I'm a terrible feminist. Oh well

Roxanne Gay has an essay in the Fall issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review about being a bad feminist. Well, aren’t we all?

In the essay, she confesses to loving Vogue, the colour pink, and to shaving her legs. She says she is failing as a feminist and points to what she calls “essential feminism” as a cause for her discomfort and shame:

The most significant problem with essential feminism is how it doesn’t allow for the complexities of human experience or individuality. There seems to be little room for multiple or discordant points of view. Essential feminism has, for example, led to the rise of the phrase “sex-positive feminism,” which creates a clear distinction between feminists who are positive about sex and feminists who aren’t—and that in turn creates a self-fulfilling essentialist prophecy.

And righty-o to that. If there were such a thing as ‘essential feminism’, I’d say the same thing. Certainly I agree that the term “sex-positive feminism” is useless, divisive, and inaccurate. But I’m unconvinced that such a thing as “essential feminism” exists — and if it does, I doubt it’s something many feminists would identify with.

I have to admit that reading the essay initially made me feel a little bit irritable. Was it feminism’s fault that Gay felt like a failure? Was it feminism’s fault that women shied away from the label, worried about the implications of calling themselves feminist?

It’s true that there are consequences to taking on the label of ‘feminist’ and those consequences are not only that you will potentially be labeled an angry man-hater — your perspectives and arguments brushed off as a result.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t identify as a feminist — I’ve never been the “I’m not a feminist, but…” type. But that isn’t to say I haven’t struggled with figuring out what that means to me. Which is what I think Gay is trying to do in her piece.

As I continued to read the essay, irritability shifted to recognition. I too, have often felt not only like an imperfect feminist, but a terrible one. I feel like I’m never doing enough. I feel like I’ve backtracked on issues and ideas that are important to me when in conversation with a man I’m romantically interested in. Like Gay, I never stopped listening to (and loving) raunchy and sometimes sexist hip hop (though I really hate it when rap music is singled out as being, somehow, the misogynist music genre. That isn’t to say we should give it a pass, either…).  I kind of love makeup and yes, I shave my legs too.

But those things bother me less and less. I don’t feel obligated to confess every imperfection I have or every way in which I’ve failed to look like some feminist caricature. I don’t think my eyeliner is really a very big deal in the grand scheme of things. I don’t think feminism really cares all that much whether or not I shave my legs. I think there are more important issues at hand.

What I struggle with the most isn’t the fact that I love to read tabloids on the plane or watch awful reality tv. It isn’t the soundtrack to my dance parties. It isn’t the fact that sometimes I wear dresses or lipstick. I don’t really care about all of that stuff. I’m over it. I know what it means to me to be a feminist, the trouble is often with what other people think feminism should look like.

What Gay points out, with regard to women, feels equally applicable to what so many people think it means to be a feminist. She writes:

I keep reading these articles and getting angry and tired because these articles tell me that there’s no way for women to ever get it right. These articles make it seem like there is, in fact, a right way to be a woman and a wrong way to be a woman. And the standard appears to be ever changing and unachievable.

It’s true. There is no way for women to ever get it right. We’re supposed to be so many things all at once and it’s too much. It’s the same standard that gets placed on us as feminists and I don’t think we can ever live up to it. I can’t anyway.

I can’t be together all the time. Like many women, I have self-esteem issues. There are days I hate my body. I can be totally superficial and I have a deep fear of wrinkles. I straighten my hair. I’ve made some really bad choices in the man-game and I spend too much time playing that game… I can’t count the number of times I’ve chosen the asshole over the ‘good guy’. I could go on, confessing the many issues and imperfections I have, patriarchy-related or not (though I tend to think it’s all patriarchy-related, in one way or another) but is that really useful?

Gay admits to liking men, babies, and weddings. She admits to faking orgasms and to knowing nothing about cars. So what? These are all stereotypes. Stereotypes that I hear from people who don’t identify as feminists. I don’t care if you like men or not. I don’t care if you shave your legs or not. Knowing things about cars has little to do with women’s oppression. If people think that I’ve failed at feminism because I have body issues or am afraid of aging, then they have failed to understand how a) socialization, advertising, and sexism works and b) are making feminism into a therapy session.

Feminism isn’t going to fix all your problems. It’s not a magical island you move to that enables you to forget all your troubles and insecurities. You can’t switch out your brain for an impeccably feminist one, replacing your love of the colour pink with carpentry skills. Feminists are no less complex than anyone else. We live here too. The point of feminism isn’t to become a perfect human being and if it were then I would have had to forgo the label years ago.

What does it mean to be a ‘good feminist’? And does it have anything at all to do with liking babies and the colour pink?

I’ve never once felt like I had to stop liking individual men or that I had to learn about the inner workings of cars in order to be legit. The point of feminism is to first recognize that a system called patriarchy exists, that it impacts the lives of women in a particular way, then to challenge and work towards an end to that system. Of course this can mean different things to different people, but the fact that, as individual feminists, we may or may not like dresses and makeup is not reason to beat ourselves up or feel ashamed. It certainly doesn’t mean we are ‘bad feminists’.

That said, I can relate to the pressure Gay puts on herself:

Because I have so many deeply held opinions about gender equality, I feel a lot of pressure to live up to certain ideals. 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. For so long I told myself I was not this woman—utterly human and flawed. I worked overtime to be anything but this woman, and it was exhausting and unsustainable, and even harder than simply embracing who I am.

I think this experience is universal. Struggling to accept ourselves and maybe failing doesn’t make us ‘bad feminists’. It makes us human.

There’s no such thing as ‘essential feminism’. There are people who may well expect certain things of you because you identify as a feminist, but those expectations are, more often than not, stereotypes and myths.

Gay seems to get this:

At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. 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.

But she then goes on to say she is a ‘bad feminist’. Well, ok. Then we’re all ‘bad feminists’. Because I doubt there is a woman out there who has managed to eschew every aspect of patriarchal conditioning. Don’t we have enough trouble learning to not hate ourselves as women in a misogynist world without beating ourselves up for being imperfect feminists too?

I don’t think Roxanne Gay is a ‘bad feminist’ and I don’t think I am either. I think I’m just trying to function in this world as best I can and at least I have feminism to help me sort through the complexities of all that. I think there are extremely important and urgent issues we need to be working on and if, in the meantime, we are doing that work in a pink dress, it’s of little concern.

Every single thing we do in every aspect of our lives isn’t going to be feminist. It just isn’t. This is how we got into this “my stilettos are empowering” crap in the first place. We think that because we are feminists, every move we make must also be feminist. And so we try to invent ways for lingerie and nail polish to be about female empowerment. They aren’t. Get over it. You’re a feminist who also likes mascara. You’re a feminist who gets blow outs. You’re a feminist who’s slept with some sleezebags (Hey, sometimes sleezebags are hot. It’s confusing.). That doesn’t make mascara or blow outs or sleeping with sleezebags feminist. It also doesn’t mean you lose your feminist card.

Just like we can’t “have it all”, we can’t do it all. We can’t be everything. We can’t live up to everyone else’s standards and trying to do that can only result in a constant sense of failure and shame.

I think it’s important to remember that feminism is bigger than ourselves. That doesn’t mean we have to ignore ourselves or that we shouldn’t try to do better or feel better. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t notice and question our behaviour, understanding that it exists within a larger context and that that larger context is extremely hard on women. But spending all of our energy kicking ourselves for flirting with a douchebag or faking an orgasm isn’t going to get us anywhere.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Sadiya

    I think the image of the “perfect feminist” is what drives some people to the “I’m not a feminist but…” because they don’t want their lives to be picked apart. And there are lots of other reasons people say that phrase too … but its interesting to explore why we feel judged from all sides.

    I can remember the first time someone called me out on being an imperfect feminist – in university a (male) friend said: I thought feminists don’t wear skirts. And I was genuinely confused as to how that changed my intellectual orientation – I chalk it up to just another way women are judged.

    I live in this culture, I am not immune to lipstick, pink and long hair – and I don’t want to be.

    • Meghan Murphy

      But the thing is that, in my experience, it’s never feminists who do that — it’s people who aren’t feminists who say things like “oh you don’t look like a feminist” “real feminists don’t do xyz”. I don’t feel judged by other feminists, rather I feel judged by people who have decided that feminism means something particular (and stereotypical), you know?

      • Sadiya

        Mmm yes you are right. But I still have a fear of being judged by other feminists for some reason.

        • Meghan Murphy

          I’m sure you aren’t alone… And I imagine others have experienced judgement from feminists. For me, it’s almost always come from others who have decided that to be feminist means something particular and, more often than not, stereotypical.

    • tinfoil hattie

      Great post.

      I’ve been judged by feminists and non-feminists for not being the “right kind” of feminist. I think it’s just part of this concise statement:

      “It’s true. There is no way for women to ever get it right.”

      Whatever women do, somewhere, somebody will criticize us for it.

      There’s no sense jumping on that bandwagon. Let’s embrace our imperfect feminism! It’s all too human, eh?

  • BK

    “I think it’s important to remember that feminism is bigger than ourselves”

    Bingo! Great piece, Meghan!

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks BK!

  • Actual feminism is the allowance to be your true self. Therefore, you can never be a bad one. Unless others are forcing or pressuring you into doing things that do not align with who you truly are, whoever that Person is, you’re doing awesome. 😀

    • Sabrina L.

      I think a large part of feminism is the recognition that we CANNOT KNOW who our “true selves” are due to patriarchy, let alone *be* that true self within that patriarchy. It’s recognizing that our “true selves” have very little to do with all the little feminine things we’ve been conditioned to do and even enjoy. It’s the culture that is “forcing and pressuring us into doing things whether or not they align with who you truly are” –and yet with feminism we can recognize that there is very little way to realistically opt out.

      • Meghan Murphy

        Definitely. How do we even know who we are/what we want when patriarchy has conditioned us, since birth, towards femininity?

  • I used to say, rather tongue in cheek, that I was a shitty feminist. I didn’t see the point of subscribing to any value system that sought to limit what I *could* do (after all, what’s the point of breaking away from the norm just to fall under new rule?!), so there always seemed to be this point where I would have to throw up my hands and claim failing because the people I was arguing with wanted to strip my autonomy and right to make my own decisions and create my own meaning from the choices I made.

    Luckily, I’ve been shitty at so many things for so long and none of this has stopped me from feministing anyway (ditto with singing, writing, and t-shirt surgery).

    So in the end? I’m kinda one of the best feminists I know, mostly because I’m still doing it. And really, being a better feminist for me as I grow up has become so much more about how I treat others and so much less about my insistence on never leaving the house without eye liner anyway.

  • pisaquari

    I can never tell if articles like these (self-deprecating/ “imma bad feminist”) are meant to point out that we all must make concessions (which,–duh) or to elicit sympathy and, eventually, *politicize* such concessions. It SEEMS as though claiming something as ridiculous as “Imma bad feminist” usually causes your conditioned-to-be-caring female audience to over correct and then politicize your actions—“No no, you’re totally still a feminist—doing XYZ can be feminist too!” This is unhelpful.
    It also vilifies the movement (/evil feminist police implications) AND vilifies anyone with enough sense to point out that XYZ are not feminist but, hey, it happens so don’t sweat it.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Well, the point of this particular article was to say that there is no such thing as an ‘essential feminism’ and that there is no perfect feminist. I certainly don’t need to be supported in my love of eyeliner nor do I need outside reinforcement to tell me I’m a feminist. I do wear makeup and I know that it’s a performance of femininity. I also know that hating your body or fear of wrinkles is about misogyny, internalized and otherwise. But that doesn’t mean I can just change that or that I’m going to. It isn’t ‘good’ but it is. Women can be feminists and still be impacted by the culture around them. It doesn’t make them ‘not real feminists’ or ‘bad feminists’.

      • pisaquari

        FTR–the “article” I was referring to is Gay’s, not yours!

        • Meghan Murphy

          Ooooh gotcha. Yeah I wasn’t quite sure what the point was either. Working through guilt I think?

      • tinfoil hattie


        How do you get it on STRAIGHT?

        • Meghan Murphy

          Hahahhahah. Oh gosh. Years of wasted mornings and missed buses. I’ve been wearing eyeliner for so long I’m just really good at it. I SUPPOSE IT’S POSSIBLE there are more useful skills to have.

  • Chris

    Feminism has nothing to do with personal identity or lifestyle. The problem is that as far Western culture is concerned, *everything* has to do with personal identity and lifestyle.

    So “acceptable” feminism is about what you wear, how you present yourself and how you act. “Acceptable” environmentalism is about what you buy or don’t buy.

    But that’s bullshit. Real feminism means fighting Patriarchy, not planning your wardrobe, just like real environmentalism mean fighting the destruction of the environment, not choosing which lightbulb to buy.

    We are all members of a greedy, wasteful, sexist, racist and imperialist culture. We can never be “pure”. But it doesn’t matter. If you like to wear a dress and lots of mascara (regardless of your gender, btw), but you’re out there stopping rapists, promoting reproductive rights, or closing down porn shops, you’re a feminist. Just like if you prefer to buy incandescent light bulbs, but you’re shutting down coal plants, stopping dams, or fighting climate change, then you’re an environmentalist.

    Marx and Engels were members of the bourgeoisie. They had comfortable lives and enjoyed dinner parties. That doesn’t change who and what they were fighting for. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you came from, or what you look like, it matters what you *do*.

    • Meghan Murphy


  • Great article Meghan, as always!

    I find my biggest hurdles come when I’m talking to other women, women I love and respect – like, I have a friend who does burlesque, and who is really excited about it, and I have a couple friends who are strippers, and I teach at a dance studio that has a pole room and does a roaring trade in making pole dancing totally fine and great for everyone. I have the hardest time when I’m trying to separate being empathetic or encouraging or supportive or just not-judging from what I recognize about the system that puts us in this position.

    But here’s the thing – I find this difficult not because it makes me feel like a bad feminist necessarily, but because it makes me feel like a COWARD. Because it’s so hard to do feminism all the time – you must choose your words so carefully, you must be always fighting upstream, you must proudly wear a word that has been so denigrated that it’s almost an insult, THERE IS ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS someone high-profile saying something oppressive and dangerous – so that the feminism part feels, to me, sometimes, like the simple act of gathering your courage and saying something. So when I don’t, or when I can’t for whatever reason, I feel like I’m failing not because I’m wearing mascara or a dress, but because I didn’t have the guts to speak up. I fail because I can’t find the line between bravely fighting the good fight and supporting your friends without judgement.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Oh I can totally relate to that, j.a. I never quite know when to speak up — it’s hard with friends — you want to be a friend, not be judgmental — but at the same time you want to stick up for feminism… Often it means you either feel guilty or cowardly for not doing YOUR DUTY AS A FEMINIST or you end up with a bunch of pissed off friends. I tend to feel both guilty and have a few irritated friends. I’ve yet to resolve that conundrum.

      • I teach dance at a studio that also does burlesque and pole, and where one of the teachers is a stripper and another regularly competes in amateur night – and I’m ALWAYS getting invited out to the strip club for things, and I have no idea how to respond. So far I’ve been LYING, which seems like not a great solution, but I’ve no idea what I could possibly say that wouldn’t make things very awkward for me around the studio.

        Also, I came across this today, and it’s totally relevant! RadTransFem is my favourite.


  • umlolidunno

    Great piece as always, Meghan.

    I just want to add a cautionary note. I think we should be mindful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater of other people’s expectations (okay, that idiom didn’t work out like I’d hoped). There is such a thing as essential feminism – the essential component being to challenge patriarchy. As inconvenient as it is, this includes everything from male violence, to media, to leg shaving, to making sexual concessions you don’t particularly want to make.

    “I don’t care if you like men or not. I don’t care if you shave your legs or not. Knowing things about cars has little to do with women’s oppression.”
    The problem with the sentiment above is that, while we needn’t moralise over what individuals do, shaving your legs and needing male approval and being restricted to certain domains of knowledge have everything to do with women’s oppression*. Recognising that you can’t challenge everything doesn’t mean you have to say these things are irrelevant.

    There is feminist value in (to run with the legshaving/makeup example) shunning performances of femininity prescribed by the gender system, even if only to create that alternative reality for other women – Sheila Jeffreys goes into this in her last chapter of Beauty & Misogyny.

    Of course we can still do problematic things while recognising them as such (without necessarily needing to change them or dying of guilt). The danger with declaring that it doesn’t matter is that the personal ceases to be political at all. But the fact is that all of these low-level things still matter.

    Recognising that an individual can’t fight all battles, and declaring those battles to be not worth considering are two different things.

    *Maybe the key point you were emphasising was that, while individual practices have everything to do with women’s oppression, this doesn’t mean that women’s oppression is all to do with individual practices? That’s a point well-worth making in the face of individualistic liberal feminism.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Of course I understand that makeup and hair removal is very problematic and that we participate in these practices because of patriarchal conditioning, body hatred and internalized misogyny. What I mean is that, just because we participate in some of these practices doesn’t make us more or less feminist than anyone else…

      I think performing for the male gaze is a HUGE problem. But I still do it…

      I suppose what I mean is that my individual eyeliner or your individual shaving of your legs just doesn’t concern me all that much when it comes to who and who is not doing feminist work…

      • umlolidunno

        Thanks for replying. I can get behind that sentiment, totally. I think a good way to put it is that the ways in which patriarchy affects us as individuals doesn’t invalidate the other ways in which we resist it.

        • Meghan Murphy

          Definitely. I should have been more clear about that in the post. I can see how my statement could be construed as, like, “whatever, this is all totally fine/irrelevant”.

          • Grackle

            It did come off that way, just a bit–but it was a good article all the same. I don’t shave my legs and I very rarely wear make-up at all, and I feel good about that. I think it matters. But like everybody I am totally incapable of being perfect–not just as a feminist but as a person–and I do tend to beat myself for shaving my underarms (I tried to go without for awhile and just really, really disliked it) or loving shoes (even heels!!) or wearing skirts or doing my nails or buying a new lip gloss. I even get angry at myself for being insecure about my appearance, because it means I’m buying into the patriarchal ideals that have been drilled into my brain since birth.

            Anyway I guess I’m still trying to figure things out, which is why I’m rambling. The point is that I appreciate your writing this article because we are all way too hard on ourselves and it’s good to get a reminder of that. So thank you.

      • jselson

        You think performing for the male gaze is a “HUGE” problem, but still willingly do it? Sorry, but you lose most of your credibility there.

        Feminism is a political movement (or it was, at least). Our actions do have sociopolitical implications, whether we want them to or not.

        • Meghan Murphy

          Sigh. I think you’re oversimplifying/misunderstanding what I’ve said here. ‘Choice’ is not as simple as you make it out to be. We are all products of the society we were brought up in. Women are trained from the time they are young that they are ‘to be looked at’ – it’s not something you can just shake off. Of course I agree with you and have written many times over exactly what you say, that is, feminism is A MOVEMENT and our actions are about more than just ourselves.

        • Yup. What she said. Big time. I have a hard time taking seriously any woman in make-up, dress, heels, cleavage, etc. etc. and I can’t help thinking that if all women DIDN’T do that, if ALL women just appeared as their natural various human beings, it would make a HUGE difference in how we’re perceived, how we’re treated.

          Yes, yes, I know even sixty-year-old women in sweats are raped…I’m thinking as a matter of routine appearance in the workplace and the media. Watching an unfeminized scientist talk about her research is SO different than watching a totally lipsticked coiffured cleavaged one talk about the same thing. It just is. Because of the context of patriarchy.

          • sorry, hit the wrong reply button, my comment was response to jselson above.

    • Candy

      “Of course I understand that makeup and hair removal is very problematic and that we participate in these practices because of patriarchal conditioning, body hatred and internalized misogyny. What I mean is that, just because we participate in some of these practices doesn’t make us more or less feminist than anyone else…”

      For one thing, you can like shaving your legs or body hair for no other reason than enjoying the smoothness. I do this. So does my boyfriend. I also believe that makeup (though not makeup such as foundation and concealor used to cover what are perceived as flaws) isn’t necessarily disempowering. It can be used as an artistic medium. I wear black lipstick not because it makes me look any better, but because it makes me look odder. I enjoy the goth look sometimes. Unfortunately, too many girls and women are being raised to feel like they have to wear it to measure up and it becomes compulsory.

      I wanted to disagree on the “more or less feminist than anyone else” point. Yes, there’s being human. But a woman who never fakes an orgasm and never wears heels because she knows they hurt her feet is, I believe, a more militant feminist than one who fakes orgasms and gives in and wears heels regardless of the discomfort. I believe in this case, weaning yourself off those behaviors is a form of practice- and practice can make nearly-perfect.

  • I think we should simply stop making feminism about ourselves. The thing is, all this little controversy, I think, results from the lack of definition of feminism. U know, people make it what they want it to be, and in the end it doesn’t mean anything. Though private is political, and that our customs are definitely related to the patriarchal structures,if we clearly defined what feminism means, and had a real political project, then the political structures would change, and the customs too. So yeah, let’s be political instead of self-centered. And I think Gay’s essay is self-centered.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Totally. So many people seem to define feminism as, like ‘me doing what I want whenever I want’ (which is also the whole problem with how people define freedom within a context neoliberalism). That isn’t the definition of feminism so I have no idea where people are getting that from, but yeah – a universal definition would be useful. I usually say it’s a movement to end patriarchy (and to end violence against against women, male oppression of women, etc.). That seems easy enough.

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