Feminism (n.): Distilled

Micah McCrary on Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.


Idk I think feminism should be called something different like common sense or something. —From the Twitter of Tina Belcher
I learned many things in graduate school that I should’ve learned much earlier on. Things that all men should learn early on, as boys. While I learned about the various waves of feminism, about the different schools and scholars championing women’s rights throughout history, I also learned about what we’ve come to call Everyday Feminism: the ways feminism, or a lack thereof, affects how we encounter the world outside the ivory tower.

Many think feminist is “too strong a word” to adopt, or they’re confused about what feminism means. I wonder if this might come from the perception that feminism is a layered and complicated thing, only to be discussed as an intellectual subject—from the perception that feminism can only belong to those like Betty Friedan, whose own feminism comes off as something too intimidating to be pared down for the rest of us.

When I come across writers like Roxane Gay, though, I begin to think that the discussions we’ve had about feminism could’ve been distilled so much sooner. She writes, in her book Bad Feminist, about everyday feminisms as mentioned above, and it’s obvious to me that there are ways we can learn to talk about feminism without fear—fear of getting it wrong, fear of our ignorance being brought to light, fear of all those schools and waves.

It may be easy to think of feminism as its own special discourse, as something attached to a special vocabulary that can only be held by those who’ve studied it in classrooms—as if feminism has a code, and not enough of us were given the special decoder ring.

But then I think about what it took for me to stop being afraid: writers like bell hooks and Roxane Gay, who assured me I didn’t always have to wear an academic hat whenever discussing an -ism.

Each time I hear someone say “I’m not really sure I’d say I’m a feminist,” or something close to this, I wonder what they really believe—whether they really aren’t for equal rights or if they’re just afraid to speak without qualification. But then I think about what it took for me to stop being afraid: writers like bell hooks and Roxane Gay, who assured me I didn’t always have to wear an academic hat whenever discussing an -ism.

A couple years ago, when I asked students of mine to tell me what they knew about feminism, the majority of my students were hesitant to respond. As they sat in silence, one student raised her hand, and I’ll never forget what she said next: “When I think of feminism, I think of feminazis and clitlers.” This, I fear, is how many come to learn about feminism: as a movement synonymous with angry women. Before graduate school, I’m sorry to admit, this was all I knew about it myself.

“How do we bring attention to these issues?” Gay writes in “Feminism (n.): Plural.” “How do we do so in ways that will actually be heard? How do we find the necessary language for talking about the inequalities and injustices women face, both great and small?” Gay doesn’t seem to realize here that she’s answering her own questions through her writing. They’re good, poignant questions, but the fact that Gay is asking us—her dear, general readers—is an indication that we’re moving toward the answers. We need simply-rendered voices, like Gay’s, to enter the conversation, to make us all a little more comfortable learning about the ways in which inequalities are pervasive, and about what we can do to help.

Particularly in Bad Feminist, Gay’s writing encourages us to think further, to see the areas in which we participate in actions or modes of thinking that aren’t necessarily anti-feminist, but nonfeminist. Although nonfeminist thought may not directly, consciously, or aggressively oppose the goals of feminism, it does trammel the movement toward equality. Think of those who say “girl” or “chick,” when one is an adult and should in fact be called a woman. Think of those who tell both little girls and grown women to smile more. Think of the men who overextend chivalry. Think of those promoting Bruno Mars’s “Treasure” or Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Gay’s writing reminds us that feminism needs to be about much more than equal pay in the workplace—it should instead be common sense, because equality might actually be achieved through the ways we can learn to think about both women and men. (For a hip illustration, see Emma Watson’s recent U.N. speech.)

Bad Feminist isn’t only about feminism, of course. Gay also covers the subject of being American-born to Haitian parents. She covers privilege. She covers the Academy. She covers Oscar Grant. She covers Lena Dunham. What catches my attention most, though, is the way she’s able to refine her writing, to translate what often gets so damn complicated when talking about any of these things, into a text that’s both accessible and necessary.

As someone who’s working on his PhD, I appreciate that Gay, who has a PhD, didn’t write Bad Feminist only for those with PhDs. Although she could’ve. She managed, instead, to highlight what’s complicated about race, or class, or privilege, or nonfeminism, in a way that helps propel the conversation in productive ways.

Take privilege, for instance. In “Peculiar Benefits,” Gay defines privilege as “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.” She reminds us that privilege exists in many forms, and that it’s often all too easy to forget the ways in which we’ve been privileged, even when at times it feels as if we’re not:

There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege, and the list goes on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold. Nearly everyone, particularly in the developed world, has something someone else doesn’t, something someone else yearns for.

This is striking. It gets me thinking about my own privilege, which is a task more difficult to begin than it should be—difficult because I’m usually encouraged to think about the ways I’ve been marginalized, rather than privileged. Prompted by Gay’s paragraph, I list the ways I am privileged: I’m male, able-bodied, cisgendered. I grew up in the middle class, and I’m educated. I’m absolutely sure there’s more.

The fact that Gay can make me interrupt my reading in order to self-examine is a testament, I believe, to the necessity of this text. And I’m certain I wouldn’t feel as compelled were Bad Feminist written with the goal of making me think like an academic—instead I think as a black, American man, inextricably tied to the ideas and issues of culture Gay tackles in her book. Because I do have educational privilege, though, I want to do something with these ideas. I want to wrestle with them as Gay has, to look in the mirror after every essay and ask myself where I can do better, where I should be apologetic, and where I must learn to live with the damage that’s done.

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human,” Gay writes:

I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.

Perhaps this is exactly what Bad Feminist is about. It asks that we not necessarily embrace a label, but that we embrace the areas where we’ve failed, either shallowly or deeply, and it asks how we can use these failures to keep doing better, to support what we believe in and to try to do some good in the world. It’s likely to get messy along the way, but it seems more than worth a try.

Micah McCrary is the author of Island in the City (University of Nebraska, September 2018). His work appears in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Midwestern Gothic, Identity Theory, and Third Coast, among other publications. He is an assistant editor at Hotel Amerika, a contributing editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and a founding co-editor of con•text. A teaching associate and PhD candidate at Ohio University, he holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay • Harper Perennial, 2014 • 336 pages

Photo courtesy of Helene Childs-Budelis

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