With a bestselling book and a new site, Roxane Gay is a welcome threat to mainstream feminist sensibilities
Roxane Gay is on the verge of being our next feminist icon. Bad Feminist spent a month on the New York Times Best Sellers List. She is the subject of interviews and profiles in all the big media outlets at home and abroad. In addition to the regular bookstore circuit, she’s the new darling of the Women’s Studies academy with invitations to speak at colleges and universities around the country. Her fan base is deep and wide. This week Gay launches The Butter, her own companion site to Nicole Cliffe and Mallory Ortberg’s The Toast, where Gay will edit a mix of cultural essays, advice, and, judging by Cliffe and Ortberg’s precedent, whatever she wants to publish. As everyone who is paying attention has noted, she excels at fiction and sharp cultural critiques and is very good at being a bad feminist. She also sort of sucks at being A BLACK ♀.
In life, on television, and in the movies A BLACK ♀ is sassy, fierce, appropriately tragic and/or hilarious (ain’t nobody got time for that). She is angry (always), and strong. A BLACK ♀ means Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Olivia Pope, Angela Davis, and, now, Professor Annalise Keating, J.D. There are exceptions, like Issa Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl” and Jean Gray’s sharp, surreal “Life with Jeannie.” which, like all of the more nuanced representations and representing of black womanhood these days, can be found on the Internet. We might be quirky from time to time (think Denise Huxtable or Monica Wright), but we’re never pathetic, at least not in public or in the public imagination. We don’t get to do neurotic. We are not manic-pixie dream girls.
In Bad Feminist, Gay tells the story of dropping out of school, flying cross country to be with a man she met on the Internet, and working with an odd assortment of women. This is not the accepted narrative of A BLACK ♀. We don’t run away — nevermind across the country. We don’t go to therapy; we talk to Jesus and our mothers. While we are not actually born fully armed from the head of Harriet Tubman ready to stop gunmen with only our voices (see Antoinette Tuff), the Mammy-Jezebel continuum doesn’t allow for pathetic. As Gay writes, “It’s rare that we see ourselves as anything but the sassy black friend or the nanny or the secretary or the district attorney or the magical negro—roles relegated to the background and completely lacking in authenticity, depth, or complexity.” Viola Davis calls these roles, “the fried-chicken special of the day” that “hold up the wall.”
So when Gay wrote a few weeks after the publication of Bad Feminist, “I worry I come off as pathetic but then I realize I don’t really care,” it was a pretty subversive act. Not the second part—black women have turned not giving a damn into an art form—but the first part, the part about being pathetic. Telling us that she is terrified of public speaking and vomited before class on her first day as a professor goes against the image of A BLACK ♀ as a masterful rhetorician, triumphant in any setting. Gay revealing her weaknesses has the potential to expand our understanding of what it means to be a black woman beyond the fixed notion of A BLACK ♀. She does this in a number of ways, but the central thread of the book is how Gay manages and writes about her body.
In a brilliant chapter on the futility of trigger warnings, Gay explains,
I used to think I didn’t have triggers because I told myself I was tough. I was steel. I was broken beneath the surface, but my skin was forged, impenetrable. Then I realized I had all kinds of triggers. I simply had buried them deep until there was no more room inside me. When the dam burst, I had to learn how to stare those triggers down. I had a lot of help, years and years of help. I have writing.
To “have writing” is essential to the feminist writer. As Hélène Cixous pronounces in “Laugh of the Medusa”: “Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.” More than simply wanting to write, Gay needs writing to process the violence that shaped her early years (“Bad things, I’d decided years earlier, could not happen to big bodies”) and the violence visited on women and black men with such frequency that it’s difficult to keep track. She also needs writing to remember the various paths she has taken to get to this point. The fact that she does not limit herself to a fixed set of A BLACK ♀ topics is as exceptional as her willingness to display her broken parts unapologetically, without fretting too much about how her writing will be useful to a broad audience.
To be a successful BLACK ♀ essayist is to write about injustice, first and always. Even personal narratives are put toward didactic ends, either putting a human face on a complex set of social justice issues or providing a hallelujah-you-can-do-it-we-shall-overcome moment for other black women and the Eat, Pray, Love white women contingent. Gay’s range in Bad Feminist is wide, from the topics we expect a BLACK ♀ to write about (Trayvon Martin, sexual assault, The Help) to the unexpected (scrabble tournaments and being Team Peeta). Gay’s world is a kaleidoscope, a mix of the quirky and the tragic, of lightheartedness and dark tones. We know, in theory at least, that the lives of black women are mixed in these ways, but memoir tends to smooth the edges to yield redemptive narratives.
Gay’s writing is a new iteration of écriture féminine that centers black female experience for its own sake. Gay is writing not only outside of the traditional bounds of the academy, but also outside traditional media structures and against the mainstream feminist demand that black women write only for the greater good. In these stories, black women’s bodies often serve a pedagogical function—as a way to teach the world about the humanity of black folks. This is not what Gay is about. In an interview with NPR she explains that we “have a really stylized understanding of trauma in popular culture where something bad happens and the person has a period of mourning or coping and then they get better.” She is not about a performance of getting better, but she is writing for herself more than for any cause or ideology. There is a lot to learn from Bad Feminist, but it’s not didactic.
The audience drawn to the book is as interesting to me as Gay’s collection itself, so when I went to her book reading in Brooklyn last month I paid particular attention to who else was there. An hour before the reading was scheduled to begin, the venue was more than halfway full. The crowd was fairly diverse and most of the women there looked to be in their mid 20s to mid 30s. In conversation with Jezebel founder Anna Holmes, sharing a bad bottle of champagne (it was not chilled — Gay took one sip and then announced, “This is awful.”), Gay was as open and openly neurotic as she is in her writing. She has said that she doesn’t “feel the need to play the games that sometimes people play, like projecting a perfect life or a happy life or very well crafted insecurities” and that turns out to be true. She is well aware of her privilege (she’s the daughter of middle-class Haitian immigrants and grew up in an upper-class world that included private education), but she is also unapologetic about what it means to be a black woman in these United States of America. It was interesting to see how this played with the white women in the audience.
Gay began by reading her live-tweeting of the legendary September issue of Vogue, and each tweet mocked the composition of white people pictured in the magazine’s glossy ads. Everyone was with her, laughing at the impossibility of white beauty that few white women in the room could ever manage. But when Gay talked about the effect seeing movies like The Help and Rosewood had on her, the mood shifted just a bit. She announced, with the same matter-of-factness as she used when talking about The Hunger Games as a post-traumatic-stress narrative, that after seeing these films she couldn’t be around white people for a little while. I could see the expression on the young white women’s faces change. I’ve seen that look before—that slightly pained, slightly irritated expression white people get when they’re reminded that they are the descendants and beneficiaries of systems that oppress people of color. You could practically see #notallwhitepeople flash over their heads. I imagine it must be compelling to have a funny, strong BLACK ♀ speaking to the popular culture so many young white women enjoy. To watch that same critic turn her sharp attention on you must be jarring. It’s as if readers and critics alike want to focus on the feminist part while forgetting the black woman part of the Gay equation. Gay might be your BFF when it comes to Beyoncé, Outlander, and Hunger Games, but she is not your Girlfriend Intervention.
In addition to dismantling the myth of the BLACK ♀, Gay is a crossover success in various ways—respected by critics and mainstream consumers at the same time, in the academy but not necessarily of it, appealing to white feminists while offering the kind of nuanced description of a black woman’s life that so many of us seek. And she’s not alone: The arbiters of culture are still overwhelmingly white (and upper-class and male), but this is also the age of black twitter and Ta-Nehisi Coates, of Melissa Harris-Perry and Code Switch and Joy Reid, of Anthea Butler, Brittney Cooper, and Tressie McMillan Cottom, of Shani O. Hilton and of Jelani Cobb and Kiese Laymon and Cord Jefferson and Rembert Browne. Their work explores and depicts the terrains Gay focuses on in Bad Feminist, but more than this they represent a community of thinkers that make space for her, for black folks to be complex humans instead of caricatures or paragons.
Near the end of her reading, Gay talked about how happy she was to be in such a diverse crowd. Many of the young black women at the reading looked like younger versions of the author they’d come to see—tattooed and slightly off-beat. I eavesdropped on their conversations before the reading started and heard about gatherings like “Black Nerd Girls” and “Geek Girls’ Brunch.” One young woman was still heated about Alessandra Stanley’s idiotic article on Shonda Rhimes, and when Gay mentioned Don Lemon and respectability politics, the mumbles and nods came mostly from the black women in the audience. A group of professional literary folks (editors, writers, and the like) were there too, and there were black women chatting easily among them. I could see why Gay was so happy with the crowd.
A week before attending her reading, I was at The Baffler’s one-day symposium called “Feminism for What?” It should have been “Feminism for Whom?” I could count on one hand the women of color who were there (if pressed, I could probably name them). I was struck by how dated and stale the conversation seemed, and how the women of color there still had to do the work of explaining to white feminists that we have a long history as part of labor and social justice movements. I tweeted in exasperation that diversity did not mean simply adding “things are even worse for women of color” and leaving it at that. “Feminism for What?” felt like empty theory and distant policy, written by and for the powerful. One panelist lauded the political efficacy of Lean In by listing the powerful men and women in Washington who had read it, seeming to believe that this was cause for the rest of us to take the book more seriously.
According to the organizers, the purpose of the Baffler symposium was to, “explore the merits and demerits of the self-help genre itself, the role of class divisions in feminist advancement, and how the compounding roles played by race, gender, and sexual identities affect the Lean In vision.” The promise of that cocktail of inclusion was alluring, but the women who live outside of mainstream feminism were doing different work on those panels than the white women in attendance. They were, all too often, educating white women about histories and realities that are only difficult to find if you’re not interested in looking for them.
The day before the panel, Matter published “Feminism for What?” — keynote speaker Susan Faludi’s response to a diverse collection of writers, sociologists, and feminists reading her book Backlash: “Speaking of race… Could I have done more to write about how the conditions of women of color played into the backlash in ’80s America? Yes. Do I wish I had explored the intersections in more detail? Yes, again.” Her speech at the conference made clear that “explore” actually meant gesture, and the tone of the day mirrored this. Asked by a Colorlines reporter what the women of color she studies might make of the conference, Tressie McMillan Cottom, one of the panelists, responded: “I couldn’t go tell the overwhelmingly black and brown women that I interview in the course of my research what this conference seems to think feminism is. I really couldn’t.”
If, when it comes to addressing the issues that confront women of color, the feminist movement is no further along than it was when Audre Lorde challenged the overwhelmingly white women at the National Women’s Studies Association annual conference in 1981, then it has a problem that a feminist like Gay can help to correct. Throughout Bad Feminist Gay returns to the idea that no one book, film, or television show can do everything, but, for better or ill, we tend to look to single books, films, or television shows as signposts to help us figure out where our focus should be. Gay’s work points us in the right direction. She is modeling a feminist discourse that is more inclusive, and building a community that is not about teaching white women what they probably already know, but requiring them to confront what they might be inclined to ignore. You don’t have to be a good feminist and/or A BLACK ♀ to be part of Gay’s community, but you do have to pay attention to the messiness of the world, in all its hues and permutations.