Roxane Gay Talks to Lena Dunham About Her New Book, Feminism, and the Benefits of Being Criticized Online
Lena Dunham is not that kind of girl, and we know this because she tells us so in the title of her new (and first) book, Not That Kind of Girl. But the title is ironic and not ironic; she is that type of girl, too, and doesn't really give a shit if you're onboard with it or not. The writer Roxane Gay, an associate professor of English and creative writing at Purdue University, is and isn't that kind of girl, too, with a similar undeniable frankness and her own best-selling book of essays also bearing a title with a dual meaning: Bad Feminist. Over the phone from her home in Lafayette, Indiana, regular Vulture contributor Gay spoke for the first time with her New York–based Twitter friend Dunham, and they talked about feminism, diversity, and what can be learned from internet criticism.
Roxane Gay: Hello.
Lena Dunham: Hi. I'm such your crazy fan. I love both your books so much. I can't believe they came out in the same year. And every time I read something about you or by you, I'm just screaming, "Go, go, go!" I'm so psyched! And I can't say enough how grateful I am that you read the book so thoughtfully.
I didn't expect to not love it, but I was surprised by how it was an actual essay collection. Sometimes you read celebrity books and they're more like stand-up routines.
That was my biggest fear about writing a book. Either that I would accidentally write one of those, or someone would bully me into writing something that was like, Well, I'm on a TV show, so now I'm writing the requisite book. I have so much respect for the medium, and writers are the biggest celebrities and heroes to me, so the idea of contributing something slack or light to the medium just made me feel pretty nauseous. After there was all the talk around my book deal, my publishers were really supportive of me taking me time, but some people were kind of like, "Don't you want to get that book out there so the talk slows down?" And I was like, "No, I want to make the book as strong as I possibly can," which was always my intention from the beginning.
I think the most satisfying thing as a writer is to be able to say "This is the book I always wanted to write."
Who always said, "Stand in your truth?"
Is that Oprah?
I think it's Oprah.
It sounds like Oprah, and if it's not, she can claim it, anyway. She's Oprah.
She's claimed the rest of the world, anyway.
Domination, man. So good.
One time we made an improvised joke about Oprah on the show, and immediately a plane flew really low over us. And we were like, "That's Oprah, warning us that this can't go on television."
I honestly feel like she knows everything. Like, she sees me. And so I think, Oh, Oprah would not approve, Roxane. Stop, stop, stop.
I feel the exact same way. The amount of fantasies I've had about crying to Oprah, and about Oprah being the person who finally understands and puts her hand on me and goes, "You've done your best." I think about that all the time.
People talk about you in terms of confession and exposure, but what else do you wish people would notice about you and your work?
I should not complain because obviously my work has been very seriously considered by a lot of people who are really important to me. But sometimes there's so much conversation about the way I reveal myself, be it through personal details or physically, that the craft of the thing gets a little bit lost. And I spend so much time thinking about the craft and the technique of what I do, be it filmmaking or prose. One of the reasons I love to read The New York Times Book Review is just to see somebody describe someone's prose and to describe someone's sharp, incisive prose. I love to read why directors chose to shoot something at a Dutch angle.
There is a part of me that hopes that at some point the conversation around all of that … dies down might not be the right word, but normalizes, and the other things could come to the forefront. It seems so greedy to say I want a kind of attention I'm not getting. And you [don't] want to be seen chalking everything up to misogyny, but I think there's times where women really don't get seen for their craft. They get seen for their personal attributes in a way that can be weirdly disappointing.
Yeah, it seems like a lot of this is gendered. It seems like we're not allowed to have craft, and we're not allowed to be master craftspeople, which is odd, because if people saw Tiny Furniture, they'd see you're very craft-based in your work.
Well, thank you. And it's also interesting because I was raised by artists and then studied creative writing. There was a lot of talk about technique in every stage in my life. I think a lot of people have this impression of Girls — and again, that may be part of just being young and female — that to them, the show appears sloppily made. But for me, I wish just once I got the David Fincher description of the panning shot, and not the Us Weekly description of my cellulite.
Yes, absolutely, absolutely. In your essay in the book on sex scenes, you write that your body was simply a tool to tell the story. What other tools do you use to tell stories in your work?
Sex scenes for me, the way I've always explained them to people, is [that] this is a way to understand more about these characters and to get to the most intimate place we can with these characters, and it actually gives us information about the story. To me, the idea of gratuitous sex doesn't have a place in my work.
The other tools I use, I write really detailed stuff into the script — her hair's in a half-ponytail, she's eating a croissant, she's wearing sweatpants with a tiger on the butt. And I work with an amazing costume designer, amazing set designer, amazing prop person, trying to get all those details right. And one of the things I really loved about writing a book was that I got to be in complete control of all of that and get really detailed with those delicious descriptions. It's almost like for me I have to come up with a plot in order to be allowed to tell you what sneakers a girl is wearing. But in the book, I got to like, roll around in all those details, and it felt so good.
Are your processes different in writing for the page versus writing for the screen?
They are. Writing for the screen, especially at the pace we do in television, is such a necessarily collaborative experience. I write pages, I show them to Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow to see if they think it's working for the larger arc of the show, then I show them to our producer Ilene Landress to make sure she thinks it's technically doable. Then I show them to the actors, and they have thoughts about what feels right for the characters they've been playing for four years. It goes through all these iterations so you naturally have to be a little bit less precious because of the journey the work is taking, whereas with the book I got to have this really intimate relationship with my writing over an extended period of time and hold onto it and then just be in this super private, great thing with my editor.
In what ways does feminism influence your work?
I just think feminism is my work. Everything I do, I do because I was told that as a woman, my voice deserves to heard, my rights are to be respected, and my job was to make that possible for others. And I am not saying I always succeed at that, but that is the value system that I was raised with and the one that I still hold dear, and it is one that makes all this possible, and it makes it possible for me to not shrink under a couch when there is criticism. It is what makes it possible for me to write about my experiences without feeling as though I am wasting everyone's time or sounding hysterical. It is the thing that makes space for all of it. It means everything to me because it sort of is everything. It is the closest thing I know to being religious, if that makes any sense.
Of course it does.
And I think there are two parts of it. There is the part where we are fighting for social justice and equality, and hopefully there will be a time where we don't need that, but then there is also like the mystical cult of being female. And I know that we are in a time where we are talking about gender in a complex way, and I would never want to subscribe to some outdated notion of a "magical female community," but I feel very, very close to being female. It is not just a part of my identity, it is my identity.
How do you deal with the criticism, and how do you decide which notes to ignore?
I want to respond to things when they really hit me on a gut level. If you announce what your value system is and then your actions don't necessarily align with it, like, you have got to hear [those criticisms]. That is called growing, and I think if you are in touch with yourself, you can feel on a pretty deep, gut level when somebody points something out, and you can feel that you have betrayed your own sense of justice. And so if something hits me on that gut level, then I am going to respond to it, and I am going to respond to it as best as I can. People don't want to look like hypocrites, they want to look like they are like perfectly considered in all their actions from morning to night. But I am just one person moving through the world, and the best that I can do is be open to change. I was a really stubborn kid, and I feel like I am, like, making my way out of that as an adult and doing it in a public way, which can be challenging.
Yes, it can [laughs].
I know you have been engaged in some real Twitter feuds.
And I'm sure you know that feeling where there are thousands of tweets where you're [going], what a fucking idiot, what a fucking idiot, and then somebody says something, and you go, no, that is real and I need to find a way to respond to that because I have not accurately represented my belief system or the values that I hold dear.
Absolutely. I run into it because so much of what I get is noise and people being evil, and there is nothing I can do to fix that. But then something comes through, whether it is in a comment or on Twitter or via email, that is lucid and that challenges me in a truthful way, and that is when I respond. I respond when I am going to be able to become better and do better.
That is so well-put. It is hard to be criticized and it is hard to change, but it also feels good. The thing that allows you to keep being vital in your work is to open up to stuff and to be a permeable membrane. When I first started, the [charges of] racism around the first season of the show — I did not know what was going on and I had evil people telling me not to speak, but I also had people [saying], "You have to shut everything out, or you are going to go insane." And it took me a little while to realize that it was going to be better for me to engage and learn and hear than it was for me to go into my house and wrap a blanket around my head. That was the beginning of a really, really, really important lesson for me.
So what do you think you have learned from the diversity questions that you have had to face about Girls?
I think the biggest thing that came out of it, just on a macro level, is that people need to see themselves represented, and that television is sort of a people's medium. People need to see themselves represented in ways that are multifaceted and truthful and thoughtful and don't make them feel like cartoons of themselves. It made me so keen of the fact that there are not enough people of color and people from varied backgrounds who are getting the opportunity to tell their story on television. I come from a very specific place and was given the chance to tell a very specific story, and I want that for so many more people.
Your essay on Girls was my favorite one. It was great to read thoughtful criticism about it that just didn't go, You're an asshole, you went to private school, and your parents are racist, but a version that was more, here is a thoughtful assessment of how this show is dealing with race and, more accurately, how the show is not dealing with race."
Well, I'm glad. I wanted to be thoughtful about the show because I read a lot of the responses. I just though, ugh there is more to this conversation. Certainly I was frustrated, but then I look at my own life and the narrowness of my own social circles, and then I also look at television, and this is not just a problem that begins or ends with Girls, so we have to be able to look beyond it.
There is so much I am angry about in the media and so much that I want to see changed, and I like that this conversation made this my problem, too. I want it to be my problem.
What is the one question you never want to answer again?
Um, what is the one question I never want to answer again? "Is it embarrassing to do those sex scenes?"
[Laughs.] Oh my God.
"Oh my God, is it so embarrassing to do sex scenes?" No. if I was really embarrassed, I would not do it all the time. Because that question, what they are really asking [is], Is it embarrassing to have that body? and I'm like, "No. I'm fine."
[Laughs.] How dare you have body confidence? Whenever you see an actress with an "unruly body" — and I actually don't think your body is all that unruly, but you know the media certainly does — [there's always the undercurrent of] "Okay, so when is it going to happen?"
When is she going to broke and become a Jenny Craig spokesperson?"
Yes. I mean, Lord knows it has worked out for some actresses, but Jesus. It is frustrating to watch.
I actually have a different complaint. I think no one's career has ever gotten better from losing weight. Maybe their life has, I don't know, but I tried to go through a list, and I could not think of any actors who have lost weight that kept the weight off and were like, "I have got this whole new lease on life and I am playing romantic sexual leads." Our culture has a weird relationship to people's bodies changing. They want it to look like everybody was born out the womb looking like Jessica Alba.
One last question. What do you like most about your writing?
You mean like, what quality of it do I like?
Yeah, I just ask every writer I interview: What do you like most about what you do?
And are girls always like, "I hate what I do"?
Girls always shy away from the question and they are like, "Oh" [laughs], and then men are like, "Well, I love the way I structure." They are so adorable.
"Well, my first novel was really a masterpiece." You know, sometimes I will be in my house and I will be reading something and I'll give myself the same feeling, the same feeling that I had when the thing happened all over again, and I go, "I just captured that pretty accurately. That was pretty emotionally effective, Lena. You can have some M&Ms now."