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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Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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