Bad Feminist Summary and Review

by Roxane Gay

Has Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

Thanks to the #MeToo movement and women’s marches, feminism has grown to be quite prominent in the media and social discourse over recent years. However, there’s no singular way to be a feminist. Even within the movement, there are many divergent viewpoints. Roxane Gay explains the concept of essential feminism and why she goes against some of its conceptions to champion her unique brand of "bad” feminism. Bad feminism is for anyone who feels like they don’t fit the prescribed version of feminism for whatever reason but still wants to make their voice heard. You’ll find that being a bad feminist is better than not being a feminist at all.

In this summary of Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, you’ll discover

  • why bad reality TV can make us feel so good;
  • how a terrorist was selected to be on the cover of Rolling Stone; and
  • that the film The Help is less than helpful when it comes to furthering racial equality
Note: The following book summaries contain strong, offensive language and a racist term is used in regards to stereotypes in films.

Bad Feminist Key Idea #1: Why Roxane Gay Is A Bad Feminist

No one is perfect: as humans, we all make mistakes and Gay is no exception to that. But as a feminist, she’s under continual pressure to live up to all of the demands that accompany the label. Part of the problem with the pressure is that there’s no single, absolute version of feminism. It’s a complex movement and, in an attempt to represent all women, has surely disappointed many. Traditionally, feminists fought for the equal rights and liberties of white, cisgender, heterosexual women. That particular brand of feminism excludes black, transgender and queer women – failing to acknowledge the different obstacles these women face. As white, cis, heterosexual women are more likely to have an opportunity to advocate for their beliefs in public, it’s this same group of woman that writes the feminist rulebook. Gay refers to their kind of feminism as essential feminism. They handle feminism like a club with strict rules and guidelines that have to be followed to be considered a "proper” feminist, like opposing pornography and renouncing the objectification of women under any circumstances. Yet, women who promote essential feminism are coming from a place of privilege. They don't have the same experiences as those who also belong to another minority/oppressed group, like women of color or people who fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Accordingly, their opinions on what constitutes a “real” feminist can often alienate those who don’t share their same background. It’s not just the women in minority groups who feel excluded from essential feminism. Simply disagreeing with some of those viewpoints can be enough to leave some women feeling shut out as well. Consider women who like watching or performing in pornography videos or women who enjoy aspects of popular culture where women may be objectified. The author absolutely doesn’t identify with essential feminism; that’s why she calls herself a bad feminist. She believes in equality for all women and men in every part life. She used to avoid using the label of "feminist”, so she understands why so many women are hesitant to adopt it. The problem is, the word "feminist” is heavily correlated with essential feminism and conjures up the images of women who apply the feminist movement as a method of self-branding. But now, Gay has made peace with her flawed feminism. She’s accepted that she’ll never please everyone and by doing and believing things that contradict essential feminism, her type of feminism is a significant part of the conversation. Being a bad feminist is better than just not being a feminist at all.

Bad Feminist Key Idea #2: Reality TV and the Dehumanization of Women

The term "reality television” is misleading because it doesn’t display real life, but rather a warped version of reality. The same can be said concerning the representation of women on reality shows. Often they’re behaving in an over-the-top, unrealistic stereotype of their gender. There are some common stereotypes about women: they’re desperate to fall in love and get married, that they’re obsessed with their weight and that jealousy keeps them from forming genuine friendships with other women. Reality TV does nothing to help reject these stereotypes. If you watch any reality television show, you’ll see plenty of these types in the cast. The characters in reality television are not exhibited as complex, three-dimensional human beings, but instead reduced to simple, exaggerated clichés. When these characters are marketed to us as "real," it just reinforces the notion that all women fit into the molding of a few basic stereotypes. Look at dating game shows such as Rock of Love or Flavor of Love as an example. The women on these programs are displayed at war with each other – fighting for a male’s attention and affirmation. The man they’re competing for, on the other hand, makes it quite clear he doesn’t care for them in the least. He gives empty platitudes about love to the camera with a wink and makes fun of the women clamoring for him. The bachelor’s disdain for the women is particularly clear on Flavor of Love. The aim of the game is to win the affections of Flavor Flav, member of former the hip-hop group Public Enemy. Rather than bothering to at least learn each woman’s name, Flav assigns them a nickname of his own devising, further dehumanizing them. If you’re still not convinced that the women on these shows are viewed as objects, consider the fact that Flav named two of the lucky ladies “Thing 1” and “Thing 2.” Diminishing women as caricatures gives the audience permission to criticize and make fun of them. It makes them “must-watch” television as well. Most reality shows force contestants into being the worst versions of themselves: the worse they behave, the more entertaining it is for us. Why is that? Because it allows us to feel smug about our lives when we see the "bad” choices other people are making in theirs. But when these exaggerated characters are so ubiquitous on television, it can normalize certain behaviors and aesthetics that ultimately keep women from advancing as equals in society. The same can be said of makeover shows and any reality TV that concentrates on people’s appearance. Female bodies that have been surgically enhanced or sculpted by way of harsh weight loss regimens make for great viewing and appeal to superficial males. However, it overlooks women’s internal experiences. These types of shallow programs disregard the wisdom and depth of experiences that women have to offer society.

Bad Feminist Key Idea #3: Desensitization of Sexual Violence Against Women

Rape is a horrific and violent crime that can leave victims physically and emotionally damaged. That’s why many television shows use storylines connected to rape to add to the drama and boost ratings. Some programs are almost exclusively fueled by traumatic accounts of sexual violence toward women. Look at the TV series Law and Order: SVU: it’s incorporated so many rape-related plotlines that each new episode has to go the extra mile to keep the audience engaged – adding increasingly gruesome details and twists. That means it’s no longer especially shocking for an audience to see a man "just” forceful penetrate a woman. We’re so accustomed to seeing rape victims left disfigured, beaten or subjected to any number of ordeals that the forceful penetration on its own isn’t seen as that serious anymore. It takes a lot more to incite revulsion in an audience numbed by overexposure to those types of stories. Sadly, sexual abuse isn’t only common in fiction. This violation of women is so prevailing in our society that it needed it’s own term – rape culture. Women almost expect sexual assault might be a part of their life. Again, entertainment takes some of the blame here; the obsession with and glamorization of rape on-screen almost encourages real-life rape culture. News media feeds rape culture as well in the way that it reports attacks. Look at the article that appeared in the New York Times in 2011; it recounts the sexual assault of an eleven-year-old girl by 18 men. The journalist chose to focus on how the perpetrators’ lives would be ruined, and how the town had been destroyed by the case. But the victim is hardly mentioned at all, save for a remark about how she looked much older than her actual age. Politicians don’t particularly help the cause, either, as former Republican Congressman Todd Akin proves. He’s the person responsible for the phrase "legitimate rape." It came about in a discussion concerning a woman’s right to an abortion. Akin implied that if a woman was a victim of "legitimate rape," her body would reject pregnancy. That isn’t just scientifically incorrect but problematic too. There’s no such thing as illegitimate rape – rape is rape – and that fact has to be made clear to everyone if there’s to be any hope of ending rape culture.

Bad Feminist Key Idea #4: Films That Hinder Progress Toward Racial Equality

The Help was released in movie theaters in 2011. Based in segregated Mississippi during the 1960s, it’s a feel-good story about a couple of African-American maids serving privileged white families. It was praised by critics and popular with audiences, but when it came to promoting racial equality, it was not as successful. The film employed some discriminatory stereotypes, including the “magical negro” and the “white savior narrative.” The magical negro is a black character whose principal qualities include kindness, wisdom and a supernatural element. They always use those traits to assist a white protagonist – not themselves. This trope is popular with white audiences because they feel better watching a positive portrayal of a black person. Although, what they don’t notice is that the stereotype isn’t actually a fully formed character, but instead only a catalyst for the white protagonist’s goals. In The Help, the magical negro cliché surfaces in the characters of Aibileen, Minny and the other of the black maids. They’re incredibly strong but end up applying their power to advance and educate the white characters, rather than help themselves. The Help is also heavily reliant on the usage of the white savior narrative. This is when the black characters have no way to better themselves and end up relying on a kind, white person. The black characters are depicted as lucky and grateful. This narrative is demonstrated prominently in one particular scene of The Help. After John F Kennedy attends the funeral of civil rights activist Medgar Evans, Aibileen – one of the black maids – hangs a picture up on her wall of JFK. She chooses him over Evans or another black civil rights activist to hang next to a photo of her son and one of a white Jesus. There was other racial stereotyping was implemented in the movie. In one of the scenes, Minny the maid claims “frying chicken tend to make me feel better about life.” The author finds it surprising that such stereotyping went overlooked in both a book and a movie made in the twenty-first century. The Help is one of several films that fail to display black characters as complex, well-rounded characters. It promotes the concept that black people in real life are nothing more than stereotypes we’ve seen in movies. Those types of stories misuse the civil rights struggle to entertain audiences but actively hinder racial equality.

Bad Feminist Key Idea #5: Systemic Sexism and Racism In The United States

Mass shootings are practically a near-daily occurrence in the United States. Also, far more Americans have died as a result of random acts of violence than at the hands of radicalized terrorists. But attacks carried out by white men – as the mass shootings often are– are never identified as acts of terrorism. It seems that people can always find a reason that a white man who commits a terrorist act is a truly good person deep down inside. The same people can also always find a rationale for why an innocent black boy is dangerous or immoral. Take Rolling Stone magazine for example; following the Boston Marathon bombings, it featured one of the perpetrators of the attack on the cover. The angle was that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – a young white man – looks just like “the boy next door”. The story they published was empathetic. The journalist spoke to people who knew him that described him as a nice, normal guy and tried to comprehend how and why Tsarnev had changed from being a regular boy to a mass murderer. Compare that coverage to the case of Trayvon Martin. When the unarmed black teenager was murdered by George Zimmerman (who later was acquitted of all charges), Trayvon wasn’t featured on the cover of a magazine, nor was his story covered with such sympathy. If anything, it was quite the opposite. Trayvon did nothing wrong. When he was shot, he had been armed with nothing more than iced tea and a packet of Skittles. However, the account of his death was shaped to match society’s expectations. It’s best demonstrated by when Fox News attempted to explain how the teenager may have used the iced tea and Skittles as weapons against Zimmerman. The state of inequality is also bleak for women. Along with race, gender inequality is still alive in America. Even women’s bodies are treated like legislative subject matter under the control of politicians – most of whom are white men. A woman’s reproductive freedom – her right to access birth control or abortion if she so chooses – still remains under threat today. And it’s evident that women are not considered to be men’s equals.\ As long as we can identify the incongruities with equality, we can work hard to rectify them. That’s what Gay is attempting to do with her queer, black, bad feminism.

Bad Feminist Key Idea #6: In Review

The key message in this book summary: Just like no human is perfect, no version of feminism is perfect. But don’t wait for an ideal type of feminism to find you or waste your time trying to fit into an ideal feminist mold – be a bad feminist! Every voice matters. The more so-called bad feminists speak out, the more the feminist movement can evolve and grow to be more inclusive. By starting a conversation about how race, gender identity, and sexual preference interact through the lens of feminism, we can change the way, and the world thinks.