Clementine Ford – February 3, 2015
“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”
So opens Bad Feminist, the masterful collection of essays from rising literary star, Roxane Gay. With an insight characterised by both thoughtfulness and an appreciation for nuance, Bad Feminist topics including the complexities of privilege, racial identity, women’s bodily autonomy and even the art of dealing with a Scrabble nemesis. In navigating the difficulties of an ideology that is interpreted so differently by so many, Gay manages to be both forgiving and uncompromising. Such candour is just one reason why, among feminists, Gay is rapidly becoming a household name.
I was lucky enough to speak briefly with Gay ahead of an upcoming Australian literary tour in March.
CF: You’re appearing on a panel at the All About Women festival titled ‘How To Be A Feminist’. In Bad Feminist, you specify your inability to instruct anyone on how to best ‘do’ feminism. Do you think there’s a degree too much of policing other women’s feminism these days, or has it always been this way?
RG: I think it’s always been like this, the idea that there’s only one path. When I wrote Bad Feminist, I thought, I’m no longer going to participate in this process. I’m not interested anymore. Getting older and more mature helped me to realise what feminism was about for me and how I wanted to embody it. I don’t want to worry about how other people identify, nor do I want to judge how other people identify. It’s none of my business. And since realising that, I’ve found myself much happier.
That urge to dictate what is and isn’t the one true path can be very strong, particularly in people who are just discovering their feminist voice. I remember being much more dogmatic about my views when I was younger. I relate more to your experience now, of age allowing me to let some of that rigidity go. Do you think this is a necessary process, or is there a way we can bypass it?
I think there’s a way we can bypass it. I don’t know where that instinct comes from, but I think that part of it comes from insecurity and trying to find your place. It’s easier if you know that there are rigid rules you can follow. I think we see a lot of that, this idea that, okay, ‘It’s scary, so as long as I do it right then everything’s going to be okay.’ I think we have to just find ways to reframe conversations so we’re not focused on right or wrong. How can we focus less on ourselves and more on problems that we face as women? I think it’s just a reflex. How can we speak about feminism instead of just talking about it?
You’ve tackled numerous topics with a degree of nuance that is sometimes missing in online discussions. I’m thinking of the Lena Dunham furore in particular. What’s your perception of online space and the ways it both limits and expands the possibility for discourse?
I think it’s great that it allows so many voices to participate in discourse and that’s fantastic. It can be challenging though in that we see a lot of groupthink at times. We see people who are clamouring for really simple narratives, who don’t want nuance and only want to see black and white. That’s troubling. We have to write and speak against that push towards simplicity because life isn’t simple and these issues that we’re talking about are not simple. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.
One of the things I hear from some women is a sense of academic insecurity. They feel they haven’t read the ‘right’ books or the right theory, and they don’t know who the ‘right’ academic thinkers are. But there are ways you can speak to people’s experiences and translate a message that’s meaningful to them, and this is what you’re doing so successfully. Do you have an academic background in gender studies?
I don’t . My PhD is in rhetoric and technical communication. I studied [gender studies] as one does in humanities, but it’s not something I hold an expertise in. It’s definitely one of the things I talked about in Bad Feminist, you know, that I may not be the most well read but my intentions are good and I think that’s a good place to start. I think it’s important to know the history and to know some of the key texts and theory. But you don’t need to know about theory to say, for example, that women’s bodies shouldn’t be legislated. We have to fight for greater reproductive freedom and subsidised childcare. This is not a theoretical thing, this is an actual thing that we need to act upon. These are the kinds of changes that are really going to help improve the quality of a woman’s life.
I’ve been following closely the changes that are being proposed to reproductive health care legislation in America. It’s frightening for me, but how does it feel for you as a woman living within that?
It’s terrifying that we’re having the same conversation today that we had 30 years ago. Women are still struggling for unfettered access to birth control. To birth control! It’s absurd. It makes me wonder, what is the catalyst behind all these conversations around birth control and reproductive freedom. Why are we still having these conversations 30 years on?
We’re still struggling for basic rights as women. We’re still treated as second class citizens whose bodies need to be controlled by the state. I just refuse. It’s frustrating and it’s definitely scary. But we have to continue to create awareness about it. There are so many passionate people who are doing really great work and I take heart in that.
What do you suppose the catalyst for this regression is?
I think it’s pushback against the rise of women. It’s a fear that if women rise any further, what will happen to men? It’s about keeping us in our place and pregnant. That’s the only guess I can come up with. Otherwise why would they keep doing it?
I’ve always suspected that the men who are deeply opposed to abortion are just terrified that women would choose to reject carrying on their genetic line.
Let’s talk about this idea that feminism equals choice. I’ve argued before that not all choices are beneficial to women as a whole, even if they can be individually regarded as a means by which women choose to negotiate their way through the patriarchy. How can we walk that fine line between being supportive of women’s choices while also recognising that challenge and debate are not the enemies of ideology?
Choice is important and we have to defend choice. But I also think that we have to agree on some common principles as the foundation of feminism. Women are equal to men. Women should be able to choose what happens to their bodies and their bodies shouldn’t be legislated. I want to say that pro-life people should be able to be a feminist. But I think if you don’t believe a woman has the right to choose what happens with her body, you’re not really being a feminist.
We have to be willing to ask these difficult questions. I do think we have to agree on a few basic rules and we have to understand feminism as more than just choice. Some people make really bad choices that have nothing to do with the empowerment of women.
In Bad Feminist, I was particularly taken by your thoughts on privilege – you said that if only those with the least amount of it were ever allowed to speak, nothing would be said and nothing would be read. While there is value in it, is there too much ‘calling out’ of privilege and rigid definitions of who does and doesn’t have the right to speak on certain topics?
I think that the privilege question has become quite absurd and embarrassing. Like, who cares? People of marginalised communities have to be able to tell their own stories. But at the same time, if all we do is point at one another and say, ‘You have too much privilege so you can’t speak on this’, then we’re not talking about anything productive nonetheless, so we’re not creating any kind of change or momentum. When I wrote that essay, I was done. I’m not interested anymore. I acknowledge my privilege. I acknowledge the way I’m disenfranchised. I do my best, and that’s truly all I can do.
Roxane Gay will be appearing at the All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House on March 9/10. She will also appear in Melbourne and Adelaide as part of a 12 day literary tour.