Roxane Gay’s Advice to Women Who Worry About Their Definition of Feminism

Alison Rice

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Do you ever find yourself shying away from discussing feminism at dinner parties or on social media? Are you actually keen to be more vocal about it but you’re too worried you’re going to get it “wrong”, or have some keyboard warrior intellectually shame you? I’ve been there. In fact, many days, I’m still there. Being responsible for the content we publish on this website is daunting to say the least, but publicly sharing my opinion on what it means to be feminist today—even more so.

When the opportunity arose to interview author and writer, Roxane Gay, I saw it as a once in a lifetime shot at asking her for some advice. If you haven’t yet read her New York Times best-selling book Bad Feminist, or the many others she’s written, you should in preparation for her debate with Christina Hoff Sommers—the Factual Feminist—in March next year. The pair will share the stage for #FEMINIST, an unmissable debate that seeks to explore the trials and tribulations of 21st century feminism. It is a relatively big deal, considering the pair’s opposing views. 

Read on for Roxane's simple advice to women who are worried about getting feminism "wrong". 


I am responsible for content published across websites for women. Can you tell me what you wish women’s lifestyle publications would focus on more?

I think we should trust women more to know how to live their lives.

I think women’s publications have gotten a lot better over the years, and I think most publications offer a really interesting range of things. I do wish more women’s publications would be less prescriptive, focusing on what women are doing wrong, what women need to change and what women need to fix and [instead] just sort of reaffirming that perhaps women are making good choices in their lives even if they aren’t what you might usually consider to be a good choice.  I think we should trust women more to know how to live their lives, so I wish that more content reflected that. But, in general I think that women’s publications offer a really good range in content.

I’ve observed young female writers becoming less and less vocal pitching stories about feminism or topics that intersect with it. I’ll admit I’ve also felt scared at times, to put my opinion out there for fear of ridicule and critique. What advice do you have for us?


It doesn’t matter what a woman does, when it comes to feminism someone’s going to critique her.

I mean there’s no way to do that. It doesn’t matter what a woman does, when it comes to feminism someone’s going to critique her, so you have to write knowing it’s going to happen and not let that keep you from doing it anyway. It just requires—I don’t know if it’s courage but a willingness to live with the fear and whatever might happen.

How do you overcome it—or are you still fearful?

Yeah, definitely. All the time. Yeah, pretty much every time I send something to my editor I have fears and stresses and worries about how it’s going to be received and what kind of blow back I’m going to get and so on. But, I don’t let that stop me because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to make a living.

As someone who is helping shape this generation’s definition of feminism, how do you define it?

You know what, I’m going to give you the answer that’s not going to thrill you, but I no longer answer that question. In 2018, we know what feminism is and if people don’t than maybe they’re unreachable. 

How we are influenced by structures of power.

Then what about intersectional feminism?

When it comes to talking about intersectionality, I really try to talk about how we are not just women. We have race, we’re ethnicity, class, background, sexuality, gender presentation. There are a range of factors that shape who we are and how we move through the world. And more importantly how we are influenced by structures of power. You need to keep that in mind when we are talking about feminism and recognise that not all women have been treated equally by power structures that we live with.

I’ve got growing concern for how the media is over-using the labels girl boss and lady boss. What is your view on those labels?

They’re fine. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. I think anything that encourages women’s ambition is useful. But, I also think that it must be more than a marketing ploy, and that’s important.

You’ve spoken about your love for rap music—one of the things that makes you a so-called bad feminist. In the long term though, is it really OK for us to like it and joke about that?

I don’t know. It’s a good question. Yeah, I don’t know, I’d have to think more about it.

You’ll be on our shores in March 2019 for a three-city debate with Factual Feminist Christina Hoff Sommers. What topic in particular are you looking forward to debating?

I don’t know, I’m looking forward to what I hope will be an ethical debate and a robust debate. I really do hope to push back on the notion that if you disagree with her you’re a factual [feminist] because I just don’t think that’s the case. So, I’m just curious to see what kind of conversation that we have, and I hope that it is a conversation worthy of feminism. 

Did you agree to the talk immediately or did you have to think about doing it first?

Well, it came to me through my speaking agent and you know, this is work so for me it was about compensation. The compensation made it worth my while. I didn’t actually know who she was. I found out who she was after someone mentioned it – someone asked me on Twitter “Why are you doing an event with this person?”, and then the Southern Poverty Law Centre reached out and said, “We heard you’re doing an event with this person, here’s some information about her.” So, I’m learning about who she is known, but I think feminist discussions are generally useful and I think that it’s particularly important that when we talk about feminism, we talk about intersectionality and so I am looking forward to being able to do that.

Don’t miss out on your ticket to the #FEMINIST debate. March 27-31, 2019 in Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne.

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