherent limitations of the HBO show Girls, which is about white girls struggling with the kinds of problems that twentysomething New Yorkers face. Girls rarely tackles issues of race, so the vision of New York City it represents is inaccurate and whitewashed; but there's something to be said about a woman making a show about women. It rarely happens, and that fact alone makes Girls noteworthy, if not good, exactly. In "Garish, Glorious Spectacles" and "Not Here to Make Friends," she talks about issues of likability and performativity as they relate to gender. Performativity theory was first introduced by philosopher Judith Butler in her book Gender Trouble. In it, Butler successfully argues that gender is a construct that societies create and sustain to dictate how women should behave (i.e. how they dress, talk, think, and act; what jobs they take; whether or not they like men; and so on). The women who defy these social constructs are often called "unlikable" because they don't fit the mold of what society thinks a woman should be. In "How We All Lose," Gay calls on everyone to engage in difficult conversations about gender and to acknowledge that there is, in fact, gender inequality.

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Several of Gay's essays address the problem of violence against women. In "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence," she criticizes television shows like Beverly Hills 90210 for using rape plotlines to boost their ratings during sweeps week, then dresses down The New York Times for publishing an article called "Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town" in which the author laments how the gang rape of an eleven-year-old girl ruined the lives of her rapists. Gay demands that the news media rethink the way it talks about rape. She then shares a personal story of her own gang rape. It happened when she was in middle school. Her boyfriend was a creepy, violent boy who led her deep into the woods, where he and his friends raped her. This rape changed her life forever. In "What We Hunger For," she describes reading The Hunger Games and finding hope in the idea that survivors can overcome their trauma. In "Reaching for Catharsis," she recounts the summer she went to a fat camp. In the wake of her rape, she took comfort in food; but fat camp did nothing to heal her wounds. In "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion," Gay argues that trigger warnings give the illusion of safety; everyone has a trigger, and you can't possibly account for all of them. Meanwhile, fans of artists Chris Brown and Robin Thicke adore men who openly abuse women. Gay worries that these fangirls have idealized violent men to the point of being willing to subject themselves to abuse, not unlike the heroine of Fifty Shades of Grey, who learns the hard way that prince charming is overhyped.

In section three, Gay discusses various depictions of black people in mainstream media. She's appalled by the popularity of The Help, a popular film based on a best seller that portrays a sanitized vision of the South under segregation. In the film, Oscar-nominated African American actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are relegated to roles as maids, while plucky redhead Emma Stone plays a white woman lauded for her brave decision to tell those maids' stories—though it's not clear she can really understand their suffering. Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is equally unbearable, though for different reasons: it overuses the N-word and seems to be a "white man's slavery revenge fantasy." It doesn't do the African American characters justice. 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was sold into slavery and suffered twelve years in captivity before finally being freed by his white friends from the North. Gay admits that his story is necessary and powerful but finds the film perhaps too brutal to watch. Director Steve McQueen is known for his unflinching style. Meanwhile, Tyler Perry is an African American actor/director/producer/comedian known for creating his own media empire based on films about African Americans. His films tend to "sneer" at women, though. Gay prefers Fruitvale Station, which tells the true story of Oscar Grant, an African American man killed by Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers on New Year's Day. She is especially moved by the way Oscar switches between different identities: the devoted son, the doting father, the drug dealer trying to reform. It's an authentic depiction of the realities of life for young African American men. On the other hand, Orange Is the New Black disappoints by not pushing hard enough to tell the stories of the inmates of color in its first season.

In section four, Gay tackles the theme of politics. She says some African Americans, such as Bill Cosby, seem to believe that if black people would just act "right" or be "responsible," like him, then life would be better. (This essay was written prior to accusations of sexual harassment against Cosby.) Beliefs like this, however, ignore the very real racism and oppression keeping African Americans down. In "The Racism We All Carry," Gay uses the case of Paula Deen to prove that everyone is, indeed, a little bit racist. Other essays in this section tackle such hot-button issues as abortion, terrorism, and the death penalty. In "The Alienable Rights of Women," Gay points out how ridiculous it is that women's health is being debated by Republican politicians who believe there's such a thing as "legitimate rape." Then, in "Tragedy. Call. Compassion. Response," Gay writes that she does not wish death on a Norwegian man who killed seventy-seven people in an attack. She tries to show him compassion: the same kind of compassion he didn't show his victims. She also discusses the trials of Trayvon Martin's murderer, George Zimmerman, and domestic terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. "Boy next door" Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was featured on the cover of Time because he didn't "look like" your typical killer, whereas innocent teenager Trayvon Martin was killed because of the color of his skin. Gay argues that Zimmerman was acquitted for the same reason: the assumption that all black men are criminals. The United States has a long way to go when it comes to combatting racism.

In the fifth and final section, Gay returns to the topic of feminism. In "Bad Feminist: Take One," she discusses a few of the different kinds of feminists: those who believe women must be financially independent, those who think women should be attractive to men, those who hate men, those who want racial and gender equality, et cetera, et cetera. Gay believes that feminists are those who "just don't want to be treated like shit." In "Bad Feminist: Take Two," Gay details the ways in which she is a bad feminist: she listens to thug rap, she likes pink, she loves babies, and she doesn't know how to fix a car. In the end, though, she "would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all."

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