The guts to fight the power: Roxane Gay. Photo: Jennifer Silverberg/The Guardian
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Does it matter if you’re a “bad feminist”? Roxane Gay doesn’t think so

Reading Roxane Gay comes as a relief – as being involved in feminism can sometimes feel more like voluntarily climbing into the stocks than participating in a social movement.

Bad Feminist 
Roxane Gay
Corsair, 336pp, £12.99

“I am failing as a woman,” begins the last essay in Roxane Gay’s new collection. “I am failing as a feminist.” Among the laundry list of infractions she confesses to: listening to thuggish rap music, knowing nothing about cars, liking the colour pink, faking orgasms, wanting babies and crying at work. Yet she concludes: “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

I read this with relief, because feminism (particularly the online variety) can feel more like voluntarily climbing into the stocks than participating in a social movement. You get attacked viciously by sexist men, which you were expecting, but also by other women, which you perhaps were not.

Gay’s answer is to embrace her failings, identifying herself from the start as a Bad Feminist. That makes the book refreshing – she does not, for instance, jump on the lazy bandwagon of bashing Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg for not solving all problems of all women at once with Lean In – but it also makes her critical analysis at times seem nebulous and unfocused. The weakest essay is the one in which she tries to deconstruct books by Hanna Rosin, Junot Díaz and Caitlin Moran: without a rigid analytical framework, there is simply no way to pull together such disparate subjects. “I’m not sure we can get better at having these conversations,” she concludes plaintively.

Despite its title, however, Bad Feminist is blessedly light on navel-gazing. Where Gay shines is in her dissection of popular culture: how Chris Brown was accepted back into the music industry after he savagely beat his girlfriend Rihanna; the sexual politics of the Sweet Valley High books; how “magical negro” characters in films are used to make white people feel better about racism.

When she’s on form, Gay’s writing is glorious. Her essay on professional Scrabble tournaments, “To Scratch, Claw or Grope Clumsily or Frantically”, reminded me of David Foster Wallace at his least pretentious. The bundles of footnotes offer acute observations, sarcastic asides and thunder­storms of facts: “A bingo is when you play all seven letters in your rack . . . There are 23 possible Scrabble words in ‘bingo’.” Later: “Qoph is a Hebrew letter. My opponent not only shared the word’s meaning, he also explained the origins (something about a sewing needle; frankly, I had tuned him out at that point) and pronunciation. After the exciting word lesson, he started telling me all the possible Q words one can spell without a U. I wondered, is there a Q in ‘motherfucker’?”

Occasionally, she turns her critical lens on her own experiences. An essay on the “strength” of Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the Hunger Games trilogy, becomes a meditation on her reaction to being gang-raped as a teenager by her first love and his friends: “They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect . . . Just because you survive something does not mean you are strong.” She comes back to this experience in an essay on “trigger warnings”, the vogueish idea that upsetting or offensive content should be preceded by a note. “There are things that rip my skin open and reveal what lies beneath, but I don’t believe in trigger warnings. I don’t believe people can be protected from their histories.” Online, this sort of argument can get you accused of not caring if you upset rape survivors; Gay – whose register and colloquialisms are a constant reminder that she writes primarily for an internet audience – is not afraid to sail against the prevailing wind.

The other stand-out is the material on race. Gay is Haitian American and works as a professor of English at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is acutely aware how visibly different she is from most people around her and how little airtime black women’s opinions get. She watches The Help, a film about black women working as domestic servants in the American South in the civil rights era, at a screening where she is surrounded by middle-aged white women. They find it charming; she finds it repulsive. “I watch movies like . . . The Help and realise that if I had been born to different parents, at a different time, I too could have been picking cotton or raising a white woman’s babies,” she writes. “History is important, but sometimes the past renders me hopeless and helpless.”

Given some of its subject matter, it would be easy for Gay’s book to make readers feel the same. Yet, although there is plenty here to tempt you to passivity or pessimism, her greatest gift as a writer is energy, enthusiasm – sheer gusto. She loves bad television, and enjoys terrible films, and is overjoyed by an unexpected triple word score. Her writing feels alive. You might not always agree with her, but you are always interested to know what she thinks. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown

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Commons Confidential: What happened at Tom Watson's birthday party?

Finances, fair and foul – and why Keir Starmer is doing the time warp.

Keir Starmer’s comrades mutter that a London seat is an albatross around the neck of the ambitious shadow Brexit secretary. He has a decent political CV: he was named after Labour’s first MP, Keir Hardie; he has a working-class background; he was the legal champion of the McLibel Two; he had a stint as director of public prosecutions. The knighthood is trickier, which is presumably why he rarely uses the title.

The consensus is that Labour will seek a leader from the north or the Midlands when Islington’s Jeremy Corbyn jumps or is pushed under a bus. Starmer, a highly rated frontbencher, is phlegmatic as he navigates the treacherous Brexit waters. “I keep hoping we wake up and it’s January 2016,” he told a Westminster gathering, “and we can have another run. Don’t we all?” Perhaps not everybody. Labour Remoaners grumble that Corbyn and particularly John McDonnell sound increasingly Brexitastic.

To Tom Watson’s 50th birthday bash at the Rivoli Ballroom in south London, an intact 1950s barrel-vaulted hall generous with the velvet. Ed Balls choreographed the “Gangnam Style” moves, and the Brockley venue hadn’t welcomed so many politicos since Tony Blair’s final Clause IV rally 22 years ago. Corbyn was uninvited, as the boogying deputy leader put the “party” back into the Labour Party. The thirsty guests slurped the free bar, repaying Watson for 30 years of failing to buy a drink.

One of Westminster’s dining rooms was booked for a “Decent Chaps Lunch” by Labour’s Warley warrior, John Spellar. In another room, the Tory peer David Willetts hosted a Christmas reception on behalf of the National Centre for Universities and Business. In mid-January. That’s either very tardy or very, very early.

The Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, is a financial maestro, having cleared the £25m debt that the party inherited from the Blair-Brown era. Now I hear that he has squirrelled away a £6m war chest as insurance against Theresa May gambling on an early election. Wisely, the party isn’t relying on Momentum’s fractious footsloggers.

The word in Strangers’ Bar is that the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock held his own £200-a-head fundraiser in London. Either the financial future of the Aberavon Labour Party is assured, or he fancies a tilt at the top job.

Dry January helped me recall a Labour frontbencher explaining why he never goes into the Commons chamber after a skinful: “I was sitting alongside a colleague clearly refreshed by a liquid lunch. He intervened and made a perfectly sensible point without slurring. Unfortunately, he stood up 20 minutes later and repeated the same point, word for word.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era