The big feminism debate has made its way over to Hollywood, and celebrities are quick to take a stand when it comes to the F-word. Shailene Woodley flat-out said, “no” when asked if she considered herself a feminist, while Beyoncé says she is a modern-day feminist. She makes it clear in songs such as “Run the World (Girls)” and “Flawless,” where she includes a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's recent TED talk: “Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” Meanwhile, Lana Del Rey is simply bored by the idea, because, well, she's Lana Del Rey.
With so many ideas out there about feminism, do we really even know what it means to be a feminist in today’s society? We spoke to Roxane Gay, author of the book Bad Feminist, a collection of essays out in August, about the landscape that shapes modern-day feminism and the women who are making some major strides in the movement.
What can you tell us about your new book 'Bad Feminist' in advance of its release on August 5th?
It's a collection of essays that I've written in recent years of cultural criticism. I'm really looking at the world that we are living in and that we've created. Also, some of the problems that will keep coming around over and over again, like why is music so misogynistic? And why is it still so damn catchy? I want readers to see feminism as a more inclusive space and recognize the importance of claiming feminism. I want them to recognize the ways in which popular culture are damaging for women and people of color, while also acknowledging that it's okay to consume this popular culture. We are, after all, only human. I am offering ideas about how we can be better about the business of being human.
Do you think women feel pressure to conform to gender norms in order to be validated as a woman in today's society?
For so long I resisted embracing the color pink because it is so often mindlessly used to code the feminine. Then I realized, should I not enjoy a color because of how it is misappropriated? No. I reject that. In reading fashion magazines, again, I have long recognized the ways in which such magazines perpetuate damaging ideas for women, but sometimes, I just want to look at pretty clothes. There are a number of things women feel they should be doing to be validated as women, but they are far bigger than thinking pink is pretty or reading glossy magazines.
What does the title 'Bad Feminist' mean? Who are these bad feminists?
Well, I am a bad feminist. I started calling myself a bad feminist as a sort of tongue-in-cheek thing a few years ago, and then I realized I really am a bad feminist in a way. I don't want to disendow feminism the way so many people seem to do. I am a feminist, I am proud to be a feminist, and I want to own that, but at the same time I don't always fall in line with some of the tenants of feminism or the things "good feminists" believe. So, I wanted to own feminism more by acknowledging that not all feminists are perfect.
What can women do to become better feminists?
First of all, own feminism. Feminism is just the idea that women are equal to men. We deserve respect, equal pay, and reproductive freedom. I think that acknowledging feminism and realizing that feminism is not a scary, man-hating idea is one way to be better. Also, to acknowledge that it's not just equality for women, but it's also thinking about the other identities that we inhabit. It's thinking about class, gender, race, and ability. We are all different and have different needs.
Recently, Taylor Swift and Shailene Woodley declared that they are not feminists. Why do you think feminism gets a bad rep?
I think part of it is that they are working from a place of ignorance. They don't know what feminism is. I think that feminism over the years unfortunately has gotten a bad reputation as a movement that's all about man-hating and not shaving your legs. There are all sorts of crazy things that people apply to feminism. These things are simply not true, and if they ever were true, it's because those feminists were working at a time when they had no choice but to be aggressively vigilant because things were that bad for women. I think that some women, and these celebrities, need to educate themselves and understand what feminism actually is. But I think we all have a right to not be a feminist. If you don't want to call yourself a feminist, that is totally fine. I think that journalists need to stop asking the question, ‘Are you a feminist?’ I think it's a ridiculous question. It's the kind of question that is designed to make headlines.
On the other hand, we have celebrities like Beyoncé and Lena Dunham standing up as feminists. What do you make of that?
I think that's amazing. I love when women like that do that. I think Beyoncé has done more for feminism this year than we've seen other women do for quite some time simply because she's so culturally relevant. I think it does a lot of good to see a woman who is young and sexy and is totally empowered and owning, ‘Yes. I'm a feminist.’ It's just fantastic.
How can a woman like Beyoncé balance being sexy and very feminine with feeling strong and empowered?
Women need to realize that femininity and being strong and empowered are not opposites: They go hand in hand. We have to stop viewing strength as something not feminine because I think strength is extraordinarily feminine.
Who are true, modern-day feminist icons?
Even though she's recently deceased, Maya Angelou is one hell of a feminist. I think she did so much for women, especially for black women. She reveled in the joy of being a woman and the unique beauty of black womanhood. And Hillary Clinton… I think she's just a badass. I love how she is so open about her ambition, like she kind of wants to rule the world and good for her! She's not perfect. There are lots of issues we could pick apart, but I admire her a great deal. And Michelle Obama, how can I forget her? She is a quintessential feminist. I think feminists are everywhere. We just have to seek them out.