Author Interviews
4:27 am
Sun August 3, 2014

Roxane Gay On Acknowledging — And Owning — Her 'Bad' Feminism

Originally published on Mon August 25, 2014 9:59 am

The writer Roxane Gay admits that she isn't that well read in feminist theory, and that she dances to Jay Z and other music that she knows is "terrible for women" (in her words) — and that she sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because, as she says, "it's just easier to let them feel macho."

That's why she dubs herself a "bad feminist" — the title of her new volume of essays. Gay tells NPR's Arun Rath that the title was originally tongue-in-cheek. "And then," she says, "the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to acknowledge and own my feminism, but also acknowledge that I'm not perfect at it."


Interview Highlights

On where she disagrees with some feminist doctrine

If a woman wants to take her husband's name, that's her choice, and I still think she can be feminist while doing that. I think that if a woman wants to stay home to raise her children, that's a fine choice, and so really, we need to rethink society and how society views parents who stay at home, and how society protects parents who stay at home — rather than to suggest that women shouldn't stay at home.

On why stereotypes of humorless, anti-sex feminism persist

Because people don't want to think ... I mean, they don't! They just want to say, oh, okay, feminists are humorless man-haters, and that's simply not the case. There are radical people and radical ideas in absolutely every movement, but that doesn't mean they define the ideals. And so that people want to define feminism based on the actions of a select group of feminists is absolutely absurd. And I also think we forget our history: The reason feminists were humorless is because it was that bad to be a woman.

On her criticism of the show Girls

I think Lena Dunham is a very bright and very interesting writer, and what she's accomplished at such a young age absolutely impresses me. But when I first started seeing the show, during the first season, it was disappointing to me that someone that young, who should be that aware of diversity, had none on the show. And so I began to think very critically about the show and how it was really showing such a narrow slice of life in one of the most diverse cities in the country. But the more I began to think about it, the more I wondered, why are we putting so much responsibility at the feet of one person. This problem is a Hollywood problem, it's a representation problem — and to expect Lena Dunham to solve it is just not fair. But I think moving forward we're going to see more diversity from her.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The writer Roxane Gay admits she isn't that well-read in feminist theory and that she dances to Jay-Z and other music she knows is, quote, "terrible for women." And that she sometimes plays dumb with repair men to because it's just easier to let them feel macho, in her words - all which is why she dubs herself a bad feminist. That's the title her new volume of essays. Roxane Gay joins us now from the studios of Illinois Public Media in Urbana. Welcome.

ROXANE GAY: Thank you.

RATH: So let's start out by breaking down your title, "Bad Feminist." Can you explain what it is that makes you bad?

GAY: Well, so many things make me bad. But I started calling myself bad feminist really tongue in cheek because it just amused me. And then the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to acknowledge and own of my feminism, but also acknowledge that I'm not perfect at it and that there might be things that I believe that don't necessarily fall in line with feminist doctrine. But mostly the idea of a bad feminist speaks to this idea that it's important to own feminism, even if there are things about feminism that you don't necessarily agree with.

RATH: And what are the sort of things that you believe in that don't fall in with traditional feminist doctrine?

GAY: For example, if a woman wants to take her husband's name, that's her choice. And I still think she can be feminist while doing that. I think that if a woman wants to stay home to raise her children, that's a fine choice. And so really, we need to rethink society and how society views parents who stay at home and how society protects parents who stay at home, rather than to suggest that women shouldn't stay at home.

RATH: One of the things I found interesting reading your book is that you're kind of resisting this old definition of feminism, which has this persistent - this idea of being humorless and anti-sex. Even though, I mean, I think about radical feminism, like, you know, Andrea Dworkin - that kind of stuff. That was 40 years ago now. Why does that stereotype still persist?

GAY: Because people don't want to think. And they don't want to - I mean, they don't. They just want to say, oh, OK, feminists are humorless man-haters. And that's simply not the case. There are radical people and radical ideas in absolutely every movement. But that doesn't mean that they define the ideals. And so that people want to define feminism based on the actions of a select group of feminists is absolutely absurd. And then I also think we forget our history. The reason feminists were humorless is because it was that bad to be a woman.

RATH: I want to talk about your relationship with Internet, which is you seem a thoroughly modern writer because you tweet a lot. You work a lot online. And you also publish, you know, old-fashioned - old-fashioned books. How do you work the balance?

GAY: Very carefully. I live in the middle of nowhere so - and, you know, the Internet is definitely a lifeline when you live in small rural towns, which I have for the past nine or 10 years. You definitely want to feel a connection to other writers and to other artists and just other human beings. And so for me, the Internet is just a way to feel connected. But I'm also quiet in my real life and shy and something of a loner, and so the Internet allows me to be myself, but also to feel connected to others.

But it's also a great way to reach people. I have found the Internet to be invaluable to my writing, in terms of exposing myself to other points of view, even when I disagree with them and to find like-minded people, as well. It's not all fun and games. The Internet has certainly a seamy underbelly. But for the most part, I just find it to be a really exciting tool for writers and thinkers.

RATH: Did you - do you think would be as happy living in a small town if it weren't for the Internet and the social media?

GAY: I wouldn't be able to do it - straight up.

RATH: Can you talk about your critique of the HBO series "Girls"?

GAY: "Girls" is a really interesting show. I think Lena Dunham is a very bright and very interesting writer. And what she's accomplished at such a young age absolutely impresses me. But when I first started seeing the show during the first season, it was disappointing to see that someone that young, who should be that aware of diversity, had none, you know, on the show. And so I began to think very critically about the show and how it was really showing such a narrow slice of life in one of the most diverse cities in the country.

But the more I began to think about it, the more I wondered, why are we putting so much responsibility at the feet of one person? This problem is a Hollywood problem. It's a representation problem. And to expect Lena Dunham to solve it is just not fair. But I think, moving forward, we're going to see more diversity from her. Even if it's not on the show "Girls," I think that we're going to see a kind of awareness in other aspects of her work.

RATH: Roxane Gay is the author of the novel "An Untamed State" and the new book of essays "Bad Feminist." Roxane, thanks. Pleasure speaking with you.

GAY: Thank you so much, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.