Feminist Book Club May 2015: “Men Explain Things to Me” and “Bad Feminist”

This month, “Half-Way” is comparing two books of feminist essays that hit the jackpot in the publishing world this past year.

Men Explain Things To Me by Rebbeca Sonit and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay both garnered glowing reviews which ranged from the informal Amazon and Goodreads crowd-sourced ratings to ‘legitimate’ coverage in respected news outlets like Ms. Magazine and The Atlantic.

Rebecca Solnit pictured reading from "Men Explain Things to Me."

Rebecca Solnit pictured reading from “Men Explain Things to Me.”

When I picked up Men Explain Things to Me at my local library, I was shocked that such a lauded book was so slim (the book weighs in at a scant 130 pages).  I was also disappointed that the columns seemed to be largely recycled from Ms. Solnit’s time as a freelance writer, with little to no original material written for the book.

A bit of background.  In 2008, Rebecca Solnit published a piece on her blog (which was later picked up by the LA Times) entitled “Men Explain Things to Me,” in which Solnit outlined the phenomenon of what would later be dubbed ‘mansplaining.’

In her essay, Solnit uses the personal anecdote in which an older man at a party talks to her about the her level of ‘writing cred’ (spoiler alert: he presumes that she has none) and her recent book on English photographer Eadweard Muybridge before asking her if she has read “the very important Muybridge book that came out this year” . . . without realizing — or even entertaining the idea — that Solnit herself was the author.

The idea of this gendered condescension went viral, and soon there were casual references to the practice sprinkled throughout popular culture.

Perhaps because of my obsession with ‘mansplaining,’ and partly because of the glowing reviews this book received, I expected more and ended up disappointed. Instead of a collection of (very) loosely-related columns, I would much have preferred a deeper examination of the ideas brought up by the titular essay.

Roxanne Gay has the best author photo of all time.

Roxanne Gay has the best author photo of all time.

Bad Feminist, by contrast, uses the essay format in a much more efficacious manner.

While Gay’s essay topics are perhaps even more loosely related to one another than Solnit’s, the overarching theme of the guilt and shame that can cover from ‘performing one’s feminism’ wrongly, permeates every page.

The reader walks away from Bad Feminist with a clear understanding of Gay’s central thesis — which, as is suggested by the title, is simply that there really is no such thing as ‘bad’ vs ‘good’ feminism.  With Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, a reader would be hard-pressed to summarize the text’s philosophy in any coherent manner.

Given my almost gleeful willingness to call out instances of mansplaining, I also expected to feel more connected to Solnit’s book.

Rather, I left feeling that while I appreciated the occasional nugget of wisdom Men Explain Things to Me had to offer, I was ultimately put off by most of the experience . . . which was filled with heavy-handed metaphors and strange, new-agey turns of phrase (the whole essay in which the “Her name was Africa. His was France” colonization metaphor takes place just reads like an amateurish, Smith College freshman essay).

In contrast, Bad Feministwritten by a woman whose experience of womanhood is seemingly so disparate from my own (Gay is a queer person of color, an immigrant from Haiti, and a sexual assault survivor) spoke to me like an old friend.

I was instantly comforted by the solidarity I felt with Gay’s analyses and her style overall was exponentially more appealing than Solnit’s.

If the litmus test of a good book is how many passages you end up highlighting/bookmarking/copying into your journal, then Bad Feminist is not only a good book, but a great one (I filled up at least three pages with my favorite quotations/sections).

So there you have it, “Half-Way” readers: one book you can feel guiltless removing from your ‘TBR’ list, and one that is good enough to cut to the front of the line.

Join us next month for a review of Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put On My Pajamas, and Found Happiness by Dominique Browning.

Comment below with what you’re reading!



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