One of the great pleasures of social media is that you can use it to watch something good happen to someone else. My most recent experience of this has been on Twitter, where I have followed writer Roxane Gay in a rather remarkable year.
Gay’s novel, “An Untamed State,” released in May, is both an unnerving story of a woman’s recovery from sexual assault during a visit to her native Haiti and an extension of Gay’s critique of what she sees as a pornography of female suffering in many mass-culture depictions of rape. “Bad Feminist,” published this week, collects many of Gay’s previously published essays on subjects ranging from her first year of teaching at the college level to the exhausting experiences of watching movies like “The Help” and “Django Unchained.”
I have read some of these pieces before. Revisiting them all at once was a pleasure and a clarifying experience. “Bad Feminist” is about feminism, but, more broadly, it is about the emotional yearnings that motivate supposedly rational, wide-ranging proposed solutions to big problems.
In “Bad Feminist,” emotional reactions and readings are, if not more reliable than supposedly reasonable ones, at least more honest. “I often think about the danger of a single story, as discussed by Chimamanda Adichie in her TED Talk,” Gay writes, “but sometimes, there actually is a single story and it tears my heart open.”
“It’s a nice idea that we could simply follow a prescribed set of rules and make the world a better place for all,” Gay writes. “It’s a nice idea that racism is a finite problem for which there is a finite solution, and that respectability, perhaps, could have saved all the people who have lost their lives to the effects of racism.”
Everywhere Gay looks, she sees the limitations of these sorts of maxims.
In “Feel Me. See. Me. Hear Me. Reach Me,” Gay writes about teaching a student who has been crippled by respectability politics, though in an unexpected way. Rather than being punished for failing to conform to the rules that are supposed to (and so often fail to) keep black boys safe, Gay’s student has been crippled by his own success at meeting expectations. “I eventually realized,” Gay explains, “he didn’t want to be seen as one of those students who come in and don’t know enough to get through or don’t care enough to get through. His way of doing that, of proving he was different , was to maintain his perfect GPA by any means necessary.”
Discussing the practice of attaching “trigger warnings” to online content, Gay identifies another kind of magical thinking in the idea that the world can ever be made secure. “Trigger warnings aren’t meant for those of us who don’t believe in them, just like the Bible wasn’t written for atheists,” she argues. “Trigger warnings are designed for the people who need and believe in that safety.”
Gay is blunt and funny about where her own emotions run away with her other instincts.
“Any offense I take with ‘Django Unchained’ is not academic or born of political correction. Art can and should take liberties and interpret human experiences in different ways, even if those interpretations make us uncomfortable. My offense is personal — entirely human and rising from the uncomfortable reality that I could have been a slave,” she explains in one essay. “I can’t debate the artistic merits of ‘Django Unchained’ because the palms of my hands are burning with the desire to slap Tarantino in the face until my arms grow tired.”
And Gay rejects the same supposedly reasonable hierarchies of what is important, recognizing that you can know the boundaries of the forest and still be curious about each and every tree within it. In “Is he a rapper?” she muses of a reality show about Lil Wayne’s ex-wife and her new boyfriend. “What do these people do for a living ? Lil Wayne’s child support can’t be that good. I wish BET did more to represent the full spectrum of black experiences in a balanced manner.”
These sorts of scattershot concerns sometimes work better when Gay is running across the keyboard from high to low in discussing a single subject than when she is juxtaposing multiple works. “Garish, Glorious Spectacles” alone touches on Kate Zambreno’s “Green Girl,” Joan Didion’s “Play It As It Lays,” John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules” and “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.” At times, I wish she tied these works together more directly instead of just placing them in proximity.
At moments, I wished Gay had chosen a different title for “Bad Feminist,” which has become something of a slog, printed neatly in pink across black t-shirts. To be a “bad” feminist is to give some power to the idea that there is a correct way to perform this particular identity, and some of the weakest sections of “Bad Feminist” are tied to the title. Surely there is room between declaring “I choose my choice!” and fretting over whether one ought to feel guilty about live-Tweeting the September issue of Vogue.
Gay floats the proposition that “feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others.” It might have been interesting to pair further discussion on this theme with Gay’s defense of Sheryl Sandberg and Nell Scovell’s self-help book “Lean In,” in which she argues that “Assuming Sandberg’s advice is completely useless for working-class women is just as shortsighted as claiming her advice needs to be completely applicable to all women.”
But if I occasionally wish that Gay were a bit more formal in developing her arguments, her writing can also make a virtue of jarring compositions, of ideas that do not quite fit together. In “Tragedy. Call. Compassion. Response,” which considers the crimes of white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik and the death of Amy Winehouse, she makes the purpose of these sorts of juxtapositions explicit. “I followed many conversations about what happened in Norway and the death of Amy Winehouse because they happened one after the next,” Gay explains. Grief and joy create strong constellations in our minds, underscoring our drive to make sense out of the insensible.
“An algorithm is a procedure for solving a problem in a finite number of steps. An algorithm leads to a neat way of understanding a problem too complex for the human mind to solve,” Gay writes. And our efforts to generate algorithms are a way of keeping at bay the idea that some problems are not resolvable.
“I will try to think of him with the compassion he was unable to offer the seventy-seven people he murdered,” Gay says of Breivik. “I will likely fail in this. Still, I do not wish him dead. I do not believe his death is an appropriate punishment. I do not believe there is such a thing as an appropriate punishment for what that man did.”
“Like most people,” Gay acknowledges in “The Trouble with Prince Charming, or He Who Trespassed Against Us,” her discussions of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “I am a mass of contradictions.” For Gay, though, these contradictions are less a condition to be remedied than a source of greater strength.