Roxane Gay and Mia Freedman: When Feminism Becomes Narcissism
On the week of the release of her latest book, Hunger, writer and academic Roxane Gay has been busy on the promotional trail. She appeared on The Daily Show for a striking and immensely moving interview with Trevor Noah; she made the cover of the Village Voice; and has appeared in publications ranging from Elle to The New York Times. I sincerely hope that she has found some satisfaction during this period, and been able to celebrate the end of the long and extremely difficult process of writing such a personal memoir. It’s a shame that much of those achievements have been somewhat overshadowed by the insensitivity and self-serving hypocrisies of a woman called Mia Freedman.
I must admit that I had no idea who Freedman was until this week. Her name rang a bell but never called for further investigation until a screencap of her website appeared on my Twitter feed. The Australian journalist and founder of women’s website Mamamia interviewed Gay on her podcast about her memoir, which focuses on her relationship with her body and battles with weight. Freedman goes into detail about Gay’s alleged requirements for the interview, and seems to relish the embarrassing details:
“How many steps were there from the kerb to the end of the building? Were there any stairs? How many? How big was the lift and was there a goods lift? How many steps from the lift to the podcast studio? There was also a lot of talk about chairs — making sure we had one sturdy enough that would both hold her weight and make sure she was comfortable for the duration of the interview.”
Freedman cannot stop herself from divulging the kind of information any self-respecting journalist would immediately deem private. Her justification for this is astounding:
“Now, I would normally never breach the confidence of what goes on behind the scenes of organising an interview, but in this case, I’ve thought a lot about it and the fundamental part of her story and what her book is about. She writes about it in the book, I’m sure she won’t mind me telling you any of this.”
Side note to journalists everywhere, but unless you get permission to do so, don’t assume sharing such details is okay. It probably isn’t. Gay, along with a multitude of others on Twitter, responded as you would expect, and after the website, independent of Freedman, issued a weak non-apology, Freedman herself followed suit, but couldn’t stop herself from making the entire issue about her. Digging further into Freedman’s career - after receiving the collective eyeroll of unsurprised disdain from my Australian friends over the mention of her name - I suddenly remembered why her face had lingered in my brain. In an interview with British commentator Caitlin Moran - a woman not opposed to shitting on other women in the name of progressive thought - she and Freedman shared some pretty upsetting opinions on rape culture and essentially blamed women for dressing provocatively or wearing heels, which they seemed to think were beacons for sexual assault. Anti-feminist gaffes like this seem to be par for the course for Freedman, who was appointed Chair of the Australian Federal Government’s National Body Image Advisory Group in 2009, yet she remains an authority of sorts in her home country’s media on issues regarding women. We cannot wait to make leaders out of the cruellest in our society: They are afforded every chance while those they marginalise are denied the platform they deserve.
None of this is just about Mia Freedman, who is merely one spot amidst a ceaseless breakout. The commodification of feminism by privileged white women has seen the dilution of its most crucial voices and abuses of power increase, all shielded by the t-shirt slogan friendly insistence that we’re all in this together. Freedman saw Gay’s life and her narrative as something she could hijack to create a palatable tragedy from, which would propel clicks to her site. It didn’t seem to occur to her that said narrative was not hers to command, or that such actions would be exploitative. Her priority was not to provide Gay a safe space to tell her story: It was to monetize her pain.
That’s a familiar sight to many of us. We see it in the ways Sheryl Sandberg sold thousands of books telling women to Lean In while ignoring the women who must be leaned on for her to succeed; it’s reflected in Theresa May wearing a “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt as she slashes funding to women’s services and keeps Yarl’s Wood open; it’s the cloying hypocrisy of Sophia Amoruso’s #Girlboss routine, wherein she elevated herself to a guiding voice for women in commerce and commodifying her life story as feminist inspiration despite her company Nastygal allegedly sacking pregnant women; Or in Miki Agrawal, founder of period-underwear brand Thinx, branding herself on her feminist values even as she faces multiple accusations of sexual harassment from her staff; Or Arianna Huffington turning unpaid labour into a personal goldmine then denying the systemic misogyny at Uber, where she is a board member; or Ivanka Trump cloaking herself in progressive activism to sell cheap shoes and protect herself with the sheen of female solidarity; Or Caitlin Moran trying to rebrand feminism as “rock and roll” while telling pole dancers they’re letting all women down.
Examples like this are ten a penny, and the epidemic only seems to be growing. As the F word becomes increasingly toxic in the Trump age, those with clout who embrace its ethos hold a more potent responsibility than ever to do it right. From its roots, feminism has had problems with structural racism, classism and other intersections of identity: The first wave shut out women of colour and embraced eugenics in its rhetoric; the second wave openly discriminated against trans women; the third wave were quick to throw many figures under the bus, like Monica Lewinsky and Anita Hill.
The sad thing is that it’s so pathetically easy to buy into these blatantly faulty narratives, especially for women like me, who play the game of privilege with a fuller deck than others. The image of the take-no-prisoners lady-boss who owns the confidence so frequently denied to our gender and finds success through determination and a pro-woman ethos has been the seed for many a memoir. Every vaping app designer in Silicon Valley gets to self-mythologize in such a manner so why not level the playing field a little? The media loves these tales too, because they’re easy to package, concise in their narratives and utterly unthreatening to the status quo. Telling women to put in the extra hours at work and maybe they’ll get a raise if they ask firmly enough is an easier sell to the broadsheets than a quick reminder of the institutional inequalities and biases based on gender, race and sexuality the business world fosters.
Feminism shouldn’t be easy or cool or simple, and yet we so often allow it to be reduced to a few slogans and a basic belief that women are people. As one of those white women with a platform, however big or small it may be, I feel a responsibility to call out our mistakes and demand better for those whose voices need amplification the most. That’s why Mia Freedman’s nastiness has clung to me so thoroughly: It feels too close to home, it exposes how easily we become what we claim to oppose. Fellow white women humiliate women of colour for a few precious clicks, and we foster the system that allows that to happen. We need to do better. We cannot allow something as crucial as feminism to be hijacked for profit and personal gain, leeching off the backs of unpaid labour, systemic bigotry and repeated cruelty. That’s not feminism: That’s narcissism.
You can buy Roxane Gay’s newest book, Hunger, here.
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