Books

A cacophony of complaint

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

What sort of monster gives a bad review to a book by someone who was gang raped as a 12-year-old and subsequently goes on to eat herself to over 40 stone? Probably the sort of monster who’s never read a book about fatness as a feminist issue which she found convincing. Here we go again: ‘This is what most girls are taught — we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. And most women know this — that we are supposed to disappear.’

This ignores the fact that plump women were a benchmark of beauty in the past — when women had no rights whatsoever — and still are in cultures where, again, women have very few rights. Fashion, not fascism, decrees desirability, and a culture which favours thin women is generally the culture where women are free.

Roxane Gay’s breakthrough book was called Bad Feminist. But she is ‘bad’ only in the way that prissy people think of frivolous things as ‘guilty pleasures’. Liking the colour pink and reading Vogue hardly qualify one as a Bad Feminist if one is overweeningly a Good Snowflake, who shares the usual tiresome beliefs of the new generation of alleged feminists: in favour of ‘safe spaces’ (except for women in search of a public toilet, who must take their chances with any old Peeping Tom sporting both a penis and a petticoat) and in the shaming and shunning of older feminists who believe that genitalia — rather than agenda — define gender.

Gay is thoughtful to the point of being ponderous; there’s a ruminative, repetitive tone to her writing which made me think of a cow chewing cud — and I’d say that if she was skinny, too. ‘There are happy babies and there are happy babies. I was a happy baby.’ ‘We want and want and oh how we want.’ ‘It’s not that my looks mattered but my looks mattered.’ ‘The bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes. The bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.’ (Yes, the same sentence — so good she writes it twice.) These banal word-bites that mistake themselves for profound insights made me think that while Gay does have an accurate view of her weight, she may well have wisdom dysmorphia.


As I read her tale of woe, I couldn’t help but recall those surveys which show that over-analysing problems makes them worse, not better. No one with an ounce of compassion is going to condemn a woman for trying to make sense of a traumatic sexual assault through the medium she feels most comfortable in. But after establishing in the opening pages that it was the rape which led to her weight gain, all sorts of other things are co-opted, until we reach a cacophony of complaint in which the central issue jostles for space with being Haitian; not being taught to cook by her mum; coming from Nebraska; discovering junk food at boarding school; and being merely ‘upper-middle class’, while her schoolmates ‘have so much money at their disposal they take lavish spending for granted’.

The carping never stops. By the time I got to where Gay is weighed and measured at a gastric-bypass clinic — where the air is thoughtlessly ‘frigid and antiseptic’ (as opposed to the humid and germ-ridden atmosphere one would presumably prefer a hospital to have) and she writes, ‘It was clear that they did this every day. I was not unique. I was not special. I was a body, one requiring repair’ — I’m afraid I snorted with laughter. What sort of princess bewails the fact that busy health workers don’t make her feel special and unique? This is taking the politics of ‘Because I’m Worth It’ too far.

I know that the stiff upper lip has its drawbacks, but a ceaselessly wobbling one isn’t attractive either. Gay writes: ‘I’ve cut myself wide open’ and ‘it has been the most difficult writing experience of my life, one far more challenging than I could have imagined.’ Give it a rest!

She is very much one of those authors who are under the misapprehension that writing can be ‘brave’. Not if you’re living in the free world. Women are always approved of if they make themselves vulnerable; a book which said ‘This awful thing happened to me and I got over it really quickly’ would be the bold exception. And the repeated use of the words ‘ruined’ and ‘broken’ buy into the traditional view that sexual assault is the very worst thing that can happen to a woman — a fate worse than death, indeed. I recall Germaine Greer (written off by Gay as ‘bigoted and full of hate’ for not agreeing with her over transexuals) saying how ridiculous it was that the rapist’s penis has been ‘conceptualised as devastating’ rather than mocked as being pathetic.

Roxane Gay is of the generation of feminists who talk fierce but are painfully, wimpily concerned with what people think of them — Laurie Penny is the English equivalent — and so unsure in their own convictions that they call people who disagree with them fascists. Snowflakes is a good working definition; but I’d call them Violet Elizabeth Bottists — when you don’t like something, scweam and scweam till you’re sick. (And then write a book about how society gave you bulimia.)

This memoir is — despite the sad and shocking subject matter — just another addition to the ever-growing canon of the suffering sisterhood of solipsism.

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