The rise of the Bad Feminist

Author, editor and English professor, Roxane Gay.

Author, editor and English professor, Roxane Gay.

For American writer Roxane Gay, this year has brought the kind of success that if life were a movie would be illustrated by a montage of ripped calendar pages and Time magazine articles to represent her seemingly swift rise to prominence. It’s little coincidence then that in real life Time did indeed pronounce a few months back, "Let this be the year of Roxane Gay".

On the phone from the US to Daily Life, the author is quick to admit that the attention has been a little overwhelming, but is also very welcome. “I’m a writer and the spotlight is a bit uncomfortable, but I love my work getting recognition. Absolutely, I can’t lie, that feels great.”

The 39-year-old author has achieved something of a literary coup, publishing not one, but two well-received books this year. The first was the fiction work, An Untamed State, which follows the kidnapping of a Haitian-American woman and was praised by The Washington Post as a "smart, searing novel".

<i>Bad Feminist</i> (available online at <a ...

Bad Feminist (available online at Booktopia; $19.95)

Her most recent release is Bad Feminist, a collection of essays that came out last month and deftly traverses topics from the pop cultural to the political. Along the way Gay’s razor-sharp writing alights on a variety of topics including Sweet Valley High, competitive Scrabble and sexual violence. The book has intensified the focus on Gay even further with Publishers Weekly raving, "Whatever her topic, Gay’s provocative essays stand out for their bravery, wit, and emotional honesty". The Huffington Post bluntly stated "Feminism needed Roxane Gay" in response to the insightful analyses.

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Gay says she embraced the ‘bad feminist’ tag as a way to combat the pressure on feminist women to be perfect paragons of what is considered ‘correct’ behaviour. Gay is quick to admit that she’s not as well-read in feminist texts as she’d like, that she unashamedly loves the colour pink, and that she also sometimes dances to music that isn’t lyrically respectful of women. But she also nonetheless still proudly calls herself a feminist and engages in the fight for gender equality.

“I started calling myself a 'bad feminist' just because it was funny to me and it was accurate, because I am a feminist, but I’m not always good at it,” says Gay. “And the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a really appropriate phrase because it allows me to own my feminism, while also just acknowledging that, like most people, I’m human and flawed. This thing about feminism that demands perfection and consistency, that is intimidating. So a lot of us feel like, ‘Well, I shouldn’t even bother because I already know I’m going to fall short’. By trying to open up the conversation in this way I’m hoping people can see what matters about feminism and find something that they can relate to within feminism.”

Her brand of ‘bad feminism’ is also strongly in favour of more diversity in the movement. “I’d love to see feminism do more to take into account the needs of women of colour, of queer women, of working class women. Trying to understand that we’re not just women, we have multiple identities and those identities are going to affect our womanhood.”

Gay however didn’t always identify with feminism and growing up disavowed it. She says her dislike was borne of a lack of understanding.

“I thought feminists were angry, man-hating women who didn’t shave their legs, which speaks to my ignorance, but also to the power of the portrayal of that caricature. I really thought that it meant hating men. The older I got, the more I realised feminism is not even about men, it’s about making women equal to men and as free as men.” Speaking about the Women Against Feminism Tumblr, Gay says that she believes a lot of the messages on the controversial site also come down to a lack of understanding about the tenets of feminism. “Hopefully they’ll educate themselves and understand what feminism actually is, because often the things that they are saying are very feminist.”

As for her number one most-hated misconception about being a feminist, for Gay it’s the negative portrayal of women’s anger.

“The biggest misconception about feminism is that we’re only angry and the other big misconception is that feminist anger is unjustified. I’m sorry, but look at history. Look at the way in which women are consistently marginalised. We should be angry. Anger is not an unreasonable response to these kinds of things.” And perhaps it’s only an issue of semantics and could just as equally be labelled as passion? “Correct. There are certainly things that anger me, but when I’m advocating for the equality for women, it’s passion. I care that much. [But] if you want to call me angry for giving a damn, then you can call me angry all day long.”