Image of Roxane Gay, via Facebook.
The internet is crammed with highly personal, confessional essays, many of which are starkly lacking in true vulnerability. Writers (like virtually all human beings) try to hide their innermost ugliness and focus their energies on finely honed proclamations of why their opinion is, ultimately, correct. To admit our true nature would be to detract from our credibility or our carefully curated online persona.
Roxane Gay doesn’t fall into this trap. She writes with a level of honesty that makes her readers feel less fucked up, less like a singular geek destined to flail alone in this world. In her new book of essays, Bad Feminist, Gay sparks many of the conversations feminism has been failing to have. She writes, simply, about being a (flawed) human, and about how feminists can be more honest when we admit we don’t know it all.
This week, I spoke with Gay from her home in Lafayette, Indiana. We talked about Bad Feminist, how writers can be better people, Ferguson, Missouri, birth control, and the possibility that she may write a new TV show called Grown Women, in which women will finally be portrayed in all their realism and diversity.
VICE: I know everyone’s been asking you this, but I want to know first and foremost: What is the main issue with feminism as it stands that you wanted to apply the word “bad” to the front of it?
Roxane Gay: A historical lack of inclusiveness. I think historically, feminism has prioritized a narrow demographic. And that’s definitely not the kind of feminism that I want to be a part of. I want to sort of do better by the populations that have been historically underrepresented within the feminist movement. So women of colour, queer women, transgender women, working class women… These women matter to me, and they should matter to all feminists. And so if being a good feminist means overlooking these women’s needs, then I’m happily, happily going to be a bad feminist.
You write about avoiding being treated as that capital “F” feminist, that essential feminist, and how that’s part of why you titled the book that way. How can writers avoid behaving as that sort of prescriptive, essential feminist?
By always acknowledging that they’re not. And one of the things that I try very hard to do is always say: ‘You know, I’m not the authority, I’m just one voice, and I’m not trying to speak for everyone.’ But nonetheless, I think that I have something worth saying. So it’s important to do that, but it’s also important to acknowledge the other people that are doing the work in the area. Because the reason so many people start to emerge as singular voices, it’s just because that’s how they’re presented to the public, like they’re the only one—the one true feminist thinker to rule them all.
You talk a lot in the book about the importance of intersectionality, and about how badly white writers portrayed black characters in The Help. How can white, hetero writers better honour intersectionality in their work without stealing others’ narratives, and while remaining sensitive and perhaps actually making a difference?
I definitely think you can write what you don’t know. I just think you have to be ethical about it. You have to be better than Stockett was with The Help, where she had Aibileen describing her skin colour as black like a cockroach. I’m sorry, but that’s just not how we describe our skin tone as black people. You need to be careful with how you write the other, and be empathetic in how you write the other. And so what heteronormative white women can do—or really anyone—when they’re thinking about intersectionality, is begin to work from a place of empathy.
What does it mean to imagine life in someone else’s shoes? I think to write difference, we start in writing from a place of commonality. Before we are different, we do have some things in common. We’re human, we breathe, we have desires, we love. And so we start there, and then we learn to go beyond that and say, OK, how would I love if I was a young black man? And I think when you start to go further and further out into your imagination and you do so with empathy, you get to a place where you can write really well about other people and their experiences.
Do you think a part of that hinges on ensuring you do enough reading to become informed before you start writing in order to realize you know nothing? Is the first step to say nothing until you know you can say it without hurting someone?
Yeah, I think that’s part of it. But every time I’ve written something difficult, like my novel—I didn’t know how to write a novel, and I didn’t think I could write one. But at some point you have to just do it. You can only prepare so much, and sometimes you have to go blindly into something. So I think you do need to read and observe, but I also think that, at some point, you have to suck it up and do the work. The other thing is that sometimes, you’re going to get it wrong. And that’s OK. As long as you can recognize and hear criticism that you got it wrong, instead of becoming defensive and acting like, oh no, you actually got it right.
The courage in your writing is so profound. You write about everything from your unabashed love of reality TV to being sexually assaulted as a little girl. You have an honesty other writers don’t. Where does that stem from?
People want these really neat narratives about surviving sexual assault and what it does to you. But it’s not neat, it’s a fucking mess, and I think I get the courage by pretending no one’s reading. I fool myself into thinking no one’s paying attention. I have no other choice, because otherwise it makes me feel too exposed. It’s terrifying.
But I also know that in the same way that I’m a bad feminist; when I look at my own life and my own history and my own preferences now, some of those things have been marked by my experiences, and they don’t fall in line with the traditional survivor narrative. And so for me, it’s also just partly validating my own experiences. To say, ‘That’s not how it happened, for me.’ You know some of my proclivities, I always enjoy saying where does this come from? And a lot of the time people say no, you can’t connect kink with assault. But for me, I can. And I know that’s not a popular thing to say, but there are other people out there like me. I always feel alone, and so I always want to find ways of helping other people feel less alone.
When it comes to bettering some of those assumptions and challenging rape culture, you quoted that New York Times article, “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” which caused a ton of controversy because of its wording. They made it sound as if the town, and not the girl who was gang raped, was the victim.
Yes. And they’ve never done that again. [Laughs]
This sounds really naïve, but when we talk about rape culture, it makes me itch to DO something. Is there any way to enforce sensitivity training for media? What do we do, Roxane?!
Well, let me tell you! I honestly have no idea. But one of the things we have to do is we have to get better editors. It’s OK if your writers are ignorant, but there needs to be a place where the buck stops. We need editors to be trained in sensitivity. There’s the journalists’ organization called the Dart Center that offers tips on how to cover trauma ethically. I think that organization needs more support, and that the work that they’re doing there needs to be taught in all journalism schools.
The other thing is that you no longer need a journalism degree to participate in the news, which is great. But how do we all get on the same page about having a code of ethics about how we talk about difficult things, when we no longer have that common ground? I’ve never been to journalism school, so a lot of the time when I’m writing, I know I’m breaking a hundred rules of journalism. So it’s difficult, but we need to remember that we’re talking about people’s lives, and there are consequences.
Most importantly, language matters. It really, really does. The issue with that New York Times article was that it was a careless use of language. It was horrifying. I mean, even today in all of the news around Ferguson, MO, the carelessness! Like, the USA Today said something like ‘police seek to quell violence,’ and there’s a picture right there of protestors standing peacefully with their arms in the air.
The other thing is the degree to which white people are failing to notice what’s going on in America right now.
Yes. I mean on my Twitter feed I see everyone’s talking about it, which makes me feel good. It means I’m surrounding myself with people that are of a like mind. Like, I’m still talking about how last night I had yogurt for dinner. But as you go into other social networks, it’s just life as usual because: ‘This does not affect us. This is not about us.’ And it’s easy to create that distance when it could never happen to you or your children. I can even think of people in my life who would have no idea what’s going on. And what’s frightening is that I am only about 300 miles from Ferguson in Lafayette, Indiana. Anyone this close to that sort of unrest and that sort of unlawful military occupation who is just sort of not even giving one thought to it is heartbreaking, actually. I pity them. Why won’t the world just be great? Why won’t it do what we tell it to do, I don’t understand!
Photo via Flickr user worldcantwait.
On the note of injustice toward particular groups, you write a lot about the birth control crisis in the US. Do you think it really will get a lot worse before it gets better? Like, were you serious in the book when you talked about doing an underground contraceptive situation?
[Laughs] The underground railroad for abortions? I mean, I think we might get to that point someday. If we do, I will certainly do my part to see what happens. I think we’re going to reach a crisis point. And that’s what it’s going to take to wake people up. To realize, Oh my god, we really need to have a better conversation about birth control and how it affects us.
The reality is that this is truly an issue that all women should be concerned with, and not just women who are seeking options.
[I fill her in on what happened to me at the doctor’s office last week when I was talked out of an IUD.]
Get you an IUD! It’s going to be fine! All they do is stick it up in there and you can have fun. It’s 2014! I mean I’m shy, but I would have been like, ‘What are you talking about!? Put that shit inside me now and let’s call it a day!’
Unfortunately for women, the medical industry often does not have our best interests at heart. What’s upsetting is there’s no consequence-free method. You’re going to be either a raging psycho on the hormones, or depressed or whatever, or you have these devices, which also sometimes have hormonal consequences. You know, Mirena makes your hair fall out! The pullout method, which I think is the best, is also not really reliable. You know, consistently, the responsibility falls on us, and then we have doctors who aren’t even going to advocate for us.
Exactly. So aside from the underground railroad plan, what else is in the works for you? I heard you were going to write a show called Grown Women, which is, and I quote: “About a group of friends who finally have great jobs and pay all their bills in a timely manner but don’t have any savings and still deal with sloppy love lives and hangovers on Monday morning at work.”
Grown Women may actually happen, yes. That’s all I can say about that right now, but I would like to write Grown Women and I think it’ll be a fun show. My writing partner and I are definitely thinking about it, and thinking about how we might approach the show. She’s my best friend, her name is Tracy, and we are very good collaborators. There’s no one else I’d rather go on this adventure with.
Anything else you want me to put out there?
I really love tiny baby elephants. No, unnaturally. I want one, super bad. I’m so serious about it. Nobody ever believes me. But I really want one. If you could make that happen with all that VICE money, hook it up! @sarratch