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Review: Essays in Roxane Gay's 'Bad Feminist' are sharp, funny and poignant

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"Bad Feminist: Essays" (Harper Perennial), by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay may call herself a bad feminist — she cops to loving pink and dancing to misogynist music — but she is a badass writer.

In her new collection of essays, "Bad Feminist," Gay argues that she needn't fit a mythologized image of a feminist in order to fight against institutional sexism, pay inequity, the cult of beauty, attacks on reproductive freedom and so on.

The essays range from the humorous — an account of her unwitting entry into the cutthroat world of competitive Scrabble — to the weighty issue of acknowledging privilege: "You don't have to apologize for it. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about."

Gay is as comfortable dissecting a Joan Didion novel as the reality TV show "Flavor of Love" with equal fluency and smarts. She compares being a first-year professor to being a kid who gets to sit at the adult table on Thanksgiving for the first time. She highlights gender inequality in the publishing industry and offers practical solutions.

In an essay responding to the argument that the need for feminism is gone, Gay responds: "(L)ife has improved in measurable ways for women, but she is wrong in suggesting that better is good enough. Better is not good enough, and it's a shame that anyone would be willing to settle for so little."

Gay points out that women still earn 77 per cent of what men earn, that only 18 per cent of the members of Congress are women and that only 4 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

A later essay further drives this point home. Gay pillories a New York Times article titled "Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town" about the gang-rape of an 11-year-old girl. The author "focused on how the men's lives would be changed forever, how the town was being ripped apart, how those poor boys might never be able to return to school," Gay writes. "There was discussion of how the eleven-year-old girl, the child, dressed like a twenty-year-old, implying that there is a realm of possibility where a woman can 'ask for it' and that it's somehow understandable that eighteen men would rape a child. There were even questions about the whereabouts of the girl's mother, given, as we all know, that a mother must be with her child at all times or whatever ill befalls the child is clearly the mother's fault. Strangely, there were no questions about the whereabouts of the father while this rape was taking place."

Gay's writing style is as refreshingly varied as her subject matter — from lists to heavily footnoted pieces. A handful of the essays miss the mark or seem to drag on, but they're few and far between.

Reading "Bad Feminist" is like having a fascinating (one-way) conversation with an extremely smart, well-read, funny and thoughtful party guest. Here's hoping we have another encounter soon.

___

Online:

http://www.roxanegay.com/

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