In Celebration of Roxane Gay’s BAD FEMINIST

I wrote this piece for Roxane’s LA book party at the Last Bookstore on August 18th. It was an incredible night — people were packed deep into the store, on every floor, sitting in corners, hidden between stacks of shelves — so many men and women who stayed the entire time, despite the intense heat from all those bodies waiting to hear Roxane speak. It was a blast. Thank you again to Roxane for inviting me. Roxane’s books are making all kinds of year-end lists, and it reminded me that I meant to post this here.


I am now the age I imagined I’d be when I reached my full feminist self. And I have to admit, when I first saw the title of Roxane’s book I winced. “Bad Feminist.” I don’t like that. We shouldn’t be proud of that. We shouldn’t want that. When I was invited to speak here, I thought, “Well, but I’m not a bad feminist.” I went to get my feminist scorecard so I could show everybody, but when I found it in the closet under my “Free Winona” t-shirt, it turns out I hadn’t looked at it in a while. Time for a little mid-term evaluation. Do me a favor and mark down whatever points you think I’ve earned or lost. I like being graded. And there is no curve.

I grew up a Sassy-era Feminist. The rules were simple: PROTEST. Be loud. Be heard. Wear your mantra on your shirt, preferably in hypercolor. Be different. Be funny. Be smart. Be well-informed, but it’s probably best to err on being one-sided in your information, so as not to confuse your message. Don’t get involved where it’s messy. Try to find something that can only be right or wrong. Maybe racism. You always feel good when you say you’re against racism.

My feminist heroes during the Sassy years include Janeane Garofalo. Kim Gordon. Rosanne. Jaded, weathered ladies. Weary ladies. Cynical. Sassy feminists looked up to the tired ones, who knew how hard it was to fight for equality. I have a healthy amount of that cynicism, although my generation called it different things. Snark. Spunk. Sass.

I don’t go to school anymore, so I can’t win Student of the Month. The best I can hope for is to one day be called a Role Model. That’s what my teen self would have wanted me to become. A role model for future feminists. But young feminists today are much less cynical. Instead of sassy, they are sincere. There are many of you here tonight. I see you. Look at you. It can’t just be youth. You truly seem so clean, so pure, so creamy. Look at their eyes, everybody. They fucking sparkle.

I wrote exactly one essay for Hello Giggles, right when the site first went up. I wrote about how much I hate nail art. That there’s really got to be something better to do with your hands then act like you’re still sitting in the back of eighth-grade history class with a bottle of Wite-out. If you have time to reprint the constitution on your ten digits, that tells me you aren’t doing enough with your Bill of Rights. I went on to talk about how grey nail polish is a weird fad, and when I tried it, it made me look like I had corpse fingers. I looked like Laura Palmer in the dirt, but people kept assuring me that it looked great, because it was so on-trend. Anyway, I tell you all this to say that the response from the young feminists was surprising. Instead of challenging me that they should get to do whatever the fuck they want to do with their hands and I can just go be old in a corner somewhere with my fax machine, almost every comment was: “Maybe you shouldn’t wear grey nail polish, then, if it makes you so unhappy.”

I don’t know how to talk to someone this sincere. It’s a problem of mine, not theirs. I don’t know how to be that sincere.

I also don’t know how to talk to the girl who claims she doesn’t need feminism. I don’t know how to tell her that the very sentence she just said – or flirted behind a handwritten posterboard in a half-naked selfie — her rejection of being a feminist is itself a feminist act. She’s making a choice about her participation in her own rights.

I want to say it’s a stupid choice, that it’s definitely a weaker choice, but she’s making a choice as a female about her own life. That’s what we’re fighting for, right? And lucky for her, we’ve come so far that someone can actually opt out of feminism. Like not getting a vaccination, knowing that the rest of us will get our shots, take the pain, do the work, fight the fight so that she’s got herd immunity when it comes to her safety, equality and freedom. It’s ballsy, isn’t it?

So now I’m confessing to having a difficult time being a role model for at least two different types of feminists. My scorecard in your hands must be…low.

Okay, let’s look at my job. As an author, screenwriter, tv writer – I write a lot, in an industry that is close to eighty percent male. I have a job where mostly I’m told “no,” to my face, many, many times a day. And I’m not an actor or a model, so people are not rejecting something as superficial as my looks. I’m not a customer service rep, people aren’t criticizing my personality or my ability to satisfy a client. When I’m told “no,” these people are rejecting my brain. My thoughts. My voice. My point of view. And I’m not saying that’s not my fault. I have definitely walked away from a pitch or a meeting thinking, “I definitely was just too much me in there.” How do I tell someone to strive to be who I am, when who I am is someone who’s constantly told no?

I do get big feminist checkmarks in the baby department. I have a baby. Check.

…Although not having a baby is incredibly feminist, too.

Anyway, it’s a girl. Super check.

…Although raising a son means you get to raise someone who won’t rape anybody. That’s really important. You get double points for that, at least.

I had my baby through my ladyparts, which if you haven’t had to deal with women who have opinions about how you should have your baby, you may not know that that’s the only way you’re considered to actually have had a baby and not a procedure or an agreement.

I had that baby with only a small break for an epidural in order to keep from tearing very feminist parts of me, but for the actual pushing, there was no epidural. I need that pain to have been a female-female-lady-woman-feminist act, so please, don’t ruin it for me. It’s all I have as a reason to have gone through it.

People who have not had babies you need to know, as much as you think it probably hurts, nobody has ever accurately explained how much it hurts. The earth’s core turns on this magnetic pull and all it wants, the only thing it’s trained on is your uterus. At one point the baby’s elbow was stuck in my pelvis, right above my thigh, and if someone had let me have a knife I would have performed a Z-section to fling that child from inside of me. It hurts.

I earned my pain badge from the Feminist Girl Scouts. I also earned my breastfeeding badge, my back-to-work-in-four-months badge, my finding-a-way-to-not-need-daycare-because-of-extended-family-and-fortunate-husband-work-situation badge and even an awesome lesbian nanny-friend badge (which is a really hard badge to get, that last one), but I don’t think any of that makes me a role model. It just makes me a working mom.

The baby has done things to me, physical things – she’s so strong, you guys, and she can kick, and bite nipples and slam her head into this tender part of my skull – I’ve had black eyes and bruised lips and the tearing I mentioned earlier because an epidural is no match for a fully-formed human sliding out of a tampon-sized hole. This baby has done things to me that if she were any other human on the planet, I could have her arrested. If she were my husband, you would beg me to leave her. If she were my dog, people would insist I put her down.

I haven’t slept in three years. I used to be a little pretty. Now most of my hair is fake. That does not feel feminist, but it is. I chose this hair. I bought this hair. With my money that I bought from my job like Beyonce would want me to. So, no, I take it back. THIS IS MY HAIR.

I have a hard time telling women that they should have a baby because I know what we wish weren’t true – that having a baby takes away some of your most favorite things about your life. Your body changes, your schedule changes, your marriage changes, some friendships shatter and you never think of a bathing suit the same way again. Other things flood in, fill the cracks, and in some places – yes- they get stronger, but you are always, forever, different. I want to tell all the women without children to protect their child-free lives if they love them. Not to worry that they are missing out if they are truly happy with the way things are. Because you will miss it, you will miss who you were, even if you love who you become.

I didn’t think I’d be this kind of feminist. I want to be a more stoic woman. A Ma Joad. A Kristina Braverman. She’s on Parenthood. She just takes it, packs the burdens on, keeping her eyes constantly shimmery but never going to the full-on breakdown. I’m not that woman. I can’t even get through an episode of Parenthood without openly sobbing. Sometimes on the couch. Sometimes on the treadmill. At the gym.

So, I’m an emotional woman in an abusive relationship with my baby, working in an industry that mostly rejects or ignores me, often simply because I’m female. Is this the future my Sassy teen self would have wanted? Look at your scorecards. Did I even get a C plus? I was so mad about someone claiming to be a Bad Feminist, I didn’t realize just how messy my own feminism had gotten. I’m extremely flattered that Roxane mentioned one of my novels in her kickass book. But right now, in this room, telling all of you what’s wrong with me, this is the most feminist moment I’ve ever had in my life. And I’m really proud of it. This is me at my most sincere.

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  1. Michelle

    You’re such a good writer. I think of you as my favorite essayist.

  2. badkittyuno

    You’ve been a role model for me for a decade and a half–since I was in middle school and afraid to use a tampon. Now I have a marriage and two babies and I feel like I’ve grown up with you–maybe not alongside you but running along behind. Keep it up, Pamie.

  3. Amanda

    I’ve always counted you among the many amazing women and feminists that I know (online).

    It’s an interesting idea, the feminist scorecard. I really loathe the “choose your choice” brand of feminism-lite. That, “I’m a stay-at-home-mom who took her husband’s name and circumcised her son who she named after her husband and who brags about her shoe addiction…and I’m a feminist because it’s my CHOICE to do these things.” Uh. Ok. Sure.

    I didn’t take my husband’s name – 1 point for me. But my last name is my father’s name. – 1 point for the patriarchy. I got married. – 1 point for the patriarchy.

    I work outside the home, full-time – 1 point for me. But I’m trying to figure out how to work my schedule so that when my daughter hits kindergarten I can be home in the afternoons. – 1 point for the patriarchy. And, hey, maybe 1 point for her? I don’t know.

    But, I can tell I’m losing already. I do strongly feel that the personal is political but most of us don’t have the luxury let alone the interest in challenging every social system with every step we make. Letting women shoulder the burden of changing all of society? – 1 point for patriarchy. (Okay, 1 million points for the patriarchy.)

    I roll my eyes at “choose your choice” but I also don’t let that slow me down. Being married in a heterosexual relationship and being a mom and wearing a dress, you can do all these things while vocally supporting the rights of women and men to pursue life and liberty in an egalitarian way.

    Though I consider myself a staunch defender of feminism and have little patience for “arguments” against it. Thanks for this piece!

  4. Kari

    You are one of my role models! I was so happy to see your book mentioned in Bad Feminist. I think I read it because of you, and it was definitely one of my favorites of the year. (Also Notes to Boys.)

  5. Jennifer

    I’m going to echo the love. I also remember junior high reading about Pamie being a Grrl back in the day. Thanks for helping raise me! You’re kid will someday stop beating the crap out of you and realize you’re awesome.

  6. Grainne

    I had a similar reaction to the title of the book. I haven’t read it yet, just some of Roxane’s writing online. I have a feeling I will enjoy the book.

    “I want to tell all the women without children to protect their child-free lives if they love them. Not to worry that they are missing out if they are truly happy with the way things are.”

    I love this. I am in my thirties, and fairly certain that I don’t want children (though I absolutely reserve the right to change my mind). Sometimes I have wobbles and this was good to hear. It’s fairly unusual to hear this from someone who has had a child and I appreciate it. (They are hypothetical wobbles – I’m not in a relationship, I’ve never had to choose between a relationship and childlessness and there isn’t a long line of men waiting to impregnate me, so really it’s just me over-thinking things!)
    I’m sorry your baby beats you up.

    I remember Amy Winehouse saying the same thing about her hair – “It’s mine, I bought it. I can show you the receipt if you like.”

  7. GT

    What a lovely essay. I think your scorecard is a solid B if not better–in the years I’ve been reading you, you’ve always been a cautiously optimistic, hysterically (hah–that word!) cyncial and stubbornly true-to-self feminist. I don’t think anyone’s card gets better than B unless you’re devoting your life to “being” a feminist instead of living your life, as best you can, according to feminist principles, as you understand them. And this comes from someone who also loves to be graded and who really, really doesn’t like to settle for “B.”

    Now inching (more like hurtling; it accelerates) right to the edge of being too old to conceive without alot of worry and risk, I especially responded to the call to treasure a child-free life if truly happy. My husband and I always said “if chidren happen that’s welcome, but we love our life and are not going to focus on it.” And for both of us, we still feel that way. (The fact that he can later change his mind while, barring adoption, I can’t, is biology, not the patriarchy.)

    Finally the hair story reminded me of something from Martial (the Oscar Wilde of the 1st century AD):

    “The golden hair that Gulla wears is hers–
    Who would have thought it?
    She swears ’tis hers, and true, she swears–
    For I know where she bought it!”

    But who cares what some old Roman thought about Gulla’s right to “ownership” of what she bought with what she earned, or in fact, how she earned it? Bey (not Father) always knows best.

  8. ace

    I miss your blog. I had hoped you’d be maybe the first person ever to have a baby and still keep up with such things, but I’m not sure anyone really can.

  9. Kayla Lane Freeman

    Long-time blog creeper, first-time commenter. Just finished listening to your She Does interview, and damn, it made me like and respect you even more.

    You inspire me. You are a role model to me. I really want to be a working comedy writer, too, someday.

    So A+ for the feminist score card. Yes to sincerity. Yes to flaws and contradictions. Yes to being open and vulnerable.

    Yes. A +

  10. karen jackosn

    well it’s been almost a year since anyone replied here. i started out looking at a quote from you about something so honest it needed a few moments to dissipate. it was on bosacks newsletter. it struck me as a very interesting truth. i hopped around on google and found this piece, thanks for writing it.

    i will be 70 in november. my daughter read sassy. i wish you well in life going forward; you ain’t seen nothing yet. every decade gets better and better. kj