In conversation: Roxane Gay at WOW

I took a look at the leftist feminist cultural critic Roxane Gay and a theme emerged …

The blurby bit

Roxane Gay, one of America’s most beloved writers and cultural critics, comes to London for one-night only as part of WOW Festival. Join one of the leading feminist voices of our time for an unforgettable evening of conversation, and celebration of her work that has garnered acclaim across the world for its honesty and ferocity.

Explore with Roxane topics ranging from politics, patriarchy, Beyoncé and reality television in the same sitting. No two Roxane Gay events are the same! Roxane will be interviewed by an exciting Chair to be announced soon.

Roxane’s work is internationally acclaimed for its reflective, no-holds-barred exploration of feminism and social criticism. With a deft eye on modern culture, she brilliantly critiques its ebb and flow with both wit and ferocity. Her collection of essays, Bad Feminist, is universally considered the quintessential exploration of modern feminism. Her other books include Ayiti, An Untamed State, the bestselling Difficult Women and New York Times bestselling Hunger. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel, and has a popular newsletter, The Audacity as well as an award-winning podcast, The Roxane Gay Agenda.

From Women of the World’s website

The introduction from WOW

Introducing Roxane Gay onto stage was one of the organisers of the Women of the World festival, who praised Gay’s great contribution to a ‘fully intersectional just world’ which would ultimately ‘help our LGBT kids’. Gay was to be interviewed by fellow race card holder Afua Hirsch, who, when she interviewed Patrisse Cullors for the WOW festival the previous year, managed the amazing feat of asking precisely not one incisive question.

I have to say, unlike most of the people I have covered for this blog, Gay was naturally funny, often deflecting Hirsch’s asinine and fake observations (Hirsch: ‘Your range is actually extraordinary-‘, interrupting, Gay quipped ‘-I do have the range’). Hirsch listed Gay’s many projects, mentioned in the blurb above, and, of course, her cultural criticism.

‘Chris Rock looks very small right now’

Gay wanted to do a reading of her work up front, an opinion piece, published in the New York Times the previous day, on Chris Rock. As we all know by now, Chris Rock was slapped, shouted and sworn at on live TV by Will Smith. It was as ugly as it was bizarre. Rock responded with remarkable composure and humour, despite the pressures he must have been under. Later that evening Will Smith went onto pick up Best Actor award, rather than by the LAPD.

Let’s just remind ourselves of the incident in question before we proceed any further.

“GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see it” was the ill-fated joke

Gay described ‘the Slap’ as ‘open-handed’ (they always are) and ‘light’ and explained that Chris Rock had earned ‘a fair amount of opprobrium over the years’ and that she, personally, was ‘not sad’ the assault had happened, much to the audience’s delight. Gay went further, joking that Rock should have turned the other cheek. The introductory speech from the WOW woman, who wanted to build a just intersectional world where everyone felt safe, felt a distant memory.

Gay read out the whole piece, it’s spitefully called Chris Rock Looks Very Small Right Now. In summary, Gay went to see Chris Rock’s first live show since the Oscars incident and alleges that he messed up the punchline to his joke about it (at the same time as explaining that, Gay got a bit tongue-tied herself, Freudian slip? She quickly claimed it was because her phone was too small). Gay didn’t like the show because Rock sent up wokeness, except for the bit when he did joke about something she agreed with (mocking the January 6th participants).

Mainly though she was angry that Chris Rock dare make jokes about black people behaving badly in front of a white audience and that he had made jokes about trans people, which were ‘strange and ill-considered given the alarming rise in gender fascism that imperils the trans community’. She comes to this arse-about-face conclusion:

No matter what consequences Mr. Smith faces and how lucrative making jokes about it may be for Mr. Rock, he still has to live with the humiliation and pain.

Instead of sitting with that vulnerability, turning it into brilliant humor, he resorted to puerile schoolyard taunts. It was such a wasted opportunity.

From the New York Times article Chris Rock Looks Very Small Right Now by Roxane Gay



As it turns out slapping is something of a preoccupation for Ms Gay, who, in a now deleted tweet, once publicly encouraged the trans-identified male YouTube creator Kat Blaque to slap professional lesbian Arielle Scarcella, because she had had the temerity to state that she would reject the same in her dating pool. The LGBT news website Pride (a US equivalent to Pink News) wrote an article about the Twitter exchange the day after (the tweets are now missing). Not even fit for fish and chip wrapping, is it? Gay was rueful enough to delete the tweet later after pushback.

Gay deleted the tweet above

BDSM advocate

Roxane Gay identifies as bisexual and I think it fair to surmise is into BDSM. In her New York Times article Cops Don’t Belong at Pride, Gay explains that Pride shouldn’t be policed for safety, whilst also arguing no demographic is more at risk of violence than ‘black transgender women’. Further, she argues that the kink community should not be excluded from Pride parades for the benefit of children attending/passing-by, because the public toning down of sexual expression is literally oppression. Most interestingly Gay tags an article Why Kink, BDSM, and Leather Should Be Included at Pride in the piece. Presumably she approves of its contents, which includes this staggering paragraph:

Sunny’s mother openly practiced both lifestyle and professional BDSM for most of their childhood, and while Hitchling considers themself to have had multiple parents, they say their most influential parents are their mom and their chosen stepdad Moo, a queer trans man who was formerly their mother’s 24/7 lifestyle submissive. Sunny feels their upbringing gave them a more comprehensive sexual education than most of their peers, as their parents would openly discuss subjects of sexuality, gender, and kink with them. When Sunny expressed interest in engaging in bondage and breathplay (erotic asphyxiation) with their longtime partner, their mother took the time to explain how to do it most safely.

From – article tagged by Roxane Gay in NYT opinion piece

Promoting bad sex writing

This isn’t a one-off for Gay. She has also wrote a rather long (and boring, do feel sorry for me) essay THE TROUBLE WITH PRINCE CHARMING OR HE WHO TRESPASSED AGAINST US about the Fifty Shades of Grey books. Yes, she admits, E.L. James’ writing is terrible. However, she is of the singular opinion it offers women a ‘detailed primer for how to successfully engage in a controlling, abusive relationship’.

There is also another example of her intolerance of those who joke about the things she likes.

The Fifty Shades of Grey books have also opened the door for pundits, including Ellen Degeneres, to treat the BDSM lifestyle with derision, mockery, and outright ignorance. Whips and chains are so very funny, or they are freaky and weird. 


Also in that essay she states: ‘I am down with female submission.’ So feminist.

Her own bad sex writing

And then there’s her short story sex writing. Gay contributed to a short story anthology called Kink: stories, her story is called Reach. Louise Perry reviewed the book for The Critic.

The gender politics are also deeply troubling. In her story, the influential feminist writer Roxane Gay writes about a man who takes pleasure in slapping his wife, strangling her with a belt, and scarring her back with a razor blade. By the end of the story — surprise, surprise — we discover that the man is in fact trans [i.e. a trans-identified female], which supposedly transforms the nature of the couple’s abusive sex. 

It remains a simulation of domestic violence, but with a rejigging of the genitals involved, and this — we are asked to believe — makes all the difference. Nevertheless, it is hard to wipe away the image of a man choking his wife with a belt, and dismaying to read a feminist like Gay fantasising about such a scenario. 

From More Sad Than Naughty by Louise Perry, The Critic – clarification in bold added by me
A more favourable review of the work posted by Roxane Gay herself

Remind me again why WOW, supposedly a feminist festival, decided to host a woman who celebrates the ‘ferocity of the power bottom’?

Back to the conversation at the Southbank

It quickly turned into a bland psychotherapy session, with Hirsch fawning that Gay was a person of ‘profound contradiction’ since Gay was open about people wanting people to like her, yet was able write critiques of people and hence opened herself up to criticism. How did she handle this? (As opposed to how anyone in life deals with this, a parent scolding a child, a poorly remunerated supervisor disciplining even more poorly paid colleagues, the list goes on.) Gay’s reflection was: ‘I don’t know’ and that everyone wanted to be liked. She backtracked and said that her critiques were rarely personal, that it was simply her opinion and encouraged people to ‘like what you like’.

Another article attacking humour and a comedian, fancy that!

Next project is …

… a romance novel written with Channing Tatum. No, this isn’t a joke.

[He] began work on a romance novel with the writer and social commentator Roxane Gay, whom he befriended after she wrote about wanting to “hug every part of him with my mouth” online. “She has almost a roughed-out outline of a story that we both love,” he says. “We just got to find time to do it. She’s the busiest, she’s way busier than I am.”

From the Vanity Fair article

Gay recounted the story of how they had exchanged emails at first, and finally she went to see him at his Beverley Hills mansion. As she puffed her way up the stairs of his porch, he asked her ‘Excuse me for being fat right now, I’m not filming’. ‘Screw you,’ she shot back. They talked for 3-4 hours. It sounds very much like Gay is writing it and Tatum gets to have a credit on it. A sort of open ghosting arrangement.

I wonder if this jokey anecdote was a nod to the time a podcast had revealed the extensive demands made by her publisher in advance of her visit to their studio, demanding to know if there was a goods-lift in the building to accommodate her huge size, when she attended to discuss her memoir about over-eating called Hunger. (Allegedly at her largest she was about 41 stones.)

Reproductive rights

Hirsch said Gay had been prophetic with regards to reproductive rights and described her words as ‘eerie’ and had made her hair stand on end. I couldn’t find which piece(s) Hirsch was referring to but did find these paltry excuses for analysis instead:

“Trust women and people with uteruses. Trust us to make the best decisions possible for ourselves, our families, our bodies.”

In a post-Roe vs Wade reversal article, Gay was interviewed with gender Svengali Judith Butler on the importance of gender neutral language for ‘pregnant people’ – see here.

Inclusive language is simply a reminder that we are not the only people who can get pregnant.

Roxane Gay –

In another post-reversal piece It’s Time to Rage, she begins with her wife’s alleged childhood rape by her stepfather and her own alleged experience of gang rape, and ends with her wondering if her marriage will be annulled by future legislation because of the Roe vs Wade reversal.

Business is booming

For years Gay had experienced a lot of scarcity of work but now she was suffering from a surfeit of abundance and could pick and choose. Funnily enough if you said ‘yes’ to doing something, that meant the person who asked you actually thought you were going to do it. It kind of underlined to me that Gay has probably never done a real job.

A child of immigrants

Hirsch wanted to know if this fear of scarcity was connected to her experience of being a child of immigrants. Gay agreed and claimed she was ‘one generation away from extreme poverty’. According to Wikipedia her father owns a concrete company in Haiti and worked as a civil engineer throughout her childhood. Her family were keen for her to be a doctor, engineer or architect but she found she was more comfortable with writing. This Guardian article describes her upbringing as comfortable and she attended an exclusive boarding school.

Poor me, poor me, pour me another drink

Gay claims that it is only in the last two years that she had ever been able to afford to take a vacation. This seems unlikely to say the least, since she has been writing for the New York Times regularly since 2015, was assistant professor of English at a university for several years and the World of Wakanda gig was apparently given to her July 2016 (according to Wikipedia), so either people have been paying her pennies, or she’s a big fat liar.

Further observations from Gay, included in this intellectual google:

Anyone who has suffered understands that there is no need to put ourselves in dire circumstances just because we think that’s somehow going to help the struggle and I think it does an immense disservice to people who are actually suffering.

Roxane Gay dribbling at the mouth – Any idea what’s she talking about? No, me neither.

On her wife

Hirsch made some cooing noises about how amazing her wife, Debbie Millman, must be and so Gay told the story of their relationship. Gay was in an open relationship at the time and Millman apparently pursued her for over a year. Gay didn’t internet search Millman (who is famous in her own right) and didn’t know anything about her. She was just a woman called Debbie, who kept emailing her. Finally Gay agreed to go on a date and they had been together ever since. (According to Wikipedia, Gloria Steinem officiated at the wedding.) It was the best relationship she has ever had.

Millman is the type of person who won’t move when others barrel towards her on the streets of New York. Gay once asked her, “Babe, do you realise that you never move out of the way?” and Millman responded “For what?” Gay, on the other hand, 6 foot 3 inches (and weighing well over 20 stones by the look of her), meekly steps aside for all on-comers. Yeah, nah.

On writing

Hirsch cooed some more about amazing Gay was. Now that she knew anything she wrote was going to be read widely, was this making her nervous? Gay used the question to mention that she has a book coming out in October 2023 called Opinions, which was to be an anthology of her already published columns and after that there is a creating writing manual framed around how you can write to ‘create change’. That book had been hard to write. After a bit more prodding from Hirsch on Gay’s supposed insecurities, Gay admitted that she knew that not everything she wrote was going to be good, but that it was something she would regularly discuss with her therapist. (No, Lies does not have a therapist, but we would discuss something more weighty if we did.)

Gay originally had an advance from Simon & Schuster to write the manual but dropped them when it decided to publish a book with Milo Yiannopoulos, who she described as a ‘white supremacist’. This inspired her to write it from the political perspective of being a person of colour, since there were very few books in that genre written by the same, bemoaning that it was very rare that people of colour got ‘to talk about craft’. (Er, hello Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Roxane Gay herself, who has professionally taught in this area. And that’s without getting into all the many respected black singer/song writers/musicians/actors we have in the culture.)

Gay said that people of colour didn’t get to talk about craft because [white people] were more interested in ‘Oh, how’s race today?’. This utterly hypocritical and patently untrue comment drew laughter and applause.

Gay shared some tidbits from the book for us. These were ‘all writing advice is terrible’, ‘here’s what worked for me and is that going to work for you, I don’t know’ and ‘you don’t have to go looking for your voice because it’s already there’. Sounds fascinating.

Hirsch reflected that her journalism students all wanted to tell their own stories, whereas the generation she was from wanted to write about the truth and report facts. Her students wanted the media to reflect their individual experience, a desire Hirsch related to and admired (and obviously encourages), and the conundrum now was to convince the industry as a whole to take on this new direction. Gay responded that she loved Gen Z and that she learned a lot from her students.

The Gary Lineker affair

Surprise, surprise, but both Hirsch and Gay were on the side of Gary Lineker following the BBC reprimanding him for comparing the Tories to the Nazis. Gay argued that no one should care what a sports journalist says about politics and said that the UK immigration policy was an ‘atrocity’. ‘We have the room,’ Gay said of the UK, remarking that she took the train from Scotland the day before and ‘saw lots and lots of space’. (That’s called agriculture sweetie. I think you’ll find that the State of Texas is 2.8 times bigger than the UK, so not that much space quite honestly.)

Gay was really impressed that Lineker’s colleagues had stood by him, a sentiment riotously endorsed by the audience.

I really think that’s amazing and we need to see more of that energy every single time this happens, because if we don’t stand together about what’s right and saying ‘no’ to fascism, we will see a repeat of World War Two, and it will be even worse because the weapons are bigger and the people are more evil.

Roxane Gay on the support Lineker had been shown by colleagues

Hirsch was really pleased also, describing the solidarity as a ‘ray of light in quite a dark time’.

Of course, neither of them cared to mention the small fact that the same team had happily gone to Qatar to cover the World Cup, when it is estimated that 6,500 migrant workers died during the rapid building programme Qatar undertook. Guess they aren’t that bothered about migrants.

The backlash

Hirsch bought up the backlash against anti-racism and intersectional feminism and Gay claims that her books have been subject to bans in the US. When I googled to fact check that, the only story which came up was the one about Gay pulling out from Simon & Schuster and when I searched her Twitter timeline, it appears she had tweeted and then deleted something about a book ban, which had had several answers disagreeing with whatever she had said. Then there is this response.

A response to Roxane Gay’s deleted tweet about banning books

Indeed Gay failed to expand on which book of hers had been banned and indeed bemoaned puritanism and that people were becoming more anti-sex. Although Gay wasn’t bothered that her (unspecified) book had been banned, she was concerned that Toni Morrison was banned and also To Kill a Mocking Bird. She claimed these books were being banned so that ‘the next generation of white people’ weren’t ‘uncomfortable with their history’. News stories, however, suggest that Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was taken out of school libraries because of detailed descriptions of incest and Harper Lee’s seminal novel was now ‘causing harm to people of color‘.

Gay was worried when this generation eventually takes over they would have no knowledge that slavery had even happened and wouldn’t be able to understand systemic racism without that knowledge. She blamed conservatives for the censorship and in particular, Christopher Rufo, for pushing back against critical race theory and ‘trans freedom’.

Gay, bringing Lineker back into mind, told us that we were moving towards a position where LGBTQ people were going to be ‘eradicated from public life’. It was necessary for everyone to state very publicly that we don’t accept that. Again, there was enthusiastic audience endorsement with clapping and cheering.

‘You can’t be all things to all people, you’re a human’

Was the preamble (well, part of it anyway) to Hirsch’s final obsequious question of how she managed that? Gay reminds herself every day that she can’t be everything to everyone. Insightful stuff, eh? She also has very firm values about what she will and won’t share (sharing her wife’s incest abuse story being one thing she definitely would). The older she got the more she was able to hold those boundaries.

She has a post-it on her desk which reads, ‘It’s okay to disappoint people’. Apparently Gay found this very hard to remember, even though it must effortless for her. Hirsch remarked this was ‘inspiring’. And then, thankfully, it was time for:

Question and Answer session

I don’t know why I was surprised, but there were some really big Roxane Gay fans in the room.

How do we stop fascism?

Asked by Italian man, concerned about the recent direction Italy had taken (i.e. its right-wing populist leader Giorgia Meloni).

Gay told us that we should take a very strong line on anyone who tried to extinguish multiple points of view or conflicting points of view. The line was when democracy was encroached and the ‘minute we think we can characterise an entire country by a single ideology’. She didn’t say which country she was thinking of, nor the ideology.

Do progressives need to be more tolerant of voices we find really difficult to engage with?

Follow up question, asked by Hirsch.

Gay told us about a talk she gave at a university in Kentucky. During that talk she stated that she would never sit down ‘with a Nazi and chat about their ideology’. That’s because she ‘gets it and no thank you’. During the Q&A a ‘child’ came up to the mike, who was very small, perhaps 19 years old, whose voice was trembling as he spoke, who said “I think it’s dangerous to not sit down with Nazis”. Cue giggling from the Southbank’s audience.

Gay restated her commitment to talking with people who disagreed with her but not people who thought it was okay to ‘eradicate entire groups of people – literally‘, or anti-abortionists (weirdly describing them as ‘people who believe that every human being has the right to live’). It was also impossible to tolerate racism as a legitimate point of view. (How else do you test that though, or any of these things though, if you don’t debate them?)

Gay suspected the questioner harboured those beliefs or else knew and liked people who did, making herself sound like the Witchfinder General. Her characterisation felt deliberately spiteful and I suspect untruthful.

There are certain disagreements that we should not have to entertain. And to ask a black person or any person of colour, a Jewish person, a queer person, to sit down with a literal avowed Nazi. What on earth are we gonna talk about?

Roxane Gay

What are your hopes and fears about the future generation finding their voice?

Asked by self-described queer black writer for worked for a social media company who loved Gen Z and wanted to be one. Sounded like a woman who had taken testosterone to me.

Gay responded that social media had been good and bad for the younger generation. She wanted media literacy to be taught from pre-school onwards, so that they would understand what it meant to be exposed to messages all day and night on the various platforms.

What is your opinion on the Vanderpump Rules?

Asked by a woman from Canada.

Gay is a big fan of the TV channel Bravo, who broadcast such masterpieces as The Real Housewives series and its various spin-offs, of which I’ve learned the Vanderpump Rules is one. Gay finally came to life at the opportunity to discuss something she actually understood. Even more so recounting her previous night’s experience of watching C4’s Naked Attraction, only half-joking that it proved the UK was ‘a progressive society’. You would think a cultural critic might be more sceptical about reality TV, when even bad taste guru John Waters detests it snobbery.

How do you work in environments which are racist or misogynist?

Asked by woman from New York.

Gay suddenly remembered that she lived in a capitalist economy and that this required ‘compromises’. She had been able to return the advance to Simon & Schuster because she could afford it and had a day job. Other authors had reached out to her privately and said they would like to have done the same thing but couldn’t afford to. Gay understood this and felt people had to do the best they could. Her current publisher Harper Collins, is owned by Rupert Murdoch (low boo from some). Gay described this association with him as there being ‘no freedom from it’ and that there was always only a few degrees of separation from the ‘nexus of evil’.

What is your advice on working with feminists who don’t support trans rights?

Asked by woman who worked in the women’s sector, who described the atmosphere in said sector as ‘divided and febrile’ and found it difficult to work with gender critical feminists.

Gay was disconcerted by what was going on in the UK and the US, citing ‘the right side of history’, claiming that trans people were the most marginalised and picked on people in the world, though ‘let’s not characterise trans life as miserable, as it isn’t’.

There are some rifts which cannot be mended because what we’re talking about is someone’s humanity and that can never be contingent on acceptance.


The only way to bridge this gap is for people to recognise that trans women are women.


… to concede to the terfs means to deny the reality and humanity of an entire group of people, just to keep some old cranks happy. Are you serious? I don’t know how to reach them because when I talk to them they genuinely, firmly believe that womanhood is in danger, which it is not. And if you are so insecure in your womanhood that you go about protecting it, then perhaps that’s the problem you should address?

Roxane Gay on the split in feminism – note the slur directed towards older women

Gay didn’t want to heal the rift and thought the best bet was just to pushback against anyone who was ‘trans exclusionary, because what’s next?’ So much for being open to other peoples’ opinions or having the ability to discuss the specific issues at hand, e.g. rapists being jailed in women’s prisons, men invading lesbian social spaces, etc.

Question about sexual violence and the way it is perceived in different cultures.

Asked by queer Romanian woman, who remarked that Gay’s writing had ushered her through to adulthood. She said that Gay had ‘written beautifully about sexual violence’.

To be fair I didn’t hear the question properly and therefore not able to understand Gay’s response, so I won’t summarise but thought the woman’s remarks interesting and possibly typical of your average Roxane Gay fan, hooked on her central story of phoenix-out-of-the-ashes rape gang survivor and led me to look closer at that story. Gay has spoken extensively on sexual violence and, in particular, for the #MeToo movement.

A bag of contradictions

It’s pretty interesting that a woman who has made her name from penning a ‘mis-lit‘ memoir about being gang-raped at the age of 12, has no interest in questioning gender identity ideology. Rather, it is one she rabidly promotes. Men are to be believed, when they say they are women, and you better believe it too, full stop, says Gay.

Her claim is that she was gang raped aged 12, the catalyst for her over-eating, by a gang of boys around her own age who she went to school with, which lasted for several hours. She says she told no one at the time. She also claims the ringleader is now ‘an executive at a major company’ and apparently:

She rings him and, when he answers, is unable to speak. They listen to each other’s silence.


Quite how Gay gets past the personal assistant to screw with him down the phone is anyone’s guess, unless, of course, he happily accepts the call – but why would anyone do that? Seriously though, why not seek legal retribution if she has the truth on her side and knows where the perp is? She apparently first wrote about the gang rape in 2012 whilst reviewing The Hunger Games trilogy, using it as an example to prove that she knows ‘what it costs for a woman to be strong’. I sense an overactive imagination at play.

My incredulity also arises because, although her career was founded on speaking out on ‘rape culture’, she enthusiastically promotes BDSM. Violence can be justified, yet Gay with a straight face tells us she is concerned about the rise of fascism. She also talks about protecting the multiplicity of opinion, yet did not dare mention even one contested issue during the hour and a half she had to talk. Really she just wants people who disagree with her to STFU.

So, the question is: why is this gang rape victim, cultural commentator and career feminist not shouting from the rooftop that housing women with convicted rapists is ‘rape culture’?

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  1. Thanks once more for gritting your teeth at this imported guff … Sorry to be ad mulierem, and she does sound quite amusing, but … the eyes on that person!

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