Arts Books literature Review Singapore

Singapore Writers Festival 2019: Bad Feminist Roxane Gay Speaks About Bodies, Pop Culture and the Importance of Media Literacy


Roxane Gay is an icon for our times. Big, black, queer and intellectual, Roxane rounded off the final weekend of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) with a number of talks and events surrounding her work. Best known for her bestselling essay collection Bad Feminist and memoir Hunger, Roxane’s writing deals primarily with issues of identity, femininity (or society’s expectations of it) and how our views of the world have been shaped by pop culture and our absorption of it.

Often bitingly funny while shedding light on universal truths we could all stand to be more aware of for a better world, over Roxane’s one hour lecture Understanding Identity Through Pop Culture, she and moderator Edith Podesta dealt with all these topics and more, from discussion of The Biggest Loser to her love for Pretty Woman. 

So much of Roxane’s work deals consumption of ideas from child to adult – in the session, Roxane discusses how her (very precocious) niece commands her to watch Barbie with her on television, only to be horrified that Ken assumes the highest aspiration for Barbie is a dream walk-in closet. The Biggest Loser is a horrifying series that encapsulates everything wrong with society’s perceived authority over all its inhabitants’ bodies, and the ‘ideal’ body, and rightfully, we should take outrage at for encouraging even medical professionals to fat-shame (commenting on her weight even when she goes in for a sore throat).

She speaks of the ‘unruly body’ and how it has led to concepts such as female hysteria, that the idea a body has to conform to a specific set of rules is outright ridiculous. After all, bodies are problematic machines to begin with, and to impose these additional rules suggest that there is an ideal of perfection bodies should then aspire towards, the idea that women should not sweat, should not excrete, should not be ‘too much’ anything inherently misogynistic and unfair.

But it’s not all bad. Roxane also speaks of her love for Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, and its portrayal of trauma and grief as something real, that isn’t just solved by a convenient happy ending, and how the word ‘victim’ shouldn’t be stigmatised and erased – who are others to tell you that you are a ‘survivor’, when the thing happened and yes, one does suffer its consequences after all?

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She speaks of her inherent optimism and love for fairy tales, and her unabashed love for romantic comedies, of the difficulty of speaking to her Haitian Catholic parents about some of the issues on television and this new world they live in – unable for example, to resolve that Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner, and finding the patience to explain in objective, non-judgmental terms the concept of transgender people to them.

And above all, Roxane is brave and speaks her truth and stands by her values, recounting the incident where she pulled her forthcoming book How To Be Heard from publishers Simon & Schuster, thanks to their avowed support for controversial right wing personality Milo Yiannopoulos. The good news is – it’s been sold for a million dollars, and will now be published under a different publishing house.

Roxane is a woman fiercely aware of the problems in the world and how it is quintessentially media, or our interpretation of media and its application to our lives, that had served to perpetuate them. There is optimism in her voice as she states how easy it is for men to be feminists (‘stop raping and sexually harassing women!’) and the recognition of just about every person in the world as deserving of basic human respect. She writes and speaks assertively, confident and correct, and all that is enough to see why she’s won herself as many fans as she has (and having spoken to a full house at the Victoria Theatre), and a beacon of truth we look towards in our unruly modern times.

Roxane Gay: Understanding Identity through Pop Culture took place on 10th November 2019 at the Victoria Theatre.

The Singapore Writers Festival 2019 took place from 1st to 10th November 2019. 

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