Roxane Gay: "I think the world is ambivalent about feminism"

The brilliant essayist tells Salon, "I just think that there is nothing Cosby can say to anyone on any subject"

Published January 13, 2015 3:30PM (EST)

Roxane Gay       (Jay Grabiec)
Roxane Gay (Jay Grabiec)

In an age when being a public intellectual means coming up with talking points and takeaways — catchy, controversial bullet points that will play well in headlines — Roxane Gay is playing a different game. Her writing, especially in the book “Bad Feminist,” is more about mucking around in complexities than bottling up a brand of thought. In the book, which includes some work that originally appeared on Salon, she tackles weight, gender, rape, sex and pop culture in ways that are acutely personal.

Her writing is so personal, in fact, and so moving, that getting her on the phone is a jarring experience. Here is a writer whose work is so intimate that not only do you think that you know her, you believe that she knows you. Introducing yourself to her seems unnecessary.

Gay, primarily a novelist, spoke to Salon about having the breakout essay collection of last year, the responsibility of hearing strangers’ confessions, and what it means to be bad.

In “Bad Feminist,” you take apart some really complicated issues. Because it’s so personal and so confessional, my first feeling was that I know you really well and I felt like, I want to talk to her and I want to tell her my experiences. Do a lot of people feel like they know you well because of the way you write?

Definitely, there is a sense in my writing that people now know me in a personal way. And to an extent, that’s true because I write about very personal things and I use the personal often to contextualize some of these sociopolitical issues that we’re dealing with. And to an extent they're right. They know something about me. But I am deliberate in what I choose to share about myself in my writing and so they don’t know all of me. They know some selected pieces of information about me.

Do they want to share things about themselves about you? I mean, do they get too personal with you?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t say too personal. It’s not too personal at all. They just get personal I think because, for example, I write about sexual violence and I write about my own experiences, so women and a couple of men have come forward and shared their stories with me. And it’s humbling that people feel comfortable enough to share something so personal and I definitely try to take those stories and carry them as gently as I can.

You tackle race in a lot of different ways in the book. In particular, the story about you being an adviser to the black student union. There are so many complex feelings expressed there and you really get at the frustration, but also the hope that you have. What are some feelings you have about the new generation of kids and their approach to education? I know you express some frustrations about the mandatory college issue, that everybody seems to feel like they need to go to college and what that does to the classroom.

I do see a lot of students that are in college and they don’t quite know why — and not as freshman, as juniors and seniors — and they don’t know sort of what that next step is going to be and what they want that next step to be for them, which I think is a little sad when you spend that much time and money on an education. So I think part of it is we’re not doing enough to tell them sort of here’s what happens next. And a lot of kids are coming to college without really wanting to be there. So of course they're aimless. And you know, some of this is a problem that cannot be solved by the time they come to us at college age and it’s something we have to address in K-12 and sort of talk about what you can get from a college degree and what the alternatives are if you’re not interested in getting a college degree and that sort of thing.

I think it was in that same essay you applaud Bill Cosby for some of his efforts and some of the things he’s said over the years. As more and more allegations come out, what are your feelings about Cosby these days?

I have always had some conflicted feelings about Bill Cosby because on the one hand at least he had a message for young people and he was speaking to them, but he did so with great condescension. So even before these allegations came out I was troubled by some of the Bill Cosby message and the idea of respectability politics as racial uplift. And now I just think that there is nothing he can say to anyone on any subject.

Yeah. I’ve just heard some people argue he did these things but that doesn’t negate everything that he’s done.

Umm … You know, I think I understand why some people feel that way. Yeah, I understand why some people feel that way and they’re certainly entitled. But I struggle to feel that way because there are 25 women who have come forward. Can you imagine how many women haven’t? And so how can we take him as a moral authority when he is unable to exercise any kind of morality when it comes to how he treats people?

One assertion that you make in the book is about people’s comfort levels with their bodies. And I found that really interesting. The way you talked about not just people who were overweight, but everybody. And I was wondering … I think you actually said that everybody has body issues.

Sure. I think that everyone in one way or another has some sort of body issue. There’s something about themselves physically that they're not happy with, that they're ashamed of, that they keep constantly trying to change. And I think it’s because everyone — men, women, people who are transgender — I think that we all struggle with our bodies for one way or another because we have these cultural expectations about what our bodies should look like. And no one really fits that ideal. We even criticize famous women who spend their entire lives crafting and sculpting their bodies into perfection and that’s still not good enough. So I think there is a lot of cultural pressure to have a perfect body. I think men are pressured to have perfect abs. Certainly the curve is sharper for women. But yeah, I think everyone has body issues and I think that’s a damn shame.

You're talking about the ideal as sort of unachievable. These days, the ideal is quite often Photoshopped. So it’s not even a real person that we’re seeing …

No. The ideal is computer-generated. Much like our movies. And that’s crazy. That we’re trying to starve ourselves and reshape ourselves into something that human beings, even with the utmost discipline, can’t even achieve. It’s madness. It’s sheer madness.

In “Reaching for Catharsis” you talk about your own experience and how you went away to school and you started gaining weight and people kept noticing the weight. And there is something about the way you write that section that it feels like a real choice you’re making that’s really effective. You say that all these things were happening, people are noticing [the weight gain] and then really quickly you insert this line … yeah, I had gotten raped. And it seemed like a real choice to do that, like this was a secret that you just couldn’t talk about. Is that true? At the time did you not tell anybody what was happening?

Yeah. I didn’t tell anyone. No, I didn’t. I just couldn’t. I didn’t have the vocabulary for it. I didn’t have the courage for it. I just couldn’t talk about it.

And the weight wasn’t the issue. But nobody noticed.

Well, they noticed the weight. They knew something was wrong. They just couldn’t quite figure out what. Like, “Why is she eating so much? What is she trying to do? What void is she trying to fill?”

The issue of campus rapes has been in the news a lot. Are you involved in any way in these issues in keeping the students safer?

Not yet. I just got to Purdue and I was on tour for most of the semester so obviously life just precluded that. And I’m on leave next semester. But I will be advising the campus feminist organization when I come back next year and I will be a lot more involved on the ground.

I’m wondering, I’ve been so removed from college for so long. What are you seeing in young people, in your students? How are they dealing with feminism? How are their ideas about feminism different than they would have been 15 or 20 years ago? Or are they different?

Well, I can’t say how different they are from 15 or 20 years ago because I haven’t been teaching that long. But I think they’re similar in that there’s not a lot of factual awareness of feminism. It’s more like this word, this scary word, that maybe doesn’t apply to our lives for most of these students. And then some of them are curious and starting to dabble in thinking about feminism and what that might mean in their lives. And some of them are just downright hostile toward feminism because they think it’s something it’s not. And so you’re going to get a range of things. But mostly, I see a lot of ambivalence.

And how do you feel about that?

Well, I think the world is ambivalent about feminism. So I can’t blame college students. I think they're reflecting the greater culture’s attitude toward feminism. So what I can do is, in ways that are appropriate, advocate for feminism and help the students learn what feminism is about. But I teach creative writing and so it’s not something that will organically come up unless I’m teaching nonfiction. Instead, what I do is teach from what I think is a very feminist place by teaching diverse texts and letting students write. For example, violence against women, I forced them to ask themselves why are they putting that violence in the story? Is it gratuitous or is it meant to truly create some sort of narrative momentum? So I do stuff like that.

What about with your book? Were you conscious of trying to promote feminism in some way or were you just trying to grapple with some things on a personal level?

Well, when I wrote most of the pieces, I was aware I was going to have a wider audience because I was writing them for my Salon column or for the various publications. But I was not … I didn’t write each individual essay, thinking that I was going to write a book called "Bad Feminist." That came later. So it was me sort of grappling with a lot of these sociopolitical issues, and socioeconomic issues, and sociocultural issues, and working from a personal place.

And I want to talk to you a little bit about "50 Shades of Grey" because it’s everywhere and you can’t avoid it. (laughs) You come down pretty hard on it. And I know that the writing has been skewered and people talk about how terrible the writing is. But the terrible writing doesn’t really bother you that much. And you seem actually to be able to enjoy bad things. Or to enjoy things that are considered bad and to see something interesting in them — from music and movies and books — and a lot of people are reading those "50 Shades" books, including my students, my high school students, and I’m wondering, do you think these books are harmful? You seem to think that fairy tales kind of spread a harmful message. Do you think that the "50 Shades" books are harmful? What do you think?

I think they're harmful if you don’t … I think you can read them and enjoy them and have fun and I’m all for that. But I think that it’s also important to look at some of the messages that are being conveyed by the book and say, “You know what? This is kind of a damaging thing to tell young women that it’s OK that your boyfriend stalks you. And it’s OK if he controls what you eat and what you do with your free time. And how you look.” I think that we have to interrogate some of that. And I think that it also sends an inaccurate message about BDSM and what BDSM is. So that also I find troubling. But I think you can read it. I think it’s important to have a critical awareness for some of the issues at play in the book.

I know that your writing about “Girls” has spread a lot. A lot of people have talked about your ideas and your critique about “Girls” and I think I read you’re friends with Lena Dunham now. Is that true?

We’re friendly, yeah.

I wasn’t sure because sometimes when you’re reading things on the Internet it’s like, well is this really her or is this someone else talking? But …

Yeah. No. She’s read my book and she’s read my critiques of the show and we’ve talked about it and we’ve talked about other things. We get along really well. I think she’s, and I’ve always said this, I think she’s really smart. And I think it’s great that we have this young woman creating a show. So I think it’s great.

I know you were bothered by the lack of diversity on that show, and …

Oh yes.

And I think that Dunham has responded by saying something like — and I’m paraphrasing from a bunch of different things — that these are the people she feels comfortable with, that she knows, that she feels like she can represent them. Do you think that would be a valid argument, that if she felt like she couldn’t represent somebody who’s kind of not from her world, that she should just not try? Or do you think that it’s really important for people to attempt that even if they fail?

Well, I don’t want to invalidate the way she feels. She’s entitled to her feelings. And I actually understand where that feeling comes from. But I also think that if we never write outside of ourselves and our experiences, then how are we ever going to approach differences in the creative realm. And I also look at science fiction. If we can imagine spaceships and different planets and aliens, but when it comes to writing about someone who is of a different race or a different gender or a different sexuality then all of a sudden we’re very confused. And it becomes very difficult. So why is it that it’s easier to believe that there is a Jedi knight than it is to believe that you can write about someone of color? I think that the fear is also, I think, more of an apprehension and I understand where that apprehension comes from. I think that it’s terrifying to worry about getting difference wrong. And I also think that we have such a sharp grading curve for getting difference wrong that I think that her hesitation is smart. Of course, she’s sensitive to write about difference because if she got it wrong, if she dared to do it, let’s be real, the Internet would have skewered her. So I absolutely understand where she’s coming from.

I want to talk to you about the title “Bad Feminist” and about feminism in general. I’m wondering when you were able to call yourself a feminist. When did that awakening happen for you?

I mean, I can’t give you an exact date. But I definitely have been openly feminist for the last seven or eight years. I think it was really entering my 30s that I began to embrace feminism and call myself a feminist.

The title of the book is really provocative. I think it really stands out and I’m wondering if … there are some people who’ve interpreted the title of the book as kind of an attention grabber, and I read the introduction about why you called the book “Bad Feminist.” But were you worried that it might be misinterpreted by some people as too much of an in-your-face title?

Not at all. No. I haven’t even seen much criticism about the title. But I’m also not looking for it. I thought the title was funny and I liked it. And I thought it spoke well to where I stand as a feminist. So I didn’t think it was too provocative or too anything. And it certainly wasn’t an attention grabber. I was just like “this is clever” (laughs) in the way that writers are often pleased with themselves. So I definitely … I also don’t think there is anything wrong with being provocative. That’s why we write. And that’s why we sort of participate in public intellectualism — it’s to provoke and to stir conversation and to make people think. And I think “Bad Feminist” and the idea of positing that there are different kinds of feminism is provocative.

And I think the word “bad” really stands out to me too. Because I think most of the people who are reading this book are women. And I think that women have trouble with thinking of themselves as being “bad” in a way that men don’t, in my experience, at least. If something goes wrong with your child, you’re a bad mother. If you're not taking care of somebody, you’re bad somehow. And so, the bad part of it seemed to mean more to me too, because I do think the sense of not being good enough and actually being bad is something women have a problem with because of the way they're raised.

Yeah. I think that women are held to unreasonable standards in almost every realm, whether it’s the personal, the professional or the political. And so we’re either doing something right or we’re doing something wrong and often we’re doing something wrong because the standards for what we're doing right are so desperately unrealistic. And it’s really unfair. And I think that as women we internalize a lot of this idea that we have to be good and that when we’re not good we’re bad. And that’s really hard to deal with.

Yeah. And it seems like women are taking on more and more all the time. There was this report on healthy relationships and it actually said that couples who share the workload in the home have unhealthy sexual relationships. So now you’re supposed to do all the work at home if you want to have a healthy sex life. It just seems like there is a ratcheting up of pressure all the time.

Yeah, and I think those kinds of studies are just stupid. First of all, what? If you think that my sex life is better because I do more work around the house … I’m sorry, that’s just crazy. I refuse. I refuse. And I think those kinds of things are so damaging and then women just take it more and more upon themselves that now not only are we responsible for maintaining house and home, we’re also responsible for the quality of sex in our relationships? You know, it takes two. And responsibility should be shared. And I think that the bigger question is why are men intimidated when asked to do their fair share of housework and why does that affect their sexual confidence? I’m not going to put the question on women. I’m going to put the question on men.

Absolutely. Here, here. What are you working on these days?

Oh, nothing. No. (laughs) I’m working on my next couple of books. My next nonfiction book is called “Hunger.” And it’s a memoir, sort of. And a look at what it means to be obese, obesity and bodies and sexual violence and learning how to cook late in life. And [I’m] trying to finish up a proposal for my next novel.

By Sara Scribner

MORE FROM Sara Scribner

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