Interview With a Bad Feminist: Roxane Gay

by BUST Magazine

I came across Roxane Gay’s literature while I was deep in the clutches of ADD. But when I found her short story “The Year I Learned Everything” while poking around the web, I could not stop reading it from start to finish. Gay was there for me when I needed a voice to shout without dominating; she had true grit, without embellishment or pageantry. When I finished, I couldn’t believe that the story was classified as fiction—her ability to convey the full spectrum of human emotions so effortlessly made my cheeks burn. 

Recently, I headed to The Last Bookstore in L.A. to see Gay read from her new book of essays, Bad Feminist. Although I anticipated a crowd, the congregation that formed was overwhelming in the best of ways, like she had an army behind her. When Gay approached the microphone, a quiet intensity fell over the room, as if she was our mentor about to reveal the answer to an ancient riddle. She spoke of humor and misfortune, reciting her essay “What We Hunger For,” which recounts personal trauma from her youth. In the end, she received a roaring, standing ovation, not unlike the kind you’d see at a Broadway performance. 

When I was preparing to interview Gay (who recently published both Bad Feminist as well as her novel An Untamed State, and who will be teaching at Purdue University this fall) I was definitely intimidated. The issues I wanted to address are so complex and weighty, and I imagined she might be somewhat icy. But I found that while she’s a diva in her own right, her full-bellied laughter and apple cheeks tell another story: she was effervescent, gentle, and receptive. When we were done talking, I found myself hoping she’d invite me back up to her hotel room to put on matching terry robes and order shrimp cocktails on her publisher’s tab. 

By Jessie Askinazi

BUST: How has feminism helped you find your voice, particularly through social media?

ROXANE: Well, feminism has certainly lead me to believe that my voice matters. That, as a woman, even if I’m an unknown writer or a random person, that I can still say something. Maybe people will listen and maybe they won’t but that doesn’t mean I can’t say something. And that’s been very empowering because I think a lot of us as women think that our voices don’t matter, and that what we have to say doesn’t matter, or we trivialize what it is that we wanna say or what we have to say. And so, feeling like I matter and not having to trivialize myself has been really, really gratifying.

BUST: In Bad Feminist, You wrote, “People tend to think I’m strong. I’m not. I am not brave. I am fascinated by strength in women.” Why do you think that you’re undeserving of such labels? You were even rolling your eyes when they announced you at the bookstore last night!

ROXANE: It’s just hard. I mean, I’m someone who suffers from a general low self-esteem. And so, it’s hard to think good things about myself. Especially when it comes to strength, because I don’t feel strong. I have such moments of weakness. I think in my head I equate strength with imperviousness, with not needing anyone, with not surrendering to emotion, and it’s hard to balance that with how I feel on a day-to-day basis, when I’m just all emotion, and for so long I denied myself my emotions. I was just stone in every way, so this is a brave new world where I allow myself to feel things. And it’s overwhelming (laughing) and it doesn’t feel particularly strong to me.

BUST: Well, it was very rewarding to see you receiving a standing ovation. That was fucking cool!

ROXANE: It took all my self-control not to cry. I was close. I was really close. I was like, “By the power of grace, I will hold my shit together.” It was actually a career highlight; it was something I’ll never forget. And to see the way people talked about it on social media, and they’re still talking about it, oh my God, it really was a magical night.

BUST: Your book has reached a progressive, liberal, educated demographic, and a lot of people who will pick up your book are already invested in women’s equality. How can these messages reach women who’ve been raised in repressive environments, so they benefit from this information?

ROXANE: Slowly but surely. It takes time. I think there is more value to preaching to the choir than people acknowledge because it means they’re in church, and they’re there to hear something, but then they leave and they can spread the word too. I definitely think, yeah, my core audience is certainly in line with what I’m already thinking and feeling, or finding some resonance, but then they go out and tell their friends. Like, I can’t tell you the number of people I met last night that were like, “My friend brought me, my girlfriend brought me”, and so each time this book enters someone’s hands, they become an ambassador. Also, visibility helps—like, the media response has been CRAZY for this book, or at least it feels crazy because I’m a writer and I’m like “nobody cares.”

BUST: (laughs) No, I can assure you, it has.

ROXANE: It’s crazy! All these media requests and bigger and bigger venues…

BUST: I think because it’s urgent right now.

ROXANE: It is. It’s very timely. I think we have a lot of issues to work out as women, as humans, and hitting the New York Times Best Seller List I think is gonna do a lot. That felt really good, and I think that’s gonna help gain visibility. Now someone’s gonna see the title and be like, ‘What is this about?’ And I heard Barnes and Noble has been stocking it strange in places like Women’s Studies and Popular Culture Studies, which is totally great, but next month it’s gonna be on the front tables, and I think that’s gonna help to reach people that are beyond the sort of inner-circle, so to speak. I think it’s just a matter of time and infiltration. And also one of the things I hope is that the ideas in this book make people feel comfortable, because often times when we’re talking about these issues, there are swarms of women that do feel abandoned by the feminist project, who don’t feel included because they’re deeply religious, because they are conservative, or whatever they may be, and I hope that I can include them in the conversation. We may not agree, but we can at least talk about these issues and maybe come to better understandings of one another.

BUST: In the book, you say, “People often misunderstand my motivations” and that you’re trying to show how you’re different than what they assume. How are you different?

ROXANE: I think that people often times misunderstand my intentions. For me, I genuinely write like no one is reading. I’ve crafted a very elaborate delusion over the years. I’m not trying to speak for everyone. I’m just sharing MY opinions. You don’t have to agree with them. I think people often times misunderstand that. I’ve been told I state my opinions forcefully, but that’s your interpretation of it, that’s just me doing me, and if you feel that it’s forceful then something’s either working or not working.

BUST: Don’t you also feel like that’s a little bit of a cop-out interpretation? Like, because you have a strong idea or value system…

ROXANE: Correct. That means you have to be strong back. It means you can’t bring your weak shit to me. You better bring your strongest work. I think that when you become visible as a public intellectual or critic, people then think of you as the spokesperson or “the voice of your generation”; the trap that Lena Dunham was put into, which is so deeply unfair. I’m just me, and if I’m speaking to other people that’s great, but I’m just me.

BUST: Do you think as a society we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard as a way to not really deal with the truth behind women’s issues, so we can still repeat sexist or misogynistic behavior by saying, “feminism’s a flawed movement”?

ROXANE: Absolutely. I think it’s super easy to be like, “Oh, well, feminism is too fucked up, so we’re not gonna try address any of these problems.” It’s a cop-out and it’s lazy and it’s disingenuous. I want no part of it. That’s just not how we’re gonna roll, that’s just not what we’re gonna do. We have to acknowledge it’s flawed and then move on. The conversation can’t stop with “feminism is flawed.” That’s the beginning of the conversation, not the end.

BUST: When I was reading the public’s responses to Dylan Farrow’s letter about Woody Allen, it made me think about why the legitimacy of a female’s account of abuse is often questioned, especially when it’s sexual. But when men or boys speak up about abuse, they’re not really interrogated in the same way. What do you think about this incredulity over a woman’s confession?

ROXANE: I think that unfortunately the sexual abuse of women is so common, that people are afraid to deal with that commonality. They’re so afraid that, “Is it really this prevalent?” that they’re willing to doubt every woman’s story. When a boy or a man comes forward, it’s so rare that they come forward, even though they suffer abuse at, quite frankly, alarming rates as well. If one person in seven billion is hurt, that’s too many. So I think people are in deep denial, they’re in profound denial about how fucked up our culture is, and the kinds of things that women have to deal with, and so it’s easy to say, you know what, I’m not gonna believe her. It’s easier to doubt that story than to believe that women suffer this much.

BUST: You cite Judith Butler and how she refers to gender being “a public performance.” What do you think about heterosexual men who identify in their gender by cross-dressing—who specifically get off on the idea of women being objects of desire? 

ROXANE: I think that speaks to how pervasive the objectification of women is. They succumb, and they wanna know, “What does it feel like to be that sex object?” I think there’s some envy there. What I think is fascinating is that they get to have that need satisfied, and then they get to go back to being men (laughs). They get to go back to moving through their lives without being objectified. Objectification is, ya know, I’m down with it once in a while, it’s hot, within in a certain context, but it’s not something you want to have dominating your life 24/7. And I think it’s really interesting that they want to best parts of it without dealing with the true collateral damages.

BUST: You talk a lot about GIRLS, we all talk all about GIRLS, and you talk about how it has an erasure of race exploration. Although that’s a valid observation, I often feel like Lena gets more grief about this than practically every other show with the same problem. Do you think that’s in line with what you mention about when someone provocative is kicked off a pedestal for being a “bad feminist”?

ROXANE: Lena is the perfect storm of a lot of things. I really actually like her and respect her. One of the things I talk about in that essay is that this is actually not a Lena Dunham problem, it’s a Hollywood problem. And to expect her to solve it is ludicrous and unfair. I think one of the reasons we put so many expectations on her is because here is this hip, young, deeply intelligent woman, and even SHE didn’t get the importance of diversity. Even she doesn’t necessarily, because it is a reflection of her life and her circle of friends, and it was a profound disappointment because you began to realize how deeply entrenched our need to be around people who like us can be. Or maybe not even our need, but how unilateral so many of our communities are. Whenever I look at pictures from readings or I’m at readings or looking out at the crowd, I’m always remarking, “Oh god, this is a bunch of white people.” We’re very segregated in every aspect of our lives, and to see that show in the first season, it was like, “Oh man, this problem is exactly as bad as we thought it was.” But what’s great about Lena Dunham is that she’s willing to grow, and she’s willing to learn, and she just keeps getting better, and frankly I love Tiny Furniture. I thought that was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

BUST: Oh, god, yeah, that scene with her and her sister during the house party…

ROXANE: Yes! And the last scene with her mother, the last line, honestly, I would give her an Oscar just for the last line. I love Tiny Furniture. And I’m excited to see how she continues to grow and what she does next. You know, GIRLS is not for me, only because I’m old, and I get it and I can watch it and enjoy it and be like, “Oh, this is nice,” but the struggle is over for me in terms of what my twenties were. And that’s why I write about this show I want to write called Grown Women, because I’m in a different place in my life, and when I see their struggles, I just feel like I just wanna hug them and feed them and take care of them.

BUST: You talk a lot about race in TV and movies, but what about how it’s explored and showcased in commercials and in advertising?

ROXANE: It’s definitely something I think about. I’ve written an essay about the Cheerios commercial and the importance of multi-racial families being seen and being visible. I love that commercial, it’s SO WELL DONE. You know, commercials are an interesting thing because it’s all about money, that’s the bottom line, and marketing. When you watch the Latino channels, you’ll see commercials in Spanish and commercials with brown people, when you watch BET and when you watch certain award shows, you’ll see black commercials, like the black McDonald’s commercials, and I think it’s sad that they think that they have to be ghettoized, these commercials, instead of putting them on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, which they do run on those channels sometimes, but I think we need to see more of that. The commercials that drive me crazy are like, the Popeye’s commercials- the happy, happy black lady singing about her chicken. (laughs) It’s just like, really? This is a lot. I mean, I don’t eat meat anymore, but I remember Popeye’s chicken tasting very good- it’s a delicious chicken- but is she really that happy? I mean, she’s just like, MMM!! (laughing) And the Burger King lady. They have these happy black women, and I think that’s dangerous, especially when there are so many health issues in the black community already and there’s NO THOUGHT to what these commercials are doing, and honestly it’s such a huge problem that I don’t even begin to know how we would overcome it. I honestly don’t know, but I definitely think about representation not only in terms of race, but gender and sexuality.

BUST: You wrote how rappers like Jay-Z use the word “bitch” like punctuation, yet our biggest pop-star is married to him, performs with him, records with him, tours with him, all while while proclaiming that she’s a feminist. I’m sure you’ve heard this before and it’s been talked about a lot, but in their song “Drunk in Love” he raps, “I’m Ike Turner, turn up/Baby know I don’t play, now eat the cake, Anna Mae” which is a direct reference to Ike and Tina’s abusive marriage. And then she samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s pro-feminist TED Talk on the same record. I don’t really understand it.

ROXANE: Well, I think Beyonce’s a great feminist. And I think she’s done great things for the feminist movement. Because she’s young, she’s famous, she’s physical, and she’s saying, “Yes, I’m a feminist.” Now, are there contradictions in her feminism? Absolutely. When I hear “Drunk In Love”, I just mute Jay-Z. I love that song, I won’t apologize for it. But that lyric is so completely out of hand, when I hear it, I just think, “Bey, what were you thinking? Like, GIRL.” It’s a shocking disconnect. And I can’t remember which, but at one of these award shows she did a tribute to Tina Turner. She loves Tina Turner. And it’s a catchy line, the lyric works, but it doesn’t work because IT’S GLORIFYING ABUSE! And he’s basically saying what? That he’s that macho? It was like he was whipping his dick out and throwing it on the table because his wife was singing about how she’s flawless. It’s deeply troubling and I definitely think we can critique the instance, but let’s critique Jay-Z more than we critique Beyonce because he’s the one who goddamn said it. I mean, it is her album, and she should have said no, she absolutely should have. It was just poor judgement on her part, but I don’t think it detracts from her feminism. I just think it just shows, again, we’re all human and we fuck up. And that was a fuck-up. Every time I hear him I just get MAD, I’m just like “Shut up, Jay! This song would be better without you!”

BUST: He’s also just not that interesting to me, but that’s a whole other story.

ROXANE: No. I think he’s boring. Classy business man, boring guy.

BUST: Something that I often think about regarding feminism’s new wave is the difference between sexual liberation vs. self-exploitation. I think that’s a lot of the cause of the controversy surrounding Miley Cyrus. Does her public behavior help pave the way for women? Is she making any kind of advances? I don’t judge if that’s something that a woman wants to do or is interested in, but I can’t help but wonder if exhibitionism, especially sexually, often surfaces from darkness. 

ROXANE: I don’t know. I just don’t know. I think it’s a tough issue. Part of it is certainly empowerment, but part of it is catering to the male gaze. We can say it about Miley, Beyonce, Rihanna, frankly any female pop star or actress. There are choices that they make that are absolutely fueled by capitalism, and it’s deeply unfortunate. But are they entirely controlled by capitalism and the patriarchy? I have to believe that at some point we have to acknowledge that women are empowered, and maybe that they are well-aware of the capitalistic forces shaping their choices, and they’re making those choices anyway. 

BUST: Or even when girls post really provocative photos of themselves on Instagram. I sometimes think, “Yeah, that’s beautiful, you should love your body.” And other times I think, “Oh, but do you need validation sexually from a dark place, rather than a place of empowerment?”

ROXANE: I think that’s humanity. I think a lot of us have been through dark shit, and a lot of that dark shit is motivating us to make bad choices. But it is what it is, we are shaped by the things we’ve been through and we act out sometimes. I look at the ways I’ve acted out in my life and it’s not the best choices I could have made, but the choices were made. And the only thing you can sort of do is recognize the full repercussions of those choices. And so I look at someone like Miley and she’s so inscrutable in some ways, because part of me thinks, “Oh yeah, she’s just playing the game, and she’s playing it very well,” but part of me is just like, “I’m old. Where are your pants?” (laughs) I don’t get it. I don’t get it, like the fuzzy onesie and the tongue…

BUST: But my point is, is she somehow advancing us because she’s touching herself and spreading her legs with a microphone?

ROXANE: No. I don’t think she’s particularly advancing, but I think Miley is advancing Miley. And that’s what I respect. This is her career and this is how she’s moving it forward and it’s not my choice, but alright! I don’t get it, personally. I don’t get working with Terry Richardson. I don’t get the sitting naked on the wrecked ball. Like, did she get wrecking-ball pieces inside of her? It’s upsetting! Like, rust? Again, I’m old. I’m just too old for some of this stuff.

BUST: No! I don’t think you are. I think a lot of younger girls feel the same way you do.

ROXANE: But some people love it, and those are her people.

BUST: And that’s cool if people love it. I just have to wonder sometimes if it’s helpful, because I see some girls say, “It’s great! It’s freedom in your sexuality!” But is that really in the name of moving forward?

ROXANE: I don’t know. I don’t know. My mom definitely doesn’t think that these things empower young women, and I know that there many people that don’t. I don’t think feminism is a catch-all for everything, but I don’t want to take away a woman’s choice, either, to do what she wants to do or dress how she wants to dress, but some of it I’m just like, “Mmm mmm, girl. Mmm mmm. No. Stop.”

BUST: You summarized Bill Cosby’s commentary on race in recent years as, “If we act right, we will finally be good enough for white people to love us.” What does that entail? Maybe you don’t know either. Does that mean not walking through neighborhoods past a certain time, or dressing a certain way? What does have to be done for the white community to value black life?

ROXANE: Good question. I don’t know, you tell me. (laughs) I think white people need to realize that black people are not just people of color, that we’re human. It’s that simple. And we’re far from that.

BUST: I wrote a couple of questions for you about what’s going on now in Ferguson. I read your Guardian piece, and you wrote, “Today I truly understand privilege.” What privileges keep us disconnected from the these truths?  

ROXANE: I think we’re sheltered in our lives. If we can pay our bills and get to work and have friends and family, we’re like, “Oh, things are good!” And then you realize a young black man can be walking down the street and be murdered. And that happens every day. 

BUST: Yeah, I’ve been looking at photos from the civil rights movement from 50 years ago, side-by-side with images from the Ferguson protests and riots. They’re completely parallel. It terrifies me to see how little we have progressed by way of racial equality. That’s too long of a time for these images to look identical. 

ROXANE: The images look identical, but the cultural conditions behind the images are different and we have acknowledge that. We have come some of a way, I wouldn’t say a long way, but we’ve come some way. It’s a challenge, and it’s depressing to see some of the images coming out of Ferguson side by side with Selma or Birmingham. It makes no sense. You just think, “Aren’t we better than this?”

BUST: I was intrigued by your observation about violence against women on the Lifetime Network being “antiseptic”—I think that’s an accurate description. What do you think the network is avoiding in their version of domestic or sexual violence? 

ROXANE: I think they’re avoiding the ugliness of the truth. Because I think they have to, because I don’t think we’re ready to see the ugliness or the truth on television. Again, it’s about capitalism—they’re creating a product. I do think that sometimes, with some of their movies, their hearts are in the right places. But other times, it’s just entertainment. It’s depressing entertainment, and I’m there for it (laughs). They know that we don’t wanna watch the truth. The truth IS unwatchable. And that was definitely something I was doing in my novel an Untamed State. I wrote the violence my main character Mireille suffers as very graphic, because I wanted it to be unreadable. Because it should be. It shouldn’t be stylistic and aestheticized. It shouldn’t be pretty, it should be unwatchable, and I was inspired by the movie Irreversible.

BUST: I was just gonna say that! Because that’s one of the only times they ever show a full scene of rape.

ROXANE: That was UNwatchable. I was so deeply uncomfortable. There’s still some things to critique about Gaspar Noe, but I still thought Irreversible was like, “Yep, that’s unwatchable.” It was disgusting. I literally was like, alright (covers face) tell me when it’s over.

BUST: The sound effects-

ROXANE: It was too much. And I thought, this is how you do it.

BUST: I appreciate you stating that if a woman doesn’t want to be a feminist that’s her right, but it’s still your responsibility to fight for her rights. It’s been so frustrating to hear about the “women against feminism” development becoming a viral sensation. How do you suggest that feminists can support those who are vehemently against it? 

ROXANE: I think it’s a sad movement; sometimes pathetic, sometimes ironic because the things they’re saying are deeply feminist. It’s really that they’re working from a place of ignorance and a place of fear; a place of being seen as not part of the mainstream. I think that’s how powerful the patriarchy is that they wanna prove that they’re in line and they don’t wanna be ostracized for being out of line. But I also think they just misunderstand feminism, and so what would I say to them? I would talk to them about what feminism actually is and I would debunk their myths about feminism, about hand-outs and blah blah blah. I mean, “What you are talking about? You’re just, like, making things up! This was like an art project, and that’s fine, you’re being creative, but you’re not doing anything grounded in reality.”

BUST: Yeah, you’re not doing the research behind the art project.

ROXANE: That’s what I would say to them. You have to combat ignorance, and if after you educate them, they still don’t wanna learn, then they can’t be saved. And that’s okay.

Top image by Jessie Askenazi 


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