Roxane Gay just said something perfect about feminism
Writer and editor Roxane Gay has become a total feminist icon since the release of her book Bad Feminist last summer. The collection of essays approaches feminism with the nuance many of us struggle with on a daily basis — how can we be “good” feminists when we like things we aren’t supposed to or find ourselves on the wrong side of the movement? Gay’s honesty and openness about what feminism means to her and how she deals with competing ideas of who she should or should not be spoke to many readers, and opened up a crucial discussion within feminism itself. And now, Gay has taken her message to TED, with a powerful speech delivered on Thursday.
In Gay’s conclusion, she sums up the core of her message perfectly, and in a way that many women and feminists can likely relate to: “I am a bad feminist and a good woman. I am trying to become better in how I think and say and do — without abandoning what makes me human.”
Gay’s speech touched on a lot of thing the themes she brought up in her book, including the power of writing and feminism to help us come to terms with past trauma. “Once upon a time, my voice was stolen from me and feminism helped me get it back. There was an incident. I call it an incident so I can carry the burden of what happened,” she said.
“I wrote myself toward a stronger version of myself. I read the words of women who might understand stories like mine and who looked like me and who understand what it was like to move through the world with brown skin,” she continued. “I read the words of women who showed me I was not nothing. I learned to write like them and then I learned to write as myself.”
Gay also talked about the problematic nature of feminism in practice versus theory, using her own musical taste to highlight the ways in which what we like can co-exist and cause conflict with what we stand for. And while acknowledging that we all like the wrong things sometimes, it’s important to own our choices and strive to make ones that push the cause forward.
“If I listen to degrading music, I am creating a demand for which artists are more than happy to contribute a limitless supply,” she said. “Artists are not going to change how they talk about women in their songs until we demand that change by affecting their bottom line. It is difficult — why must it be so catchy? I’m looking at you, Robin Thicke.”
Same, Roxane. Same.
But perhaps the most poignant message Gay had was about feminism itself, and bringing down barriers that keep women from identifying with the movement. She herself had once thought of feminists as the age-old stereotype of man-hating, anti-feminine women. Today, however, as feminism enters the mainstream we have so many role models to encourage young women and girls to embrace the movement … and we shouldn’t be pushing them away.
She explores this idea with Beyonce’s performance at the MTV VMAs, where Beyonce stood in front of the word “Feminist.” It was a huge moment that many people celebrated, but as Gay points out, “cultural critics began endlessly debating whether or not Beyonce was indeed a feminist. They graded her feminism instead of taking a grown, accomplished woman at her word.”
“We put feminists on a pedestal and expect them to pose perfectly. When they disappoint us, we gleefully knock them from the very pedestal we put them on,” she continued. “We demand perfection from feminists because we are still fighting for so much. We go far beyond reasonable constructive criticism to dissecting any woman’s feminism and tearing it apart until there’s nothing left. We do not need to do that.”
Gay’s right. Although there’s always space for a critical eye on our stances and ways to push the movement forward through personal action, it’s also important that feminism not become mired in in-fighting and sabotage from within. We’re always stronger together, even when that means acknowledging that we’re all in one way or another a “bad” feminist.