Not That Bad: Dispatches from rape culture edited by Roxane Gay
Trigger warning: Not That Bad is a short story collection about rape culture. Please make sure that you’re okay with reading about such difficult topics before you pick it up. Also, to review this book I’ll also talk about these things. I want my blog to be a safe space, so please don’t read this review if you feel like it will affect your mental health negatively. Lots of love!
Published on the 1st of May 2018
This review is late, let me tell you why. (It was supposed to be up on the 30th of October.) The end of October and the entire November have been very busy at the university. I have had my head full of statistics but also PhD applications and ideas and fears. I love Roxane Gay’s books, and I was so grateful when I got approved for an arc of Not That Bad, an anthology of short stories on rape culture edited Roxane Gay. I was completely aware that this wouldn’t be a book I could just breeze through, and I allowed it quite a lot of time to be read.
The introduction is spectacular. It is written by Roxane Gay and I only ever expect super-human greatness from her. (I would read her shopping lists.) Then I got to the first short story, and after 3 pages my soul was torn open and I was sobbing in my breakfast porridge and smudging all of my make-up. I experienced the same with the second piece of writing, and I quickly learned to only read Not That Bad when I wasn’t about to leave my flat. Then I realised that I only wanted to read Not That Bad when there was a very low likelihood of distractions while reading it, just so that I could give each story the amount of respect it deserves. I felt so much for these women (and I think there is at least one story by a man but I forget how many in reality) that Not That Bad turned into a protected book, something to read when I am able to give all of my attention and compassion to it. That’s why this review is late. Because such moments are precious and every single one of them I gladly gave to Not That Bad. This book doesn’t deserve getting read in a hurry because the review should go up in three days. While reading it, I didn’t care about these things because these stories deserve a thoughtful read-through and then a review that has been given some time. I have tried my best to give this review time, hopefully it packs the punch I want it to.
That might be an intense beginning for an arc book review, but it is an intense book. I didn’t expect anything less than that when I first heard about Not That Bad. After all, it is an anthology about rape and our twisted culture supporting it. But what I didn’t realise was that every single one of these 29 stories would strongly affect me. Short story collections have a bad habit of being hit/miss reads for me, with some of the stories being brilliant and others less so. That wasn’t the case in Not That Bad. Everything I read had a deep impact on me. Roxane Gay is clearly not just a superb writer but also an excellent short story collection editor. In fact, all of the contributors in this collection are writers themselves in some level, and so all of the stories were engaging and heart-breaking.
Not That Bad also sparked a lot of insecurities and conversation in my own life. I started to think whether I could confront a man catcalling me on a street or whether it would be a bad idea. Would it be dangerous? Would I manage to be witty enough to make that man understand how much damage he is doing?
I also went on a deep introspective journey through my own sexuality. When I was 15-years old I read a magazine article in which a Finnish talkshow host was interviewed. The interviewer asked the talkshow host of her secret for a successful relationship and she replied that a woman has to have sex with her man every single time the man happens to want sex, regardless if the woman herself is even the tiniest bit interested in having sex at that time. The woman needs to act like she is very interested in having sex, said the talkshow host. You have to pretend that you want to have sex, never say no, or your man might leave you.
You can imagine how harmful it is to read something like that when you’re 15-years-old. I was affected by it even though I don’t think I was dumb or naïve at the time. I can’t remember who that talkshow host was or where I read the article but somehow I found that deeply disturbing, completely rotten idea from inside myself when I was reading Not That Bad. It pretty much seeped out of me.
I am married to the most amazing person, and I bet everyone would say that, but we plot great feministic futures together while tangled up in blankets reading books. He is the kind of person who bakes chocolate-muffins to me in the morning while I snooze away, just so that I could wake up to eat muffins. He is the most amazing person, really.
When that talkshow host’s rotten opinion surfaced in my mind, I just sat in my living room tears rushing down my face, utterly panicked about what I had discovered. My partner was the most amazing person (have I said that too much now, hmmm) and he just held my hands while we talked through my experience and how to get rid of the imprint it has left in me. I realised that I sometimes do it, I tell myself that I have to have sex even when I don’t want to, just because I don’t want to be left alone.
Not That Bad squeezed that painful schema out of me, and now I can work to eliminate it. I have agreed with my partner that we will explicitly says ‘YES’ or ‘no’ every time. But what about those who never realise that their behaviour is partly driven by rotten ideas that come from the rape culture we live in? At first I got angry at that talkshow host. How dare she share such awful advice and hurt a bunch of women? Now I feel sorry for her if she is still living by her own rules. Everyone is allowed to say no and, if it is said, it needs to be heard.
One very interesting part of Not That Bad are the opinions of other women on rape. So many want to blame the victim because of what she was wearing, what she said, where she was and when. These individuals want to believe that there are rules in rape. If you don’t wear a mini-skirt you won’t get raped, if you stay indoors after 9pm you won’t get raped, if you never drink alcohol you won’t get raped. But the reality is that there are no such rules. Anyone can get hurt in the world we live in. The victim absolutely never calls a rapist to them, and it is never their fault. Unfortunately there is no other way to stay protected than change the culture where we live in. Read these books, listen to these stories, always believe in the victims and the survivors.
Another interesting discussion in these stories is how many male opinions on rape are tangled up in sexism. Men usually understand how damaging and awful a rape is but somehow their compassion has very discrete borders. In fact, a man who blames a woman for getting raped would never blame his own daughter of the same thing. Why? Because that man doesn’t see his daughter as a woman, just as his little girl. An unknown woman on the other hand is seen as one and so she is inferior to men.
It is That Bad. It doesn’t matter if it is just a piece of thought hidden somewhere deep into yourself like ‘you can’t say no’ or a fearful experience of someone following you on the streets, or an uncomfortable moment when a stranger tells you to ‘smile more, you’d be prettier’, or a hurtful time when someone touches you when you haven’t said yes, or a painful experience when someone doesn’t listen to your no. Or absolutely anything else. It is that bad, and it is ok to be angry. We should be angry.
Not That Bad is a book that needs to be experienced. The stories have the right to be heard, and many of them will change the way you see the world and yourself even if you don’t expect that to happen. It is so impactful that I have been sitting with my thoughts for two weeks, just thinking about how on earth will I ever manage to communicate how unbelievably important this book is. It is for everyone; you don’t have to be female and you don’t have to have experienced anything like this to feel its message.
It is that bad. Now let’s change it.
That was a difficult review to write. I also think that it was, personally, the most important review I have ever written. I deeply hope that you’ll read this book. Trust me. It’s pretty dang important (and really well written).
Have you read Not That Bad? Have you read anything else by Roxane Gay? Any feminist books you could recommend me? I would love to know!
Thank you so much for reading!