Courtesy of my ongoing participation in a Feminist Book Club, I realised recently that I had been reading a lot of material that was pretty similar— namely, female essayists. To date, we have read three such collections for the club: Rebecca Solnit (Men Explain Things To Me), Inga Muscio (Cunt: A Declaration of Independence) and Melissa Broder (So Sad Today). Add to that the bestselling essay collection Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay and I’ll Tell You In Person by Chloe Caldwell, both of which I read in my spare time, and it seems that I sure have been burning through a lot of feisty essay-writing ladies lately.
It was when I read Inga Muscio and Roxanne Gay in quick succession, however, that an enormous feminist gulf opened up before me, leaving me feeling both wrong-footed and inspired. And so this post came into being!
Simply considering the titles of their respective works perhaps gives an idea of how these two authors differ: ‘Bad Feminist’ is an open statement of unworthiness and self-deprecation; ‘Cunt’, on the other hand, is aggressive and provocative to the point that it’s a little embarrassing to openly discuss your reading material in public.
There is an unusually stark difference between the voices of these two women—so much so that I felt genuinely disorientated on the bus one morning when I put one away and started the other. This difference is important, because the contrast between two dissimilar feminists only proves that feminism, much like women, does not come in one particular shape or size. Anyone who is involved, interested or implicated in matters of female social emancipation should be aware of these nuances, nuances that exist amongst even the best known and most respected of feminist figures. It is crucial, I have come to realise, that nobody disparages feminism on the grounds that they don’t feel that they fit in well with the blanket definition (or what seems the blanket definition) of Feminism. And yes, the capital F was intentional.
This post aims to provide some food for thought on this topic. Please do ingest with gusto, readers, as this is a matter that remains close to my heart.
Let me begin with an overview of both works, starting with Inga Muscio.
Inga Muscio is quite possibly the most aggressive female voice I have ever had cause to listen to. She perfectly represents the (rather harmful) stereotype of what opponents of modern-day feminism often claim (wrongly) to be the norm: an angry woman who actively pits women against men by inciting anti-male and pro-female tendencies. She does this by voicing an open call for female solidarity, whilst condemning all manner of despicable ‘male’ tendencies that infuse the patriarchy in which we live.
This is approached in a truly fascinating manner, fuelled most effectively of all not by Muscio’s arguments in and of themselves, but her absolutely gripping style of writing, which, after reading only the introduction, almost had me striding up and down the street brandishing a large ‘’I Love My Cunt’ banner high above my head. It is incredible just how her written voice resonates. To me, Cunt felt above all like a dramatic text, a speech, even. There were grammatical abbreviations to help the writing flow like casual conversation, one word paragraphs employed to create dramatic pauses, and, above all, an overriding power that is projected from the passion that Muscio feels towards every topic.
Some of the actual content became slightly difficult to stomach after a time, but hats off nonetheless to Inga Muscio for broaching topics that are ordinarily taboo. She spends a long time talking about periods, then abortion, then prostitution—all, I guarantee, in more detail than you really want. The overriding theme of the novel is the idea that we live in a world that conducts itself according to a culture that was made by men for men. She extends this theme universally across the work. The female hygeine industry, for example, is, she claims, an industry dominated by businessmen trying to make money off women. The very title, “feminine hygiene”, she argues, creates negative, woman-hating connotations vis-à-vis periods. In Muscio’s eyes, only a keen sense of female solidarity and all-encompassing love amongst women of all ages will facilitate the resistance needed to overturn the natural tendency of male dominance.
That, she says, is the reasoning behind the title ‘Cunt’. She is re-appropriating a word used against women, and instead uses it in this book to promote a better understanding and appreciation of womanhood, lady parts included.
…From this, I started on Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist. One of the first essays is about her joining a scrabble tournament.
Good lord was I underwhelmed.
Let me state now that my initial reaction to Bad Feminist, however real, does a disservice to a woman who offers many keen insights into social decorum in America today. That said, after reading Inga Muscio’s impassioned pleas, for example, that women of a community band together and wage silent and aggressive wars on suspected sex offenders by congregating en masse outside of their houses of a morning, I simply did not want to hear the diplomatic musings of a scrabble enthusiast.
I persevered, however, and soon after the man-hating adrenaline had worked its way out of my system I came around and admitted that Roxanne Gay was very readable, just in a wholly different way.
Whereas Cunt is a work created to be read as a whole, Bad Feminist is a large collection of relatively short essays on many different topics that were most likely written individually and then brought together to create a book. The Scrabble essay is preceded by the essay ‘Typical First Year Professor’ where Roxanne Gay explains how she felt overwhelmed by her new job, and is followed by the essay ‘How To Be Friends With Another Woman’, where she lists a concise method for friend-making in female circles.
These essays are good. Roxanne Gay is a delicate and articulate writer. She writes carefully about matters of gender and race, because her belief is that important and potentially hurtful topics deserve such care. It is a perfectly respectable stance, one that produces many essays in this collection that are in fact far better argued than anything written by Inga Muscio. This is because Roxanne Gay is a supporter of nuance, mutual understanding and careful consideration of all viewpoints. She is, by all accounts, a voice that is very much needed in an age of age of aggression and misunderstanding, and as I read more of her work, I felt that, in essence, I agreed with her viewpoint far more than with that of Inga Muscio.
It’s just a shame that it was less fun to read.
Ultimately, it was Gay’s rampant backtracking and apologising that eventually bored me. In the essay ‘How To Be Friends With Another Woman’, her advice includes:
“3A. If you feel like it’s hard to be friends with women, consider that maybe women aren’t the problem. Maybe it’s just you.
“3B. I used to be this kind of woman. I’m sorry to judge.”
This jarring need to apologise and contextualise any negativity severely disappointed me when I first began reading simply because I had just been enchanted by the ruthless certainty of Inga Muscio. If there’s one thing you won’t find in Muscio’s writing, for better or for worse, it’s an apology. She is staunchly dedicated to her views and has no time for dilly-dallying over the feelings of people who may or may not agree— that is simply not the purpose of her work.
Which begs the question as to what the purpose is of Roxanne Gay’s work is. In her introduction (which incidentally inspired no desire in me for banner-making), she states: “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.” And so on and so forth. Meanwhile, I was exasperated and internally begging with Ms. Gay: enough already with this calm sense of rationality and tell what you think, woman!
Ultimately, Gay is the better writer. Her capacity to write from many perspectives and to take into account the feelings of those who she has the least in common with is an attribute, not a hindrance. Muscio strikes me as unwilling to budge; Gay strikes me as being more than willing to consider budging in the face of a good argument. And this is more interesting from the point of view of her future as a writer. Maybe, given time and a healthy dose of self-confidence, we will learn what Roxanne Gay really thinks about things. I await the day in anticipation.