The Breakdown of "Bad" in Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist

By Amanda Cartigiano

I’ve only identified as a feminist since 2016, when I was first introduced to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist while taking a sociology course at The University of New Mexico. My original definition of feminism was influenced by Gay after I read her book and came across the quote, “women deserve certain inalienable rights in the same ways that men do.” By comparing this definition to my own, “the social, political, and economic equality among the sexes”, this book inherently shaped my own perception of what feminism meant, and showed me that there is such a thing as “bad” feminism.

I’ve always had doubts about whether I could really consider myself a feminist because of the shows I watched and the music I enjoyed listening to. After reading Bad Feminist, I realized that my lifestyle choices and tastes don’t determine my authenticity as a feminist. I was struggling so much in college to try and find the right ways or the right answers, and Gay’s theories were illuminating in a way I didn’t know I needed. If Gay is listening to degrading songs about women, but also finds herself shaking her ass to them, then I can do it too.

By describing different versions of the feminist role as “bad”, it gives many people room to be able to express themselves and find the label that best fits them, but more importantly, to express imperfection. I mean, we’re still human beings who fuck up (as Gay puts it).  What makes feminism “bad” is the lack of understanding of why we do the things we do. Bad is the absence of consciousness and refusal to learn about what feminism is about.

Feminist ideology is a constantly-changing work in progress, and feminists are learning how to adapt to it as they go. We’re all constantly practicing at being feminists. In my view of feminism, I want to be this uplifting, high-spirited soul who also wants to uplift others at the same time I’m rapping the degrading Cardi B lyric, “I’m a boss, you a worker, bitch”. Cardi B, who also identifies as a feminist, is breaking the rules with her music and lifestyle and exemplifying the ideals of the “bad” feminist.  For decades, female musicians were confined to singing and rapping about certain subjects that were deemed “feminine” or “appropriate”. Now, there’s a level of autonomy that didn’t exist before , and god-damn it, those piano riffs and foot-drum beats are so much fun to listen to on the way to work with the windows down.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is, “I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal.” While Gay identifies as a feminist, she admits she cannot call herself a perfect one because she isn’t perfect. Nobody is. What is a perfect feminist, anyway? There’s no such thing. “Bad” in this case can mean a plethora of things; ignorant, fearful, unintentionally misogynistic, the list goes on. Without a doubt, I considered myself an ignorant feminist. I thought, “Oh, cool, feminist. I can be that”, without considering the background behind the label. I was ignorant for saying I was part of a movement and ideology that I knew very little about. I gave myself the title, but really didn’t always practice the appropriate actions.

Because of college and Bad Feminist, I now know what to pay attention to and how to think about my experiences. During a recent shift at work, a woman came in asking for a newer edition of a culinary arts book called, A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen, and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes in disgust. I mean, I had to keep my mouth shut for professional reasons, but “bad” feminism is part of life. Feminism has its standards, but so do we. Feminism encourages us to stand up for the things we won’t put up with. I don’t know if the woman I helped identifies as a feminist or not, but when I researched the title, she quickly responded with, “I know, it’s not the best name.” Perhaps she felt a bit of guilt, and used that comment as a defense mechanism to deter any criticism. There are moments when traditional societal norms are not always compatible with our own evolving beliefs, and I think that’s why the concept known as “bad” feminism exists; we are trying to work around a system that’s been taught to us for years.

I would rather be called a “bad” feminist than no feminist at all. I’m aware of my “bad” feminism and how it leads to the choices I make for myself and others. When I listen to a specific song, I understand and interpret the lyrics through a feminist lens. Now, the catchy beat is the only thing that gets me dancing. But regardless of my personal definition of feminism, I’m with Roxane -- constantly monitoring the world around us for hints of misogyny is exhausting!