Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy, I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Last week we read “feminism is for everybody” by bell hooks. I love bell hooks for so many reasons - she is so thorough in her thinking, exploring all sides of every issue, she is always grounded in both truth and love, and she has a manner that is accessible to everyone, whether you have a PhD from an Ivy League or had to drop out of school at a young age to earn money for your family - she is a true humanist. This week’s author is Roxane Gay, and her book, Bad Feminist continues in that bell hooks tradition of being razor-sharp in analysis, but relatable and down-to-earth. If you watched her TED talk, “Confessions of a Bad Feminist” you might think that she’s a professional comedian - she’s so funny and real - and she explains that the title of her essay collection, Bad Feminist refers to the fact that she messes up all the time and falls short of her own ideals… just as we all do. Which is a huge relief to listeners and readers. Interestingly though, Roxane Gay is not primarily a comedian - she’s a writer and public intellectual who has a PhD and is a professor at Yale. But before we get into that, I want to introduce my reading partner, Setareh Greenwood. Hi, Setareh!
Setareh: Hello! :)
Amy: Setareh and I know each other through my daughter Lucy, who did the episode on the UN Declarations of Human Rights. (I’ll say a little more about you…) Can you tell us some more about yourself?
Setareh: Sure thing! I’m 18, I’ve lived in California my whole life, I’m bi, and I’m half Iranian. My mom came to the US from Iran when she was 14 for highschool and then ended up having to stay here due to the Iranian revolution in 1979. My dad’s family is of European descent, according to 23&Me, he’s mostly British and German and his family came to the US roughly around the same time as the Mayflower, so they’ve been here for quite a while. Both my parents come from religious extended families (Baha’i and Muslim on my mom’s side and Christian on my dad’s) and atheist households. They’re both atheist and I would say I’m agnostic ? but I’m very very curious about Islam, the Baha’i faith, Zorastrianism, Sufism, and other religions that have influenced Iranian culture in particular. I’ve grown up pretty isolated from Iranian culture beyond my immediate family, so I’m always trying to learn more about it. I’m also really into Shakespeare, theatre, and music, and I stress paint quite a bit :) I’m going to be an English major next year (which is mostly exciting but also slightly terrifying) but I’m keeping my options open because I’m interested in a lot of things and I have a hard time picking just one thing. I haven’t picked a college yet but I’m leaning heavily towards Mount Holyoke :)
Amy: Awesome. And what interested you in Breaking Down Patriarchy? I remember you and Lucy doing a project together for your Honors American Literature class where you compared and contrasted your experiences in your faith traditions - Lucy with Mormonism and yours with Islam. Does your religious background inform your thoughts and feelings about patriarchy, or are they mostly non-religious factors?
Setareh: I think they’re largely non-religious factors but I’ve definitely thought about those factors in the context of religion a fair bit. I think that considering how to apply feminism and feminist values to a religion can be a good litmus test for how practical and compassionate those values actually are. For instance, people often make the argument that the hijab is anti-feminist and that banning it (as they’re doing in France at the moment) will free women from patriarchy without considering how essential autonomy and choice are to feminism and that in banning hijab, they are forcing women to conform to their idea of gender performance, which is just as harmful. It’s really frustrating that even people who consider themselves feminists or who operate under the guise of feminism still enforce patriarchy and try to control what other women do. I think feminism, which has to be intersectional in order to be feminism, is vital to our culture for it to be sustainable and I really love the exploration of that in this podcast.
Amy: Ok, let’s learn about the author of this book, Roxane Gay. Setareh, can you tell us about her?
Setareh: Absolutely! Roxane Gay is an American writer, professor, editor, and social commentator. She was born in 1974, in Omaha, Nebraska, to parents who are both Haitian. She began her undergrad studies at Yale University, but dropped out in her junior year to pursue a relationship in a different state, and then later completed her undergrad degree at Vermont College of Norwich University. She then earned a Master's degree with an emphasis in creative writing from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and a PhD at Michigan Technological University in Rhetoric and Technical Communication. After completing her Ph.D. in 2010, Gay began her academic teaching career at Eastern Illinois University, where she was assistant professor of English. While at Eastern Illinois, she was a contributing editor for Bluestem magazine, and she also founded Tiny Hardcore Press. Next, she was an associate professor of creative writing in the Master of Fine Arts program at Purdue University, and in 2019 Gay started as a visiting professor at Yale University. Gay is a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times, and is the author of several short story collections, a novel, a memoir called Hunger, which came out in 2017, and Bad Feminist, which is an award-winning collection of essays. And Gay describes Bad Feminist in the following way: "In each of these essays, I’m very much trying to show how feminism influences my life for better or worse. It just shows what it’s like to move through the world as a woman. It’s not even about feminism per se, it’s about humanity and empathy."
That definitely describes what the book felt like for me. And here I should mention that you had already read Bad Feminist, right, Setareh? What did you think of it overall when you read it before?
Setareh: Yes, I read it around the beginning of high school! I was really struck by how honest, nuanced, and vulnerable the book is. It tackles really difficult topics with grace and complexity but it never loses its awareness of human nature or experience. I was probably a bit young to read it when I first did, especially the essays about rape and rape culture, but Roxane Gay’s media and culture analysis in particular really stuck with me and it’s really affected the way I think about the content I consume and how I regard popular narratives and cultural trends. Rereading it actually really highlighted how deeply it influenced me, from the research topics I’ve chosen to how I’ve interacted with the world, it’s been very much influenced by this book.
Ok, let’s dig into the book. We chose three chapters each, so Setareh, why don’t you start, and we’ll switch off.
Okay cool! The first chapter I wanted to bring up was “Peculiar Benefits,” which talks about privilege and Roxane Gay’s experience with reconciling the ways in which she’s both privileged and marginalized as a Black, 2nd gen immigrant woman from what she describes as a loving middle/upper middle class family. It starts off with her talking about her experience visiting Haiti, where her parents are from, and seeing the juxtaposition of extreme poverty and, as she says, “almost repulsive luxury.” At the beginning of the chapter, she states that “To see poverty so plainly and pervasively left a profound mark on me” (17).
This really stood out to me because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people rationalize other-ing people and I think that one aspect of how we (white people especially) are taught to Other people is by avoiding confronting poverty and discussions about what allows poverty to exist. We’re taught to think of poverty as shameful, which feeds into a mindset that equates lack of success with moral failings– which makes it harder to acknowledge and address privilege, because you’re stuck believing that people suffering are suffering purely because of their own actions and not because of systems set up that make it harder for them to succeed (for instance, women being paid 78% - 95% of what men make at the same job).
This chapter also talked about what I’ve heard some people refer to as Pain Olympics. She said
“When we talk about privilege, some people start to play a very pointless and dangerous game where they try to mix and match various demographic characteristics to determine who wins at the Game of Privilege. Who would win in a privilege battle between a wealthy black woman and a wealthy white man? Who would win in a privilege battle between a queer white man and a queer Asian woman? Who would win in a privilege battle between a working-class white man and a wealthy, differently abled Mexican woman? We could play this game all day and never find a winner” (20).
I really love how she puts this. I think that by making the discussion about who has more privilege and how to rank marginalized identities according to privilege, we ignore the very real issues of economic, social, and political systems that are built to hurt/oppress people. It’s a distraction from the real work and the distraction allows more people to be hurt.
I’ve definitely had to remind myself not to take conversations (or my internal reactions) there when listening to people talk about negative ramifications of privilege. There’s an urge to distance myself from ~American whiteness~, especially because I’m half Iranian and my mom’s an immigrant, but I still benefit from white privilege in so many ways. I’m still working on internalizing my acknowledgement of it, but I make sure not to bring up my conflictions when it would derail a discussion by accidentally making it about white guilt.
Amy, what do you think?
I’m so glad you chose this chapter! I think her discussion of privilege is so helpful. I read this book during a time when I was having lots of conversations with lots of white men who were doing the hard work of introspection, really struggling with white guilt and male guilt, and a good bit of defensiveness as well. I think her insight is so helpful that
“Nearly everyone, particularly in the developed world, has something some else doesn’t, something that someone else yearns for.”
I was thinking about relatives I love who are white and male but who have significant physical handicaps that make everyday life really, really hard.
I think about a friend of mine a few years ago who is a white woman, absolutely gorgeous, tons of money, but I found out later that her husband was abusive and had had tons of affairs.
She also says “We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone. Of course we resent these accusations. ...white men… tend to… say, “It’s not my fault I am a white man,” or “I’m [insert other condition that discounts their privilege]”, instead of simply accepting that, in this regard, yes, they benefit from certain privileges others do not. To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgement of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered. You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it.” But then she says “You need to understand 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.” (17)
Setareh: That passage is so important!! I think this is a major reason why it can be so difficult to have discussions about how to dismantle systems that are hurting people; so many people recoil from acknowledging their privilege.
- Having conversations about this with family lately
- A lot of the resistance comes from a fear that if they have or acknowledge privilege, they’ll no longer be welcome in discussions about how to fix systemic issues and that no one will want to hear from them because they’re (for instance) able-bodied cishet white men
- Can definitely understand that but it seems counterproductive to me
- At least in terms of uplifting women (which is what I can speak to), I think men are needed and necessary in that discussion, especially because they have privilege and are able to use the authority their privilege gives them to reach people who might not listen to a woman about the exact same issue. They can enact change and amplify voices and important points that need to be heard and I think that’s really valuable
How We All Lose:
[Some people claim that] “If women’s fortunes improve, it must mean men’s fortunes will suffer, as there is a finite amount of good fortune in the universe that cannot be shared equally between men and women.”
-I meet both men and women who believe in this “zero sum game.” This is common whenever things change. Think of when the system of feudalism began to shift in Europe and peasants began to have more rights - the aristocracy became afraid “what will be my place then?? What about my land? My work?
-I don’t like “The Future is Female.” This indicates it has to be one or the other - if the future is not male, (as the past has been) then it must be female.
This is the mindset that Gay takes on - she criticizes Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men and the Rise of Women, which apparently claims that patriarchy is dead and that women have everything they could ever want now. Gay responds by saying that claiming patriarchy is dead
“...is so patently absurd that the hashtag #RIPPatriarchy quickly flourished on Twitter in response.”
“Rosin is not wrong that life 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.”
She then shares two very different examples that demonstrate that patriarchy is alive and well. First,
“At TechCrunch’s 2013 Disrupt, two programmers shared the TitStare app, which is exactly what you think it is. Something so puerile is hardly worth anyone’s time or energy, but it’s one more example of the cultural stupidity that is fueled by misogyny.” (Note: #metoo hadn’t happened yet)
Fix the Family, a conservative, Catholic “family values” organization, published a list of reasons why families should not send their daughters to college.” (TikTok video with an Evangelical Christian dad saying he was teaching his daughter to be subservient to men because it’s Biblical and godly)
“Feminists are celebrating our victories and acknowledging our privilege when we have it. We’re simply refusing to settle. We’re refusing to forget how much work there is yet to be done. We’re refusing to relish the comforts we have at the expense of the women who are still seeking comfort.”
That was a huge one for me too - maybe a woman reading this really does feel like in her community, everything is really very equitable. And that is awesome!!! But please remember that even in our own country, there are so many women who face terrible inequities, and nobody’s free until everyone is free.
Setareh, what did you think of this chapter?
Setareh: I thought it was really interesting! I especially resonated with your last point about refusing to settle with our own comforts as long as there is still work to be done. I think that’s so, so important.
There’s an argument you hear sometimes that ~oh you should be appreciative. Think about [x culture], they have it so much worse, you have nothing to complain about~. Rarely is the person making this statement actually working to make things better for the people they’re using as an example. It really bothers me! I’ve heard it a lot in the context of ~oh why are you so angry about how LGBT+ people are treated in this country? Think of how well off you are! You’re Iranian! You could be gay in Iran~. All it does is use guilt to manipulate people out of fixing our broken systems and helping people. It just guilts people into complacency; it never helps anyone.
Your point is so, so relevant; nobody’s free until everyone is free.
Garish, Glorious Spectacles:
Another chapter I wanted to highlight has to do with gender performance and what Roxane Gay calls “green girls,” based off a novel of the same name by Kate Zambreno. Essentially, Gay defines a green girl as a “young woman who is learning how to perform her femininity, who is learning the power of it, the fragility. Her education is, at times, painful. The green girl is as vicious as she is vulnerable… [The novel,] Green Girl reveals the intimate awareness many women have about the ways they are on display when they move in public, about the ways they perform their roles as women” (82).
I currently have A Lot of questions about gender expression and performance and what it means to be a woman so I found this chapter really intriguing, especially how green girls are described as knowing the rules to their existence, all these expectations of how they must be, and how exhausted they are following them.
[One girl] “wants to put her fist through a...