A couple of weeks ago, one of my friends posted a picture on Instagram of the latest book she was reading: “Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay. I instantly added it to my latest list of books I wanted my husband to bring home from the library for me to read. I am a terrible book-list copy cat. I’ll read almost anything based on other people’s suggestions!
“Bad Feminist” surprised me in it’s thoughtfulness and it’s range. This isn’t just a collection of essays about being a woman or about feminism; it’s about race, culture and and a host of other topics that we typically try to ignore. In her essays, Gay analyzes everything from books, to TV shows, to films.
I was particularly struck by her close examination of reality TV. Gay asks us to look beyond the superficial guise of “entertainment” and to ask ourselves what these shows – and our enjoyment of them – say about us as a culture. Gay doesn’t hold punches when she describes the reality, of reality TV:
The genre has developed a very successful formula for reducing women to an awkward series of stereotypes about low self-esteem, marital desperation, the inability to develop meaningful relationships with other women, and an obsession with an almost pornographic standards of beauty.
In reality TV, men and women – but especially women – are required to perform our sick and twisted hyperboles of gender, all in the name of entertainment. And before you start to criticize the contestants on these reality shows, I can’t help but first ask you to remember that these shows would not exist without our willing participation and viewership. Much like our complaints about the commercialism and ridiculous wages of professional athletes and sports, our criticisms about the participants in reality shows are uber-hypocritical. They would not exist if we didn’t tune in by the millions to watch.
Even more cringe-worthy, Gay points out that by watching these “reality” shows where women are asked to compete for love, forced into uncomfortable situations and generally manipulated into becoming their worst selves, we are activity participating in their humiliation.
That thought really struck me. I don’t consider myself a mean person. I would say that no, I don’t take pleasure in seeing my friends or family humiliated. And yet, I can be just as easily sucked into a Bravo, “Real Housewives” marathon same as anyone else. I know that what I’m watching isn’t “real.” I know it is incredibly manipulated and edited to achieve a certain result. Until Gay’s essays, however, my thoughts never went so far as to wonder if that was ok.
The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. One thing I’m passionate about is empowering my female friends. I believe in supporting women’s ideas, leadership and strength. So how can I watch these shows that make a complete mockery out of women, femininity and gender roles? My husband and I haven’t had cable TV in a long, long time, but I still can’t think of one reality show whose sole mission is to set women up for success – no manipulation, no editing for drama, no cattiness. Just good old fashion support and empowerment.
Gay proposes that we watch these shows to make ourselves feel better. To simultaneously remind ourselves of the turn our life could take any moment, while stroking our own ego with reassurance that we aren’t that bad. That put in that situation, there is no way we would act so appallingly. Or that no matter what, we would never let things get that out of control.
Gay’s essay made me feel really sad. I feel sad that we find entertainment in other’s humiliation. But I feel even worse that we, more often than not, are willing to be such mindless consumers. I’m a thoughtful person, but I’ve honestly never taken such a close look at reality TV – about what it truly is and what it says about our culture – and I feel pretty awful about that.
Collectively, Gay has a lot of spot-on observations about feminism and gender roles. I enjoyed her take which was neither whiney or apologetic. She is a woman of conviction and strength, and she communicates both of those well.
I had a much harder time with Gay’s thoughts on race. She seemed to be arguing two separate and opposable ideas at all time. She would vent her frustrations about black advisees (she is a college professor) being embarrassed over putting an effort into their education, while going on to lament that there are rarely any people of color at literary events. She rightly questions why we put so much pressure on films or shows to represent or speak for all of us, yet criticizes authors for the limitations “writing what they know.”
One of the most honest and truthful themes of these essays is Gay’s desire to find representations of herself in popular culture, whether that be in print, TV, film or art. She describes the alienation of flipping on the TV and not seeing people that look like her, or live lives that resonate with her own. However, these moments of personal truth and anecdotes were rather few and far between. Gay spent more time describing the problem, then using her platform to fill the void.
It is not that I’m opposed to “hearing the problem.” Like with Gay’s assessment of reality TV, I was both convicted yet inspired by the problems that she laid out. What frustrates me is that I finished “Bad Feminist” and I still don’t have an accurate understanding of who Roxane Gay is.
I don’t totally agree with Gay’s criticisms of writing what you know. What she calls a limitation, I call one’s point of view/experience/uniqueness/etc. I agree with Gay that there are not nearly enough representations of people of color in our literature and media, but I can’t help but feel like she missed an opportunity to add her story to the conversation.
Throughout her essays, Gay would come close to sharing pieces of her story, then quickly retreats. She constantly left me grasping for details or for a fuller picture.
We write what we know. I see that less as a limitation and more as a reality. I wish Gay would have been the voice that she herself was looking for. I can understand the desire to see yourself and connect in others, but it seems to me that Gay had the opportunity to do that for other people, and missed it.
For now, maybe the voice that needs to be heard, is hers.
I hope that someday, Gay can be the voice she is looking for.