"I am failing as a feminist," Roxane Gay admits in her 2014 hit book Bad Feminist. Some feminists bristled at Gay's brutal honesty about her own feminist identity as well as the movement at large. But plenty of others recognize that Gay's candor may be exactly what the movement needs to continue to thrive.
In a recent TED talk, Gay confesses the truth about being a feminist in this day and age — and what the movement must do to overcome its flaws.
1. Even feminist-minded people are influenced by terrible feminist stereotypes.
"When I was younger, mostly in my teens and 20s, I had strange ideas about feminists as hairy, angry, man-hating, sex-hating women (as if those are bad things)," Gay says.
But there came a time when Gay realized, despite these stereotypes, that she was, in fact, a feminist. For example, "anger seems like a particularly reasonable response," given the mistreatment women face globally, she says.
"You don't want to be that rebel woman, until you realize that you very much are that woman and cannot imagine being anyone else," she says.
2. Feminists don't always acknowledge all feminist identities.
"I reject the mainstream feminism that has historically ignored or deflected the needs of women of color, working-class women, queer women and transgender women in favor of supporting white, middle- and upper-class straight women," Gay says. "Listen — if that's good feminism, then I'm a very bad feminist."
When considering the needs of women, Gay notes, feminists must consider all the other identities women inhabit aside from gender and take into account their "different bodies, gender expressions, fates, sexualities, class backgrounds, abilities and so much more." Feminists must "take into account these differences and how they affect us as much as we account for what we have in common. Without this kind of inclusion, our feminism is nothing."
3. Sometimes feminists participate in sexism.
"When I drive to work, I listen to thuggish rap at a very loud volume, even though the lyrics are degrading to women, these lyrics offends me to my core," Gay says, specifically citing the "classic" Ying Yang Twins song "Salt Shaker," which, she notes, includes particularly poetic lyrics such as "'Make it work with your wet T-shirt / bitch you gotta shake it / until your camel starts to hurt.'"
"I am utterly mortified by my music choices," she says, adding that she also firmly believes in "manwork" or "anything I don't want to do, including all domestic tasks, but also bug-killing, trash removal, lawn care and vehicle maintenance. I want no part of any of that." She also watches The Bachelor, enjoys fashion magazines and buys into fairytale endings.
Yet despite these supposed feminist transgressions, or that she's a self-described "mess" and "full of contradictions," she still holds core feminist truths above all else.
"I hold certain truths to be self-evident," Gay says. "Women are equal to men; we have the right to move through the world as we choose, to be free from harassment or violence. We have the right to easy, affordable access to birth control. We have the right to make choices about our bodies, free from legislative oversight; we have the right to respect."
4. Feminists frequently blame individuals rather than sexist systems of oppression.
"If a woman wants to take her husband's name, that is her choice and it is not my place to judge," Gay says. "If a woman chooses to stay home to watch her children, I support that too."
Conversations about these choices often focus both burden and blame on women making those choices, rather than the systems in which they are forced to choose, she says.
"The problem is not that she makes herself economically vulnerable in that choice," Gay says. "The problem is that our society is set up to make women economically vulnerable when they choose. Let's deal with that."
5. Feminists often detrimentally hold others to impossible standards.
"We have this tendency to put visible feminists on a pedestal," Gay says. "We expect them to pose perfectly. When they disappoint us, we gleefully mock them from the very pedestal we put them on."
We demand this perfection, she says, because "we are still fighting for so much, we want so much, we need so damn much," and this causes feminists to "go far beyond reasonable constructive criticism to dissecting any given women's feminism, tearing it apart until there's nothing left."
Of course, this demand undermines feminists' goals.
"Too many women — particularly groundbreaking women and industry leaders — are afraid to be labeled as feminists," Gay says, "for fear of what that label means, for fear of being unable to live up to unrealistic expectations."
6. Feminists need to move past justifying these failures and own them instead.
Ultimately, we need to hold ourselves accountable, Gay says. We can stop listening to sexist music and change the channel when TV shows glorify violence against women, for example, or demand that opportunities presented to us are also extended to historically marginalized groups.
"When I justify bad choices, I make it harder for women to achieve equality — the equality that we all deserve — and I need to own that," Gay says. "We can commit these small acts of bravery and hope that our choices trickle up to the people in power, people who make bigger, braver choices to make lasting change."
7. When in doubt, we should look to those who came before — and watch out for those who will follow.
Gay says that after experiencing an act of violence and being made to feel like she was "nothing," she looked to courageous women who came before her to heal and find her voice.
"I read the words of women who showed me I was not nothing," she says. "I learned to write like them, and then I learned to write as myself. I found my voice again and I started to believe that my voice is powerful beyond measure."
Once she found her voice, Gay realized that her words may in fact help other women overcome similar obstacles in the future: "Through writing and feminism I also found that if I was a little bit brave, another woman might hear me and see me and recognize that none of us are the nothing the world tries to tell us we are."
"I am a bad feminist, I am a good woman," Gay says. "I am trying to become better in how I think and say and do — without abandoning everything that makes me human. I hope that we can all do the same."
With honest, brave thought leaders like Gay at the helm of the movement, her hope may very soon become reality.
Watch Gay's full TED Talk below: