Roxane Gay contains multitudes. She is a professor, author, comic book writer, professional Scrabble player, tweeter and pop culture aficionado. Her book of essays, Bad Feminist, became a New York Times bestseller, but her work spans both fiction and nonfiction—and covers subjects such as race, religion, relationships, gender, and family. With the release of her first novel in 2014, An Untamed State, Gay alerted the world to the vitality of her voice and of her characters.
Gay visited Brown University on February 14, 2017, in the wake of the much publicized controversy around her relationship with the publishing house Simon and Schuster. In early January, Gay pulled her upcoming novel, How to Be Heard, from the publisher in protest of its then-planned (and now cancelled) publication of Milo Yiannopoulos’ memoir, Dangerous. During the lecture, Gay maintained that her protest was not meant to censor or silence him, as free speech is well within his rights. Rather, she called him out as a “man-child” and provocateur who consistently promotes misogyny, harassment, and reduced legal protection for LGBTQ+ individuals.
Gay acknowledges that people are imperfect and can’t be expected to be the perfect figurehead for the identity they hold. Managing the illusion of perfection is just too great of a burden to carry. Her short story collection, Difficult Women, takes great pains to give this dimension to every character. In Difficult Women, the female characters are never flattened to their identity as just women. The briefly mentioned zumba instructor in the first vignette of the short story “FLORIDA” is revisited in a later section in order to account for her story and perspective. In one moment, she is known only in relation to her career, but later Gay illuminates her home life, relationship issues, and search for friendship. Additionally, “La Negra Blanca” follows a mixed race woman who works as a stripper in order to pay for college. Here as well, Gay distinguishes her character by acknowledging the centrality of sex and sexuality in the young woman’s life while also bringing attention to the ways that race, class, and education shape her conditions.
While many of the short stories are not explicitly political, they stand in contrast to a society which tends to institutionally privilege some voices over others. The addition of voices from women of color into literature is in itself a radical progression. In Gay’s memoir Bad Feminist, she returns to this point using Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on this subject in 2009, entitled “The Danger of a Single Story.” Adichie speaks about the historical whiteness of literature and that the inclusion of Black voices continues to revolutionize it. As the first Black woman to write a comic book for Marvel, Gay is stretching the spaces in which Black and female voices have been limited.
This inclusion into previously exclusive spaces comes with a responsibility of precedent, one that Gay takes in stride. I interviewed Gay over email in late February. Responding to my comment that Difficult Women contains a number of multifaceted characters, Gay explained, “I do feel a responsibility to create nuanced, interesting characters who don’t reinforce stereotypes. The older I get and the more mature I get as a writer, the more I try not to respond to certain expectations because they get in the way of the writing.”
She engages with this topic often in her best-selling memoir Bad Feminist. In the essay entitled “Girls, Girls, Girls” she explains how the heavy criticism of the lack of racial representation in HBO’s Girls is valid, but not one that requires boycott or protest. Essentially, she says, it is not the first program to properly represent, and most likely will not the last. In the essay, Gay explains, “It is unreasonable to expect Dunham to somehow solve the race and representation problem while crafting her twenty-something witticisms.” Dunham uses Girls to think through her experiences as a young woman and represent a vision of life that she believes is missing in many primetime shows. Though it is far from unproblematic, Gay claims in the essay, few things truly are.
To this point, in early March, Gay jokingly tweeted, “I realize you are hyper criticized buuuut I am going to criticize you.”
Progress can arise from productive criticism, especially when the piece in question has such a large social impact. Pop culture greatly impacts the way we view society, and its rules and lack thereof. As Gay told me, “It is a reflection of the culture at large, our norms and values, and it’s also a useful tool for reaching massive audiences.”
However important, writers should not feel pressure to always get representation right, because, Gay writes, “that is too great a responsibility for any writer to take on.” Rather than discrediting all of Dunham’s work, it can be used as an invitation to ongoing, productive critique from an intersectional group of critics. By working with willing artists and creators, more can be done for promoting equality of representations and prevent the stereotyping of women in art.
“There is absolutely political power in pop culture,” Gay wrote to me. “A lot of shifts and growth in our cultural tolerance have come from pop culture.”
In the titular short story, “Difficult Women,” Gay problematizes American tropes of one dimensional female characters. She explores the lives of those labeled as “loose women,” “frigid women,” and “crazy women,” then continues to elaborate upon the nuances of their lifestyles as well as the circumstances that formed their experiences. She explores the loose woman who grew up without support from a family, the frigid woman who fears sexual violence and is not required to “put out” when asked, and the crazy woman who earned her label by calling a man to talk after a date. This emphasis on distinctive personalities creates a more nuanced narrative of the lives of women with respect to race, class, and sexuality.
This theme of bearing the responsibility for representation is well addressed in Bad Feminist, as the title suggests. Roxane Gay is a bad feminist. Roxane Gay enjoys music that has misogynistic undertones (and overtones) and she watched ABC’s The Bachelor even before women of color were well represented. But, as she argues in her writing, she is still a feminist all the same. During her Valentine’s Day lecture at Brown, Gay reiterated that she is “not the application reader at feminist central” in response to a question about Ivanka Trump’s status (or lack thereof) as a feminist.
This is not because she does not have an opinion of the subject, but rather because she understands that she cannot speak on behalf of all women, feminists, people of color, or Libras. Even though, Gay is asked to do emotional and physical labor to assist writers and speak at various conferences about diversity, she does not see it as her job to decide who is more or less problematic.
On March 8 of this year, she tweeted “One of the most common emails I get is, ‘Will you please read my work and tell me if I have the talent to pursue writing?’ and subsequently, “And what they’re looking for is validation or a reason to believe in themselves. Look. I cannot give that to you. I am not a gatekeeper.” While it is not uncommon for aspiring artists to seek advice from an idol like Roxane Gay, it can often come disguised as a request for free labor. Gay does not have the responsibility to read, edit, and publicize an aspiring author’s work, because it is not her job.
“So many people asking me for so much and it makes me just shut down and play games on my phone,” she lamented on her Twitter earlier this week.
Gay expands on this point in a later essay in Bad Feminist, where she criticizes The Help for it’s thematic emphasis on the “magical negro,” an all-knowing Black person who is expected to answer white peoples’ questions about race, life, and other complex issues. In many novels and films, Gay argues, a Black character is used to enlighten the white leads. This exposes the danger of continuously portraying people of color as existing only to service others.
The issue with this representation is that it continues the expectation that a select few people exist to educate the ignorant or lost. “I’m nobody’s mother,” Gay said with a hint of exasperation during her February lecture.
Roxane Gay’s work questions the norms and biases that exist in many premises and assumptions about women. It is available to those who already subscribe to the idea of intersectional feminism or others who seek to gain perspective or challenge their own ideas about race, class, and gender. Her writing provides narratives for people who are often portrayed without subtlety and for those who wish to broaden their perspective beyond that of a single story. It is the continuation of a struggle for representation of gendered and racialized bodies that activists have waged for decades. It is a struggle that will continue to be fought until work such as Gay’s is a norm and no longer the exception.
BRIONNE FRAZIER B’20 wants you to be difficult.