A Bad Feminist Takes Over
Roxane Gay on Sexism, Chris Brown, and Knausgaard
By Margaret Eby
This is the summer of Roxane Gay. The prolific writer published her first novel, An Untamed State, to warm reviews in May, and is preparing to release her new essay collection Bad Feminist, a collection of sharp, Sontag-ianly searing pieces on everything from Orange Is the New Black (“a lovingly crafted monument to White Girl Problems”) to likability in fiction (“a very elaborate lie”) to abortion legislation (“trickle-down misogyny”). She folds a wrenching account of being gang-raped as a teenager into a discussion of The Hunger Games. Her pieces manage to be at once conversational and full of pithy aphorisms. Gay chatted with The L about why “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”
Did you plan to have two books come out so close to each other?
Oh no, it was totally a fluke. I would never choose to do two books in a year; it’s so much work. It was strange and fortuitous timing. An Untamed State aimed for this literary fiction market, which is pretty narrow. I think the audience for Bad Feminist is broader, and once it comes out people will want to disagree with it, which is fine with me.
How did you hit on “bad feminist” as a term?
I started calling myself that in a very tongue-in-cheek way. The first title for the collection was actually What We Hunger For. But I realized that Bad Feminist captured some of what I’m trying to say in the collection. It’s a catchy title, and it’s also indicative of a space in feminism that we have to create for ourselves, a messiness we should claim. The reason that it seems like a rigid institution is that when it began things were so terrible for women that they had no choice but be militant. There was no room for nuance because men were very much trying to keep women from basic civil rights. The hardness of that has really shaped modern feminism.
In your essay on Chris Brown, you talk about how we give passes to artists for bad behavior. How do you resolve liking art by someone who does despicable things?
I don’t think that you can resolve it. We’re human and we’re often weak when it comes to pleasure. We have to separate the art from the man or woman. We get precious about art as something so important that it supersedes human dignity. And I don’t think so any more. I don’t think the world is really a better place if we make those sacrifices. Look at Woody Allen, at Roman Polanski. Look at the cost of that genius. The price we’re willing to pay for art is too high. The reason people can condemn Chris Brown is partially because they don’t value his art, though he has his defenders. There’s snobbery involved, and racism too—he’s a black kid who’s an R&B artist. When people criticize Allen, it’s a different story.
Katie Roiphe wrote in a recent essay that confessional writing when it’s done by a man, like Karl Ove Knausgaard, is celebrated, but rejected when it’s done by women. Do you agree?
I hesitate to say that I agree with Roiphe, because she’s a great writer who I disagree with almost 100 percent of the time. Her book The Morning After, [which questions the prevalence of date rape] was some of the most damaging writing that’s ever been produced. But that essay was great, as was her collection Messy Lives , which helped inspire how I structured Bad Feminist . I’ve been thinking about this idea of Knausgaard as this new literary god for basically publishing his diary. If a woman did that she would be excoriated. Why is one more palatable than another? But to some people it absolutely is.
You also criticize programs like Orange Is the New Black for touting diversity while still giving fairly narrow roles to minorities.
Right. We’re supposed to be like, “Great! A show about prison! Hooray!” I respect [showrunner] Jenji Kohan for what she’s trying to do with the show, but no. People of color are often told to suck it up because it could be worse, that we should be grateful for these scraps thrown our way. No, I’m sorry. White men get to have everything. They just do. And we get to have everything, too. Nobody has a perfect life, and it’s not about striving for perfection. It’s about every person having an equal opportunity to reach for something more.
Your writing tends to use “I” a lot. Why?
For so long, the way I was taught how to write, there was no room for the “I.” It was me responding to that, saying that there is room for the personal in criticism. I wanted to show that it’s me thinking through these issues, that I don’t have all the answers.
You’re also a big Twitter user. How does that influence your writing?
It helps me in that it erodes some of the isolation of writing. Sometimes it’s a place for me to brainstorm the next piece I want to write. I don’t claim Twitter as a distraction or an impediment. People like to, but the real issue is self-control. If it wasn’t Twitter, it would be something else.
Are there current events you wish you could have addressed in the book?
So much. Hobby Lobby, that Supreme Court debacle. What’s going on in the Middle East right now. I wouldn’t presume to understand the complexity of the relationship between Israel and Palestine, but it’s the sort of thing where response is demanded. This wave of pieces against Internet outrage, which are just people trying to dismiss pushback and invalidate opinions. I can’t stand Woody Allen. That’s an essay that I’d love to have in the book. Maybe for my next collection, Badder Feminist. [laughs]
Even though your pieces address a lot of troubling things, you seem to have a sense of optimism about the future.
I try. Pessimism isn’t going to accomplish anything. At least we’re having these conversations. The louder we are, the more that the people in power are going to be forced to listen. I’m optimistic in the ways that feminism can get people talking about things, however fraught those exchanges are.