What’s a “Bad Feminist”?

In her bestseller, Bad Feminist, 40-year-old Roxane Gaycalls herself a “bad feminist” because she likes Hip-hop music with sexist lyrics, “Law and Order” (which abounds in rape plots), anything pink, and Vogue.

I assume Gay, a third wave feminist, consulted the second wave feminist playbook when drawing the conclusion that she’s a “bad feminist.” I remember that playbook well. It dates back to the 1970’s when I was a young feminist. Attention to one’s appearance was regarded as a concession to a patriarchal society that valued women as attractive adornments for men. In 1968 a large delegation of women assembled in Atlantic City to protest the Miss America pageant; groups of women stopped shaving their legs, and threw away their makeup.

Roxane Gay at a book reading for Bad Feminist

In retrospect it feels like men as individuals were unfairly targeted. When I attended my first conscious raising group and commented that I was married, a collective sigh went up. One woman said aloud, “You sleep with the oppressor!”

1970’s Conscious Raising Group, a time when feminism was more rigidly defined

Feminism has relaxed since our early heady days. Rigid definitions of what makes for a feminist have largely disappeared. Women are no longer criticized for feminine dress and makeup and their lifestyle, but it would seem that Gay is not OK with this. In Bad Feminist she writes:

I openly embrace the label of bad feminist because I am flawed and human. . . . I am trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than to stand on high moral ground.

In my judgment Roxane Gay is a very good feminist. The critical essays in Bad Feminist offer a valuable contribution to contemporary feminist discourse.

In particular I applaud her critiques of America’s rape culture and of black cinema (Tyler Perry) and the flawed cinematic depiction of race and women in films like The Help and 12 Years a Slave or Django Unchained.

If Roxane Gay is a good feminist because she is a successful woman with far-ranging interests and a public voice that calls out sexism and racism, what then is a bad feminist?

I consider any woman to be a less than a worthy feminist who keeps her feminism in the closet because she wants to avoid the stereotypes such as strident, overly serious, and man-hater.

The image of the strident feminist inhibits many women from calling themselves a “feminist”

Feminists are not man-haters but anti-patriarchy. They are opposed to strict gender-ascribed roles, which limit men as well as women. A good feminist wants everyone, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity to have the same opportunities. Feminism is all about equality and compassion.

A bad feminist can be two-faced. She might show up in politics or in business where she claims to work for the interests of all women, regardless of their class or race, but she is often silent when it comes to taking up the torch for low income women who desperately need paid childcare and health insurance. Similarly she fails to protest US wars that kill escalating numbers of innocent women and children overseas.

A bad feminist remains silent when women are badmouthed. A bad feminist doesn’t defend transgendered women or Muslim women. A bad feminist doesn’t recognize that every time one of us speaks up for women’s rights we are making it easier for other women to find their voices.

Contemporary feminists champion a wide range of causes

A bad feminist judges other women who may not be as well off or of a different ethnicity. A bad feminist doesn’t try to educate herself about the struggles of women in other countries.

Every good feminist is imperfect. She doesn’t always open her mouth to challenge sexism, racism or ageism, but she is conscious of inequalities. She does her best, while learning from her mistakes and trying to correct them.

Young feminists at the Women’s March in Washington, January, 2017

As an older feminist I’m immensely proud of the generation of feminists following me. I welcome with open arms Roxane Gay, Bitch Magazine, and all the young feminists who showed up in unprecedented numbers at the Women’s March in DC this past January and who bring strong voices to progressive causes. I will do all I can to support them while recognizing feminism comes in many forms, as Gay notes in Bad Feminist:

“We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.”

This post originally appeared on WOW blog on June 28th, 2017.

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