This is the fourth entry in the Writing on Glass Femcyclopedia, a nascent online encyclopedia of feminist icons. This piece was researched and written by Stephanie Newman.
The Essential Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay is a writer and professor at Purdue University. Her essay collection Bad Feminist is a New York Times bestseller, and she's published several books since. She's a founding editor at The Rumpus, and a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times. Contending with her own experience as a survivor of gang rape, Gay often addresses topics like rape culture, sexual violence, and body image. Gay is also known for her pop culture critiques of everything from "The Biggest Loser" to Fifty Shades of Grey.
Key Texts by Roxane Gay
Feminists don't have to be perfect. many of us are a Mess of Contradictions. That's alright.
Roxane Gay points out how quickly we put feminists up on a pedestal. Then, when they make a mistake, when they do one thing that offends other feminists, they get knocked down. Gay doesn't want to be held up as an example. "Let me be clear," she says. "I'm a mess. I am full of contradictions." She lists some of her "sins": she listens to misogynist rap on the way to work. She'd rather have the men in her life do the "masculine" work of killing bugs and taking out the trash. For years, she hesitated to call herself a feminist, because she recognized that she could be called out for hypocrisy. Now, she owns her feminist identity. "I would rather be a bad feminist," she declares in Bad Feminist, "than no feminist at all."
women who don't fit the stereotypical feminist "mold" have historically been abandoned by feminism. This has to change.
Her hesitation to claim the feminist label came not only as a result of her personal affinity to rap. As a black bisexual woman, she sees all too clearly where feminism has catered to straight, white, upper-class women at the expense of people of color, LGBTQ+ women, and the working class. While she criticizes the feminist cause for its historical exclusivity, she believes that seeing feminism as a composition of imperfect individuals -- not infallible icons -- can help critics be more forgiving and future-oriented. Gay recognizes, "We hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement." Nobody is perfect, but taking small steps as individuals will help us advance feminist aims.
Even though many women disavow feminism, self-identified feminists still have a responsibility to fight for all women's rights.
In her signature TED Talk, "Confessions of a Bad Feminist," Gay tells her audience, "When I was younger, mostly in my teens and twenties, I had strange ideas about feminists as hairy, angry, man-hating, sex-hating women...These days, I look at how women are treated the world over, and anger seems like a perfectly reasonable response." Many women have not come to the same conclusions, though. They detect the negative perceptions associated with being feminist, and, understandably, they don't want to adopt such a loaded identity. Gay asserts that feminists are still accountable when it comes to promoting non-feminist women's human rights. "Feminism is a choice," she writes in the introduction to Bad Feminist, "and if a woman does not want to be a feminist, that is her right, but it is still my responsibility to fight for her rights." All women, Gay contends, deserve access to reproductive services and healthcare, as well as equal pay and equal opportunities.
change starts with small acts of individual bravery. One such act is recognizing how sexism and racism weed their way into movies, songs, and books.
Roxane Gay often examines feminism through the lens of pop culture. Bad Feminist is rife with analyses of TV shows, songs, artists, and writers. She challenges the common (white) interpretation of films featuring black actors and black narratives, such as The Help, Django Unchained, and Twelve Years a Slave. Many of these films create an "alternate universe" in which white characters are credited for helping black characters find freedom, love, and fulfillment. They also rely on racist caricatures of black people. Gay points out that the dialect in The Help is grossly exaggerated, and she marvels that stereotypes about black people and fried chicken made it into both the movie and the book. She points out the excessive use of the n-word in Django Unchained, and the gleeful depictions of slave suffering that allows viewers to feast on black people's pain. None of this serves black viewers, and yet, these movies are often framed as being "progressive" and anti-racist.
by recognizing these tropes, we begin to see how embedded we are in a culture that encourages racism, misogyny, fat-shaming, and exclusion.
Biased messages from pop culture often strengthen common stereotypes and make it harder for people to break out of racist/sexist behavior in their daily lives. In her essay "How to Be Friends with Another Woman," Gay explains, "A lot of ink is given over to mythologizing female friendships as curious, fragile relationships that are always intensely fraught. Stop reading writing that encourages this mythology." In her memoir Hunger, Gay also draws connections between shows like "The Biggest Loser" and the profit-driven objectification of obesity. How do we stop the media from encouraging unfair portrayals of certain populations? We can change the channel, stop buying the books, and switch off the radio. In other words, we speak with our wallets.
Who Is Roxane Gay?
Roxane Gay is a writer and English professor at Purdue University. She considers herself to be mostly from Nebraska, but her family frequently moved for her father's job. Though Gay has been writing for many years and published her first novel Ayiti in 2011, she became a popular feminist figure and New York Times bestelling author after Bad Feminist came out in 2014. Gay is a thoroughly contemporary scholar not only in that her language is ultra-accessible, but also because her embrace of platforms like Tumblr and Twitter have helped spread her ideas far beyond the academy. Common topics for Gay include sexual violence and identity, body weight and body image, and pop culture.
What Are the Key Tenets of Feminism, According to Roxane Gay?
1. Feminists don't have to be perfect or uniform in their behavior. They just have to care. As Gay says in the last line of Bad Feminist, "I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all."
2. Feminism must be more inclusive, embracing the intersection of what it means to be a woman and a person of color, queer, trans, non-thin, disabled, and so on.
3. We speak with our wallets. If we continue to pay to watch television that degrades women, sports players who treat their wives "like punching bags," and movies devoid of women, the material will keep on coming.
4. Our culture is a rape culture. Social paradigms and legal structures work in favor of rapists, to the detriment of their victims.
5. Writing can be a source of feminist salvage, and a reminder that women's voices matter. After her gang rape at age 13, Gay discovered that she could "write herself together."
6. To reconsider the human body is to reconsider how people react to weight and size. There are significant consequences to poor treatment of heavy people, panic over the obesity epidemic, and fat-shaming tendencies.
How do I apply Roxane Gay's feminism in my everyday life?
1. Pay more attention to your interactions with pop culture.
Adjust your media consumption habits. Change the channel when women are treated as little more than "decorative objects." Switch the radio station when sexist lyrics come blaring out. Stop watching athletes who treat women like "punching bags."
2. Don't make assumptions about people based on their weight.
When nobody is asking you for weight loss advice, don't give any. Gestures that might seem encouraging (like saying, "You go, girl!" when you see an overweight woman at the gym, which Gay has experienced) can be unwanted and insulting.
3. Check your female friendships.
Gay invites you to ask yourself if you're someone who says, "I mostly have guy friends," as though that's a point of pride that distances you from sexist stereotypes of female friendships. If this is you, she asks you to soul-search about why exactly that is.
4. Refuse to work with organizations until a fair number of women become participants and decision-makers.
This can be especially difficult, but effective. Roxane Gay asks men in particular to consider the change they can effect by refusing to collaborate with discriminatory companies.
5. Boldly claim your feminism.
You don't need to be the perfect feminist role model to claim feminism as yours. Embrace that freedom and your identity.