BY ALEXANDRA BARROWS AND SRAVANI AYYALURU
Roxane Gay is having a moment, y’all. Her new book of essays, Bad Feminist, is on the New York Times Best Seller list. Her insightful and accessible commentary on feminism, sexism, race, gender and pop culture have made her a staple of websites like The Guardian, XoJane, Jezebel, and The Rumpus. It’s hard not to be caught up on the Roxane Gay train.
Gay graced the Bay Area with her presence this week with appearances in Berkeley and San Francisco. We were lucky enough to make it to her reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s. What started as a brave and hilarious admission of her sexual fantasies about Mr. Rogers (those trim silver sideburns! We get it!) ended with a critical deconstruction of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s Run The World Tour, among other things. With her funny and poignant stories, Gay repeatedly brought down the packed house, while pushing her crowd to think deeply about the society we live in.
We had the opportunity to catch up with the Bad Feminist herself beforehand, where she patiently answered an assortment of questions on the importance of friendship, racial profiling, sexism in the tech world, Chris Brown, and, of course, what it means to be a bad feminist.
You grew up in Nebraska as the child of Haitian parents. How has being the child of immigrants affected your views on feminism and American pop culture?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think being Haitian American has shown me… I mean, Haitian women are very strong and so it has definitely shaped my feminism, which I absolutely think starts with my mother, who is the biggest feminist I know though she wouldn’t call herself that because she thinks that feminist is a bad word. I’m working on her. But it certainly has helped me to understand the the challenges that women face not only here but in other countries. And in terms of popular culture, Haitians are very conservative, so it always makes popular culture sort of interesting when I think about what would my parents think about this.
Do you ever feel like you are straddling two different cultures?
Yeah, always. A lot of my writing from when I was younger focused on having my feet in three different worlds and the challenges of trying to negotiate those three different worlds, and how do you balance that. How do you balance being American, Haitian, and Haitian American. It was always a challenge. And also sometimes throwing in Blackness in there was also a challenge. Where do I fit in, where do I belong, who am I? But the older I’ve gotten, the easier it’s become to sort of reconcile these various aspects of my identity.
You are very open and honest about your personal life and your shortcomings in your writing. How did you achieve that level of honesty? Is it difficult having so many people, your family and even students, know about your personal moments?
It’s awkward. But I genuinely write like no one is reading. I delude myself into thinking that there are no readers for my work. That’s the only way I am able to get through it. I put myself out there like that because if I thought too much about it, I would be way too scared. So I don’t think I’m brave. I’m delusional. And the delusion has been working for me so far.
Where did the idea of being a ‘Bad Feminist’ come from?
I started calling myself a Bad Feminist sort of tongue-in-cheek, as a joke. Like “Oh haha, I’m a feminist but I’m really bad at it.” But the more I thought about it, the more I really enjoyed the label, because it allowed me to claim feminism while also acknowledging not only that I’m not very good at feminism but also some of the differences between what I believe and what some of the mainstream feminists believe. And so if believing in intersectionality makes me a bad feminist, then yes, I am a very, very bad feminist.
Is there such a thing as a good or perfect feminist?
No, there isn’t. I mean, we like to believe there is and we like to hold women especially to a standard, an unreasonable standard of perfection, where feminism is concerned. No, there is no such thing. We’re all just doing the best we can.
You write about how it’s sometimes necessary to “disavow” the terrible parts–the failures of feminism–including its more problematic supporters. Do you have any rituals, spaces, practices you recommend to help ourselves grieve when the feminist supporters we admire fuck up in big ways? E.g. (personal examples): Ani DiFranco (lesbian hero but performed recently at a plantation and defended it), Michelle Shocked, supporters of the transphobic Michigan Women Festival, the riot grrrl movement, bell hooks).
When our idols fuck up we have to remember that they’re human and that we shouldn’t put them on pedestals. We can admire them and respect them but we have to understand that sometimes they’re gonna fuck up and just because they fuck up doesn’t mean we have to forget all the good they’ve done. And we can always just hope they become better and hold them to that higher standard without holding them to an unrealistic standard.
You have talked about Beyonce being a feminist, even though many, including bell hooks, argue that her sexualized image discounts her from being a true feminist. Why do you think so many people don’t see Beyonce as a feminist?
Because people have really strange ideas about sexuality and what it means to be sexual. Beyonce is a married woman. If she can’t be sexual then I quite frankly don’t know who can. I really respect bell hooks and I think she’s brilliant, but I disagree with her on Beyonce. I think that Beyonce’s sexuality and her sexual expression is one of the most feminist things about her. We have a cultural proclivity for degrading feminism. We really, really love critiquing how women behave. And feminism just gives us one more lens within which to critique women’s behavior.
What do you think the line between being sexualized and owning your sexuality is, especially in the music industry?
I don’t know. I think it’s a line that’s always shifting. But I think it’s really about who’s in control of the image. Now, we can look at Beyonce and it’s clear that some of what she’s doing is a marketing tool and that’s uncomfortable. But we live in a capitalistic world and we can’t pretend that world away just because we don’t like some of the consequences of that capitalism. But, especially with her latest album, Beyonce seems really in control of what she’s doing. Now, four or five albums ago, yes, I would be more critical of her sexualization, because she was being managed by her parents and other people, and she had far less creative control. She’s a grown-ass woman now and I think even if she’s exploiting herself, I think she’s fully in control of that exploitation. So, I’m fine with it.
You’ve been very vocal about your disapproval of Jay-Z’s lyrics referencing domestic violence in “Drunk In Love.” How can we hold musicians and artists accountable for their lyrics and their work? Why is there so little outrage about such horrible references to domestic violence and misogynistic lyrics?
It’s painful, but we have to stop consuming their music. It’s hard, especially with “Drunk In Love,” a song I love. But man, what kind of message are we saying where it’s like, “Oh this is a great song,” but it’s okay for him to completely make a mockery of what Tina Turner endured at the hands of Ike Turner? We’re not always going to be our best selves, but I think at some point we have to stop consuming the shit that they’re producing so they realize, “Oh, OK, no one is buying what I’m selling, so let me try and sell something else.”
Why do you think there’s so little outrage or protest about Jay-Z’s lyrics but then there’s so much discussion about Beyonce’s image?
Because men get to do whatever they want. The rules are different for girls.
In your book you list rules for being a good friend to other females. Why do you think female friendships are so important?
I think all friendships are important. I think life is hard and you can’t go through it alone. When I wrote that essay, I had just read Sheila Heady’s great book, “How Should A Person Be,” and in that, she and her friend Margot have a really odd but intense and awesome friendship. And some of the reviews of the book suggested that there was something unnatural or unhealthy about their friendship, and I got to thinking, “What’s going on there?” It’s complicated and it’s imperfect but it’s a great female friendship. And so, I started to think about what is it that makes a great friendship.
As a survivor myself, I deeply appreciate how you address trauma in your book. You are critical of the use of trigger warnings in implying a false sense of safety, and you also address the pervasiveness of sexual violence today. What, in your opinion, are ways to call out rape culture that also question the problematic notion of maintaining a “safe” space?
Again, it’s about being realistic. Rape culture is pervasive and we can continue to call it out. What we’re calling out is the reality that behaviors of men (oftentimes, sometimes women) are very predatory and they make it very unsafe for women to move through the world. So that’s what we’re critiquing and we’re suggesting, “Hey, you know what? You need to do better and you need to act better.” It’s not to say that the world is gonna be a safe place and that we’re going to create some sort of magical place where nothing bad happens, but quite frankly, we’re so far from that. We’re not even asking for that, we’re just asking to be able to walk down the street without having to consider “Well, oh my god, can I wear shorts today..is that guy going to be on the corner?” These are not considerations that we should have. It’s not something we should have to think about. And so we have to critique and fight rape culture until women are all allowed to walk down the street at any time of day, unharassed.
We found some similarities in the way you wrote about sexism in academia…we work in the tech world (lots and lots of bros). How can you deal with sexist/ misogynistic environments? How can you be a feminist while working in a famously sexist and whitewashed industry?
The world is a sexist environment, so you have to recognize that and you have to understand sort of what the game is and how to play it. I really believe in infiltration, you have to try to create change from the inside-out because clearly, trying to create change from the outside has not accomplished very much for us. I think it’s a question of just…standing up for yourself and knowing how to stand up for yourself, and trying to find the right allies within organizations, because in most organizations, there are gonna be some men that aren’t so bro-tastic and also some women. And then there are gonna be men and women that are bro-tastic and there’s nothing you can do about that, but you just have to sort of keep your head down and keep doing what you’re doing.
How is that different from how you would recommend people to deal with cat-calling?
It’s the same thing. With cat-calling, cat-call them right back! “What the fuck are you saying to me? Do you talk to your mother like that?” The difference between cat-calling and calling shit out in the workplace is that you need to pay your bills. And, I don’t think everyone is in a position where they can fight the good fight and afford to lose their job. And that’s unfortunate. And we should have laws protecting us. I mean, we sort of do, but they’re not really well enforced. You can call out a cat-caller generally and still move on, even though there are situations where it’s too dangerous to call out a cat-caller. It’s really about common sense. You have to just use common sense to know when you can make some noise and when you have to…I mean, I don’t think you should ever have to grin and bear it, but I’m also realistic in knowing that sometimes, your job is your only option and you can’t afford to lose it. And so, in those situations, there are no easy answers.
Right now, we are in a moment where a lot of attention is being paid to feminist issues, thinkers, and viewpoints. Like, you’re having a really big moment right now—
Oh, I am?
You are! New York Times BEST-seller! I think for me, and a lot of other women, the last few years have been a period of awakening and realization that feminism isn’t a bad word, really. What do you think has brought about this moment?
I think women are tired of eating shit. Enough is enough, it’s 2014 and it’s time for equality. It’s always been time but now we have no excuse. We’re getting young, smart women–women of all generations, actually (age is just a number) who are finding new ways to get the feminist message out there. I think the internet has certainly helped broaden that message and disseminate it, and so, the more hearts and minds that we can win, the closer we’re gonna get to what we want.
How do you think we can use this momentum to make real change?
This momentum is well and good but until we start to create legislative change, very little is going to happen. And so, we really have to start to think about, how do we persuade lawmakers to pass the Equal Pay Act and the Violence Against Women Act and things like that. And so, we have to really start to think legislatively, because that’s where most of the change is going to happen, but we also have to continue to raise a generation of men and women for whom feminism and the idea of gender equality is just as commonplace as breathing. And so, we have to get them while they’re young.
There are a lot of people who think that we have achieved gender equality–
–Well that’s cute. I mean, that’s just delusional! I mean, you can’t fix crazy. If they think that gender equality is something we’ve achieved, they’re not paying attention. Period.
With so many events occurring recently that have showcased how the US is actually very far from being the utopian land of equal opportunity for all, especially women and Black Americans (Ferguson, Hobby Lobby decision, celebrity nude photo hack) how do you keep from just wanting to crawl under the covers and hide? How do you get out of bed?
You get out of bed by realizing that hiding is a luxury and very few people have that luxury. I also think there are days when you need to hide and that’s fine, because self-care is important. Take that time, take care of yourself and just say, “Today is not the day. I’m not the warrior today.” But you can’t do it forever.
Your book is about pop culture, you write a lot about critiquing pop culture. How can you enjoy pop culture when you recognize all of the destructive elements?
I don’t know. I’m just human. I recognize my humanity. I fucking love shit. I do! There’s a part of me that turns off and tries to relax. And again, it comes back to media literacy and making sure that we’re raising a generation of people that understand the problematic messages so that they create the next generation of entertainment that is less problematic. And again, stop watching certain things if they’re just that offensive to us. Stop consuming so that we change the supply chain.
Today, I noticed that a lot of people I know are ditching Facebook because of the name change policy…especially a lot of queer and trans people are over Facebook and people are talking about how it’s the “end” of Facebook. Do you think that people can actually be…like, especially with the Internet and very big corporations and stuff…can they be like, “fuck this!”?
I mean, they can. Facebook’s not going anywhere. I was there this afternoon having lunch with Sheryl Sandberg–
Facebook isn’t going anywhere. It’s a multi-billion dollar corporation. And I understand people wanting to leave, but Google did the same name policy and they changed it. They changed it because people pushed back. And so, what you have to do is push back, not run away, and question, what is this policy about and why are you instituting it and educate them.
They’re using a big hammer to try to solve a problem. It’s about education and educating them to the sensitivity of, I think this is an issue that will primarily affect transgender people. They need to have a patch for that so that transgender people don’t feel so ostracized. But if you have a nickname like “Papi” and you can’t get your Facebook account, I’m sorry but there are just bigger issues in the world. That’s not my fight and I think it’s a stupid fight. I’m gonna fight for transgender people and people who have changed names, women who leave marriages and change their names and don’t want to have to deal with this rigmarole with Facebook, that’s what I’m going to fight for. But, I mean, some of these other people that are having issues with it, I just don’t care. And that’s me. But I can’t care about everything.
Some people are saying big corporations like Facebook shouldn’t have to be required to care about things like that…
No, they should have to be required to care, they serve us. We make their lives possible, our money makes their lives possible. They absolutely need to care. I think it’s far too cynical to suggest that they shouldn’t have to care. I do understand capitalism and I surrender to the idea of it, but no, we absolutely have every right to believe that corporations should care about these issues. And it’s just such a cop out to suggest that we should let them just get away with it because that’s the kind of thing that has led to so much neglect and malpractice and environmental damage and so on and so forth. The consequences of not holding them to the fire and expecting them to give a god damn is just too brave.
You tweeted about being racially-profiled at Best Buy. Did they ever reach out to you?
Yes, I did. They apologized and I spoke with the local manager and I told him I don’t want the young man fired, but the other day I received an email from his grandmother that said that he was fired, because corporate wanted him fired, which I mean, I didn’t want. This kid was 18-19 years old and he and the local manager both apologized and I explained why it felt like it was racial profiling and they…I don’t know that they understood where I was coming from, but I did my best. And they did apologize and that’s all I wanted.
That’s very forgiving of you.
Well…life is short…I don’t give a fuck about Best Buy.
So you’ll still shop there?
No. Well, I had to the other day out of desperation but I’m not inclined to give them my money. Again, that’s the choice I’m going to make…even though the alternative is like what, Amazon? I mean, that’s the reality, like it’s choosing between evils and sometimes those evils aren’t that lesser. But no, I’m not inclined to give Best Buy any more of my money. Because this is not just something that happened to me. I just happen to have a lot of Twitter followers. I didn’t expect anything to happen…I was just talking to my Twitter, again, because I pretend that I’m not writing to anyone, I forget how many Twitter followers I have. It was not supposed to be a news story, I was just angry and frustrated. There are so many people who don’t have a platform or a following or whatever you want to call it, who are racially profiled not only in retail situations but just walking down the street or driving, and that’s really where we need to focus our attention.
Photo courtesy of Simone Da’Silva
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