Sunday, 29 March 2015

Personal is Political

There is an alternate universe somewhere in which Roxane Gay and I are best friends. We hang out, play Scrabble, watch bad TV and critique popular culture together. We laugh, we cry, we commiserate. We talk about movies, books, music and about race, class and gender. Yeah, I envy the alternate me because she has such a cool friend.

In this universe, I have just finished Dr Gay's collection of essays, Bad Feminist (2014). I was inspired to read this book when I secured tickets to hear her speak at the All About Women festival in Sydney for International Women's Day and had the good fortune of meeting her at the book signing.

Gay describes herself as a Bad Feminist - a tongue-in-cheek term to distance herself from the feminist icons on their pedestals, as well as acknowledging the imperfections of feminism. She writes

"I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world..." (p xi)

The essays in Bad Feminist are personal and political - a divide that Gay straddles well, making meaning from the everyday and translating it into the bigger picture.

The first section, "Me", covers aspects of Gay's life from her upbringing in America as the daughter of Haitian immigrants, her first year as a professor, and the cutthroat world of competitive Scrabble.

She then moves on to "Gender and Sexuality" and in a serious of essays she covers a range of topics - domestic violence, body image, sexual identity - linked back to popular culture. She writes about The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, Sweet Valley High, Beverly Hills 90210, Girls and much more with an incisive insight. These essays are easy to read, humorous and instantly relatable but at the same time intellectual and thought-provoking.

The section "Race and Entertainment" focusses closely on race issues in Django Unchained, The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and anything by Tyler Perry. These essays were extremely interesting and Gay was very critical of the way in which Hollywood is casually (as well as overtly) racist. Her experience of racism is different than mine, so some of her writing in this section was confronting, making me think deeply. Another challenge in reading this section was that many of the texts and films she was talking about, I have not seen or read, or even heard of.

The final segment on "Politics, Gender and Race" covers reproductive rights, Paula Deen, and much more and serves in many ways as a call to action.

Overall, I really enjoyed Bad Feminist. Gay has given me a lot of food for thought - and a long list of books to read. I like her writing style, and her politics, and I look forward to reading more of her writing. I have her novel  An Untamed State and suspect I will be reading that shortly.