There are those days when you feel as if you just can't keep going, as if you've used up every scrap of energy and inspiration and you have nothing left to give. Janet Mock — journalist, author, speaker, activist, TV host (is there anything this woman doesn't do?) — knows exactly how that feels. What's more, she's not afraid to talk about it.
Mock has had one hell of a year. From facing Piers Morgan in a now-infamous interview in which Morgan sensationalized her trans* identity, to joining Marie Claire as contributing editor, to releasing Redefining Realness — Janet's memoir of her journey (so far) as a Black, trans*, millennial woman — she's used her power to speak her truth, and to amplify voices that all too often go unheard.
It's no wonder, then, that Janet might be in need of some R&R. Just coming off of a leg of her book tour, she sat down with us in Brooklyn's Powerhouse Arena to talk about her banner year, her career tips for young women, and what she does to recharge. (It involves Real Housewives; her accomplishments seem superhuman, but she unwinds with pop culture like anyone else.) Maybe that's why we find chatting with her so refreshing: Janet doesn't speak as Janet Mock, The Idea, but as Janet Mock, the person. In short, this superwoman is authentic, unapologetic, and real. Ahead, her transformative advice for finding and using your own voice.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about how you got your start as a writer and journalist. What advice do you have for people starting out?
"I always knew I was going to be a writer. Like most people who study journalism, I did the intern route; I think my internship at InStyle is what led to a freelance position at People, and that’s how I got in the door. You may want a full-time position, but it may be great just to even just get in the door, whether that means through interning or through a freelance position. And, even if it's not your dream job, there's always something you can learn from being in that space. What do you want to take away from this, how can you be intentional about the work that you do every day? You spend most of your time in the office wherever you're at, right? So, if you're gonna be there from 10 to 6, what do you want to take away from that?"
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You’ve spoken before about “respectability politics” — about how women, and especially women of color and trans* women, have to act “nice” or dress and look a certain way for their messages to be effective. Women who are assertive at work are still called “bitchy,” while assertive men are considered go-getters. What advice do you have for young women navigating these dynamics?
"I feel like that’s why when someone says that they're a feminist, right, or an activist, people tend to then think they’re angry. As if because you are outspoken, because you care, because you want to challenge things and critique things, you’re not someone that enjoys life.
"There's a lot to be angry about. I think we have to have outlets to express that anger. And so, I wouldn’t necessarily tell someone, or any woman, to soften yourself so that people will like you more, but I think it's all about strategy. What are your goals when you go into certain spaces? How do you show up in those spaces and what do you want to say? So, I wouldn’t say 'Fuck it, just go out and rage.' I think sometimes you need to do that, but sometimes you want to be strategic. I always talk about there's someone who's working from the inside and someone who's working from the outside, and we need both people. We need all forms. Martin Luther King wouldn’t be able to do the work if it weren’t for Jesse Jackson, on the front lines, yelling.
"[The question is,] how do you show up and be most authentic about who you are without feeling as if you're performing? None of us wants to feel as if we're performing a certain brand of femininity so that we're more acceptable. We should all be able to step into whatever our own brand of femininity or whatever gender performance or however you want to deliver your message. You should be able to show up as who you are and still be heard."
How do you recharge on those days when you're edgy and tired and you feel like you just can't keep going?
"I turn off. There needs to be time when I go and either I sit and read or I watch really bad television or I cuddle with my dog. I'm tired right now. A lot of things have happened in the past week — Ferguson and then Eric Garner and I’m traveling for the book tour and there’s so much going on, [but] I know I have Saturday [and] Sunday. I'm going to sit around and I'm going to read and I'm going to hang out with my friends and just turn off. I think we need spaces in which we can just show up as empty. We're like batteries. I tend to go to pop culture and watch shows that I want to binge…"
What’s your go-to?
"The Real Housewives! I'm a Bravo addict. I watch everything on Bravo, and that’s usually when I can just turn off, and not feel bad about having that space."
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What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and what’s the toughest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
"The best advice I received as a writer was — and I'm just going to speak as a writer — I feel like they both said it similarly, but it was Toni Morrison and Alice Walker who said 'Write what you should have been able to read.' I wrote the book that I felt I should have been able to read growing up. I use this in other spaces: Speak about what should be spoken of. How do we speak truth to power? How do you center your own voice as a writer?
"When I was in the seventh grade, that was the first time I got a library card and I sat in the library for the first time and actually had access to books. And, there were so many stories that did touch me, but none of them felt like they were like me. With Redefining Realness, I wanted to write the story I should have been able to read growing up. [The book] was for that girl who's sitting in that library, [so that she doesn’t] feel like she needs to seek out [that story] because it's there, and she feels seen and she feels heard. What we want with stories is to know that someone else has been there, and that not only have they been there, they lived to tell it, they made it out of it.
"The toughest lesson that I learned the hard way is to never silence yourself. My community is very varied: I'm a young trans* woman writer of color. I have so many communities. [Sometimes] you don’t speak as sharp as you would want to speak because you want to bring people along with you. What I've learned is that I should never do that. I should never silence myself. I should keep it intersectional and not be basic."
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How does your love of pop culture dovetail with your social justice work?
"I'm a writer. Everything else is extra, if that makes sense. Who I am is the girl who's either sitting in front of my computer or the TV, writing or thinking about what's going on in pop culture, and how can we complicate it and critique it and love it and celebrate it but then also challenge it. I love all the social justice stuff, and that’s a part of my work, but I also love pop culture. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive things. I can be complicated; I can see something Beyoncé is doing and gain so much power from that, but critique it, too, and also properly place it."
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You've spoken about how you didn't always identify as "feminist," but now you do — how did your relationship with that label evolve?
"I think the first time I really read a 'feminist' text was bell hooks' Feminism Is for Everybody. It was my freshman year of college, and it was, obviously, a gender studies class. So, I read this little bitty accessible book and I was like, Wow, okay, so feminism is for everybody. This is what feminism means. Here's some words. Here's some theory about it. It was starting to fuck up the way that I was thinking about things. But then, it was seeing this big pop culture moment from one of my favorite cultural figures who I felt I grew up with, Beyoncé. Seeing her take on [the word feminist] and to say 'I'm going to stand in this as a complicated woman, as a woman who is successful, as a woman who is a mother, as a woman who is sexy and sexual, as a woman who is going to manage herself and have her own management company;' [it made me] want to claim feminist as mine."
BCBG dress, Pamela Love cuff.