Roxane Gay is having a banner year. Last May, her first novel, An Untamed State, was well-received by critics, including yours truly. Now comes Bad Feminist, a collection of opinionated essays that shows equal adeptness with the freewheeling form Dr. Johnson called a “loose sally of the mind.” Racism and sexual violence are the two colliding bees in Gay’s bonnet, but such serious subjects are leavened by her shrewd critiques of pop culture.
You don’t want to get on her bad side. She is a rage refinery, processing crude emotional reaction into reasonable argument. The public may have swallowed the self-actualizing premise of The Help, but after reading what Gay has to say about the movie, you will come to realize it is full of the same earthy ingredient Minny served her demeaning white employer. This Terrible Awful glosses over the hardships black female domestics had to endure in 1960s Mississippi.
“We see nary an ass grab,” Gay writes. On the other hand, we are encouraged to sympathize with “desperate southern housewives,” despite their “domestically tyrannical” behavior.
Quentin Tarantino gets his ears pinned back too, for Django Unchained, “a white man’s slavery revenge fantasy, one where white people figure heavily and where black people are, largely, incidental.”
Same goes for Orange Is the New Black, a TV show “as good as it is infuriating” for the way its “diverse characters are planets orbiting Piper’s [the blond WASP heroine’s] sun.” Gay’s objection to 12 Years a Slave (yes, she didn’t like that one, either) zeroes in on the whipping of Patsy, a horrible scene that serves more to “amplify Solomon’s plight, as if he is the most tragic figure in this situation.”
Fans of Fifty Shades of Grey will want to skip “The Trouble with Prince Charming,” Gay’s essay on the publishing phenomenon. She has a lot of fun with the author’s inadequacies. Lying at the core of these global bestsellers, however, is something worse than bad prose. “The trilogy represents the darkest kind of fairy tale, one where controlling, obsessive, and borderline abusive tendencies are made to seem intensely desirable by offering the reader big heaping spoonfuls of sweet, sweet sex sugar to make the medicine go down.”
Lest you think Gay suffers from chronic dissatisfaction, she praises Girls, Sweet Valley High and The Hunger Games, even though Katniss’ travails remind her of being gang-raped when she was a teen, the trauma of which was compounded by her treatment afterward. “ ‘Slut’ was my name for the rest of the school year because those boys went and told a very different story about what happened in the woods.”
Understandably, rape weighs heavily on her mind. In “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” she asks an interesting question: “Can you think of a dramatic television series that has not incorporated some kind of rape story line?” It isn’t so much that pop culture exploits rape, it’s that we “ignore the material realities” of the act: too often we downplay its violence, the lasting physical and psychological damage. In one episode of Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister is raped by her brother; the next week she speaks to him as if nothing happened.
And what about rape jokes? When the comedian Daniel Tosh told an audience it would be funny if a female heckler were gang-raped, Gay fired up her laptop and went to work. Several famous male comedians, including Chris Rock and Louis CK, came to Tosh’s defense, citing free speech. None of these First Amendment champions could be found when Michael Richards of Seinfeld called a heckler the N-word. They drew the line on racism, not sexual violence.
Gay reminds them that the First Amendment protects you only from police action: “We are free to speak as we choose without fear of prosecution or persecution, but we are not free to speak as we choose without consequence.”
Other goodies one will find in this grab-bag: the political benefits of social media, the right-wing assault on reproductive rights, the Penn State child-abuse scandal, that overplayed song by one-hit wonder Robin Thicke, Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen and an epistolary essay whose title says it all: “Dear Young Ladies Who Love Chris Brown So Much They Would Let Him Beat Them.”
When she was younger, Gay turned her back on feminism (hence her title). With this book, she has made up ground. Her place in the sisterhood is secure.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.