Inspired Reads: Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist”

Author’s Note: This post is part of an ongoing series, “Inspired Reads,” focused on books about inspiring women, feminism, women in media, and issues facing women in contemporary culture. For next time, I’ll be reviewing Nobody is Ever Missing a novel by Catherine Lacey


Here are a few things to know about writer, English professor, Twitter guru, competitive Scrabble player, and all around badass, Roxane Gay. She loves the color pink. She likes reading Vogue. In fact, she once “live-tweeted the September issue.” She sometimes likes to dance to songs like “Blurred Lines” and sing along to gangster rap. She’s open about having sexual interests that stray from the mainstream. She also’s a feminist. Well, a self-described “bad feminist.” She explains that label writing:

I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. 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.

Gay’s 2014 collection of essays Bad Feminist examines a wide range of contemporary issues, from politics, to race, to gender and pop culture. The book opens with a brief introduction about the labels of feminism and bad feminism, followed by a section entitled [Me] in which the author examines some of her own ideas of feminism, a discussion of privilege, and a particularly wonderful essay about her experience with Scrabble tournaments. Another section [Gender & Sexuality] covers a range of topics from the feats and flaws of HBO’s Girls, to unlikable female characters in literature, to the author’s experience struggling with the cult of thinness at fat camp. In the later sections, Gay writes about the intersections of race, gender and sexuality. She calls out the abusive relationship portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, Chris Brown sympathizers on Tumblr, the difficulties of writing difference and the shortcomings of literature and film such as The Help that attempts to capture black experience through a white lens.

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay

Gay’s essays range from the deeply personal to the academic, funny to the heartbreaking. The author discusses feminism and recent issues in popular culture as a woman of color and survivor of sexual assault. Her perspective provides insight into issues that I had never considered prior to reading this book, reminding me that we cannot subscribe to a “narrow brand of feminine experience.” Gay emphasizes the importance of considering diversity in the feminist experience in the essay, “How We All Lose,” concluding that many recent forays into feminist literature fail to explore beyond the vacuum of isolated experience.

A little about my own history as a bad feminist. I support a woman’s right to choose. I read Judith Butler in college. My paperback copy of The Awakening is dog-eared and coffee-ringed. I have strong opinions about women having access to equal pay and treatment in the workplace. I’ll also devour a Law & Order: SVU marathon without thinking about the ways the show helps sanitize victimhood and “rape culture” for its audience. I spend more money on makeup than I’d like to admit publicly. I could do better when it comes to my own feminist convictions. Like Gay, I’m “messy” and “flawed,” and as I was reading the introduction to this collection, I felt certain passages, like this one, spoke directly to the place I am in right now:

I resisted feminism in my late teens and my twenties because I worried that feminism wouldn’t allow me to be the mess of a women I knew myself to be.

Many of the essays in this collection have been previously published online, and while the overarching themes of gender, sexuality, and race are well-explored, the collection can feel disjointed at times. In some reviews of the collection, critics have noted frustration around the fact that the pieces themselves are rarely conclusive. It’s true that in most cases Gay seems to end essays in almost an ellipses rather than offer concrete solution to issues, but I found her honesty about not having all the answers refreshing. Throughout the book, Gay returns to the theme that as humans we’re not perfect, and we can’t expect feminism, a human construct, to be perfect either. We can’t expect flawlessness, not even of our idols. But Roxane Gay has a voice, and she’s “making noise,” and her liberating collection of essays will make you want to join her.


Ally MacDonald

I’m an editor at O’Reilly Media where I work with talented content creators on technical books and videos focused on server-side web topics. Prior to joining O’Reilly, I worked in higher education publishing at Cengage Learning, interned at St. Martin’s Press in New York, and also taught English abroad in the Czech Republic. When I’m not editing, or thinking about things I should be editing, you can find me reading, consuming large amounts of coffee, cooking fun things and then taking Instagram pictures of them, and probably watching too much Netflix (sometimes all of these at once). Follow me on Twitter to keep up with my adventures in tech publishing and occasional cat GIFs.

Twitter: @allyatoreilly

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