Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain... interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.


People get offended about so many things, it's kind of exhausting. Regarding politics, social justice, and feminism, I'm always on my toes for fear of saying something inconsiderate and/or ignorant. I feel like every misstep I make will only perpetuate the sheltered Asian girl stereotype, rather than be seen as a fault in myself as an individual. And similarly, by calling myself a feminist, I worry that every misstep I make will be held against all women and those involved in the feminist movement, rather than be seen as a fault in myself as an individual. Even just this post, I've thought about and thought about, typed and deleted and retyped, and you know what? There's nothing I can do about other people's reactions.

What I can do is improve myself. And if I keep burying my thoughts, staying silent, avoiding discomfort, worrying about being politically correct and circling around what I really want to say, I won't be able to do that. Now I don't mean to go off about things I don't understand. In fact, it's important to realize when I don't know enough about a topic to formulate an intelligent opinion then stay in my lane. But if what I share and what I ask comes from a genuine place, it can always be an opportunity to learn. So please call me out on my mistakes when I make them so that I'm not walking around like a smug asshole.

Reading these essays, my mind was either going "yessssss" or "woahhhh yeahhhh" the whole time. Roxane Gay put words to my own vague thoughts that I previously could only barely grasp, much less arrange into something as comprehensible or compelling as this. And much more importantly, I realize that I can have flaws and still be a feminist. I am a bad feminist and I accept this about myself.

tl;dr-- I'm a feminist, though not a particularly good one, and this book showed me that it is okay because I am human. Women are human. I have a lot to learn, and reading these essays was a step in the right direction.


In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.

I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human.

I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal. People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up. Consider me already knocked off.

Feminism is a choice, and if a woman does not want to be a feminist, that is her right, but it is still my responsibility to fight for her rights.

So many of us are reaching out, hoping someone out there will grab our hands and remind us we are not as alone as we fear.

I tell some of the same stories over and over because certain experiences have affected me profoundly. Sometimes, I hope that by telling these stories again and again, I will have a better understanding of how the world works.

At some point, we have to stop selling every black child in this country the idea that he or she only needs to hold a ball or a microphone to achieve something.

I enjoy difference, but once in a while, I do want to catch a glimpse of myself in others.

I enjoyed the sense of control I felt by being good at school when there were other parts of my life that were desperately out of control.

I understood why my parents showed us how we had to work three times harder than white kids to get half the consideration. They did not impart this reality with bitterness. They were protecting us.

Writing bridges many differences. Kindness bridges many differences too, and so does a love of One Tree Hill or Lost or beautiful books or terrible movies.

There are times when I wish finding community was as simple as entering some personal information and letting an algorithm show me where I belong.

An algorithm is a procedure for solving a problem in a finite number of steps. An algorithm leads to a neat way of understanding a problem too complex for the human mind to solve. That’s not what I am looking for... I will keep writing about these intersections as a writer and a teacher, as a black woman, as a bad feminist, until I no longer feel like what I want is impossible. I no longer want to believe these problems are too complex for us to make sense of them.

If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is. -John Louis von Neumann

Nearly everyone, particularly in the developed world, has something someone else doesn’t, something someone else yearns for.

The problem is, cultural critics talk about privilege with such alarming frequency and in such empty ways, we have diluted the word’s meaning. 

On my more difficult days, I’m not sure what’s more of a pain in my ass—being black or being a woman. I’m happy to be both of these things, but the world keeps intervening.

We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone.

To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected.

The acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.

You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about.

When we talk about privilege, some people start to play a very pointless and dangerous game where they try to mix and match various demographic characteristics to determine who wins at the Game of Privilege... We could play this game all day and never find a winner. Playing the Game of Privilege is mental masturbation—it only feels good to those playing the game.

We would live in a world of silence if the only people who were allowed to write or speak from experience or about difference were those absolutely without privilege. 

Must we satisfy our need to be heard and seen by preventing anyone else from being heard and seen? Does privilege automatically negate any merits of what a privilege holder has to say? Do we ignore everything, for example, that white men have to say?

We need to get to a place where we discuss privilege by way of observation and acknowledgment rather than accusation.

We should be able to say, “This is my truth,” and have that truth stand without a hundred clamoring voices shouting, giving the impression that multiple truths cannot coexist.

Because at some point, doesn’t privilege become beside the point?

Privilege is relative and contextual.

If you cannot recognize your privilege, you have a lot of work to do; get started.

I don’t save lives, but I try not to ruin them.

Everyone means well, but there’s a lot of bureaucracy. I prefer common sense.

I am human. I am so full of want. 

Everything is terrible. Everything is great.

Many wore fanny packs without irony—serious fanny packs bulging with mystery.

Nemeses aren’t born. They are made.

I approach most things in life with a dangerous level of confidence to balance my generally low self-esteem.

Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses—pretty but designed to slow women down.

Qui se ressemble s’assemble.

She wants to be anyone else.

This is the state of affairs for women in entertainment—everything hangs in the balance all the time.

All we want is everything from each movie or television show or book that promises to offer a new voice, a relatable voice, an important voice. We want, and rightly so, to believe our lives deserve to be new, relatable, and important. We want to see more complex, nuanced depictions of what it really means to be whoever we are or were or hope to be. We just want so much. We just need so much.

So that should give you a sense of where I was on the social ladder—reaching for the bottom rung.

I watched the popular kids all the time, trying to figure out how to breathe the air in their atmosphere.

There is nothing more desperate and unrequited than the love an unpopular girl nurtures for the cool kids.

Nostalgia is powerful. It is natural, human, to long for the past, particularly when we can remember our histories as better than they were.

Life happens faster than I can comprehend.

Nostalgia is powerful and that power builds with time; it often reshapes our memories.

Sometimes she is struck by the sense that she is someone else’s character, that she is saying someone else’s lines. -Green Girl, Kate Zambreno

My memory of men is never lit up and illuminated like my memory of women. -The Lover, Marguerite Duras

In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be.

I want characters to do the things I am afraid to do for fear of making myself more unlikable than I may already be. I want characters to be the most honest of all things—human.

If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “Is this a potential friend for me?” but “Is this character alive?” -Claire Messud

What goes unsaid is that women might be more ambitious and focused because we’ve never had a choice. We’ve had to fight to vote, to work outside the home, to work in environments free of sexual harassment, to attend the universities of our choice, and we’ve also had to prove ourselves over and over to receive any modicum of consideration.

Better is not good enough, and it’s a shame that anyone would be willing to settle for so little.

Some women being empowered does not prove the patriarchy is dead. It proves that some of us are lucky.

Laurie Balbo notes in an article about an Egyptian news anchor choosing to wear the hijab during a newscast, “There’s no difference between forcing women to wear hijab and forcing them to not wear. The ultimate decision must be that of the individual.” Western opinions on the hijab or burkas are rather irrelevant. We don’t get to decide for Muslim women what does or does not oppress them, no matter how highly we think of ourselves.

Perfection often lacks texture.

Realism is relative.

Happiness is not uninspiring if we don’t allow our imaginations to fail us. I want to believe there is substance to fairy tales. I want to believe there’s something to hold on to, even when dealing with the slick smoothness of idyll, of joy.

We talk about rape, but we don’t carefully talk about rape.

Yes, I am tired of rape stories. I think rape stories are boring. I am sick of rape stories on CNN and sicker of rape stories on Jezebel. I would like instead to see national, televised debates and full episodes of morning radio shows and several long-form podcasts and a portion of the next State of the Union address dedicated to determining whether men should be allowed to keep their dicks. -Sarah Nicole Prickett

I hate exercise. Yes, it’s good for you and weight loss and whatever, but normally, I work out and want to die.

I had so many expectations, and I didn’t want those expectations, those hopes, destroyed by Hollywood, a known killer of dreams.

Being good is the best way to be bad.

There are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books—especially the dark and “dangerous ones—will save them. -Sherman Alexie

Life often presents unendurable circumstances people manage to survive.

Life, apparently, requires a trigger warning. This is the uncomfortable truth: everything is a trigger for someone.

The past is always with you.

Human endurance fascinates me, probably too much because more often than not, I think of life in terms of enduring instead of living.

There will always be a finger on the trigger. No matter how hard we try, there’s no way to step out of the line of fire.

For every step forward, there is some asshole shoving progress back.

There are injustices great and small, and even if we can only fight the small ones, at least we are fighting.

Vigorously resist the urge to dismiss the gender problem. Make the effort and make the effort and make the effort until you no longer need to, until we don’t need to keep having this conversation. Change requires intent and effort. It really is that simple.

Aren’t we all just trying to tell stories? How do we keep losing sight of this fact?

To read narrowly and shallowly is to read from a place of ignorance.

He was the kind of man who wanted to touch the stars.

Somewhere along the line we started misinterpreting the First Amendment and this idea of the freedom of speech the amendment grants us. We are free to speak as we choose without fear of prosecution or persecution, but we are not free to speak as we choose without consequence.

We are all free to be assholes, but we are not free to do so without consequence.

Qui tacet consentire videtur. Silence gives consent.

There is nothing better than knowing you have some control in a situation that feels so far beyond your control.

He’s young and troubled, but that’s an explanation for his behavior, not an excuse.

It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.

I enjoy fairy tales because I need to believe, despite my cynicism, that there is a happy ending for everyone, especially me.

Like most people, I am a mass of contradictions.

The joy of fiction is that, in the right hands, anything is possible.

It is bittersweet that something is better than nothing, even if the something we have is hardly anything at all.

Most black movies, for better or worse, carry a burden of expectation, having to be everything to everyone because we have so little to choose from.

The women of color don’t have the privilege of inhabiting their own solar systems.

This is the famine from which we must imagine feast.

We are, after all, supposed to be one nation indivisible. Only if we act as such, might we begin to truly effect change.

Social media is a curious thing. The abundance of triviality is as hypnotic as it is repulsive.

Historically, society has only wanted the “right kind of people” to have a right to life. We shouldn’t forget that fact.

Pregnancy is at once a private and public experience.

A woman should always have the right to choose what she does with her body. It is frustrating that this needs to be said, repeatedly. On the scale of relevance, public approval or disapproval of a woman’s choices should not merit measure.

This debate is a smoke screen, but it is a very deliberate and dangerous smoke screen. It is dangerous because this current debate shows us that reproductive freedom is negotiable... Reproductive freedom is not an inalienable right even though it should be.

The United States as we know it was founded on the principle of inalienable rights, the idea that some rights are so sacrosanct not even a government can take them away. Of course, this country’s founding fathers were only thinking of wealthy white men when they codified this principle, but still, it’s a nice idea, that there are some freedoms that cannot be taken away.

I struggle to accept that my body is a legislative matter. The truth of this fact makes it difficult for me to breathe.

We are now dealing with a bizarre new morality where a woman cannot simply say, in one way or another, “I’m on the pill because I like dick.”

We should all be in this together, right? One of my favorite moments is when a guy, at that certain point in a relationship, says something desperately hopeful like, “Are you on the pill?” I simply say, “No, are you?”

We are so enamored with this idea of the heroic that we are always looking for ways to attribute heroism to everyday people so we might get just a bit closer to the best version of ourselves, so the distance between who we are and who we aspire to be might become narrower.

Few things work in practice as well as they do in theory. Justice is anything but blind. All too often, the people who most need justice benefit the least.

“Justice” is, at times, a weak word. We would like to believe that justice is about balancing a crime with a punishment, but it is never an equal transaction. For most victims of crimes, justice is merely palliative.

This, it would seem, is yet another example of white privilege—to retain humanity in the face of inhumanity.

Only in America can a dead black boy go on trial for his own murder. -Syreeta McFadden

Reitman’s article is a solid piece of journalism. It reveals complex truths about the life of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Imagine, though, if Rolling Stone had dedicated more than eleven thousand words and the cover to Trayvon Martin to reveal the complex truth of his life and what he was like in the years and months and hours before his death. How did he deal with the burden of being the face of danger from the moment he was born? This is a question fewer people seem to be asking.

We need a reminder that we must stop projecting our fears onto profiles built from stereotypes. We need a reminder that we will never truly know whom we need to fear.

All too often, suffering exists in a realm beyond vocabulary so we navigate that realm awkwardly, fumbling for the right words, hoping we can somehow approximate an understanding of matters that should never have to be understood by anyone in any place in the world.

We all have the capacity to do hurtful things, but we differ from one another in terms of scale—how much we can hurt others, how far we will go to make a statement about our beliefs, how remorseful we might feel in the aftermath of committing a terrible act.

Righteousness gets in the way of what is right.

She had a voice like fine whiskey and cigarettes, or at least what I imagine fine whiskey and cigarettes might sound like.

She was a mess. So what? We are all stinking messes, every last one of us, or we once were messes and found our way out, or we are trying to find our way out of a mess, scratching, reaching.

We are asked these questions as if we only have the capacity to mourn one tragedy at a time, as if we must measure the depth and reach of a tragedy before deciding how to respond, as if compassion and kindness are finite resources we must use sparingly.

Feminists are “just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.” -Su

All feminists are angry instead of, say, passionate.

Isn’t it obvious I am a feminist, albeit not a very good one?

I’m not the only outspoken woman who shies away from the feminist label, who fears the consequences of accepting the label.

We are categorized and labeled from the moment we come into this world by gender, race, size, hair color, eye color, and so forth. The older we get, the more labels and categories we collect. If labeling and categorizing ourselves is going to shut the world down, it has been a long time coming.

Such willful ignorance, such willful disinterest in incorporating the issues and concerns of black women into the mainstream feminist project, makes me disinclined to own the feminist label until it embraces people like me. Is that my way of essentializing feminism, of suggesting there’s a right kind of feminism or a more inclusive feminism? Perhaps.

The thing is, I am not at all sure that feminism has ever suggested women can have it all. This notion of being able to have it all is always misattributed to feminism when really, it’s human nature to want it all—to have cake and eat it too without necessarily focusing on how we can get there and how we can make “having it all” possible for a wider range of people and not just the lucky ones.

The rules are always different for girls, no matter who they are and no matter what they do.

Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement... I am as committed to fighting fiercely for equality as I am committed to disrupting the notion that there is an essential feminism.

The more I write, the more I put myself out into the world as a bad feminist but, I hope, a good woman—I am being open about who I am and who I was and where I have faltered and who I would like to become.

I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.

PS: the goldfinch, the best of sherlock holmes