Bad Feminist in the Flesh: A Conversation with Roxane Gay

RoxaneGayJust hours before arriving at my school, prominent feminist author Roxane Gay shared the tweet “No matter what, I still worry before a reading, ‘What if no one comes?’” In truth, she had nothing to worry about. By the time she arrived, the auditorium was packed.

Over 140 people had RSVP’d to the facebook event of her reading, and the seats were filled with students, faculty, and community members. Many in the audience were clutching a copy of her essay collection Bad Feminist or her celebrated fiction work An Untamed State.

Ms. Gay stood behind the podium, a half smile on her face as she waited for microphone technical difficulties to be sorted out. She was dressed casually, with an almost unassuming presence, but as soon as she spoke the audience was rapt with attention. She has a voice made for reading out loud, which is exactly what she did, picking key chapters from Bad Feminist and then making some commentary on them.BadFeminist

She began with the chapter “Typical First Year Professor,” an apt choice for an audience of mostly college students and faculty. She discussed the awkwardness when her students first discovered her blog and finding the balance of expressing herself without getting too personal on the internet where anyone can see. She said she steers clear of writing about her relationship or any topics that would make it difficult to meet her students’ eyes in the morning and exert her authority. Every once in a while, however, they do find a juicy tidbit she perhaps wouldn’t want to share with them, to which she says, “Oh well. Yes, I’m a human being and I’m not super old yet.” Teachers have lives, too, and Roxane is proof.

Given her position as both a feminist activist and college professor, an audience member asked Ms. Gay how she felt about the recent developments regarding college rape culture. Ms. Gay confessed to worrying about the students that she teaches, hoping that they get home okay at night and nothing bad happens. She wants them to be free to have fun and party and emphasizes the importance of teaching accountability. We shouldn’t be telling young people not to drink at parties, she said, we should be teaching them not to rape.

SweetValleyThe next chapter she read from was called “I Once Was Miss America.” This chapter describes the Sweet Valley High series, books that held a special place in Ms. Gay’s heart since she was eight or nine years old. She told tales of being a misfit in grade school, always longing to be liked by the popular kids. “Like many writers, I lived inside of books as a child,” she admitted, quoting from the chapter. The prose of the Sweet Valley High series was not the work of any literary master, as Ms. Gay demonstrated by quoting extended passages of over-the-top and cliché description aloud, pausing for snarky comments here and there. Nevertheless, they were a source of escape for an unhappy child, and sometimes that is all a book has to be to be worth reading. Numerous times throughout the event, Ms. Gay could be heard to say, “It’s such a terrible book/ show/movie. I love it.” A work can be both awful and entertaining at the same time. Sometimes its very awfulness is what makes it entertaining. Which brings us to 50 Shades.

fifty shades cover

First she asked who was going to see the movie. No one in the auditorium raised their hand. Ms. Gay gave us an incredulous look and called us all liars. “It’s okay,” she said, “I give you permission. I’m going.” She then preceded to read from her chapter “The Trouble with Prince Charming, or He Who Trespassed Against Us,” which addresses 50 Shades of Grey and the resulting media frenzy. She admitted to “embracing the absurdity” of the books and took great pleasure in ridiculing its prose, just as she did with the Sweet Valley High books. The hilarious redundancy of “white pinot grigio” became a bit of a running joke, especially during the reception, when we found that very drink offered among the refreshments. And yes, Ms. Gay did address the unhealthy relationship and abuse depicted in the book and movie. But as she said when asked about TV shows with similarly harmful themes, the best response is not censorship but teaching “media literacy.” “As long as you are media literate,” she said, “and can recognize the damaging messages, it’s okay to watch these shows.” Or read these books or watch these movies.

“As long as you are media literate,” she said, “and can recognize the damaging messages, it’s okay to watch these shows.”

After the readings, audience members had the opportunity to ask questions. I asked Ms. Gay what she thought of an idea that someone proposed at a bookclub discussion of Bad Feminist, that if some feminist groups differ so radically from each other that they should perhaps go by different names and not all call themselves feminists. I asked if she thought it important for feminists of all kinds to present a unified front. She replied that yes, “collectivity does a lot. Divided you fall.” As long as you share the same core beliefs that women should be treated like equal human beings, then it is okay to differ on other details and still be a feminist.

Another question dealt with transgender women being left out of feminist discussions. Ms. Gay responded that transgenderism is a major issue that our culture as a whole is struggling to deal with. We’ve been steeped in the gender binary way of thinking so long that we have to constantly remind ourselves to be inclusive of those who don’t fall within it. She also mentioned the shocking number of transgender women who have been murdered, especially transgender women of color, and deplored the fact that only the queer community steps up to speak out about it. This is something that should be of concern to us all. As Ms. Gay put it so eloquently, “All death should be treated equally.” Nobody’s life and death should be ignored just because they don’t identify within the gender binary.

“All death should be treated equally.”

Lastly, an audience member asked about writing outside one’s own experience, in terms of writing characters who differ from you in race, gender, sexuality, etc. Ms. Gay supports such writing and doesn’t find it as insurmountable as some people make it seem. She pointed out that if someone can imagine what it’s like to live in a futuristic sci-fi world, how can they not imagine what it’s like to be Black. What is important is to “write from a place of empathy,” she said. As long as you use empathy to imagine what life is like for that person, you are less likely to write a shallow or offensive character.

Ms. Gay is currently working on editing a new anthology with her friend Ashley Ford called “Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture.” She explained that many women who have suffered sexual assault described their experience as “not that bad” compared to, say, being jumped in an alleyway by a stranger with a gun. There is societal pressure for a woman to minimize her own experiences even when they really are “that bad.” This is the issue that the anthology proposes to bring to light. There is no date set for publication yet, but keep your eyes out for news of this exciting new work compiled by Roxane Gay.

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