11:29
TEDWomen 2015

Roxane Gay: Confessions of a bad feminist

Filmed:

When writer Roxane Gay dubbed herself a "bad feminist," she was making a joke, acknowledging that she couldn't possibly live up to the demands for perfection of the feminist movement. But she's realized that the joke rang hollow. In a thoughtful and provocative talk, she asks us to embrace all flavors of feminism -- and make the small choices that, en masse, might lead to actual change.

- Writer
In "Bad Feminist," her 2014 book of essays, Roxane Gay laid out a wise, funny and deeply empathetic vision of modern feminism, acceptance and identity -- flaws and all. Full bio

I am failing as a woman,
00:13
I am failing as a feminist.
00:14
I have passionate opinions
about gender equality,
00:17
but I worry that to freely accept
the label of "feminist,"
00:20
would not be fair to good feminists.
00:24
I'm a feminist, but I'm a rather bad one.
00:27
Oh, so I call myself a Bad Feminist.
00:29
Or at least, I wrote an essay,
00:32
and then I wrote a book
called "Bad Feminist,"
00:34
and then in interviews, people started
calling me The Bad Feminist.
00:37
(Laughter)
00:40
So, what started as a bit
of an inside joke with myself
00:41
and a willful provocation,
00:45
has become a thing.
00:47
Let me take a step back.
00:49
When I was younger,
00:52
mostly in my teens and 20s,
00:53
I had strange ideas about feminists
00:55
as hairy, angry, man-hating,
sex-hating women --
00:57
as if those are bad things.
01:01
(Laughter)
01:03
These days, I look at how
women are treated the world over,
01:06
and anger, in particular, seems
like a perfectly reasonable response.
01:10
But back then,
01:14
I worried about the tone people used
01:16
when suggesting I might be a feminist.
01:18
The feminist label was an accusation,
01:21
it was an "F" word, and not a nice one.
01:23
I was labeled a woman
who doesn't play by the rules,
01:26
who expects too much,
01:29
who thinks far too highly of myself,
01:31
by daring to believe I'm equal --
(Coughs) -- superior to a man.
01:33
You don't want to be that rebel woman,
01:38
until you realize that you
very much are that woman,
01:39
and cannot imagine being anyone else.
01:42
As I got older, I began to accept
01:45
that I am, indeed, a feminist,
and a proud one.
01:47
I hold certain truths to be self-evident:
01:50
Women are equal to men.
01:53
We deserve equal pay for equal work.
01:56
We have the right to move
through the world as we choose,
01:58
free from harassment or violence.
02:01
We have the right to easy,
affordable access to birth control,
02:04
and reproductive services.
02:07
We have the right to make choices
about our bodies,
02:09
free from legislative oversight
or evangelical doctrine.
02:12
We have the right to respect.
02:16
There's more.
02:18
When we talk about the needs of women,
02:19
we have to consider
the other identities we inhabit.
02:22
We are not just women.
02:25
We are people with different bodies,
02:27
gender expressions, faiths, sexualities,
02:29
class backgrounds, abilities,
and so much more.
02:32
We need to take into account
02:35
these differences and how they affect us,
02:37
as much as we account for
what we have in common.
02:39
Without this kind of inclusion,
our feminism is nothing.
02:42
I hold these truths to be self-evident,
but let me be clear:
02:47
I'm a mess.
02:50
I am full of contradictions.
02:52
There are many ways in which
I'm doing feminism wrong.
02:54
I have another confession.
02:57
When I drive to work, I listen
to thuggish rap at a very loud volume.
02:59
(Laughter)
03:03
Even though the lyrics
are degrading to women --
03:05
these lyrics offend me to my core --
03:07
the classic Yin Yang Twins
song "Salt Shaker" --
03:10
it is amazing.
03:13
(Laughter)
03:14
"Make it work with your wet t-shirt.
03:17
Bitch, you gotta shake it
'til your camel starts to hurt!"
03:20
(Laughter)
03:24
Think about it.
03:25
(Laughter)
03:26
Poetry, right?
03:29
I am utterly mortified
by my music choices.
03:30
(Laughter)
03:34
I firmly believe in man work,
03:36
which is anything I don't
want to do, including --
03:38
(Laughter) --
03:41
all domestic tasks,
03:42
but also: bug killing, trash removal,
lawn care and vehicle maintenance.
03:45
I want no part of any of that.
03:50
(Laughter)
03:51
Pink is my favorite color.
03:53
I enjoy fashion magazines
and pretty things.
03:54
I watch "The Bachelor"
and romantic comedies,
03:57
and I have absurd fantasies
about fairy tales coming true.
04:00
Some of my transgressions
are more flagrant.
04:04
If a woman wants to take
her husband's name,
04:06
that is her choice, and it is not
my place to judge.
04:09
If a woman chooses to stay home
to raise her children,
04:12
I embrace that choice, too.
04:15
The problem is not that she makes herself
economically vulnerable in that choice;
04:17
the problem is that our society is set up
04:21
to make women economically vulnerable
when they choose.
04:24
Let's deal with that.
04:26
(Applause)
04:29
I reject the mainstream feminism
04:35
that has historically ignored
or deflected the needs
04:37
of women of color, working-class women,
queer women and transgender women,
04:40
in favor of supporting white, middle-
and upper-class straight women.
04:44
Listen, if that's good feminism --
I am a very bad feminist.
04:47
(Laughter)
04:51
There is also this:
04:52
As a feminist, I feel a lot of pressure.
04:54
We have this tendency to put
visible feminists on a pedestal.
04:56
We expect them to pose perfectly.
05:00
When they disappoint us,
05:03
we gleefully knock them
from the very pedestal we put them on.
05:04
Like I said, I am a mess --
05:07
consider me knocked off that pedestal
05:10
before you ever try to put me up there.
05:11
(Laughter)
05:13
Too many women,
05:15
particularly groundbreaking women
and industry leaders,
05:16
are afraid to be labeled as feminists.
05:19
They're afraid to stand up and say,
"Yes, I am a feminist,"
05:21
for fear of what that label means,
05:25
for fear of being unable to live up to
unrealistic expectations.
05:27
Take, for example, Beyoncé,
or as I call her, The Goddess.
05:32
(Laughter)
05:36
She has emerged, in recent years,
as a visible feminist.
05:38
At the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards,
05:41
she performed in front of the word
"feminist" 10 feet high.
05:44
It was a glorious spectacle to see
05:48
this pop star openly embracing feminism
05:50
and letting young women and men know
05:53
that being a feminist
is something to celebrate.
05:55
As the moment faded, cultural critics
began endlessly debating
05:58
whether or not Beyoncé was,
indeed, a feminist.
06:02
They graded her feminism,
06:05
instead of simply taking a grown,
accomplished woman at her word.
06:07
(Laughter)
06:11
(Applause)
06:14
We demand perfection from feminists,
06:17
because we are still fighting for so much,
06:19
we want so much,
06:22
we need so damn much.
06:23
We go far beyond reasonable,
constructive criticism,
06:25
to dissecting any given woman's feminism,
06:28
tearing it apart
until there's nothing left.
06:31
We do not need to do that.
06:34
Bad feminism -- or really, more inclusive
feminism -- is a starting point.
06:36
But what happens next?
06:40
We go from acknowledging
our imperfections to accountability,
06:42
or walking the walk,
and being a little bit brave.
06:46
If I listen to degrading music,
06:49
I am creating a demand for which
artists are more than happy
06:52
to contribute a limitless supply.
06:55
These artists are not going to change
06:58
how they talk about women in their songs
07:00
until we demand that change
by affecting their bottom line.
07:01
Certainly, it is difficult.
07:05
Why must it be so catchy?
07:08
(Laughter)
07:10
It's hard to make the better choice,
07:14
and it is so easy to justify a lesser one.
07:16
But --
07:19
when I justify bad choices,
07:20
I make it harder for women
to achieve equality,
07:22
the equality that we all deserve,
07:24
and I need to own that.
07:26
I think of my nieces, ages three and four.
07:28
They are gorgeous
and headstrong, brilliant girls,
07:31
who are a whole lot of brave.
07:34
I want them to thrive in a world
where they are valued
07:36
for the powerful creatures they are.
07:39
I think of them,
07:41
and suddenly, the better choice
becomes far easier to make.
07:42
We can all make better choices.
07:46
We can change the channel
when a television show
07:49
treats sexual violence
against women like sport,
07:51
Game of Thrones.
07:54
We can change the radio station
07:56
when we hear songs
that treat women as nothing.
07:57
We can spend our
box office dollars elsewhere
08:01
when movies don't treat women
08:03
as anything more than decorative objects.
08:05
We can stop supporting professional sports
08:07
where the athletes treat
their partners like punching bags.
08:10
(Applause)
08:14
In other ways, men --
and especially straight white men --
08:19
can say, "No, I will not publish
with your magazine,
08:22
or participate in your project,
or otherwise work with you,
08:25
until you include a fair number of women,
08:28
both as participants and decision makers.
08:31
I won't work with you
until your publication,
08:34
or your organization, is more inclusive
of all kinds of difference."
08:36
Those of us who are underrepresented
08:41
and invited to participate
in such projects,
08:43
can also decline to be included
08:45
until more of us are invited
through the glass ceiling,
08:48
and we are tokens no more.
08:51
Without these efforts,
08:53
without taking these stands,
08:55
our accomplishments
are going to mean very little.
08:57
We can commit these small acts of bravery
09:00
and hope that our choices trickle
upward to the people in power --
09:03
editors, movie and music producers,
09:06
CEOs, lawmakers --
09:09
the people who can make
bigger, braver choices
09:11
to create lasting, meaningful change.
09:14
We can also boldly claim our feminism --
09:17
good, bad, or anywhere in between.
09:20
The last line of my book
"Bad Feminist" says,
09:23
"I would rather be a bad feminist
than no feminist at all."
09:25
This is true for so many reasons,
09:30
but first and foremost, I say this
because once upon a time,
09:32
my voice was stolen from me,
09:35
and feminism helped me
to get my voice back.
09:37
There was an incident.
09:41
I call it an incident so I can carry
the burden of what happened.
09:42
Some boys broke me,
09:46
when I was so young, I did not know
09:48
what boys can do to break a girl.
09:49
They treated me like I was nothing.
09:52
I began to believe I was nothing.
09:54
They stole my voice, and in the after,
09:57
I did not dare to believe
09:59
that anything I might say could matter.
10:00
But --
10:02
I had writing.
10:03
And there, I wrote myself back together.
10:05
I wrote myself toward a stronger
version of myself.
10:08
I read the words of women
10:11
who might understand a story like mine,
10:13
and women who looked like me,
10:15
and understood what it was like to move
through the world with brown skin.
10:17
I read the words of women
who showed me I was not nothing.
10:21
I learned to write like them,
10:25
and then I learned to write as myself.
10:27
I found my voice again,
10:29
and I started to believe that my voice
is powerful beyond measure.
10:31
Through writing and feminism,
10:36
I also found that if I was
a little bit brave,
10:37
another woman might hear me
and see me and recognize
10:40
that none of us are the nothing
the world tries to tell us we are.
10:44
In one hand,
10:48
I hold the power to accomplish anything.
10:49
And in my other,
10:52
I hold the humbling reality
that I am just one woman.
10:53
I am a bad feminist,
10:57
I am a good woman,
10:59
I am trying to become better
in how I think,
11:01
and what I say, and what I do,
11:03
without abandoning everything
that makes me human.
11:05
I hope that we can all do the same.
11:09
I hope that we can all be
a little bit brave,
11:11
when we most need such bravery.
11:13
(Applause)
11:16

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

Roxane Gay - Writer
In "Bad Feminist," her 2014 book of essays, Roxane Gay laid out a wise, funny and deeply empathetic vision of modern feminism, acceptance and identity -- flaws and all.

Why you should listen
Roxane Gay is a novelist and essayist whose online essays you've probably had forwarded to you by someone you adore. Collected in the 2014 book Bad Feminist, they posit a world where (gasp!) we can actually talk honestly about searching for identity, being less than perfect, and thinking hard on privilege and acceptance. Kira Cochrane in The Guardian puts it correctly: "In print, on Twitter and in person, Gay has the voice of the friend you call first for advice, calm and sane as well as funny, someone who has seen a lot and takes no prisoners."

Gay's novel, An Untamed State, was also released in 2014 to wide acclaim; her next, Hunger, is forthcoming from Harper in 2016.
More profile about the speaker
Roxane Gay | Speaker | TED.com