In her new book Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay dispels the notion that there is only one tent in the pro-woman camp.
Her personal brand of the f-word may be “bad” (she loves pink, listens to misogynist hip hop, devours Sweet Valley High novels), but her powers of cultural observation are outstanding.
In a series of essays, Gay – who also works as an English professor at Purdue University – offers her unique take on topics such as toxic female friendships and the trouble with Tyler Perry movies, while also addressing more weighty issues such as gender and racial privilege.
The result is a frequently funny and thoroughly thought-provoking read.
Here, the author talks of fallen feminist role models and her weakness for The Bachelor.
Based on your Twitter feed, you spent at least part of last [Monday] night watching Bachelor in Paradise.
I did. I’m more of a fan of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette than the little offshoot shows that they do. It’s just fun to see the characters we’ve grown to love or grown to hate come back.
I would imagine trashy reality TV has got to be worth at least a few bad feminist points.
Probably, yes, though I guess because birds of a feather, a lot of my friends watch [these kinds of shows]. We have the difficult conversations about why they are problematic, but we are still able to enjoy them.
In Bad Feminist you write about a non-specific sisterhood of strident feminists who make you feel bad about your style of feminism.
Right. I don’t think they would be overly thrilled with Bachelor Pad. The spectre of those feminists is what inspired the book and what makes me feel bad about a lot of the popular culture I enjoy. That said, I respect radical feminism. I understand why there’s a need for it. I’m just not a radical.
On the other end of the spectrum we have the #WomenAgainst Feminism movement.
It’s sad and a little absurd, but they are entitled to their opinions and my feminism will still compel me to fight for them. I just wish they knew that feminism is what makes it possible for them to hold these placards declaring why they’re not feminists. I think ignorance is very much at play here.
When did the word feminism get such a bad rap? For so long it was largely beloved by progressive people and now you have women such as Susan Sarandon and Lady Gaga disavowing the term.
It’s been diluted because people are afraid of the idea that women are going to stand up for themselves, and that’s a shame – it’s a real shame. I don’t know what we can do to change these attitudes, but I’m hoping there is something. When I see a woman like Susan Sarandon who is so fierce, I’m just like what – what do you mean you don’t identify as a feminist?
How can you be my feminist hero if you’re not a feminist?
Correct. I think we have to also just be less attached to vocabulary and look more at actions.
It’s not about what you call yourself, it’s about behaviour. How you move through the world.
Speaking of vocabulary, I feel like this ‘I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist’ line is a pretty lame cop-out.
I do try really hard not to be judgmental, but I think it’s delusional to say things like that. People who call themselves humanists are pretending that there aren’t very distinct differences between men and women. We can look at the wage gap, the attempts to legislate our bodies, rape culture and the threat of sexual violence. So okay, you’re a humanist, but that means you’re actively ignoring quite a lot.
They think the job is done because they’re only thinking about themselves. They have a pretty good life, they’re successful by whatever measure they define success and so they think okay, feminism has arrived. They’re not looking at the big picture and I think that sort of myopia is really damaging.
In one of your essays you say that most of the representations of girlhood in pop culture are unsatisfying because they never get it quite right. Is anyone doing an okay job?
It’s hard to say. Even though I have critiqued Lena Dunham’s Girls, I think there is a lot she gets right about young womanhood. One of the things she gets really right is that sense of what does it mean to be a person. Hannah Horvath and her friends are trying to figure out who they are and that’s really well done. The lack of diversity on the show was troubling, especially because it takes place in New York and especially in the first season, but as I’ve said before, that’s a Hollywood problem and not a Lena Dunham problem.
What did you think of that whole firestorm last year after Lena Dunham agreed to have her body Photoshopped for Vogue?
I thought it was ridiculous and almost offensive that people were making such a big deal about it. There’s a difference between Photoshopping a woman so she’s only got half her ribs and Photoshopping just to make someone glossier.
In the Vogue pictures, Lena Dunham looks like Lena Dunham. We have to pick our battles and for me that wasn’t a battle. Also, if I ever get into Vogue I’ll be like, Photoshop away – shellac me!
One of the essays deals with the myth that female friendships must be bitchy, toxic or competitive. Where does that myth come from?
It comes from this idea that women are somehow fighting for scarce resources at all times, so we’re at battle. Male friendships can also be deeply competitive, so I’m not sure why females get this bad rap.
I feel like maybe Betty and Veronica are at least partly to blame. You have these two awesome women fighting over this pretty dorky dude.
I know, really, Archie? Really? There are other boys in town.
This interview has been condensed and edited.