A New Signs Initiative
Suzanna Danuta Walters
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, a new online-first feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues.
The forum on Bad Feminist appears in the spring 2016 issue of Signs.
Short Takes: Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist:
Feminism for Badasses
Feminism for Those Who Don’t Like Feminists
On Imperfection and Its Comforts…
Patricia J. Williams
“Bad Feminist,” Great Rhetorician
Bad Feminist was published in 2014 by Harper Perennial.
A New Signs Initiative
Suzanna Danuta Walters, Editor in Chief
As part of an initiative to connect the journal to current debates in the feminist world beyond academia—and to help feminist commentators gain a greater foothold in the public sphere—we are launching a new section of the journal in which we select a book that has had wide-ranging impact and reach (for better or worse!) and solicit short commentaries from leading feminist public intellectuals and activists. These are not designed to be book reviews per se; rather, we ask our commentators to ponder broader questions of reach and resonance: Why this? Why now? And what does this say about the state of the feminist zeitgeist?
We will always invite the author to respond to the commentaries. Our plan is then to put these up on our revamped Signs website before they find their way into print.
We envision these short takes as part of a broader initiative we call (with perhaps a bit too much hubris!) the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
In keeping with the consistent mission of Signs to matter in the world, we will be rolling out a number of efforts to engage feminist theorizing with the pressing political and social problems across the globe. Given the current fragmentation of feminist activism and the persistent negative freighting of the moniker “feminist,” we want to genuinely reimagine the role a journal can play in activating activism. On our website and in print, Signs will offer a dialogue on some aspect of feminist public intellectual practice—from blogging to op-ed writing to DIY videocasting to public speaking and so forth. We envision a multipronged tack that engages with our social media platforms and also brings feminist public intellectuals into conversation with academic experts, activists with theorists—across lines of generation, genre, identity. On the website, specialized links (a digital archive, if you will) will highlight the interaction between scholarly work and more public intellectual presence.
This innovation moves beyond simply addressing (again) the vexing divides between feminist theory and practice. Rather, we seek to engage a feminist journal in the project of building a critical mass of public intellectuals who speak with a feminist voice. We have more feminist scholars than ever before—and more social media outposts that host feminist voices—but very few widely known feminist public intellectuals. The punditry is still largely a preserve of white masculinity. Signs, in partnership with the richness represented on the web in blogs and Tumblrs and Facebook and other social media platforms, can be a space for enhancing public discourse from a multivocal feminist perspective.
This will position Signs as actively working to create conversations between and among feminist scholars, media activists, and community leaders. We are committed to enhancing the journal’s role as a transitive space, percolating in and between intellectual production and activist engagement.
We inaugurate this initiative with Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay and are thrilled to have exciting commentaries by Naomi Wolf, Brittney Cooper, Carla Kaplan, Jennifer Baumgardner, and Patricia Williams. (Gay declined to write a response to the commentaries.)
Our next book is Katha Pollitt’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, and we have a similarly stellar lineup of commentators.
We have high hopes for this new endeavor. Please read, click, link, share, tweet … and let’s get the conversation going.
Why this? Why now? And what does this say about the state of the feminist zeitgeist?
Suzanna Danuta Walters is editor in chief of Signs: Journal of Women of Culture and Society and Director of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Professor of Sociology at Northeastern University. Her work centers on questions of gender, sexuality, family, and popular culture. Her most recent book, The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality, explores how notions of tolerance limit the possibilities for real liberation and deep social belonging. She is also the author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America; Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory; and Lives Together/Worlds Apart: Mothers and Daughters in Popular Culture. In addition, Professor Walters has published numerous articles and book chapters on feminist theory, queer theory and LGBT studies, and popular culture. In 2004, Walters founded the first Ph.D. program in gender studies at Indiana University, where she was a Professor of Gender Studies and held positions in Sociology and Communication and Culture.
Five years ago, I attended an inspiring New York City art show produced by women in their twenties titled “i am not a good enough feminist.” The work was far-ranging—a six-foot piece of paper covered in brownish stains and tears that was under one artist’s feet for several months as she cooked for her family rather than painted, a photo of a nude woman unselfconsciously launching herself onto a dune, lots of video…. Still, it was the sad-sack title that most stayed with me. Maybe because it resonated with what I felt I heard from women and men as I traveled around the country doing talks about feminism.
Why was I a wandering feminist proselytizer? Well, in 2000, Amy Richards and I had published a book about third-wave feminism called Manifesta and began a book tour that lasted roughly fifteen years. The book was meant to chronicle the feminism we saw in our generation, sometimes called Third Wave. We dedicated it to the people who say “I’m not a feminist, but…” and to the people who say “I am a feminist, but….” It was our observation that many people felt like they were “disqualified” from feminism because they hadn’t worked out all of their shit. These would-be feminists dieted, or loved shopping, or were Christian; maybe they were men, or pro-life, or wore high heels. Maybe they were Latina or wealthy. Or maybe they were obsessed with Sweet Valley High books as a tween and listen to “thuggish rap” as an adult, like Roxane Gay.
With one title, Gay’s 2014 collection of essays, Bad Feminist, expanded popular perception of the movement to encompass those individuals Amy and I were worried about in 2000. If this prolific, politically astute, deeply knowledgeable woman was a bad feminist, then there was room for lots of flaws, lots of kinds of people, lots of kinds of feminists.
Anytime someone publicly claims feminism, they redefine the word—a little. But the reality is that it has never just meant one thing—every feminist who uses the term contains multitudes of contradictions, flaws, secret vices, judgments, and fumbled opportunities. There has always been a dissonance between one’s stated values and one’s life. With each generation of feminism, though, there is a louder affirmation of impurity—we are flawed, strong, independent, evolved females.
Roxane Gay, as messenger, complicates the expansive story that I was trying to tell with Amy Richards in Manifesta. She implicates and empathizes with feminist critics, including a mythical perfect feminist sisterhood that would blame her for faking an orgasm; she questions the advice of affluent white professional women who’ve parlayed their successes (or failures) into book deals instructing women to forget “having it all,” pointing out that many women have jobs (rather than careers) and do whatever they must to take care of their kids (with no option to “opt out”). Gay claims feminism as a complex blend of insider and outsider status. She is an academic, she is black, she is middle class, she is the child of immigrants, she is digitally savvy and prolific on Twitter, and she is fat.
Gay embodies contradictions—literally holds them in her body—and reflects, with the power of that authoritative body, that feminism contains complexity.
If this prolific, politically-astute, deeply knowledgeable woman was a bad feminist, then there was room for lots of flaws, lots of kinds of people, lots of kinds of feminists.
Jennifer Baumgardner is a writer, activist, filmmaker, and lecturer whose work explores abortion, sex, rape, single parenthood, and women’s power. She is the executive director and publisher at The Feminist Press at CUNY and the cofounder of Soapbox Inc. Speakers Who Speak Out. Her books include Manifesta, Grassroots, Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, and Abortion & Life. Her most recent documentary is It Was Rape (2013), and she is the creator of the I Had an Abortion Project.
Feminism for Badasses
Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist takes away the trepidation that so many young people feel about identifying with the term “feminist.” On a very regular basis, whether I’m teaching a 100-level women’s and gender studies course or interacting with students whom I meet at conferences and panels, the line “I’m not a feminist, but…” seems to crop up. The “but” always precedes a litany of affirmations of antisexist politics, a desire for equality, and even a radical commitment to gender nonconformity. So I always scratch my head, wondering why the moniker “feminist” raises the hackles of so many, even when they clearly have antisexist, antipatriarchal politics. I have settled on the idea that many young people don’t just see “feminism” as a set of politics but as an identity that they must take on and perform. And no one wants to fail at living out identities that we choose to adopt. Particularly for young women of color, there is already a struggle to exist comfortably in the skin we are in. Feminism, it seems, comes saddled with its own baggage as an identity politic.
So when I saw that Gay’s Bad Feminist was set to drop, I eagerly anticipated it and then ran out to the store as soon as it was available. I love the defiance of the title and the content. I love the freedom that this book gives, the space it makes for those of us who are about that feminist life but who eff it up on a regular basis. In an era when we are experiencing a renewal of the war on women, through a severe reduction in access to abortion clinics and a pervasive rape culture that seems to have seen no abatement, women, cis and trans alike, need feminism more than ever. This, for instance, is what I tell people when they get upset that Beyoncé now identifies as a feminist. Many want to pull her feminist card because she has myriad contradictions. And to them, I say, “I do a million and one things that are unfeminist each and every day. But I also actively work to resist the pull of sexism and patriarchy in my life and the lives of others.” We cannot keep pulling each other’s feminist cards because of our contradictions. And even though many see Beyoncé as a bad feminist, I see her as a powerful woman searching for language to name and claim and negotiate that power.
At the Crunk Feminist Collective, where I blog with a group of hip-hop-generation feminists, we proudly proclaim a feminism that is comfortable with contradictions, a feminism that is percussive, a feminism that, as Joan Morgan has famously written, is “brave enough to fuck with the grays” (58). Gay forces us to confront these kinds of contradictions. In the essay “Peculiar Benefits,” she talks about her ongoing to struggle to accept the various forms of privilege she has, a struggle that any committed feminist knows well. At the same time, she bravely calls out the self-righteousness of the “self-appointed privilege police” (18) who aim to shoot down shoot down all accounts of experience that don’t mirror their own. “How dare someone speak to a personal experience without accounting for every possible configuration of privilege or lack thereof?” Gay asks, questioning the logic of the privilege police (18). In this particular moment of online feminist cultures, rejecting privilege policing as necessary for good feminist politics is a very bad feminist thing to do.
In “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” she writes of the current debate in feminist pedagogy about the use of trigger warnings: “When I see trigger warnings, I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel protected. Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This is my failing” (152-53). A good feminist is supposed to believe in trigger warnings. A bad feminist acknowledges that, like most things, it’s complicated.
What I need as a grown woman feminist in this political moment is a politic that feels livable, breathable, and that gives me room to stretch and grow. Roxane Gay’s book makes space for a liberatory politic, and she’s hilarious while doing it. This book captures everything I love about feminism, mostly because her feminism makes space for me to be my very best, bad-ass self.
Feminism, it seems, comes saddled with its own baggage as an identity politic.
Brittney Cooper is assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University. She specializes in Black feminist theory, Black women’s intellectual history, hip-hop studies, hip-hop Feminism, and digital Black feminisms. Her first book, "Race Women: Gender and the Making of a Black Public Intellectual Tradition," is forthcoming from University of Illinois Press. She is also cofounder of the Crunk Feminist Collective, a hip-hop-generation feminist blogging group. Professor Cooper is a sought after public commentator with a weekly column on race, gender, and politics at Salon.com and frequent appearances on cable news outlets like MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, All In with Chris Hayes, and Al Jazeera America.
Feminism for Those Who Don’t Like Feminists
Feminist writing is ignored too often. “Rarely do our stories get to matter,” Roxane Gay writes (ix). The enviable attention it has garnered from mainstream media suggests that Gay’s Bad Feminist has cracked the code. What’s not to appreciate about popular success for a book championing “women who don’t want to be treated like shit” (303)? Gay is that rare progressive black feminist voice who has accomplished what Janie’s grandmother in Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, dreamed of, but feared might never come: a “pulpit” from which “colored women sitting on high” could “preach” to others about the world. Gay’s sermon centers respect for feminism as one of its refrains. This is a gift.
Signs’ feminists, it must be said, are not Gay’s target readers. And that may be Bad Feminist’s greatest strength. She isn’t preaching to the converted. By suggesting that feminism (a good thing, in her view) can be separated from all those rigid “rules” feminists (pink-hating dullards who follow the “sisterhood-approved” regime of not shaving, scorning Vogue, and refusing to provide blow jobs), Gay announces her mission: feminism for those who don’t like feminists. She is very smart about using that platform to get serious issues on the table in ways general readers can access: trigger warnings, racial violence, abortion rights, racism, privilege, and even the importance of intersectionality: all well-handled. She also provides a speed tour of popular culture, from music to movies to television, which is helpful for those of us who don’t keep up with all of that on our own.
Some of Gay’s smartest writing beautifully demonstrates how destructive cultural myths—such as the myth of the “magical negro” (209)—can be. One of her best essays details how to avoid succeeding at the expense of your friends. And some of her most compelling insights involve how some people “get over” on the backs of others, especially on the backs of women. She doesn’t like it when someone, like Tyler Perry, builds “his success on the backs of black women…by using them…to teach his lessons, to make his points, or to make them the butts of his jokes” (234).
Feminism—or some feminists—must have really pissed her off to make her break so many of her own good rules. While acknowledging that caricaturing feminists as “militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless” is a “grossly inaccurate myth” (137), it is precisely against that mythic “humorlessness, militancy, unwavering principles, and … rules” (304) that Gay’s “bad” feminism is positioned as a preferable, or as she puts it, a “relatable” (146), alternative. She challenges and perpetuates myths about feminism. She is a “Bad Feminist” because she’s bad-assed, (unlike other feminists who, apparently, are not?) and because she is not strident, not shrill, not politically correct, not militant, not man-hating, and not perfect. “Bad,” she tells us, means “interesting” (64) in distinction to those presumably boring feminists on whom Gay’s likability is made contingent (needlessly so, since she’d be quite likable enough without the conceit). The straw women aren’t helpful.
Bad Feminist is bold in offering to embody its cultural moment. It is, for example, both about social media—“hypnotic [and]…repulsive…triviality…a curious thing” (262)—and a product of the world social media has created: one that levels scale so pictures of dinners and funny glasses appear alongside ones of police brutality or climate change catastrophes, as if all were equally important and, even more peculiarly, equally interesting. Gay writes convincingly about the presumptiveness of imagining that what interests us also interests others. And yet, she inhabits those social media protocols perfectly by sharing her Scrabble scores, smoking, loneliness, and longings for a long-distance boyfriend, alongside her truly engaging responses to films like The Help and Django Unchained and important analyses of rape, racism, discrimination, and intolerance.
There is so much to enjoy in Roxane Gay’s lively, accessible writing and so much to celebrate about her success in reaching mainstream readers, that I can’t help wishing she were friendlier to the feminism—and the feminists—to whom she has rendered such service and through whose mischaracterizations this book’s success is achieved.
Feminism—or some feminists—must have really pissed her off to make her break so many of her own good rules.
Carla Kaplan, the Chair of the Board of Associate Editors of Signs, is Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature in English and Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University. She is the Founding Director of Northeastern University’s Humanities Center and currently serves as co-chair of the board of directors for the Graduate Consortium in Women’s Studies. Her research interests include literature, African American studies, biography, and women’s and gender studies. She is the author of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Harlem Renaissance. She is also the author of Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters and The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms. She is the editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Nella Larsen’s Passing; Zora Neale Hurston’s lost book of folklore, Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales From the Gulf States; and Dark Symphony by Elizabeth Laura Adams. A Norton Critical Edition of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand is forthcoming. Professor Kaplan’s next project is a biography of Jessica Mitford, the rebellious daughter of eccentric British peers and one of the most important American muckrakers of the twentieth century. In May 2014, on the basis of Miss Anne in Harlem, Professor Kaplan was elected a Fellow of the Society of American Historians.
On Imperfection and Its Comforts…
Patricia J. Williams
Bad Feminist is the musing of a strong but lonely intelligence. Roxane Gay grew up as the daughter of conservative Haitian parents, almost always the only black kid in her school, always reading, always yearning to be popular, always wishing she were … not a bad girl precisely, but just a little less good. If the question is why this book and why now, I think the appeal lies in Gay’s casually colloquial yet highly intellectual takedowns of everything from competitive Scrabble tournaments to Lena Dunham’s Girls. Moreover, since debates about gender, race, and feminism are so often ponderously vexed—all but deadlocked before they leave the gate—Gay’s tone is refreshing. Her writing is funny, smart, accepting, kind. She is unafraid to admit her own inconsistencies, like her ability to “take pleasure in something so terrible” (199) as the terribly written Fifty Shades of Grey.
Gay does not set out to write a “revolutionary” book about contemporary feminism—she explicitly rejects the hyperbole of greeting every singular act of empowerment as such. Indeed, there is nothing new about most of her topics: rape, equal pay, the segregated cultural landscape of television and film. These are fields of inequality that have consumed us for at least a century. But while she analyzes situations that are all too sadly familiar to readers of any generation, her lens is very particular to her own.
I grew up in the generation of women breaking free from the Barbie-doll world of Mad Men. The feminist movement of my time was explicitly if diversely political—from Bella Abzug to Angela Davis to Mary Tyler Moore, and there was at least some common aim at accepting our bodies, ourselves. There was as well at least some common aim of escaping confinement—whether corsets and girdles or marital expectations and limitations in employment. In retrospect, it seems cloaked in a kind of lost optimism, an inevitability of the coming of a world of multifaceted “choice.”
In contrast, Bad Feminist speaks to the experiences of young women who have grown up with much meaner messages playing in the background: Real Housewives of New Jersey, Basketball Wives, Victoria’s Secret models’ diets, Fox News and Flavor Flav. Young women, if they are weaned on television or social media, are growing up inside the kinds of men’s brains who imagine women as perpetually mud-wrestling, always in warring tribes, using the spike heels of their fuck-me pumps to do lasting injury in showdowns in expensive restaurants. That masturbatory vision is everywhere, has been technologically enhanced, is hard to escape. Slut shaming and revenge porn have become new forms of old disciplinary practices, and civility among all humans, regardless of sex or gender, has broken down in increasingly dangerous and invasive ways.
Meanwhile, the rejected aesthetic of conical bras or underwear in which you couldn’t breathe seems to have been replaced by aesthetic endurances of a far more painful nature: dressing up occurs within a cultural bell jar of peculiar insistence that the life of the mind be inscribed on the body—tattooed onto it, pieced through it, or surgically altered—in order to be heard.
Gay speaks to the mean-spirited perfectionism that so many young women must deal with today. The book is peppered with the vocabulary of a generation many of whom don’t know who Shirley Chisolm or Gloria Steinem are—words like “crappy,” “asshole,” “drama,” and “divas”—yet Gay’s message remains quietly humane, gently humorous. It is an instruction manual for the postfeminist, post–Ms. Magazine, post-peace-and-love crowd. Bad Feminist is Miss Manners for messed-up millennials.
Gay speaks to the mean-spirited perfectionism with which so many young women must deal today.
Patricia J. Williams writes the Diary of A Mad Law Professor column for The Nation magazine and maintains a website of her journalism at www.madlawprofessor.wordpress.com. The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, she is also the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University
“Bad Feminist,” Great Rhetorician
Roxane Gay’s recent collection of essays, Bad Feminist, did something that few anthologies of feminist theory and cultural criticism ever do: it jumped onto the New York Times bestseller list. And this novelist also managed to accomplish this without bashing feminism or making the case that everyone is overreacting to injustices aimed at women.
What does the success of this volume say about this moment in the fraught life of popular feminism?
While Gay is based on campus, she writes in the way you discuss feminist theory with your best friend; the voice of these essays is a funny, scathing, and colloquial. At the same time, Gay is immersed in the deep, internecine arguments of feminism and exhaustively familiar with campus discourses around issues of race and class, gender and sexuality. One of Gay’s achievements is that she offers a kind of straightforward sensibility that guides readers through what can be a morass of conflicting politically correct discourses—and she does so from a feminist and progressive perspective, which may be a first for a contemporary volume of popular feminist theory.
You can see this through line of retro common sense in her important lead essay on privilege, “Peculiar Benefits,” for example, in which she actually lays out a reasonable and compelling way to understand one’s own privilege while not being held hostage by it. “The problem is, cultural critics talk about privilege with such alarming frequency and in such empty ways, we have diluted the word’s meaning,” she correctly writes (16). She then maps the impact that a rigid wielding of the privilege label on many campuses has and identifies it, I would say bravely, as a potential burden on speech and on writing: “When we talk about privilege, some people start to play a very pointless and dangerous game where they try to mix and match various demographic characteristics to determine who wins at the Game of Privilege.… How dare someone speak to a personal experience without accounting for every possible configuration of privilege or the lack thereof?” (18). After these important mappings of a familiar route, she deploys her sometimes laugh-out-loud, almost Wildean humor, which is often epigrammatic: “On my more difficult days, I’m not sure what’s more of a pain in the ass—being black or being a woman. I’m happy to be both of these things, but the world keeps intervening” (16-17). And finally Gay concludes, as she does with thorny struggles over many issues in this volume, with a resounding cheer for a kind of old-fashioned, pre-postmodern…well, humanism, in the 1950s sense, a humanism in which there is such thing as an individual subject, in which that person’s truth matters, and in which there is even (gasp!) a universal human condition: “We should be able to say, ‘This is my truth,’ and have that truth stand without a hundred clamoring voices shouting, giving the impression that multiple truths cannot coexist…. Privilege is relative and contextual” (19).
This old-fashioned humanism, which for once is not used to transcend knowledge of race, class, and gender injustices but actually to integrate such knowledge and recast humanism in a more evolved way, is a sustained theme, and, I would argue, accomplishment, throughout the book. Again and again, Gay returns to argue on behalf of human compassion and even moral judgment and responsibility in navigating tricky issues such as how to talk about sexual violence (“The Careless Language of Sexual Violence”); how to handle popular dismissal of feminist complaints in the media (“How We All Lose,” which examines the impact of Hannah Rosin’s nonfiction bestseller The End of Men); and how to read such cultural “texts” as reality TV shows (“Not Here to Make Friends”) from a feminist perspective.
Refreshingly, Gay often structures her essays by moving us past what seem to be two unhelpful poles: either an all-or-nothing feminist judgment against the objectification and commodification of women in pop culture or an ill-making, uncritical, trendy support of that same objectification. She also shares her own sometimes not-so-PC inner processes as a reader, dreamer, fantasizer, consumer, writer, and pedagogue. This aspect of her voice really works in moving us past stuck places in some conventional feminist discourses, especially on campus and in the national media. By so transparently imparting her own intellectual and emotional journey, even in ways that are not flattering to herself (“It had never crossed my mind before that it was possible for a child to … make it to college unable to read at a college level. Shame on me” ), she allows us space to explore and reflect upon our own complex reactions. This rhetorical method works because, well, the truth is that we all probably have layered and nuanced reactions to the hot-button subjects in question. Gay applies this analytical, self-revealing voice to a range of sexy and au courant subjects—from the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, to the portrayal of Katniss and female heroism in The Hunger Games (“What We Hunger For”), to the representation of women of color in the hit movie The Help, to her own infatuation with the very suburban, very white Sweet Valley High series of young adult novels. Bad feminist, for paying such serious attention to such “trivial” subjects. Great feminist writing, as it takes courage to take seriously and seriously analyze themes and texts to which millions of other women also pay close attention and also have strong responses.
This book is far from perfect; the essays are often too casually structured, suffering from repetition at times—a carelessness that could reflect a younger generation’s acclimation to the essay form through blogs. The essays of Alice Walker or Susan Sontag seem like another genre in comparison. A particularly distracting stylistic habit is that Gay sometimes uses blank space to separate ideas or subjects, which can feel as if she has not bothered to think of a transitional sentence. A second flaw is that at times Gay seems unaware of aspects of literary history in ways that lead her to strike a false note; the idea that gender is a performance did not originate with Judith Butler but rather with Simone de Beauvoir, for instance. And sometimes a whole essay can misfire from apparent lack of context: “The Smooth Surfaces of Idyll,” for instance, makes the point that unhappiness is more interesting than happiness, and bad characters are more interesting than good ones—“We struggle, as writers, to make happiness, contentment and satisfaction interesting” (121)—as if Leo Tolstoy’s lines “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” had never been written, or John Milton’s Satan never posed this familiar critical question. In another example, Gay writes that Edith Wharton proposes that the bland, conventional May Welland is “likeable” and that “we are not supposed to like … Countess Olenska” (86) – a serious misreading of Wharton’s own ironic and feminist voice.
Finally, twice in the otherwise important essay about standing up for feminism, “How We All Lose,” Gay reads British humorist Caitlin Moran as if she is serious when she is using understated British satire. “Even the most ardent feminist historian … can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck-all for the last 100,000 years,” Moran writes; and: “All women love babies – just like all women love Manolo Blahnik shoes and George Clooney.” When Gay responds, “Again, this is funny, but it is also untrue” (104) and condemns Moran for generalizing about women, I wish Gay had read more P. G. Wodehouse, or David Lodge, or Kingsley or Martin Amis. Yes, these are all old or dead white men, but the British comic novel tradition is the tradition that Moran is writing in, and missing that means Gay misreads Moran’s own scathing feminist satire.
These, however, are quibbles. In Roxane Gay we have a bracing voice from a younger feminist generation, one that is brave and very witty and perceptive. If a critic can, as Gay has, walk us responsibly through the thicket of identity and feminist politics to a newly inclusive perspective, and can argue in a time of caution and self-censoring that “writers cannot protect their readers from themselves, nor should they be expected to” (151), then she has done a new generation of younger readers, along with the rest of us, a service.
In Roxane Gay we have a bracing voice from a younger feminist generation, one that is brave and very witty and perceptive.
Naomi Wolf is the author of the landmark international bestseller The Beauty Myth, which challenged the cosmetics industry and the marketing of unrealistic standards of beauty, launching a new wave of feminism in the early 1990s. Her latest book, Vagina: A New Biography, is an iTunes bestseller. Wolf’s New York Times bestseller The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot is a call to preserve liberty and democracy. Wolf is a regular columnist for Project Syndicate, a frequent blogger for the Huffington Post, and she writes cultural commentary for the Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Times, and the Wall St. Journal. Her TV appearances include Meet the Press and The Colbert Report. A graduate of Yale and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Wolf was a consultant to Al Gore during his presidential campaign on women’s issues and social policy. She is a cofounder of the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, an organization that teaches leadership to young women, and the American Freedom Campaign, a grassroots democracy movement in the United States. In 2015, Wolf received a doctorate from the University of Oxford, and in 2016 she will be an Assistant Visiting Fellow and the Rothermere American Institute of the University of Oxford.
This is an interesting forum, and I applaud its arrival. I wish to request that women who are not of, or hold feminist understandings outside of, the Western, predominantly white, academy weigh in, please. I would like to know what Spivak thinks of ‘Bad Feminist’, for instance.
Yes, Gayatri Spival!! I too would want her views, or any other two-third worlds feminists.
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