Roxane Gay: ‘gender fascism is on the rise’
Roxane Gay — bestselling author, critic and feminist icon — is preparing for her first ever UK tour. When we speak, she’s at her home in Los Angeles where she lives with her wife Debbie Millman, and reels off a long schedule of meetings, interviews and a hair appointment.
Her hair is covered with a black headwrap, and she wears a black T-shirt with a small Lacoste logo. Despite being described as shy, Gay is warm and humorous. She shares stories about meeting Millman — who “chased her”, she jokes — and their June 2020 wedding “at a place called Instant Marriage LA.com”, which ended with “a socially distanced barbecue for eight in the backyard of our home”.
Although the UK tour is extensive — Gay is set to speak in London (where she’ll give one of the headlining interviews at the Southbank’s Women of the World festival), Edinburgh, Liverpool, Bath and Exeter — it is not pegged to a single book release. She is doing the tour simply because “the opportunity came up”. Much of the audience will likely be part of the international cult following that Gay developed after the release of her debut book, Bad Feminist, in 2014. In this collection of essays, Gay considers the ways she is “failing as a feminist” and “a mess of contradictions”, and admits the incongruities between her ideals and how she lives. “When I drive to work, I listen to thuggish rap at a very loud volume even though the lyrics are degrading to women and offend me to my core,” she writes.
Bad Feminist became an instant classic of contemporary gender politics for its surgically precise insight, authenticity and sincerity — and for tackling racism, sexual violence and the enablement of abuse in the entertainment industry. But it’s Gay’s ability to be at once emotional and restrained, to criticise but not preach, and to speak with empathy and care, which really pushed her as a feminist thinker.
Nearly a decade later, with contradiction writ across the book, does Gay feel any reservations about it still being her most defining work? “No, not at all. I don’t mind still being associated with it because it’s a good book!” she says. “Unfortunately, most of what I wrote about in that book is still relevant, and I wrote many of those essays 14 years ago. It’s surprising to me how little change, how little progress has been made — actually, we’ve lost ground on things like reproductive freedom.”
The June 2022 Supreme Court ruling to overturn the landmark Roe v Wade decision ended the constitutional right to abortion in the United States, decapitating decades-old feminist victories on the right to bodily autonomy. It is on the grounds of bodily autonomy which Gay believes feminists must stake their fights for the future: “There are lots of different ways to be a feminist but I think we need to agree on fundamental issues, and reproductive freedom is one of those fundamental issues. When a woman says she’s pro-life and a feminist I’m like no, you’re pro-life.”
When a woman says she’s pro-life and a feminist I’m like no, you’re pro-life
Gay also counts the freedom and liberation of trans people as inseparable from the feminist projects of reproductive justice and bodily autonomy. An opinion columnist for the New York Times, in 2023, she was one of more than 370 current and former contributors to sign an open letter condemning the newspaper’s editorial coverage and reporting on trans people. As Gay tells me, “trans rights are in crisis here in the US, just as they are in most parts of the world. It’s frustrating to see the sort of gender fascism that is on the rise here, because the people being affected are some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”
Gay’s memoir, Hunger, in which she writes about her relationship with weight, eating, health and exercise, was published to critical acclaim in 2017. In the week we talk, a cover-page article by Priyanka Mantha in the New York Magazine, titled “Life After Food”, reports on the rise of Ozempic, “a diabetes-management turned off-label weight loss drug that has eradicated the appetite of high society”. Gay has, of course, read it. She says: “In that New Yorker article … one of the women says to be thin is to be powerful, and she’s right. The more weight you lose and the thinner you become the more people respect you, treat you well, look you in the eye. And it’s shocking to realise but also not when you think about how fatphobic our culture is.”
But she is not damning of those who have bought into the “Ozempic craze”, feeling that editorial coverage of it needs to shift and be more critical of the pharmaceutical industry: “We’re all just trying to do the best we can in a world that demands quite a lot and I certainly feel some kind of way about it, but who am I to judge? I get it. Weight loss is f**king hard. Maintaining a human body, keeping it healthy, whatever that means, is challenging. The problem happens when diabetics can’t get access to the medication that they need to stay alive. As long as we have doctors who are ready to write prescriptions for Ozempic for anyone who’s got $1,000 we’re never going to make sure the distribution of the drug is fair or equitable. I think that’s where we should focus our energies more than judging people for making this choice.”
Gay challenges perceptions of medical weight-loss interventions as “shortcuts”. “So many people want to look down on women for ‘taking a shortcut’ — it’s not a shortcut! There was a woman in the article who was talking about how she has to drug herself to sleep to forget her hunger pains. That’s not a shortcut at all. There’s always a sacrifice.” And Gay has her own experience with such interventions, having had elective weight-loss surgery in 2018. “It’s hard, it sucks so much. You have to fast before you have the surgery. You have to drink milkshakes for a couple weeks after, then it’s soft food for two or three months, because you really have mutilated yourself, you’ve basically cut your stomach out and are left with a little pouch. You spend the rest of your life trying to live with it. And there are lots and lots of weird side effects — you lose hair, you are cold all the time, you have to take a bunch of vitamins and get constant heartburn. And people don’t want to talk about the really annoying parts.” Still, Gay has no regrets over the surgery, describing it as the “best decision I’ve ever made for myself, I would do it again”, but she is putting off further skin removal surgery, “because it’s even worse, it sucks!”
Looking to the future, Gay is developing a number of other projects which concern celebrity, either through direct collaboration or subject. She is working on a romance book with Channing Tatum, which she says is currently titled Down To You. I ask how the surprise partnership came about, and she says, “Some interviewer in Australia had mentioned me to him, and the company we’re writing a novel for approached him to do a project. Somehow this idea came up and he suggested we write something together. It wasn’t necessarily going to be a romance novel, we were going to do a book of some kind, and a little podcast.”
She describes Tatum as “wonderful, kind, funny, self-deprecating, which was a little unexpected” and says he “smells like a pine forest, that blew my mind!” She also reveals that Tatum, unbeknownst to her at the time, had insisted they both be paid the same for the novel, adding “that impressed me, very few people actually walk the walk when no one’s looking”. She’s writing a book about Beyoncé too. She doesn’t quite know what it’s going to be yet as she has years to write it, but she teases that it will be “a critical engagement with Beyoncé.” She describes herself as a member of the “Beyhive” but “not one of the uncritical, scary ones.”
Her fascination with the star is around the management of her image: “I love her public persona but I recognise that it’s a persona and I’m very intrigued by the one-way street of Beyoncé. Like I’m gonna drop some pictures on Instagram and that’s all you’re gonna get, or I’m gonna do a self-directed interview. And I’m interested in that and I get where it comes from. The media is so merciless with women, especially women who make music, and rarely are they treated as fully realised people with thoughts and opinions and agency and so she has taken complete control of her image because people have been careless with her image in the past. I get what it does for her, but I also think it does her a disservice in that I don’t know that she even remembers what it’s like to be asked difficult questions from journalists.”
Mainstream feminism leaves so many women behind and is so exclusionary
While these future projects are without set dates, and Gay confesses that she feels she has taken on too many commissions, still fearing that each new project could possibly be the last, fans can hopefully look forward to a 10th anniversary edition of Bad Feminist next year. “It’s something I would like to do, we’ve been talking about it for years. My plan is to write an updated introduction, update a few essays, and re-release,” she says.
After all, she still considers herself every bit a bad feminist. “I would like to believe I’m a better feminist now than I was, but I’ll always be a bad feminist,” she says, rocking her head up and down. “And I take pride in that. I came up with the phrase thinking about how mainstream feminism leaves so many women behind and is so exclusionary. So if that’s ‘good feminism’ then yes, I’m a very bad feminist.”
Roxane Gay is speaking at WOW at the Southbank Centre on Sunday 12 March