Unreasonable Standards: An Interview with Roxane Gay
By Brooke ObieAugust 20, 2014
BY WEAVING TOGETHER personal anecdotes, pop culture, current events, and calls to action in the essays in her new collection, Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay’s thoughtful and insightful analyses offer the reader much-needed answers to age-old questions like “How to Be Friends with Another Woman,” and, more seriously, what it means to be feminist.
Gay boldly declares herself a bad feminist. Feminists are just people — flawed, incredibly complex, often contradictory people — who can whole-heartedly believe in the “social, political, and economic equality of the sexes” and at the same time thoroughly enjoy a piece of music or a book “she knows, she knows, is terrible for women.” Gay creates a space for herself and all of us to screw up, to excuse ourselves for not having it all together, to ignore unreasonable idealism, to rebrand a label that has been dogged with negative implications, to reclaim it again as a badge of honor.
— Brooke Obie
BROOKE OBIE: These essays are both self-contained and share an overarching theme, telling your story and that of our current society. How did you choose which essays to include?
ROXANE GAY: I wanted to pull together at least some of my nonfiction pieces about gender and race and feminism. These essays are just conversations that I’m having with myself about the challenges that I think about in the world we live in. Even though I disagree with nearly everything she writes, Katie Roiphe has a 2012 essay collection called In Praise of Messy Lives, and I really liked the way that she structured that collection. I took a lot of inspiration from that. I wanted to start and end with my more personal opinions on feminism and popular culture and range wider in the middle, so I structured the essays with that in mind.
You share some deeply personal pain in the collection. In “Reaching for Catharsis,” you write about how people can become desensitized to sexual violence and other horrors in the media and entertainment, as in shows like Law & Order: SVU that go into significant detail about trauma. How did you decide how much you would share with your readers?
I definitely wrote many of the essays about sexual violence and trauma and recovering from those things as a way of demonstrating solidarity, to tell [survivors], “You’re not alone.” I wanted to remove some of the silence that we all too often put around trauma and the difficult things we experience throughout our lives.
But it just depends: there are some essays where I do talk about the fact that, for me, it’s all about context. How is the personal relevant? Is there a bigger issue to be talking about here?
No, I don’t think that. I do think there are universals. I think that there is a core set of values for feminism, and that those values involve the equality of women, reproductive freedom, and the ability to move through the world free from misogyny. People practice different kinds of feminism and that’s okay. Democrats don’t agree about everything and neither do Republicans or Libertarians or any other group, and no one suggests that those political labels mean nothing because there are multiple ways of approaching them.
You’ve called out feminist icon bell hooks for calling Beyoncé an antifeminist “terrorist” during a talk at The New School earlier this year. So there are certainly times that you think even icons can be wrongheaded in their feminism. How would you suggest one critique a public feminist’s actions without becoming one of those critics hell-bent on knocking feminist icons off of their pedestals?
It’s all about nuance. We can respect people and both agree and disagree with their varied stances. All too often, we have this reactionary notion that if we disagree with one or two or three ideas a person has, we must disavow them. That is a deeply impoverished way of living.
I thought that what bell hooks [said] was ridiculous. As the moderator, her comments were very inflammatory, and I think people picked up on the sound bite and ignored the rest of the talk, which was actually quite interesting. I don’t know what she really thinks, but I do think it was again the sense of creating tiers of feminism. I think Beyoncé is very feminist — and I think that she’s reaching out to a new generation of feminists, a generation that needs to be reached.
I was disappointed by bell hooks’s comments particularly because she once wrote a book called Feminism Is for Everybody, so she seemed with this to be contradicting even herself. Still, she’s a thinker and feminist I respect quite a lot, and so there was, definitely, some ambivalence there for me, as well.
In your last essay, you talk about Sheryl Sandberg and some of the problems with her book, Lean In, and you share some of the same concerns about the book that hooks had. If there are different approaches to feminism,particularly between generations, are there ways to bridge these gaps?
Definitely. I liked Lean In. I think it’s a really good book for its target audience. There was definitely a lot I could relate to — such as suffering from imposter syndrome and not taking initiative as often as I should. And then, of course, I have criticisms of the book. But again, we tend to hold feminism and feminists to unreasonable standards: no one is telling Jack Welch that he needs to write his CEO self-help books for working-class men. So I think that we, as feminists, have to work on being more flexible with one another.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Bad Feminist brings an inclusive and modulated voice to what has been, at times, a shrill conversation....
Roxane Gay has written an important and unforgettable new novel that expertly navigates the emotional terrain between captivity and freedom, trauma and healing, the personal and the political....
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