I first noticed this book on the Goodreads best nonfiction of 2014 list. I had read a couple fiction books in a row and I enjoy essay collections just as much as I enjoy short story collections. I’d like to think I enjoy those sorts of books because it guarantees at least a couple pieces I’ll like and a couple pieces I won’t so I can sound nuanced in my critique, but it might just say more about my attention span.
SPOILER ALERT, not for anything I’m going to say, but for the book in general. Roxane Gay sites a lot of recent pop culture in her various essays. Two that she reveals major plot points for are Gone Girl and the Hunger Games Trilogy. If you’re reading and see a book/movie come up but don’t want things spoiled, just skip a couple pages. She gives no warning in the book itself so this is my caution flag to you. I will add that she does a good enough job presenting each of her examples that if you’re not familiar with the source material, her point still comes across clearly.
I’m going to be critical of an important detail in a second here, but the main thing you need to know about this book is that it’s extremely honest. The language is plain, the emotions are real, and everything in the book feels like a conversation with a living breathing person. The author does a fantastic job of helping you see the world through her eyes and all of her viewpoints are well presented. I know honest seems like a strange word here, but it’s the one I keep coming back to.
The book starts and ends with her explaining the title Bad Feminist. She claims this title for herself because she feels many of the things she does don’t fit with what most people would define as a feminist. She goes on to talk about how much our culture likes to put people on pedestals but then the second a flaw is found in their life they are torn down along with whatever values they tried to stand for. She calls this idea that there is one right way to be a feminist ‘essential feminism’ and really goes through a lot of good arguments about why holding people to these absolute value codes is a horrible idea.
I completely agree with her point there, but the problem is throughout the book it becomes tough to tell if she’s using the idea of going against essential feminism as a way to excuse some of her comments. An example of this is an essay half way through the book called ‘Reaching for Catharsis’ in which she talks about the book Skinny by Diana Spechler. These two comments are made within two pages of each other, “The body is a personal territory and every person’s weight struggle should be taken seriously, but there’s overweight and there’s overweight,” then when talking about the weaknesses of the book, “the implausibility of all this drama over a mere thirty pounds of excess weight.” Should every person’s weight struggle be taken seriously only if it’s more than 30 pounds that’s causing the problem?
There are several places in the book where a broad statement is made, but then followed by a specific case where the opposite is held to be true. It becomes a tricky line the author walks at several points in the book. It certainly doesn’t overcome all the books positives though. I can’t stress enough how much this book felt like just having a normal chat with a friend. A dozen topics are covered from gender in politics to music lyrics to scrabble tournaments. Even though sometimes the author seems to want to have her cake and eat it too, it’s still a delicious cake that’s worthy of checking out.
★★★★☆ – Modern culture dissected thoroughly if sometimes a little questionably. A reminder of my rating system