Book Club: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

I am a feminist.

Quick definition of terms for you: feminism means you support men and women having equal opportunities, rights, and access. If you think it’s cool for me to write this snarky blog, you’re a feminist. If you’re a woman who can read this, you’re a feminist. If you’re a woman who doesn’t like anything I write ever and then take to your own blog/Twitter/Facebook/local saloon to talk about how much you think I’m a total moron with no taste, you’re a feminist. It doesn’t mean you don’t wear a bra, or hate men, or have to agree with everything other feminists do, but it means that you gotta think women and men should both be allowed to take part in public life and make their own decisions. If this does not describe you, I ask that you please click the little X in the right hand corner of your screen and make your merry way back to The Chive. Thanks in advance.

I was at a conference in New York a few weeks ago, and this badass literary agent, Janet, was going on and on and on about Bad Feminist and how we had to read it. I am in equal parts in awe of Janet’s terrified to disappoint her and intellect and humor, so I ran straight to a SoHo bookshop and grabbed a copy. I knew Roxane Gay’s work from meeting her once at some cocktail thing and following her hysterical live tweeting of Ina Garten’s show(s), so I was jazzed to read this.

Bad Feminist

Out of the gate, she deployed this neat rhetorical trick that’s going around the non-fiction world right now like chicken pox at Chuckie Cheese. She isn’t that well-versed in feminist writing and theory, she tells us, but knows she’s a feminist (see above definition) without that. My academic grounding in feminism is limited to some undergrad coursework and a graduate-level seminar, so I relate to that. I feel out of my depth when I talk about feminism with my friends who majored in gender studies all the time! I think that’s pretty common. She feels, though, like a bad feminist because she likes to wear dresses and bake and watch the always-horrifying Law&Order:SVU. As I write this, I am eating a muffin I baked this morning and wearing not only a skirt but a puffy one. I don’t feel like this puts me at odds with advocating for my access to services, but I get that this feels different for different people. Still, I don’t think declaring yourself an unreliable narrator in your own memoir is a workable solution.

The book is divided into several sections clumped loosely by theme. The essays within are sometimes barely more than a couple pages, and sometimes what most people would consider a chapter. Like all small pieces of art that are asked to stand together, some are better than others. Let’s start with the good, shall we? She plays competitive Scrabble, and describes the people she meets and vanquishes in a way that made me ROFL IRL. It also made me want to never, ever play Scrabble again. Her vivid, brave description of her own gang rape as a child was a straight gut punch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone discuss their own trauma so eloquently. The way she talked about her immigrant family was both touching and insightful without being saccharine. I loved these polished bits, both grim and light.

But the bad, man. The bad was pretty bad. There were a ton of passages in sore need of an editor; I found some easy-to-fix stuff that was just lazy editing. Since almost all of this had been previously published elsewhere, she’s had at least three people take a look at this, none of whom took out errant commas or adverbs. I know, this is rich coming from me, but this is a blog I write for fun. At work, I go through and turn n-dashes into m-dashes and consult my dogeared MLA guide constantly.

Most of the things that touched on feminism in the media, rape culture, and race in America were hot takes. She’d look at something like the music she loves to dance to, point out something salient about how degrading it was to women, say she still liked to get down to Robin Thicke, and then move on. She’d get right up against pushing through why she liked all the procedural cop shows that are, about women getting sexually assaulted, then stop short. The door was there. She tested the knob and found it unlocked. There’s so much to say about all these things that’s needs to get said, and she’s got the platform, background, and intellect to do so. I really wanted to hear what she thought about Trayvon Martin, about rap videos, about beer commercials. I felt let down by her saying, “okay, I like makeup! I’m a bad feminist!” and leaving it there. Especially because that has nothing to do with feminism.

Look, I get feeling estranged from the most verbal of our feminist sisters and brothers. I get feeling a little weird about having a candy dish on my desk. I’ve been called bossy and pushy and slutty and bitchy and whatever other gendered adjectives you can think of and felt mad at myself for internalizing it rather than recognizing it for the bigoted bullshit it is. I was hoping she’d have something more to say that, “that felt bad to me, too.”

So what did you think? I know I’m the only person who didn’t like this book, and I’m almost scared to say this out loud. Thoughts? Tell me why I’m wrong.

Next week, I’m reading this. Join me!

Book Club: How to Build a Girl

This week, Cosmopolitan asked me to interview Caitlin Moran, the Times of London columnist and author of several books about contemporary feminism. It was so much goddamned fun I don’t even have a word for it. Funny, self-effacing, profane, and simultaneously very polite. we spent a fun hour chatting about her newest book, How to Build a Girl, the first in a fictional trilogy.

How to build a girlWhile I’m deeply tempted to say this is not a book for kids, it completely and totally is. Sex, masturbation, rampant teenage horniness, drug use, negligent parenting, partying with and like rockstars: the Parents Television Counsel’s top concerns are all here, and it encapsulates perfectly how uncool, lonely, and weird you feel as you figure out who you’re going to be when you grow up. How to Build a Girl tells the story of a young girl from a big family in an industrial town in England in the early 90s. Poor, chubby, and friendless, she embarks on a journey of self-improvement and self-discovery that mirrors Moran’s own. After winning a poetry contest as a preteen, she realizes that being a good, incisive writer is her ticket out of loneliness, poverty, and her not-great Midlands hometown.

I was a pretty uncool preteen who didn’t have a lot of friends and was a little bit chubby. Like our heroine, Johanna, I won a writing contest at the age of twelve and started writing record reviews for money at about age sixteen. Like her, I grew up, figured out how to dress myself, made friends, and became a writer. How to Build a Girl, coupled with Moran’s other, non-fiction books, is something like an “It Gets Better” project for self-loathing, awkward kids. What I appreciated about Moran’s Johanna is how little time is spent feeling pity for her being a loner. Indeed, it’s positioned as a great way to have time to read, listen to cool records, and dream about your awesome, fun-filled future. The book’s arguing the virtue of playing a long game, which is the number one thing I wish I could tell my twelve-year-old self. Twelve year olds, if you are reading my blog: You are not going to be a loser forever and I am living proof of this. After all, I get to interview women like Caitlin Moran for money, and the boys who didn’t want to kiss me and the girls who made fun of me are pretty boring humans who still haven’t read Moby Dick or gone to Africa or worn dark purple lipstick.

It’s refreshing to see a novel about a teenager that deals with teen sexuality frankly and directly. Other than Forever by Judy Blume, I can’t think of another book that is so unflinching. I’ve been watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer of late, and it stands in stark contrast to How to  Build a Girl. On the one hand, you’ve got virginal Buffy Summers who literally takes her boyfriend’s soul away the first time they Do It (which only happens after two seasons of boring will they/won’t they buildup). On the other, you’ve got Johanna masturbating in her twin bed, trying desperately to offload her first kiss on anyone who will have her. Once she manages that, she never, ever mentions this boy (“The Kisser”) again, mostly because it just wasn’t that big a deal. One of these things is a lot more realistic a depiction of how you feel as you figure out your own sexuality, and it’s not the one with vampires.

If I had a little(r) sister, I would give her this book so hard (my sister is too old for this to be the revelation it would be to a teenager). It celebrates the self-determination that you have as a preteen and teenager, instead of treating that unformed state as something feral that requires taming. If you know a teenage girl, I think it’s important for you to look at her and say, “if you don’t like who you are, just make a new you. Work hard, be kind, and focus on the future. Draw a new face on top of your face if you want to.” That’s what I did, and that’s what Caitlin Moran did, and that’s what Johanna does. I’m excited to see where the next two books take her, and I can’t wait to give this book to the next uncool teenage girl I meet.

Lazy Sunday, 14 July

I hope you’re enjoying yourself as much as I am.

Lazy Sunday, 2 June 2013

Welcome back to Lazy Sunday! Do some reading and don’t feel obligated to shower or get fully dressed today.

Lazy Sunday: 14 April

I got a surprise visit this week, so I’ll be having a very quiet Sunday here at home. Enjoy these links to see you through the day!

Places I’d Like to Move Into: Get Smart

As I mentioned last week, I was obsessed with Get Smart as a kid. For the uninitiated, this is a late 60s Mel Brooks spy comedy starring Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. Here’s a full episode I found on YouTube.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ynmQRkkfGo]

If you loved Inspector Gadget, you will adore this. Maxwell Smart, the titular character, had this amazing, colorful, very mod apartment in New York that really informed my sensibilities. While the time period in which this show is set is contemporaneous with Mad Men, it’s a lot more exuberant and expressive than you see on those sets, probably because it’s supposed to be a joke about the 60s. I dreamed of an apartment like this when I was little, and even though I now know I can’t have the exploding telephone or the bullet-proof invisible wall. Sigh.

And patriotic.
And patriotic, too.

The whole show is just an explosion of color blocking, sharp lines, fake eyelashes, and Cold War-era humor. It’s a big winner. Fun fact: Agent 99 and Max Smart get married in the fourth season and have kids, and she became the first working mother on television. Like I said: this show was hugely influential for me. Let’s move into the Smarts apartment after the jump.

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