Roxane Gay’s collection of essays on “feminism, race, gender, sexuality, and their intersections with popular culture,” Bad Feminist, came out in August 2014, and I’ve been dying to read it.
I bought the book right away, so my sister and I could read it together (purchased on a warm summer day while we ate gelato and walked along the river) — but shortly after that summer day, my sis moved to Denver, and took the book with her.
Months passed. My anticipation of reading this book reached crazy heights. I kept my name on the waiting list at the library, even though I’d already bought a copy, and didn’t need to be taking up space on the waiting list.
Such was my desire though, that I kept my name on the list anyway.
Then my sister came home for Christmas, brought the book back — and I started to devour it immediately.
This book was everything I thought it would be — honest, brutal, funny, poignant, inspiring, enlightening — and full of beautiful, perfect prose. Ms. Gay is a wonderful writer, and this clear-eyed examination of our crazy world is the kind of book that demanded compulsive, obsessive page-turning.
Here is Roxane Gay’s author pic —
I almost cannot with how adorable she is. Put her in a cupcake wrapper with some icing on top and I would stuff her into my mouth.
Here is another image of her, which I found on this TNB interview —
I told my husband I need to marry this woman because she is brilliant, and he was like, “How many wives do you need?” and I said, “I need all the wives,” and Greg munched his gluten-free spaghetti a moment and then asked if I planned to watch Antiques Roadshow with him, and this is why I can’t have a serious conversation about bigamy with my husband. Because he’d rather discuss vases and old sake jugs rather than my need to marry lots of smart women.
Alas, Roxane Gay wouldn’t marry me anyway, because she has man-friends and would like to have a baby one day, and since I’d rather live my life sans children, I would be a horrible partner for her.
However, in my imaginary collection of female spouses, Roxane Gay is totally mine.
So much of Bad Feminist made me intensely grateful, to the point of feeling triumphant, and I learned things about Tyler Perry and Chris Brown and the song “Blurred Lines” that I never knew before.
(I should also note that I hate the song “Blurred Lines” as well as Robin Thicke’s other popular song, “Give It 2 U,” and I always change the station whenever either one comes on the radio. We probably all have songs that rub us the wrong way, so my ignorance about “Blurred Lines” can certainly be attributed to the fact I don’t like it, and therefore don’t listen to it.)
But Bad Feminist is about so much more than sexist music and misogyny in popular culture. Roxane Gay uses contemporary issues as a starting point for many of her essays, but they go to much deeper places, into the underlying order of things.
I felt especially vindicated by Ms. Gay’s essay titled “1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help” — because The Help was one of those novels I just couldn’t stomach. The author, Kathryn Stockett, is a truly wonderful person. I listened to Ms. Stockett give a presentation and answer audience questions at the Aspen Summer Words writers conference a few years ago, right after the movie of The Help had gone into production — and I loved listening to her, and found her extremely witty and charming. I really, really enjoyed every moment she was on stage. I thought she was enchanting.
But as for The Help, I tried to read it, and I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I hit this horrible wall with that book. Normally, I can push through mental walls and read about anything — but I failed with The Help. I read the beginning, became suddenly aggro, skimmed large chunks of the book, flipped to the last page, and then read Kathryn Stockett’s comments about her real life at the end. I liked her comments about real life, and read those with focused absorption, but trying to read her novel was like driving spikes up my fingernails. I just couldn’t do it.
Everywhere around me, women kept asking, “Have you read The Help yet? Did you love it? Didn’t you just love it???“ and I had no idea what to say. I felt like a failure as a reader, because I hated the it book. I couldn’t stomach The Help. Couldn’t even get through it. I felt so alone. Sometimes not loving the it book can feel like a moral crisis. That was the case with me and The Help.
For the record, here are popular it books I have loved: The Red Tent, Wild, The Fault in Our Stars, The Glass Castle.
But I could not read The Help. I can’t even paste a picture of the book cover here in my blog post, because I disliked that book so much. The book cover is burned into my mind though, because when The Help was the it book, it was Everywhere, All The Time, and there was no escape from that cover.
So Roxane Gay’s essay on the book — and the movie made from the book — came as a joyful revelation to me. I felt like finally — finally!! — someone else understood! Someone else knew why I picked up that book and felt so angry and frustrated that I couldn’t even read it.
Because I never liked that Skeeter (the young white woman) uses those black women’s stories to empower her own life and career by publishing a book that, had it been real, would’ve meant those maids would now fear for their lives — but we’re supposed to believe that Skeeter is helping fight racism and oppression by interviewing these women, and that racism in the ’60s was sad and uncomfortable but not mind-numbingly horrifying.
For the record: racism in 1960s Mississippi was mind-numbingly horrifying. Black lives meant nothing. Black people were lynched and killed in terrible ways all the time. I feel sad that there are so many people alive today who want to deny this reality, because maybe they have fragile egos and maybe they think they’ll be burdened by white guilt or something by accepting the truth —
And I’m certainly not saying we should all walk around feeling guilty because a bunch of white people in Mississippi were racist murdering assholes, as if only white people can be racist assholes who murder people.
Of course that’s not true, nor is it the point. The point is being loyal to the truth.
And the problem was, for me — reading The Help didn’t match what I knew about the Civil Rights movement, or the horror of how so many white people in the 1960s looked at black people as something akin to pigs, animals to be chopped up and used however white people saw fit. Reading The Help was about how a white girl wants to prove she isn’t really a racist, even though she’s been raised to be racist, and decides to interview maids and publish their stories in a book so she can feel really awesome about herself and show the whole world how awesome she is.
The plot of this book just felt wrong. I felt wrong trying to read it, I felt even more wrong for not being able to read it, and I felt super-wrong for not loving it.
Then I read Roxane Gay’s essay, which goes into far more detail and insight than I ever could on this matter, and I felt profound thanks that someone else understood, and understood far, far better than I.
Because I am no Roxane Gay. When she writes in her essay, “The Help, I have decided, is science fiction, creating an alternate universe” (p. 209) — I can stand up and cheer, but I could never have come up with that thought myself. Ms. Gay is insightful and rational, whereas I couldn’t see past my own jumbled and ragey emotions on this.
When Ms. Gay writes about Hollywood’s infatuation with “the magical negro” and how “The Help provides us with a deeply sanitized view of the segregated South in the early 1960s” (p. 214) — well, she is being brave enough, intelligent enough, and supremely awesome enough, to put into words the things I was never smart enough to say.
I am someone who wants so much for the world to be better than it is. For all women to be treated with respect and dignity, for all children to grow up with full bellies and loving families, for there to be no wars, or caste systems, for there to be no need to judge and condemn others — not even in silent, unspoken ways — because their skin isn’t white.
I am such a horrible person sometimes. I judge, I condemn, I lash out at others — even if I don’t say the words aloud, I’ll suffer them in my mind — and I grew up with people who freely used the n-word, and still use hateful epithets for Hispanic people, and my own grandmother once told me she’d never speak to me again if I ever got it into my head to marry “some [bleeping n-word].” I’ve been in so many situations where using the n-word is like being able to smoke cigarettes — it’s a way you can show people you belong, you fit in, you are one of them. That’s a powerful compulsion to have. Just like I couldn’t enjoy reading The Help, there have been so many moments in life when I could never fit in — but do I speak up?
I used to try. When I was young, certain family members used to say racist things to me because they knew such comments would deeply upset me, and I would argue with these people until I ended up sobbing. That was the only time I felt brave enough to speak up, and I lost, every time. No one was swayed by my pain, or my pleas. And when I’m around adult white men, I don’t even try. They stand there and spew their visceral hate of the black race, or of Hispanic people “coming into this country” to “steal their jobs,” and I am silent. Because I know they will hate me if I speak up. They will turn their visceral hatred on me — the dumb, stupid female, who might as well “go rut with those [bleeping n-words],” if I want to “love them so much” — and this is where I know I am a coward.
I would like to think I am brave enough for a group of white men to all call me a “dumb stupid b*tch” and then rationally counter with something like, “Well, I’m sorry you’re all so insecure and judgmental, but I actually don’t care what you think.”
But the problem is, I do.
And angry white men really scare me. They own guns. They like to shoot things. They feel really threatened by women. And they feel especially threatened by black people. And when they’re all in a group, drinking beer together, spewing vile, racist things — they scare me the most.
I say nothing.
Groups of angry white men were not in The Help.
But groups of angry white men, and the women who agree with them, are a force to be reckoned with. White privilege, and the defensive anger white privilege often gives rise to, is toxic as hell, and when you are around it, it’s like being doused in acid.
The Help gives us a fairy tale in which we are not doused in acid. The pain of reality is muted, transcended, as if horror is simply a bad dream we once had, and we can smile at the version of history shown here in this movie, dressed up in a ribbon, so pretty and sweet.
We want the fairy tale. We want that fairy tale so bad.
“I’m like Skeeter! I care about black people!”
This is what I heard every time a white woman grabbed my arm and told me all about this amazing book, The Help, and how the novel was incredibly brilliant and moving, “honest and true,” and one of The Best Books Ever Written.
I stood there in silence, as I often do, because that is me burying my head in the sand. That is me being a coward.
I want to be a better person than I am. I want to be braver.
Bad Feminist is like a clarion call to have courage. Small acts of compassion matter. One of Ms. Gay’s essays on grief and atrocity focuses on that message alone: Keep trying. Do the work. Don’t give up.
As Roxane Gay states in her final essay in Bad Feminist, “No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman.”
“I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”
Please publish another book of essays soon, Roxane Gay. I need to keep reading your words.