The first time that I heard of Roxane Gay, I was mindlessly scrolling through my Tumblr feed. In between collages of teen pop stars and screenshots of Seinfeld episodes, I saw a post from the Illuminati Girl Gang Tumblr with the title “Roxane is spelled with one N.” I hadn’t read a word, but I was already thinking “damn girl, you tell them.” I clicked on the link.
“I have become accustomed to rejection.” These are the words that welcome you to Roxane’s website. They are a pretty good indicator of Roxane’s unapologetic honesty of her flaws, her desires, herself. This comes through in her writing. She isn’t afraid to state things, things that people often don’t want to hear, things that people never expect to hear from a woman of color. She isn’t afraid to be funny in one sentence and serious in the next. She isn’t afraid to write from the traumatic to the banal, from kidnappings in Haiti to the most recent installment of Die Hard. She isn’t afraid to go there—race, class, gender, privilege, politics love, violence, humanity–all take part in her words. Most importantly, she isn’t afraid, or perhaps better said, isn’t ashamed of being afraid.
Now it may seem from these series of bold statements that Roxane and I are intimate friends, that we have exchanged poems and cackled at cheap one-liners from action movies while munching on Sour Patch Kids on a Thursday night. I wish. Until recently, I was only a netspace fangirl, following Roxane from afar. Needless to say, when I heard she was coming to talk at Brown on being a “bad feminist,” I had a fangirl freakout. I bridged the interweb distance and emailed Roxane, mustering all of my “professional” intentions to mask my giddy excitement at the prospect of meeting her. We set time for an interview before her talk. I wrote it in bright pink pen on my planner. I wore my favorite sweatshirt to the interview.
It’s a funny moment when you put a face to the words. Here she was, that hilarious movie reviewer, that sharp-witted commentator, that brilliant writer, sitting at the Brown bookstore, watching me nervously handle my tea. Roxane is soft-spoken, approachable, willing to share. I launched into a muddled monologue of all the the feels Roxane’s writings inspired, of why I saw her as my feminist godmother. She warmly responded to my “so being a writer, whats up with that!?’ pleas. I gave her a copy of Bluestockings’s first issue. She tweeted about me. (Dreams come true is what I’m trying to say.)
Roxane’s essay, “Bad Feminist,” reads like the the feminist manifesto my fairy godmother whispered to me. If you haven’t read it, stop reading this and read it right now. (Seriously, read it now!) Basically, it’s everything I have felt about what “being a feminist” means, but better articulated, plus things I never had considered. Roxane draws the comparison between essential notions of being a “woman” (which we can all now say comfortably is some serious b.s.) to essential notions of being a “feminist”—militant, angry, hairy, hates men, hates babies—which still permeate society and which are reinforced by women of power who shy away from the f-word. This is because, as Roxane points out, there is risk in calling yourself a feminist. Not only do you have to deal with all of the absurd stereotypes and prejudice that will be thrown at you for simply not wanting to be “treated like shit,” but you also now put yourself at risk of failure. Of failing to be a “good feminist.” Especially with the recent articles on “women’s problem to have it all” (or women’s failure) Roxane writes, “These articles make it seem like there is, in fact, a right way to be a woman and a wrong way to be a woman. And the standard appears to be ever changing and unachievable.”
She continues (and I gush in affirmation):
There’s more to the problem. Too many women, particularly groundbreaking women and industry leaders, are afraid to be labeled feminists, afraid to stand up and say, “Yes, I am a feminist,” for fear of what that label means, for fear of how to live up to it, for fear of feminism as something essential, for fear of the punishments—both obvious and indirect—that come with openly owning feminism or doing feminism wrong.
I have written before about how bad it is to think of feminism, or being a feminist, as “good/bad.” First off, because as a movement and as a marker of identity, feminism has never been stable or inclusive enough in all of its history. And I don’t see that as a failure of the movement or a marker of its illegitimacy. Feminism is a process, it’s a constant negotiation, it’s a “figuring it out,” never a “having it all.” It’s singing along to the Ying Yang Twins while knowing their lyrics are mysoginistic, and getting angry when Chris Brown performs at the Grammys after battering his partner. It’s loving fashion and reading Vogue, and getting pissed off when they feature several male writers and forget female writers are also worthy of recognition. It’s thinking about maxi dresses and never thinking about car engines. It’s being Roxane, it’s being me, it’s being you, it’s being human, and wanting to be treated as such. That’s what I took most from meeting Roxane. Basic human empathy is the only qualification for being a feminist, good or bad.
-Ana Alvarez, Managing Editor
Image Credit: Eastern Illinois University on Flickr