Roxane Gay on Hollywood, Time's Up and Female Stories: "Women Are More Than Our Suffering"

Erin Simkin/Hulu
Roxane Gay, right, with Sarah Silverman on her Hulu talk show, 'I Love You, America'

The culture critic and Twitter phenomenon, who'll speak about her memoir 'Hunger' at the Hammer Museum Feb. 12, reveals the "insane" questions she's fielded at industry meetings and why entertainment must keep driving for diversity: "Stop expressing that we're done when we have one."

After four years of calling L.A. her part-time home (the other: West Lafayette, Indiana, where she teaches at Purdue), Roxane Gay has developed a few local pastimes — like people-watching the Beverly Hills scene from her perch at Mastro’s. “It’s so grotesque and obscene, and the people are so indifferent to anything outside of Los Angeles,” says the best-selling author and culture critic. “It’s just hilarious.” It’s observations like these that, somewhat ironically, have endeared Gay, 43, to the city’s progressive cognoscenti. While she broke out in the literary world in 2014 with debut novel An Untamed State and essay collection Bad Feminist, followed in 2017 by a story collection and a memoir, Hunger, it’s primarily in the last year that her profile has risen in Hollywood — thanks largely to her brainy, quirky social media voice. Introducing Gay on her Hulu show I Love You, America, Sarah Silverman called her “pretty much the best thing that ever happened to Twitter,” where her followers include Mindy Kaling, Shonda Rhimes, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kumail Nanjiani and many more.

She’s been taking meetings with parties interested in optioning Hunger (which she’ll speak about at the Hammer on Feb. 12) and An Untamed State is in development at Fox Searchlight — with Gina Prince-Blythewood directing and Gugu Mbatha-Raw attached to star. But it’s Bad Feminist that’s currently resonating with the entertainment industry. The issues driving #MeToo and Time’s Up “are things feminists were talking about at the turn of the 20th century,” Gay says, adding: “I don’t think it’s our job as women to find solutions. Men just need to collectively get their shit together. They have not been incentivized to get their shit together.”

Gay joins the chorus calling for more diverse decision-makers behind the scenes, which will help put an end to the kind of “nonsense conversations” she’s experienced in Hollywood meetings. During one sit-down with a studio interested in Untamed State, about a Haitian-American woman who is kidnapped and tortured, a male exec offered, “This woman’s story is just so depressing. Why should I have to care?” Notes Gay, “Women’s stories are questioned if they’re too dark. We have to keep putting stuff out there that shows we’re more than sex objects.”

For instance, stuff like World of Wakanda, the Black Panther spinoff comic she wrote last year, focusing on a pair of lovers who are ex-members of the Dora Milaje, the kingdom’s all-female security force. Gay had hoped in vain for an invite to the Panther premiere. She tweeted about her hurt feelings and then went to bed, logging on a day later to discover a huge viral response. “One thing that has changed is that people make news stories out of my tweets,” she moans. “I use Twitter the way it was meant to be used: for complaining! It was just me saying, ‘Look at me, I’m taking an L right here.’”

She spoke with THR (the conversation is edited and condensed below) about the #MeToo moment, the “insane” questions she gets in Hollywood and L.A.’s best bookstores.

With #MeToo and the Time’s Up movement, is this an unprecedented moment? Will we go back?

That’s a good question. We don’t know yet. I do think that the level of sustained interest in this issue that we are currently experiencing is unprecedented. Women are just fucking fed up, while also living in the real world and recognizing that there are consequences to coming forward. There are, and not everyone can bear those consequences. But some very brave women and men have come forward to talk about these men that are behaving badly, from James Toback to Kevin Spacey. We’re seeing very real consequences to these men’s careers. We also need to see it outside of the glamorous industries. It’s easier to talk about it in Hollywood, where these people are known quantities, and it’s easier to feel outrage because you know them. We’re seeing a little of this conversation, but we need to see more of the conversation about people in their day-to-day lives. People working in insurance companies and people who are cleaning hotel rooms, and people who are working in factories who are dealing with sexual harassment and violence every single day. Until those women are supported enough to come forward, we have a lot of work to do.
But I’m really hoping that something happens and that we sustain this, because we keep hearing talk of the backlash: The backlash is coming, the backlash is here. There’s always a backlash any time a subjugated group decides that they are no longer interested in their own subjugation. And so I’m not too worried about the backlash. I think it’s going to happen, I think it’s real, but I think it’s overhyped. It’s too uncomfortable to really think about how pervasive sexual harassment and violence are. It’s easier to think, “Maybe we’re overreacting. Maybe things aren’t that bad.” It’s easy to want to let ourselves off that hook.

How can Hollywood keep growing its representation of women’s stories?

I think we live in a very sexual culture and that men have very narrow ideals of what women are capable of and what women can do, meanwhile we are seeing that women can bring box-office dollars. Girls Trip was really wonderful and did really well at the box office and showed that women-driven comedies and films absolutely work. Some of the most iconic films over time have been women-driven — Thelma and Louise — and yet we’re still having these discussions about what is a woman’s role in a story: girl at orgy, happy wife, miserable wife, prostitute. We have to get better about telling more expansive stories, and we have to end these nonsense debates. More people who are in the decision-making room need to say something when these nonsense conversations are happening. When I’m taking meetings about my work, I get asked just the most insane questions, and I think, “I cannot be the only person who thinks this question is insane.” And yet nobody really says anything. Everybody’s like, “Mm-hmm, mm-hmm,” and so we need to stop that.

Do you have an example?

I took a meeting once about optioning my novel, An Untamed State, at a studio. Very nice people, wonderful, but one of the guys was like, “You know, it’s just so depressing, this woman’s story, and why should I have to care?” He was dead serious, nice guy, and I was just like, “Huh, this is really how you people think.” Of course there’s more to the story; it’s not just a depressing story. I gave him a very sharp answer because I have a job, I don’t care, and we ended up going with someone else, but it was just interesting to get that. And it happens every day that women’s stories are questioned if they’re too dark. What kinds of darkness do we allow? We have to continue putting stuff out there that shows we’re more than just sex objects. You can also tell a story about a woman who has experienced suffering but who thrives. In my novel, for example, she is kidnapped and terrible things happen, but before she’s kidnapped, she’s in a happy marriage, she loves her job, and there’s so much to her and there’s so much to women’s lives — it’s not just about suffering. We can also make movies where women don’t suffer at all, which is something I think we don’t see enough of. Generally, suffering is the crux of the story. In fact, there’s a woman who recently started a literary prize for someone who writes a thriller where a woman does not suffer sexual violence. As someone who writes a lot about sexual violence, I thought, “Huh, that’s a good idea.” This also extends to people of color. We are more than our suffering, and we are allowed to have stories that have nothing to do with suffering.

How would you like to see Hollywood’s understanding of racial representation move forward?

I’d like Hollywood to recognize, and everyone, that we need more than one. Just doing one thing doesn’t mean that we’re done. That’s not representation, that’s tokenism. So we need to go beyond tokenism of one show about Asians on the air, or one show about Latinos on the air, or one black character in a film. It has to be that we’re creating underrepresented characters who are well-rounded and who have joys as much as they have anything else. Black-ish is a great example. I want to see more Black-ish or The Chi by Lena Waithe, which is a really interesting, complex story that shows really interesting people and black life that we have not seen before. So let’s start showing that range and let’s stop expressing that we’re done when we have one. We’ll know we’re successful when in 10 years we can no longer count the number of people of color we’re seeing on the screen and the shows that are being recognized at awards. When we can’t count it anymore, that’s when we’ll be successful.

You’ve been a part-time Angeleno for a few years now. What are some of your favorite L.A. spots?

I think the Arts District is beautiful, and I love just seeing all the murals downtown and just being able to walk around and see all this gorgeous street art that’s allowed to be preserved. I’m not a beachy person, but in Manhattan Beach there’s this great boardwalk that extends over the water, and I really enjoy that, just hanging out at night after a nice dinner with a nice person. That is a nice place. I’m actually still getting to know this city and getting to know what my favorite places are. And this is a great bookstores city, it’s completely underrated. There’s this great bookstore, it’s called Eso Won Books. They are black-owned and they feature African-American writing in every form. It’s so important to have those kinds of bookstores, and it’s one of the last African-American bookstores in the country. I also love The Last Bookstore downtown, Book Soup in Hollywood, Skylight in Los Feliz. And each store has an interesting personality, so I like to just go there and hang out.