Gay’s first book, Ayiti, was published in 2011. This year, she published An Untamed State, a novel about a young woman who is kidnapped and tortured in Haiti. The New York Times raved, “Gay avoids the pat outcome of a Disney tale and, in an emotional and unforeseen twist, does the Grimms one better.” Now, Bad Feminist (out August 5 from Harper Perennial) collects several of Gay’s essays on literature, film, and of course, feminism.
Feminism has, for some, become a fraught concept. But, Bad Feminist breaks new ground in redefining that other f-word. Gay’s writing is thoughtful and funny, compassionate and bold, and she’s just as likely to discuss Sweet Valley High as Django Unchained or Judith Butler.
We got the chance to talk to Gay about female friendship, Woody Allen, and the writers worth reading. In our opinion, she happens to be one of them.
You write with such compassion for everyone, from Scrabble players to queer public figures to Lena Dunham. Do you think that writing both fiction and nonfiction has helped you to be a more empathetic critic?
"Definitely. Writing, at least for me, is about trying to understand what life is like from other perspectives. Empathy is not always easy. I definitely have my struggles. But still, empathy is something I am reaching and writing toward, always. Everyone has burdens, and we shouldn't lose sight of that."
Speaking of empathy, your excellent essay “How to Be Friends with Another Woman” gives the middle finger to the myth that female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive. Where do you think this myth comes from?
"I am not sure where that myth comes from, but something in our culture is really fond of the idea that women are competing for resources of all kinds. Like, it's some kind of Darwinistic apocalypse for women in all realms."
Yeah, it's just really sad because friendship is not a pie.
"Now, certainly, some friendships between women are bitchy and toxic and competitive, but what galls me is that this is not unique to women. It is unique to human beings. Men absolutely have these qualities in some of their friendships. Why do we assign this only to women? It is definitely sad."
You've called out men for not reading more broadly. And, we see this issue everywhere, from the VIDA to James Franco’s all-male summer-reading list on Vice. Is there anything women can do to rectify the credibility gap between male and female authors? And, is it our responsibility to fix this problem?
"It is not our responsibility to fix this problem. Women are not the problem, and we don't have to nor can we fix it. Men, statistics tell us, aren't reading as much in general, so part of what needs to happen is that more men need to start reading. To encourage that, I would love to see prominent men who are making recommendation lists do more than offer up the same old lists of male writers and maybe Flannery O'Connor. They can and should lead the way in helping men broaden their reading horizons. As women writers, we can only do what we're doing, which is to write the best and truest we can."
On a related note, which authors would you like to see more people reading (and more male list-makers taking note of)?
"Ayelet Waldman, Michelle Dean, Taiye Selasi, No Violet Bulawayo, Randa Jarrar, Meg Wolitzer, Chelsea Cain, xTx, Anne Helen Petersen, Ashley Ford, Emily Nussbaum, Danielle Evans, Sonia Faleiro, Mary Biddinger, Cathy Chung. Heh...I could do this all day."
"I don't think those terms are useful because what we're talking about, ultimately, is culture, simply on different ends of a spectrum. I've been very fortunate with the editors I've worked with. I've never had to convince them that Sweet Valley High is worth writing about. They've been really open to it, in fact."
You’ve called out book reviewers for being critical of novels with unlikeable characters, especially women in fiction. You write: “In literature as in life, the rules are all too often different for girls." Is the only way to alter this form of criticism to alter broader cultural attitudes? Or, are we just screwed?
"Part of the solution is changing our cultural attitudes toward likability but part of it is also simply removing likability from literary criticism unless it is somehow relevant. Saying, 'I don't like this character,' doesn't really accomplish much in discussing a book's merits. I really don't care if a critic likes a character or not. I do care about what the critic thinks about the actual story being told and its place within our culture. We are probably screwed."
In your essay "The Spectacle of Broken Men," you write: "I give the victim the benefit of the doubt when it comes to allegations of rape and sexual abuse." In cases where it’s a celebrity accused of these heinous crimes (Chris Brown, Woody Allen, etc.), is it possible to continue to enjoy the art they create without becoming complicit in a culture permissive of sexual violence?
"This is such a tough question, and one I consistently grapple with. We can acknowledge Allen's art while also acknowledging his crimes. I personally will not support his films anymore, but that's my choice, and I understand why some people won't make that choice. It is easy for me to make that choice because I've never seen Annie Hall, and I don't really like his work save for Match Point and Blue Jasmine. What concerns me in these conversations about Allen, and others like him, is this idea that art is SO important that we should overlook the human failings of artists. As a writer, I absolutely value art, but I also value dignity."
The other tough question is how do we deal with situations like the recent false rape allegations made against Conor Oberst?
"We absolutely call the false accuser(s) out, and it is the media's responsibility to report on the falseness of the allegation as vigorously as the original accusation. These things are so messy. BUT, false accusations are the exception, and it is important to remember that. It really pisses me off when it happens, though, because it undermines every victim who is afraid to come forward."
We see a lot of resistance to feminism, for example, in the Women Against Feminism Tumblr. In the final two essays of Bad Feminist, you call for a more inclusive feminism. What do you mean by that?
"I want people to find ways to separate the ideas feminism puts forward from the ideas, that are sometimes damaging, put forward by individual feminists. How do we fight for equality for women, across all walks of life? I want us to try and answer that question instead of wasting our time with all this, "But, I love men," nonsense. Like really, no one cares."
Yes, and the way some men understand women's rights is a problem, too. How can we ensure that women's reproductive rights are seen as inalienable?
"The answer to that question is as simple as it is complicated. We can ensure the sanctity of our reproductive rights when our society finally recognizes women as fully functioning human beings deserving of autonomy, not legislation."