Roxane Gay—writer, English professor, cultural critic, unapologetic Bachelor fan, competitive Scrabble player, feminist hero—is a badass for a million reasons, all of which we will get into shortly. But this week, we decided to applaud Gay for her most recent example of badass bitchery: pulling her forthcoming book, How to Be Heard, from Simon & Schuster after the publishing giant generously rewarded alt-right leader and Breitbart troll Milo Yiannopoulos with a $250,000 book deal. “I guess I’m putting my money where my mouth is,” Gay said in a statement. “I’m not interested in doing business with a publisher willing to grant [Yiannopoulous] that privilege.”
His book deal has attracted controversy beyond Gay’s announcement. The Chicago Review of Books announced earlier this month that they would not be covering any of Simon & Schuster’s authors this year because of it. Gay explained that it isn’t about censorship—“Milo has every right to say what he wants to say, however distasteful I and many others find it to be,” she said—but that she “kept thinking about how egregious it is to give someone like Milo a platform for his blunt, inelegant hate and provocation,” and that she couldn’t, in good conscience, let them publish his autobiography while also publishing her book.
Anyone familiar with Yiannopoulous would understand her sentiments. After all, he’s someone who has likened feminism to “bowel cancer” on more than one occasion, and he was even banned from Twitter for singlehandedly orchestrating a hateful campaign of racist rhetoric aimed toward Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones. People can criticize the publisher all they want, but Gay’s decision to pull her book is one that is real—and one that affects her directly and financially. It’s commendable, it’s rare, and it’s why we’ve made her our Badass Bitch of the Week.
To be clear, Gay’s coolness isn’t a recent thing. On a personal note, I first discovered her when I casually picked up Bad Feminist—her collection of essays that touches on everything from privilege to pop culture to abortion—at an airport in 2014. One passage in particular resonated with me: “Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences of my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.” Gay cited a rape she experienced at age 12, and wrote poignantly about the escapism books awarded her after that troubling time. On her Tumblr account, Gay has a list of books she loves so much she wishes she could “sew them into my skin.” For me, Bad Feminist is one of those. On a broader scale, the book is an analysis of the word ‘feminism’ and why it so often doesn’t allow for “natural human messiness.” “I can enjoy The Bachelor,” she told The Guardian, “but also tell you, ‘Here are the 5,000 ways this show is very, very damaging.’” In that same article, Gay revealed that as a black, sometimes-queer woman (Gay identifies as bisexual), she has often felt excluded from the feminist movement, one that “has historically been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women.” Still, she aligns with its message, and supports feminism’s aim to fight for things like reproductive freedom and equal opportunities.
In that same vein, racial issues are another topic Gay explores in Bad Feminist and many of her other writings. She has been transparent about her Haitian-American upbringing (she was born in Nebraska to Haitian parents who immigrated to America as teens) and has said she grew up feeling like an outsider, part of which also stemmed from having moved across the country multiple times as a result of her father’s civil engineering job. In Bad Feminist, Gay critiques the exhaustive, white-guilt slavery trope so often found in today’s films. She writes of Django Unchained, the Quentin Tarantino-directed western that was nominated for five Academy Awards, and she once told The Washington Post that she “can’t debate the artistic merits of [the film] because the palms of my hands are burning with the desire to slap Tarantino in the face until my arms grow tired.” She also cites The Help (“There is not enough height in the atmosphere for us to suspend our disbelief”) and 12 Years A Slave. “[Slavery] happened,” she has said. “It was bad. It’s still bad. The repercussions linger.” But that it would be nice to “just show [movies] about [African-American] people living their lives. Just once in a while, we’d like to be carefree, too.” Last summer, it was announced that Gay, along with poet Yona Harvey and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, would be the writers for World of Wakanda, Marvel Comics’ spin-off series of its Black Panther title, making Gay the first-ever black woman to be a head writer for Marvel.
Bad Feminist wasn’t her first book—she first came out with a collection of short stories about Haitian diaspora (Ayiti) in 2011, and three years later released the critically acclaimed An Untamed State, a novel set in Haiti in which a woman is kidnapped for ransom. Earlier this month, Gay’s Difficult Women was released, a collection of short fiction stories she dedicates to “difficult women, who should be celebrated for their very nature.” In it are stories of frigid women, loose women, crazy women, and even dead girls. “I think women are often times termed ‘difficult’ when we think we want too much, when we ask for too much, when we think too highly of ourselves, or have any kind of standards,” she told Vogue. “I wanted to play with this idea that women are difficult, when in reality it’s generally the people around them who are the difficult ones.” Later this year, she’ll also release Hunger, a book in which she discusses her relationship with food, as well as her weight and body image. She’s described the book as “what it’s like to live in a world that tries to discipline unruly bodies.” And then, of course, there’s the aforementioned How to Be Heard, which explores the way in which women can be truly heard in order to succeed creatively and beyond. It's a book I imagine will vastly outshine Yiannopoulos’ Dangerous, which is likely to be riddled with repugnant diatribes that anyone with a sound and rational mind would find wildly offensive.
In addition to writing books, Gay is also an associate professor of English at Purdue University and writes opinion pieces for The New York Times. (Her latest piece, "Voting With My Head and Heart," ran right before election day. "When I think about everyone who will suffer if Mr. Trump is elected, I am overwhelmed," she wrote. "I feel hopeless. I also feel ready to fight.") She is the co-editor of a non-profit literary arts collective called PANK, and is the essays editor for The Rumpus. She holds a Ph.D in rhetoric and technical communication from Michigan Technological University. She is a competitive Scrabble player and has sipped wine with Madonna while listening to Nina Simone. (Like we said, badass.)
A new “cool girl” archetype has recently emerged; there is now a kind of woman (or an ideal woman, rather) who, The Cut has said, looks pretty without makeup, remains thin despite eating junk food, and is equal parts sexual and emotionally withdrawn. It’s the kind of woman who is “immune to all the bummers of patriarchy” and fits the archetype of the funny, hot, nonchalant girl depicted by people like Chrissy Teigen, Jennifer Lawrence, and even Mila Kunis in Friends With Benefits. This particular standard is not only impossible to achieve, but damaging—and Gay is a refreshing respite from that narrative. She is, in essence, someone who acknowledges flaws; someone who recognizes the inevitable contradictions in feminism; and someone who illuminates the fractures of being a woman. She makes it feel okay to dance to “Blurred Lines,” watch Woody Allen movies, and kind of like a Chris Brown song despite being a feminist. Hypocrisy is okay. It’s human. “I am failing as a woman,” she wrote in the introduction of Bad Feminist. “I am failing as a feminist … I am a mess of contradictions.” We tip our hats to Gay a little harder this week for her refreshing candor, unflinching honesty, and all-around badassness.