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Cheat Sheet: Roxane Gay

Meet the fearless Roxane Gay, whose bestselling books have been responsible for “the most persuasive feminist recruitment drive in recent memory” and who returns to the Opera House for All About Women 2022.

Divya Venkataraman
Sydney Opera House

For many, Roxane Gay needs no introduction. The author, speaker and self-proclaimed ‘bad feminist’ is one of the most listened-to voices in the popular American scholarship space, and tackles her subject matter—be it race, representation, art or the female body—with nuance, empathy and verve. Here, we break down some of Gay’s most profound quotes, and where you can find out more from her.

On feminism

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”  (from Bad Feminist)

In the work that thrust Gay into the mainstream in 2014, Bad Feminist, she unpacks the danger of accepting only perfection in our feminism—making the case to celebrate feminists as people who aim at goodness, rather than idols of unblemished perfection. In her last appearance at the Opera House, she stated that she wanted to claim the label of ‘feminist’ without it being a profession of perfection. 

But there is another layer to the term as well: Gay calls herself a ‘bad feminist’ as a way of pushing against the white, able-bodied women that feminism has historically represented. If that’s feminism, says Gay, then yes—she is a very bad feminist, indeed.

Roxane Gay on a panel at All About Women 2015. Image: Prudence Upton

On privilege – having it, and being denied it

“To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.” (from Bad Feminist)

Both can be true, and both are relevant to Gay’s writing. As a woman with a platform and education, Gay has privilege, but she also writes about the ways in which her blackness and not fitting the ideal body type has had on the way she is perceived in society.

Confessions of a Bad Feminist

Press play to watch video

On fat-shaming

“Fat shaming is real, constant, and rather pointed. There are a shocking number of people who believe they can simply torment fat people into weight loss and disciplining their bodies or disappearing their bodies from the public sphere.” (From Hunger: A memoir of (my) body)

Gay has spoken about the strictures placed on Black and female bodies often, particularly in her memoir, Hunger: A memoir of (my) body. In it, she writes about her childhood sexual assault, the trauma wrought by it, and how it affected the way she saw her body. The book meaningfully and wrenchingly honestly dissects the mundanity (and the philosophy) of what it is to exist as a fat woman in the world.

On daring to be a woman

“She tries to walk not too fast and not too slow. She doesn’t want to attract any attention … She keeps her keys in her hand, three of them held between her fingers, like a dull claw. She makes eye contact only when necessary and if a man should catch her eye, she juts her chin forward, makes sure the line of her jaw is strong.” (From Difficult Women)

When Roxane Gay wrote “What a Crazy Woman Thinks About While Walking Down the Street”, she didn’t expect to touch such a nerve. She explains with succinct, acerbic clarity the everyday experience of existing as a woman in a patriarchal world, in a place where danger is omnipresent, even if below the surface.

On family

“Everything I know about my family’s history, I know in fragments. We are the keepers of secrets. We are secrets ourselves. We try to protect each other from the geography of so much sorrow. I don’t know that we succeed.” (From Ayiti)

One thing you may not know about Roxane Gay? She’s an established writer of fiction as well as polemical non-fiction. In her debut collection of short stories, Ayiti (a spelling of the country also known as Haiti, where Gay’s family comes from), she writes about family histories, intergenerational trauma and the poignance of geography. But make no mistake: this is not a migrant’s rose-tinted adulation of their home country. Ayiti takes on its subject matter – the country and its diaspora – with warmth and tact, but a distinct lack of sentimentality.

Roxane Gay with wife Debbie Millman – also appearing at All About Women. Image: Leon Bennett / Getty Images

On The Hunger Games series

“Let me be clear: Team Peeta… He frosts things and bakes bread and is unconditional and unwavering in his love, and also he is very, very strong… Peeta is a place of solace and hope, and he is a good kisser.”  (From Bad Feminist)

Gay’s pop culture knowledge is astounding – she even penned a Black Panther spin-off comic. But her passion for her Hunger Games OTP? Perhaps even more astounding.

An extract from Bad Feminist, praising The Hunger Games series

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