“I am trying to become better in what I think and what I say and what I do, without abandoning what makes me human.” Roxane Gay is an essayist, novelist and speaker, as well as a self-described “bad feminist.”
Born in 1974 in Nebraska, United States, to Haitian parents, Gay was the oldest of three children. Her father was a civil engineer, so the family moved frequently and Gay didn’t form close friendships at school. From a very young age, she evaded loneliness and found solace in reading and writing. Gay talks about the captivating nature of novels and self loss in fictional worldsas a questioning young person.
At 12 years old, amid a relatively comfortable and supported childhood, Gay’s world was turned upside down when she was raped by her boyfriend and his friends. The devastating trauma of sexual violence was something she didn’t speak of for a very long time. She started gaining weight, trying to regain a sense of control over her body: “when I ate, I got to make my body into what I wanted it to be, which is a fortress.”
Struggling with her weight and her mental health in a fatphobic and unaccommodating society, Gay threw herself into writing and her trauma repeated itself on paper. At a boarding school in New Hampshire, a teacher recognized Gay’s talent, as well as the violence that haunted her, and encouraged her to seek counselling and to continue to develop her writing. She later explains, “I wrote myself back together.”
In her early 20s, Gay began publishing essays on gender, sex, race and inequality in national magazines as she earned her master’s degree and PhD. Much of her early work was centred on the normalization of sexual violence in the media and in pop culture.
Still struggling with the discomfort of being seen and sexualized as a woman, Gay continued to use eating as an outlet for her anxieties and avoidance in response to the pervasive and culturally normalized male gaze. She discusses fatness, feminism and self-acceptance against social hatred in her 2017 memoir, Hunger.
Fatness is a facet of feminism that Gay engages with frequently in her work, an essential part of her feminist identity. She is eloquent and firm about the necessity of intersectionality within feminism: “When we talk about the needs of women, we have to consider the other identities we inhabit.”
In 2014, Gay rose to international prominence with a collection of essays titled Bad Feminist. A New York Times bestseller, Bad Feminist addresses the many facets of feminism and the struggle to adopt a feminist identity as it is often the subject of critique, analysis and skepticism, if not outright hatred.
Gay describes growing up fearing “the f-word” and all its socially exploited negative connotations, “For fear of what that label means, for fear of being unable to live up to unrealistic expectations.”
She grew into her feminist identity as she recognized its fallibility — feminism is not about perfection, but about progress, learning and growth. Gay explains, “As a feminist I feel a lot of pressure. We have this tendency to put visible feminist on a pedestal. We expect them to pose perfectly. When they disappoint us, we gleefully knock them from the very pedestal we put them on.”
Gay talks about stepping off the pedestal into her brand of “bad feminism” (which she later identifies as inclusive feminism) in her 2014 Ted Talk. She tells the audience, “When I drive to work, I listen to thuggish rap at a very loud volume, even though the lyrics are degrading to women; the lyrics offend me to my core.” She admits that she loves the colour pink, romantic comedies and watches [American reality show] The Bachelor — despite being able to critically analyze thousands of problematic misogynistic and sexist tropes within any given episode.
With this acknowledgement, Gay recognizes the strength, diversity and reality of the feminist movement. Where do we go from here? From acknowledging our imperfections to accountability, Gay says.
“We can change the channel when a television show treats sexual violence against women like sport (Game of Thrones) we can change the radio station when we hear songs that treat women as nothing, we can spend our box office dollars elsewhere when movies don’t treat women as anything more than decorative objects, we can stop supporting professional sports where the athletes treat their partners like punching bags.”
If we engage with our identities, our faults, our oppressions and our privileges, we can utilize our voices and platforms to demand more, Gay explains. Men of privilege can refuse to work in spaces without gender equal employment policies. White women can do the same in demanding the inclusion of racialized women. Minority women can demand that their inclusion is meaningful, non-tokenistic and sustainable.
Gay’s work online and in print engages an international audience to critical acclaim. Gay is openly bisexual, and her partner, Debbie Millman, is an American writer and designer. Gay has many forthcoming projects, including continuing as one of two black female writers for the Marvel comic, World of Wakanda. With small acts of bravery and significant demands for equality, Gay’s inclusive feminism can guide us all.
By Katie Clarke, WAVE Intern
“Bio.” Roxanegay.com. http://www.roxanegay.com/about/
Cochrane, Kira. “Roxane Gay: meet the bad feminist.” The Guardian. August 2, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/02/roxane-gay-bad-feminist-sisterhood-fake-orgasm
Gay, Roxane. “Confessions of a bad feminist.” TEDWomen 2015. TED Conferences, May 2015. https://www.ted.com/talks/roxane_gay_confessions_of_a_bad_feminist
Langford, Sam. “Hannah Gadsby And Roxane Gay Just Hung Out, And Yes It’s The Greatest Thing Ever.” Junkee Media, 2018. https://junkee.com/hannah-gadsby-roxane-gay/186020