Some things I learned from Roxane Gay’s ‘Bad Feminist’

Bad Feminist is in good company as part of my desktop essentials.
Bad Feminist is in good company as part of my desktop essentials.

When I first heard about Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist, I knew I had to read it simply based on the title.

I spent much of my summer in an online group of women-identifying people I now refer to as ‘Feminist Summer Camp’. What started out as group filled with fun threads of jokes, light-hearted banter about ‘smashing the patriarchy’ and general goofiness soon descended into a nearly unrecognizable place of feminist one-upmanship and bullying. It was a pot of water on the stove set to simmer and left to boil over.

There were countless mutinies over the few months I was in the group. People were banned because they weren’t measuring up to a set of unique expectations of Feminism each member would impose on others. There were accusations of tone-policing and name-calling that ranged from school-yard bullying tactics all the way to labelling near strangers as bigots, SWERFs, homophobes and worse.

There was an invisible yet rigid framework that ended up alienating people who were doing their best to modify their behaviour to be more inclusive. In some cases, people were banned for simply misspeaking or making a mistake. Other times members would be ganged up on in such overwhelming numbers, they’d just leave the group.

Grown women who claimed to be feminists used fear tactics and brought down other women just to keep control of the group and I could not be part of it any more.

When I finally quit, I was sad at how I saw a group of people who are ostensibly fighting for the same cause go after each other for not being the ‘right’ kind of feminist: not being intersectional enough, not considering or adequately checking (assumed) privileges, condemning tone policing while tone policing others.

Essentially, it was a handful of admins serving as judges at the Social Justice Olympics and a small crew of devoted followers trying to win a gold medal.

When I quit the group, I was left scratching my head about whether or not I was truly a feminist or, on particularly dark days, whether that was a label I even still wanted. I was upset about being pushed from the group for not being radical enough, for not being intersectional enough, for not shouting about systemic injustices every time I could, for not going to marches and rallies. Essentially, for being the ‘wrong kind of feminist’; a ‘bad feminist’.

I was looking for direction and I found it in Gay’s book.

In her essays, Gay uses personal anecdotes and her lived experiences to anchor her argument that there is no such thing as a perfect feminist. It is a fallacy because feminism is carried out by people and people are flawed.

“Feminism’s failings,” she says, “do not mean we should eschew feminism entirely.”

But the paragraph that follows is what resonated most with me and the reason I haven’t given up on feminism.

We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.

That’s what went wrong with Feminist Summer Camp: the people who gave enough of a damn “to try to minimize the fractures among us” weren’t the loudest people in the group and got drowned out by people who were more brusque, emphatic or who simply wouldn’t back down from an argument.

It’s not that ‘we’ as feminists can’t have nice things. It’s that in making a collective effort of Feminism, we have to remember we’re talking to people with their own views and differences and otherness and hangups and lived experiences we can’t always see. It reminds me, in a way, of the Kuleshov Effect in filmmaking.

We have two people whose ideas of feminism are informed by their unique experiences. As these ideas are presented side by side in conversation or debate, we derive more meaning from the interaction of the two ideas than the singular one we had before. As Eisenstein said, two things that come crashing together create a ‘third thing’ that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In Bad Feminist, I sought a compass for my own feminism and was reminded why I took up the cause in the first place. There is so much inequality in the world and that manifests itself in so many unspeakably awful ways.

But this one thing called feminism is something I can take on and work on chipping away at. If enough of us with different experiences and expectations chip away at it long enough, we may one day find that equality we seek.

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