Reading this book was like spending a few hours in the company of a frank, intelligent, funny, opinionated friend whose insights make you laugh, nod and go ‘oh hold on there’ in equal measure; the only drawback was that, being a passive reader, you can’t start a discussion. I didn’t necessarily agree with every point made in the book, but then Gay makes it pretty clear that this is simply her opinions, not gospel, and acknowledges her own biases and contradictory feelings on certain issues – like singing along to the catchy-as-hell tunes while loathing their lyrics that demean women.
The provocative title refers to Gay’s refusal to be put on any kind of pedestal from which she’d inevitably get knocked off once, being a messy human being, she does or says something that may not fall in line with the feminist ideal. This is something she states in the introduction and it’s a brilliant way to set the tone for what follows.
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 expectation, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.
Gay’s essays cover a wide variety of subjects – feminism, racism, competitive Scrabble, growing up in Nebraska as a child of immigrants from Haiti, the meaning of privilege, recent pop culture phenomenons like Twilight, Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey, the importance of unlikeable characters in fiction, misogyny and sexual violence in media and real life (including her own horrible adolescent experience), her first year of teaching as a professor, and many others. Not all of the essays were equally engaging, some are a tad too rambling, and others focus on the subjects I know nothing about, like the Tyler Perry movies or the HBO show Girls. Some of the observations felt so right on the money it was like someone took my own unarticulated thoughts and put them down on the page. Like preferring my 30s to my 20s (when it’s my birthday at work and someone says, “21 again hmmm?” my response is “ughhh no wouldn’t go back there even for the sake of faster metabolism”). Or her point about once disavowing feminism for the fear of being called an angry man-hater who doesn’t shave her legs – which is merely a caricature of feminism that’s of most benefit to those who fear feminism the most. Sometimes her tone gets a bit academic, but mostly it’s very down-to-earth and conversational, and there’s something fearless and appealing about the way she lays down her own insecurities and flaws.
In some of the essays, I do think that Gay’s biases weigh in too much. There’s one about racial profiling and the different ways the media viewed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, and Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was fatally shot by a neighbourhood watch volunteer. Her point is that Tsarnaev received a far more sympathetic portrayal because he’s a golden boy who is nothing like you’d expect a dangerous person to look like, but to me that’s rather ridiculous because, being Chechen and Muslim, he is in fact very much what the media expects a terrorist to look like these days. Whereas Gay seems to insist that all lighter-skinned people can basically be lumped into the same “white privilege” box, as if the prejudices of ethnicity and religion don’t exist. In another essay about 12 Years A Slave, she says that she’s tired of films about the slavery, which then kinda begs the question, why bother watching the movie at all? But no matter, this was a very entertaining, thought-provoking book.