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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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.