A Q&A With The Baddest Feminist Around: Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay and her new book "Bad Feminist" are here to save us all.
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September 3, 2014
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Maybe your summer was so jam-packed with revelry and chillaxing that you’re still finding margaritas in your hair and sand in your undies. And if that’s the case, then A) TEACH ME YOUR WAYS and B) you probably didn’t stay up on your current events and summer reading.

But don’t worry, I got you. Here’s what you missed CliffsNotes-style: ISIS is scary, Putin is scary, U.S. cops can be very, very scary, and Roxane Gay and her new book "Bad Feminist" are here to save us all.

It debuted at #13 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and serves as a sort of State of the Union on gender, sexuality, and race in America today. It’s a swift read with some serious substance. And for her part, Gay is the type of ‘bad’ feminist who responds to this weekend’s 4chan celebrity nude photo leak (most notably of J. Law) with incisive commentary like this:

Don’t get too high and mighty, ladies. Don’t step out of line. Don’t do anything to upset or disappoint men who feel entitled to your time, bodies, affection or attention. Your bared body can always be used as a weapon against you. You bared body can always be used to shame and humiliate you. Your bared body is at once desired and loathed.

Which is say she’s not a bad feminist at all. She’s a feminist who refuses the status quo. She’s a self-proclaimed “mess of contradictions,” like most of us, which is why it seems so many are looking to her as a mouthpiece. I recently sat down with her and our conversation ran the gamut from reality TV to rape, catcalls to female friendship, and so much more. GET TO KNOW HER ALREADY.

Courtney: How conscious was the birth of the collection? Did you set out to write a book with a feminist bent?

Roxane Gay: No, it just came about. I mean, the feminist sensibility was definitely there in all my writing, but I didn’t write toward a collection, I was just writing criticism. Then Cal Morgan at Harper Perennial said, “I would love to do something with you.” And I thought, oh okay, I can put together some of my essays. I originally called it "What We Hunger For" because I thought that title speaks really well, but the more I thought about it, I realized there is a run-through in all the essays and it’s about bad feminism.

C: I love the credo you espouse in the essay “How to Be Friends with Another Woman.” Were you always good at maintaining relationships with other women or was there some trial and error in arriving at this?

RG: There was definitely some trial and error. That essay came about because when I was younger I was the kind of woman who would say, “Most of my friends are guys, “I’m not good at being friends with other women,” “Women are too complicated,” and yada yada yada, all of that nonsense we tell ourselves. And the older I got, the more I realized that some of those issues were actually me –- and by "some," I mean "all." So I began to think about what was going wrong in my relationships with women, and how I could be better -– and certainly everyone has to do some kind of work to get better about these kinds of things –- but I put in the time and I became a more mature person and a better friend, to anyone really. That piece was just a result of looking at my female friendships and trying to understand why are these friendships so good.

C: Have you ever seen "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding"?

RG: (Nods.) That’s not even a question, I’m sorry.

C: (Laughs.) I saw it for the first time while reading "Bad Feminist" and I had a W.W.J.D. moment: What Would Roxane Gay Say about this? We’re supposed to respect other cultures, but sometimes they obviously promote patriarchy and sexism. How do you reconcile that dissonance?

RG: I don’t think it’s for me to reconcile. We like to believe that we can have opinions about other cultures and that we can change them, but it’s their culture and it’s not ours, so it doesn’t matter what we think. I don’t think it’s up to us to dictate how women in other cultures live. They have to make those decisions for themselves. So when I see a show like Gypsy Wedding, and ugh, so much of it is horrifying. I mean, in my heart of hearts, as good as I try to be as a person, I’m just like: there’s a better way. To have a sort of assault as your first date and then spend all your time cleaning your home and being a good wife by catering to your man? Like I’m down with all that, but I’m also into reciprocity. So there’s a lot there that I find troubling. But I’m not part of that culture; I’m not Romani, so how dare I offer some sort of grand pronouncement on it. I don’t think it’s for me to reconcile, but on a personal level I struggle. I watch and think, kick his ass to the curb!

C: In “What We Hunger For” you say you felt you had to hide the brutal rape you experienced because “I didn’t want to get in trouble, because my parents were strict, because you’re not allowed to have sex before marriage, because I was a good girl, so that’s what I did.” How can we –- as parents, teachers, and just society as a whole -– make it easier for young women to come forward about their experiences?

RG: That’s a really good question. I think that first of all, we have to continue to talk about the difference between consent and the lack of consent, and that when you’re raped you haven’t had sex before marriage. You haven’t consented to that experience. Also just parents having conversations with their children, regardless of gender, about sexual assault and sexual violence and the gradations of sexual violence –- that it can start with a guy sort of groping you at your locker and can escalate. And making sure that children know that you’re open to hearing these things. It’s one thing to be strict, but it’s another thing to see your child suffering and want to help. In retrospect, I realize I could have told my parents, but I was terrified and I don’t know that there’s anything they could have done that would have made me less terrified. I was also ashamed. So it’s like, what can we do as parents to help children understand that the shame is not theirs to carry? I think that’s what we have to focus our efforts on, and I don’t think we know the answer to that question yet. It’s so complicated, but I definitely think parents letting their children know upfront, before it happens -– not that it’s going to, but sometimes it is -– “You can talk to me if something happens. I will be here to listen.”

C: A lot of your stuff on race was incredibly moving and thought-provoking for me personally. How can white feminists help support and advance those of racial minority?

RG: I think that understanding the concerns that women of color are dealing with and advocating for those concerns as strongly as you’re advocating for the kinds of issues that you face. Quite honestly, I think that’s what we all have to do as feminists -– we have to look beyond ourselves. What does it mean for me to be feminist and what does it mean for this woman I don’t know? What does she need for her life to be easier and for her to feel closer to equal in this society? We have to look beyond ourselves. And act beyond ourselves, as well. It’s not just about considering, but doing.

C: How do you respond to catcalls?

RG: Oh god. How do you respond to catcalls?

C: I don’t have a good one. I shrink.

RG: I get… (tenses her body and makes herself small)... which is what they want. I close in on myself. Mostly it’s about my boobs. I mean, I get it; they’re magnificent. But I rarely have a witty retort. Sometimes I’m just like, “What the f**k do you think you’re looking at?” or “Would you talk to your mother like that?” But mostly I’m so intimidated that I want to hide myself. And when I see what younger women have to deal with, I’m just like, how do you even leave your house? I remember having a conversation with my friend and she was saying she has to think about what she’s going to wear to determine what streets she’s going to walk down, and she was just talking about wearing a pair of shorts! And I thought, we shouldn’t have to live like this. That’s insanity. Sometimes I glare; it just depends on my mood. If I’m having a bad day, then I give it right back to them. If they’ll say, “Hey, nice rack,” then I’ll say, “Nice rack to you, too.” How do you like them apples! It really depends. It’s hard. And I know I deal with a millifraction of what young, hot women deal with, and I think, oh, you poor things. I would leave my house just shrouded every day.

C: There’s no good response?

RG: There is no good response because, unfortunately, you’re also talking about safety. There’s this ideal world people think we live in where you can say, “You have no right to talk to me like that,” and it’s going to be okay. You’re going to fight the good fight, and the universe is going to reward you. We don’t live in that world. If I was five foot two and 110 pounds or something, I would just be crazily scared. There’s absolutely no way I would have a sassy response. It’s a shame, but I think women aren’t safe to even respond the way we want. Sometimes you have to be realistic. We have great intellectual ideas about how we should respond to this stuff, but it’s 11 o’clock and you’re walking home from the train, are you really going to take that moment to fight the good fight or are you going to just close in on yourself and hustle home? It’s sad that we live in this world, but we have to be realistic.

C: You resisted feminism in your teens and 20s. I love that you thought it didn’t apply to you because you were willing to give blowjobs; I can totally identify with that and find it hilarious. Was there a particular ‘aha’ moment that turned you into a self-identifying feminist?

RG: Just maturity, realizing what feminism actually was, and pulling away shrouds of ignorance. I mean, it’s, oh, feminism is about equality. Ok, yeah. Yeah, I’m down with this! Of course I believe in equality. I think also developing a stronger sense of empathy and realizing how many people don’t have the blessings that you might have and what we can do to level the playing field has helped me realize and accept my feminism. Just growing up.

C: The title "Bad Feminist" is no doubt very catchy -- do you think there is actually a wrong way to be a feminist?

RG: No. I don’t. I think we are the feminists we are. "Bad Feminist," certainly the title started very tongue in cheek, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought, yeah, I’m pretty bad at feminism. It’s also a way of acknowledging I reject some of the historical issues in feminism that have been concerned only with white heterosexual middle class women, that we have to broaden the project of feminism a little bit more. So if being a good feminist means stepping in line with that, then yeah, I’m a bad feminist. But we’re human and we’re flawed, and so however we come to feminism, I think what matters is that we come to feminism and that we hold some common truths to be self-evident.