Roxane Gay is a Bad Feminist

Reading Roxane Gay‘s Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014) was a personally instructive experience. As a white, male reader with a pretty fat tire of privilege under my belt, it’s an often-excoriating, albeit hilarious, read. And while I would definitely have preferred it had Gay occasionally used the more contingent “some men” to describe the masculine influence on the cultural evils afflicting women today, I’m nonetheless convinced that the scale of the problem justifies the rhetoric. It’s not like I’m unaware of my own gender parochialism — none of this is news to me. But I sure am now questioning why I’m not that little bit, or even TEN TIMES better at checking myself and others on subjects that I know to be important when the moment arises. Instead, most of the time (to my shame) I’m more like the crowd at the Daniel Tosh set in the essay “Some Jokes Are Funnier Than Others,” a crowd that fails to stand up and say, “Enough.”

Bad Feminist is an excellent book for lots of reasons. Firstly, Roxane Gay’s really funny. “When I was called a feminist,” she writes of her younger self, “my first thought was, But I willingly give blow jobs… I was called a feminist, and what I heard was, ‘You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person.'”

She disarms; she’s not holier-than-thou. She uses her wit to discredit the alienating (and false) ideal of feminism, which she argues is damaging. Her brand of imperfection is a kind of manifesto in itself:

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

A foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds, &c, it’s hard to argue.

She’s also just funny-funny. In her chapter on competitive Scrabble, for instance, Gay confesses that she’s prone to taking games too seriously, to the point where she will “conflate winning the Game of Life to winning at life.” Her footnotes in that article are the kind of footnotes you wish you’d been allowed to leave in your college essays (“In all seriousness, Scrabble was invented by a man named Alfred Mosher Butts”). Even the premise of the piece is funny in a David Foster Wallace kind of way: what else do smart people do in a flyover state but enter major-league Scrabble tournaments?

Roxane Gay doesn’t care if you think she’s lowbrow. Lowbrow’s not even the right word, actually, but anyone who can say “BET is not a network I watch regularly because I am very committed to Lifetime Movie Network and lesser cable network reality programming” certainly and rightly doesn’t care what you think about her love of the Hunger Games or Fifty Shades series. And actually, these things deserve the intelligent attention she pays them: they’re the most widely consumed narratives of our time. Take the unexamined kink and posturing of Christian Grey, which, she writes, “reinforces pervasive cultural messages women are already swallowing about what they should tolerate in romantic relationships.”

Fifty Shades is a fairy tale. There’s a man and a woman, and an obstacle that eventually they are able to overcome. There is a happily-ever-after, but the price exacted is terribly high. It is frightening to consider how many women might be willing to pay that price.

That she both sort of enjoys the books and is able to die laughing at Ana asking for a glass of “white Pinot Grigio” “because it is the laziest mistake possible” serves to deflect accusations of snobbery while simultaneously making her extremely likeable. “Like most people,” she says, “I am a mass of contradictions.”

Late on in Bad Feminist, there’s a blistering run of chapters on recent movies dealing with race relations in the States — The HelpDjango Unchained12 Years a SlaveFruitvale Station, and so on. Gay’s having none of it. The Help she dismisses as science fiction, “an alternate universe” in which “the magical negro” characters are almost grateful to their kind white employers. While she admires some of the performances, she finds the dialogue insulting and considers the characters to be racist stereotypes. Indeed, in its critical reception, and that of 12 Years a Slave, Gay rightly identifies a species of institutional racism that goes all the way back to Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar for Gone With the Wind. Prestige roles for black actors, however brilliantly carried off, reaffirm a retrogressive view of race relations, a view which adds nothing to the culture. 12 Years a Slave, undoubtedly a better picture, is nonetheless likewise… well, a bit pointless.

I confess I’m not so sure about Django, which appalled Gay but I rather liked. For me it lives, like all of Quentin Tarantino’s work, in a postmodern realm divorced from social history, despite its treatment of a specific milieu. Everything in Tarantino is sort of camp, I think, a mere staging of race relations or crime or revenge or whatever, dressed in the clothes and postures of other movies or performances. At the very least, I suspect that audience enjoyment of Django is a little more complex than Gay allows, in so far as I don’t think there is necessarily a latent longing for antebellum life in the unappalled viewer.

That said, part of the great value of Bad Feminist, here and throughout, lies in Gay’s ability to destabilise such comfortable (self-serving?) readings of culture. In a powerful piece on “trigger warnings,” she reminds us that “everything is a trigger for someone.” Your funny is someone else’s mortifying. What’s postmodern campery to me is, for Gay, a violent appropriation of a traumatic cultural experience “from a very limited, privileged position.” Check your privilege. If the effect of Bad Feminist is to tighten the screws of your reasoning such that greater empathic nuance becomes possible, all to the good.

We are responsible beings, as participants in culture. Responsible not just for avoiding crassness where possible, but also for representing a decent tranche of reality. This can place impossible demands on artists and public figures alike, of course. The particular problem with representations of women or racial minorities is that we’re so saturated with white male culture that anything that deviates from it is forced to bear an untenable burden of representation. Gay refers to HBO’s Girls, a show she likes but criticises for its treatment of such a narrow racial and socioeconomic demographic. On Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, she laments that the critical responses to Lean In focused on Sandberg’s failure to respond to the situations of all kinds of women. “Public women,” she writes, “and feminists in particular, have to be everything to everyone; when they aren’t, they are excoriated for their failure.”

What’s the solution? Greater representation of all kinds of experience. A war on cliché. A refusal to accept lazy archetypes. An end to feminist in-fighting and a greater recognition that at its simplest, the cause is no more nor less than a demand for equality. In the short term, the kind of critical thinking that Bad Feminist enables. Roxane Gay has produced a splendid manifesto in a year that — with Beyoncé’s performance at the VMAs and Emma Watson’s speech at the UN both going megaviral — may yet go down in history as the Year of Feminism: Redux.


Follow Roxane Gay on Twitter and pick up a copy of Bad Feminist at McNally Jackson.

Five Reasons to Love Bret Easton Ellis Online

It’s boring to call Bret Easton Ellis “controversial.” Yeah, American Psycho was once the subject of NOW boycotts and mock-distress middlebrow brouhaha. True, Ellis’s work traffics in the sort of content — sexual, violent, linguistic — that falls firmly into the NSFW category. And yes, his Twitter feed has often sent seismic tremors through the blogosphere, as when he compared watching Glee to stepping in “a puddle of HIV“, or when he suggested that Kathryn Bigelow was overrated “since she’s a hot woman“. Or even, come to think it, when on the occasion of J.D. Salinger’s death he proclaimed, “Party tonight!!!” (He later apologised over the Bigelow tweets in an article in The Daily Beast, admitting that they weren’t “really fun or that provocative.” Most of the time, though, he’s unequivocal.)

But once all the fuss dies down — as it always does — doesn’t he sometimes have a point? To write him off is to naysay one of America’s fiercest and most insightful cultural critics. From his Empire/post-Empire theory and his passionate advocacy for grown-up moviemaking to his dismantling of political correctness and the sexy, celeb-soaked excerpts of his LA life, Ellis’s is an essential voice. Here are just five of the many reasons to love him.

His Twitter feed is like a Bret Easton Ellis novel

Ellis has an elaborately constructed public persona. Lunar Park (2005), which features a protagonist called “Bret Easton Ellis” with a near-identical career to the “real” Ellis, begins with the line, “You do an awfully good impression of yourself.” This sensation, of Ellis impersonating himself, also haunts his Twitter feed. The novel’s Bret is haunted by his dead father. Consequently, Ellis’s own familial relations end up sounding suspiciously familiar:

It’s a blurry line.

One of the absurdist pleasures of American Psycho and Glamorama (1998) is seeing Ellis’s characters mix with real-life celebrities. Patrick Bateman bumps into Tom Cruise in the elevator of his apartment building (“I thought you were very fine in Bartender.”) Victor Ward encounters hundreds of celebrities in the course of Glamorama, including, spookily, a character who resembles (but isn’t) Christian Bale, the actor who would later play Bateman in Mary Harron’s movie of American Psycho. This kind of weird interpenetration between reality and movie-celebrity-fantasia appears to be reflected by Ellis’s own life:

The further adventures of Patrick Bateman

Much as Imperial Bedrooms gives us the characters of Less Than Zero twenty-five years on, Ellis’s Twitter feed regularly features the further adventures of some of his most famous characters. My favourites include Patrick Bateman (of course) and his brother, The Rules of Attraction‘s Sean Bateman.

But, um, didn’t you say there’s a serious point to all this?

In interviews and on Twitter, Ellis is one of the most playful of writers. This can perhaps obscure serious intent, and some of his more outré ideas get written off as mere scandalizing. Yet he’s also a great advocate for authenticity in art, and joins a long and fine tradition of shunning the notion of respectability as a virtue:

Responding to early critics of American Psycho, Ellis told The New York Times, “You do not write a novel for praise, or thinking of your audience. You write for yourself; you work out between you and your pen the things that intrigue you.” Yes, this is the party line of the embattled novelist. But that doesn’t make it less true. Writing for yourself means being authentic, and authenticity is at the heart of all of Ellis’s online work, from his Twitter feed to his podcast (of which more below) to his occasional Daily Beast articles. This is Bret, he seems to be saying, like it or not.

Take his views on gay culture, which led him to him being uninvited from a GLAAD gala a couple years back. (Should add, though he would probably argue that it has no bearing, that Ellis is himself gay.) He was adamant, for example, that the gay actor Matt Bomer couldn’t portray the iconically heterosexual Christian Grey in the forthcoming adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. He was also a vocal critic of what he calls “Generation Wuss,” in particular the anti-bullying caucus and the anti-homophobia campaign “It Gets Better.” It’s easy to misunderstand 140 characters, of course, wilfully or otherwise. So instead of taking the last few sentences as a true summary of Ellis’s views, check out his excellent, provocative article “In the Reign of the Gay Magical Elves.” Not for everyone, perhaps, but still a passionately argued case against the homogenising influence of an orthodox agenda. And hard to dispute his point about Modern Family

The Empire/post-Empire world

OK, so what’s all this about?

In an interview with Vice earlier this year, Ellis said simply: “Post-empire is just about being yourself. It’s showing the reality rather than obscuring things in reams and reams of meaning.” It seems from his examples that this can be unpacked even further. Post-Empire seems to me to represent the New Irreverence, a decisive break with a puritanical past, a novel species of authenticity. It recognises that Jersey Shore and the Kardashians and James Franco and Lady Gaga and Shia LaBeouf and Charlie Sheen demand a new interpretative framework. It’s an old-school rebellion against an Establishment that seeks to enforce (when does it not?) a hypocritical moral structure. It’s people learning to own their actions. It’s Calum Hood (from 5 Seconds of Summer) responding to a leaked Snapchat video of him exposing himself with a tweet shrugging, “Least ya know what it looks like now.” It’s Lars von Trier retracting his apology for saying that he’s a Nazi at the Cannes Film Festival (seemingly on a freedom-of-speech principle rather than to reaffirm his commitment to National Socialism, FYI). In a post-Empire utopia, Anthony Weiner wouldn’t have resigned over his sexting scandal. Charlie Sheen is the post-Empire poster boy, as Ellis expounded at length in a Daily Beast article from 2011. “No one has ever seen a celebrity more nakedly revealing — even in Sheen’s evasions there’s a truthful playfulness that makes Tiger [Woods]’s mea culpa press conference look like something manufactured by Nicholas Sparks.”

Is this the future? Ellis has no illusions. Empire still dominates, even if post-Empire is in many ways preferable to him. Will it last?

He’s mad as hell and he’s not gonna take it any more!

Finally, just listen to the man. Ellis runs a seriously great podcast. The guest list is eclectic — recent interviewees have included Matthew Modine, James Van Der Beek, Alan Ball, Kanye West, Marilyn Manson, Tom Sizemore — but the concerns tend to coalesce around a few major subjects. The film industry status quo. Horror movies. Representational boundaries, especially violent or sexual. Depictions of the LGBT community and the existence of a post-gay aesthetic.

Listening to The BEE Podcast is an intimate experience, like overhearing a frank conversation between old friends. The nuance of some of Ellis’s more controversial statements is teased out; context, as the blogosphere tends to ignore, is all. He unspools elegant readings of Kubrick, horror remakes, Jennifer Lawrence, the TV vs movie debate, True Blood… the list goes on. One enduring obsession is the relative poverty of American filmmaking compared to, say, the 1970s.

Like David Denby, Ellis decries conglomerate aesthetics, the predominant form of studio moviemaking today. In the Tom Sizemore episode (the most recent) he eulogizes cinema as “an artform that was swallowed up by corporatethink.” We need voices like Ellis’s (and Denby’s). He uses his online platforms to champion independents like Boyhood and David Mackenzie’s Starred Up (both 2014) that might otherwise struggle to reach wide audiences. His is a merciless dissenting voice in the Hollywood fog of franchise nonsense and infantile pleasure-seeking.

All this, and people still can’t quite believe it’s him.

You can buy all of Bret Easton Ellis’s books at McNally Jackson. Follow him on Twitter here.