The internet is excited about the rise of the bad girl. Critics from Bitch magazine to the Guardian have applauded characters like Hannah, Lena Dunham’s character on Girls, and Annie of the film Bridesmaids for upending the traditional injunction that women must be likeable. These women are selfish, obnoxious, and slutty: and they still get the guy!
In a superficial sense, the fantasy is indeed a female take on an old comedic trope: the unappealing anti-hero winds up in the arms of a gorgeous, kind woman. The interesting—and troubling—thing about this supposed inversion is that the gender dynamic of the resulting happy couple is pretty much the same, no matter who’s writing the fantasy: the woman is melodramatic and led astray by her emotions; the man is the moral compass who sets her straight. The man initiates and enjoys sex; the woman is sexually available and passive. The man is smart and self-contained, too profound to worry himself over social concerns; the woman is flighty, insecure, and needy. Women may be writing their own fantasies now, but these are still fantasies of conventionality.
In her new essay collection Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay grapples with many of the same issues that challenge other women who grew up after second wave feminism—sex, love, and professional ambition—and she readily admits her weaknesses in each of these areas. Gay feels overwhelmed and scared at work, goes out with men she knows she shouldn’t, and is “down with female submission.” But unlike the bad girls of Hollywood, Gay does not lambaste herself for the parts of her life that are less than perfect. Rather, she frankly admits her struggles:
I worry about dying alone, unmarried and childless, because I spent so much time pursuing my career and accumulating degrees. This kind of thinking keeps me up at night, but I pretend it doesn’t because I am supposed to be evolved. My success, such as it is, is supposed to be enough if I’m a good feminist. It is not enough. It is not even close.
This admission that feminism cannot solve heartache is a far cry from Hannah complaining on Girls, “I just don’t want to be considered a monster for caring what happens to my work. I’ve always been incredibly invested in my work and knew it would be really hard for whatever man ended up with me.” Like most of Hannah’s seemingly feminist remarks, the comment is tongue-in-cheek—Hannah’s writing is not presented as meaningful and her ambition does make her act like a monster.
Although the self-deprecation in Girls and other shows and movies written by women is often funny and sometimes moving, it’s a relief to come across a woman like Gay who admits her failures without mocking herself. As a book, Bad Feminist is far from perfect. Much of the writing is hurried—charmingly casual at times (“I am mortified by my music choices”) and sloppily so at others (“Here’s the thing about history—it repeats itself over and over and over”). But at its best, Bad Feminist is a straightforward reminder that acknowledging one’s weaknesses does not mean accepting the blame for everything that hurts in life.
In the essay “What We Hunger For,” Gay describes her first boyfriend as a man who seems a lot like Adam, Hannah’s boyfriend in Girls, in season one:
… [T]here was a boy who I thought was my boyfriend and who said he was my boyfriend but who also completely ignored me at school. It’s a sad, silly story lots of girls know. It was fine because when we were together, he made me feel like he could fill my gaping void. He was terrible, but he was also charming and persuasive. I was nerdy and friendless, all lanky limbs and crazy hair, and he was beautiful and popular. I accepted the state of affairs between us.
When we were together, he’d tell me what he wanted to do to me. He wasn’t asking permission. I was not an unwilling participant. I was not a willing participant. I felt nothing one way or the other. I wanted him to love me. I wanted to make him happy…. The more I gave, the more he took. At school, he continued to look right through me. I was dying but I was happy.
This “state of affairs”—the girl who is “dying but happy” to be with a boy who gives her nothing but his enjoyment of her body—characterizes the relationship between Hannah and Adam in the first season of Girls. Adam jerks off on Hannah’s chest while pretending she’s a preteen heroine addict; tells Hannah she can’t touch herself unless he gives her permission; and has sex with her whenever she shows up at his door but never asks her on a date. This is where the similarity between Gay’s life as recounted in her essays and Girls ends: as the show progresses, all of Adam’s mistreatment is explained away by the fact that he just wasn’t in love with Hannah yet. As soon as they commit to each other, Adam morphs into the perfect boyfriend—passionate, devoted, and perceptive emotionally; aggressive and confident sexually. He is always the smartest person in the room, a room in which he is often the only male.
Gay’s relationship ended quite differently in real life than the relationship in Lena Dunham’s fantasy. Gay’s boyfriend lured her to a shed in the woods, where a large group of his friends gang-raped her for hours. The next day in school, Gay had a new name, one that shamed her for the rest of the year: “Slut.”
I don’t mean to suggest that in real life, any young man who is a domineering, inaccessible lover is also a sadist and a criminal. But the horror of Gay’s story provides a counterweight to the current trend of smart young women in film and television assuming responsibility for male remoteness and mistreatment. Adam’s transformation—from brutish fuck buddy to loving partner with a big heart and a clear head—represents a glaringly unrealistic feature of a show that is otherwise realistic in smart, funny, and emotionally complex ways: the boys are skilled at relationships, while the girls are hampered. This dichotomy was introduced at the end of season one, which ends with the male characters all revealing themselves as committed and solid, while the girls wallow in tragicomic messes of their own confused desires. This dynamic becomes only more pronounced throughout seasons two and three. Every time a woman breaks up with her boyfriend, she later regrets it; Shoshanna, a friend of Hannah’s, even begs her ill-suited ex to take her back, saying that he made her a “stable person.” At one point, we hear homely Ray tell gorgeous Marnie that he wants to stop having casual sex with her because he wants a girlfriend: “Like a legitimate girlfriend. I want to have a relationship that’s deep, and sincere, and challenging, and scary…. I want it to be real.” Marnie offers the vapid response: “You can’t break up with me, Ray. I don’t care about this. I wouldn’t be eating pizza in front of you if I actually liked you.”
And then there’s Bridesmaids, in which Annie (played by one of the film’s writers, Kristin Wiig) does nearly everything in her power to jeopardize her chances of real intimacy. Insensitive to the sweet come-ons of a kind, devoted man named Rhodes, she continues to pursue a no-strings-attached relationship with an arrogant jerk. And when she finally does go out with Rhodes, she leaves in an angry huff after their fun date because he encourages her not to abandon her professional goals.
What at first appears as a fantasy of female empowerment may actually be a fantasy of male control: if I behave like a good woman, he will love me and treat me well.
In her essay “The Trouble with Prince Charming or He Who Trespassed Against Us,” Gay identifies perhaps the most glaring example of a falsely subversive portrayal of women: Fifty Shades of Grey. Billed as an erotic, empowering tale of female satisfaction, the book is actually the fairytale of a domineering, withholding man who evolves into a committed romantic through the power of a woman’s love. As Gay points out, “Ana’s sexual awakening is a convenient vehicle for the awakening of Christian’s humanity. Fifty Shades of Grey is about a man finding peace and happiness because he finally finds a woman willing to tolerate his bullshit for long enough.” All it takes for a man to reveal himself as the perfect partner is for the woman to give herself completely to him. Hardly an inversion, this is an age-old fantasy, barely more evolved than Dusty Springfield encouraging women to “Show him that you care just for him, do the things he likes to do, wear your hair just for him.… Just do it, and after you do, you will be his.” What at first appears as a fantasy of female empowerment may actually be a fantasy of male control: if I behave like a good woman, he will love me and treat me well.
In Girls, a defining feature of this supposed goodness is that women indulge male desires without having any sexual needs of their own. When a friend asks Hannah if she enjoyed sex with Adam, Hannah shrugs and says, “I don’t know. Maybe he’ll finally let me get some sleep.” It’s curious that a woman who directs sex scenes that manage to be explicit without being erotic, disturbing without being titillating, funny without being slapstick does not seem to have any interest in depicting female pleasure.
Dunham places the blame for this dissatisfaction on the woman in the couple. When, later in the series, Hannah initiates a kinky role-playing scene with Adam, he gets upset and says that he no longer wants to have weird, controlling sex with her, as he did at the beginning of their relationship: “It was like that with us for a while. But then we fell in love and I wanted to have sex with just you as us. Just fuck. And be sweet.” This is an appealing description of sexual intimacy, but it’s absurd that Dunham puts these words in the mouth of a twenty-something man who is addicted to sex and loves to dominate women in the bedroom—in season two, he’s even depicted as bored and irritated when a hot woman sexily tells him how to fuck her in a way that would make her feel good. The conversation suggests that Hannah, rather than Adam, has created barriers to vulnerability and mutual pleasure. Any fault in their sex life lies with her.
It may seem paradoxical, but portraying oneself as screwed up and self-sabotaging may actually be a way to make oneself more sympathetic. Characters like Hannah and Annie are witty, strong-willed, and cynical, but too messed up to be threatening; they still need men to set them straight.
One wonders whether their self-sabotage is also ta way to appear strong-willed and capable without seeming explicitly “feminist.” Gay herself admits having tried to make herself appealing by rejecting the ostensible threat of feminism: “I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are—militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better. I’m not proud of this. I don’t want to buy into these myths anymore. I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done.”
The impulse to distance oneself from the term “women’s rights” is understandable—after all, it’s much easier to find fault with yourself than it is to find fault with a culture. If the fault lies with an individual, it seems remediable. If the fault lies with ancient, institutionalized sexism, it can feel hopeless. Which is perhaps why so many women in power have rejected the label “feminist,” a phenomenon that Gay usefully documents. Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, epitomized the general tone of this rejection when she said that she doesn’t consider herself a feminist because feminism is too negative. “You know, there are amazing opportunities all over the world for women,” Mayer was quoted as saying in 2012, “and I think that there is more good that comes out of positive energy around that than comes out of negative energy.” But what if you’re a female doctor who works harder than your male colleagues and yet makes $50,000 a year less than they do? Mayer’s line of thinking—which implies that instead of creating “negative energy” by complaining about this pay discrepancy, you should simply be grateful that you have the “amazing opportunity” to be a doctor at all—is ultimately limiting.
“My body, my choice” has devolved into “My body, my choice, my fault.”
It’s true that there are more opportunities than ever before for well-off women to be professionally successful in white-collar and high-paying jobs. But women who point out the work that remains to be done to achieve equality are often considered lazy or resentful, looking to blame someone else for all their problems. Take the example of the controversies surrounding Terry Richardson, one of the most successful fashion photographers working today, who also publishes photos of himself getting blowjobs, sometimes from interns who are crammed inside trash cans or who have the word “slut” written on their foreheads. Several women have accused Richardson of coercing them into nudity and sexual acts during photo shoots. In response to these allegations, several companies and magazines, including H&M and Vogue, have dropped Richardson as a photographer. Yet many refuse to hold him accountable for his actions. Alex Bolotow, Richardson’s former assistant who also modeled for him, responded to these allegations, “I think part of being a strong woman is owning the decisions that you’ve made in your life. Trying to put the onus onto someone else for your own decisions is really cowardly and kind of dishonest.” Women now have the freedom to blame themselves for getting pressured into sex by men with the power to make or break their careers. Somehow unprecedented success has come with unprecedented self-censure. “My body, my choice” has devolved into “My body, my choice, my fault.”
As a writer who dedicated her first novel to “women, the world over,” Gay is a welcome antidote to this climate of hip self-loathing. And yet the earnestness of her approach to women’s rights is tempered by her willingness to admit her own failures and her own desire to be liked. She does not subscribe to what she calls “essential feminism”—the idea that a particular set of behaviors (not shaving one’s legs, never faking an orgasm, etc.) constitutes feminism. Yet she holds men accountable when they mistreat her or other women.
Gay’s definition of feminists—borrowed from an interview with a woman named Su from the 1996 anthology DIY Feminism—is “just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.” For Gay, refusing to be treated like shit means implicating men in experiences that are too often treated as female problems: reproduction, romance, and sexual pleasure and discomfort. When men she’s dating ask Gay if she’s on the pill, she replies, “No, are you?” She is vigilant in pointing out instances in which women are unfairly blamed for their own mistreatment, whether in a New York Times article about rape or in teenage girls’ forgiveness of rapper Chris Brown’s abusive behavior. She may appreciate music by Kanye West and Robin Thicke, but she doesn’t allow herself the ease of singing along without noting their misogynistic lyrics. She acknowledges that the Fifty Shades trilogy is fun to read, but does not allow this fun to eclipse the “damaging tone” of the books: “That tone reinforces the pervasive cultural messages that women are already swallowing about what they should tolerate in romantic relationships, about what they should tolerate to be loved by their Prince Charming.”
In the fairy tale ideal of a relationship that ends “happily-ever-after,” the relationship works because the woman makes it work: this is her power. Female-run comedies play with the idea of this power by portraying women who are so damaged or self-absorbed that they ruin relationships, instead of sustaining them. These failures can be funny, but the framework in which they’re presented is not so different from old-fashioned romances: boys will be boys; it’s up to girls to keep them in line. And if the relationships are unhappy and the sex is unsatisfying, it’s no one’s fault but the woman’s.
Bad Feminist offers an example of a woman trying and failing to be powerful in a different way: “I am supposed to be a good feminist who is having it all, doing it all. Really, though, I’m a woman in her thirties struggling to accept herself and her credit score.” Gay recognizes that she cannot live up to her ideals of professional and romantic autonomy, immunity to cultural standards of beauty, and rejection of all pop culture that disrespects women. But she does not mock her ideals any more than she mocks her failures; instead, the urgency of her thinking stems from the tension between the two.
Hannah Tennant-Moore’s work appears in the New York Times, n+1, the New Republic, Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.