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Roxane Gay on being a Bad Feminist

Wednesday 11th March 2015

This week, Australian current affairs show Q&A hosted its first all-women panel. Discussion ranged from naked selfies to sexual harassment to “having it all”.

A young audience member asked the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop if, given she doesn’t use the term feminist herself, she could embrace the Bad Feminism of fellow panellist Roxane Gay. “It’s what you do that counts, not what you call yourself…I don’t want to be bad at anything I do,” Bishop replied. On screen, Gay rolls her eyes.

“I didn’t realise you could see that,” she says. “For so many young women it matters when powerful, clearly accomplished women claim feminism and fight that good fight. So it might just seem like a label, but it’s so much more for so many people.”

Gay’s collection of essays Bad Feminist was originally called "what we hunger for" – that title now goes to an essay about The Hunger Games, an examination of women’s strength. (“We can’t be friends,” she exclaims when I point out that I’m not #teampeeta.)

“At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman.” She writes. “I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are – militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humourless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better. I'm not proud of this. I don't want to buy into these myths anymore.”

“When someone as fierce as [Julie Bishop] obviously is chooses not to call herself a feminist it’s disappointing. And in terms of not wanting to be bad at anything, well, nobody’s perfect and it’s impressive that she is perfect, but the rest of us are not.

“We’re human, and I think it’s OK to admit the ways in which we’re fallible, while also admitting we’re going to do the work of becoming better. So yes, I am a bad feminist, but I’m always, always working to try to become a better feminist.” She also told Q&A that the title was a way to point out that feminism has often been for middle-class white women, while ignoring women of colour, queer women, and disabled women.

While she has been in Australia, Gay has been asked repeatedly about how to get men involved in feminism. She’s bored of that question. “People misinterpret my thoughts on that. I really don’t care about marketing feminism to men. Because I think men should be adults, and they should participate in feminism, and they shouldn’t need a special invitation”

Conversations about women’s rights can’t happen without men, she says. “And I think men are wonderful but I’m not going to do cartwheels and bend over backwards to make men feel more comfortable with the idea that women are equal to men. They have to do that work all on their own.”

This is the kind of talk that leads people on Twitter to describe her as angry. But she’s not angry, she says. “I frankly think that anger is a very appropriate response to the marginalisation of women. I think people perceive demanding equality and demanding the same rights as men as anger, when it’s just righteousness.”

It’s easy to believe that feminism is having a moment, what with Beyonce, Emma Watson and Taylor Swift extolling their membership of “the church”. But is that “trickling down” to ordinary women?

“Trickle down feminism is never going to work, because the women that we need to help the most need more than a trickle, they need a flood. And so I don’t know what we do with this pop culture moment…I think that’s a question that has always been elusive. But I don’t think it’s a question that only feminism is dealing with.”

I think people perceive demanding equality and demanding the same rights as men as anger, when it’s just righteousness

Being a feminist on the internet can be difficult – not just because of the sexist trolls, but also because it makes it very easy to disagree. Gay says that happens in all forms of human interaction, not just online. “That said, Twitter does enable some really unconsidered judgements from people, and it does allow for a snowball effect where someone makes a misstep, and then soon it’s thousands and thousands of people who are deriding that person for making a mistake.”

“Public women, and feminists in particular,” she writes in Bad Feminist, “have to be everything to everyone; when they aren’t they’re excoriated for their failure. In some ways, this is understandable. We have come so far, but we have so much further to go. We need so very much, and we hope women with a significant platform might be everything we need – a desperately untenable position.

Bad Feminist traverses 50 Shades, Lysistrata and 12 Years a Slave, resting at the intersection between feminism, racial politics, and popular culture. In an essay entitled Blurred Lines, Indeed, Gay tackles Robin Thicke’s song “that revisits the age-old belief that sometimes when a woman says no she really means yes”. To listen to the song, she has to forget she’s a “sentient being”.

“It’s hard not to feel humourless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognise misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up, because if you lighten up anymore, you’re going to float the fuck away.”

And yet, Gay isn’t angry – rather the opposite. Instead of one woman who might be everything we need, maybe it’s just a little more kindness. “I just think kindness goes a long way. I know it’s strange to say, but I do believe in kindness. And I believe in empathy. And I think if there was more of it we might get somewhere.” 

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