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12 September 2014updated 26 Sep 2015 7:47am

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.

By Helen Lewis

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.

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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’?”

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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.