Looking to inspire? Give your audience a to-do list.
Dr. Roxane Gay’s practical guide for feminists—”good, bad, or anywhere in between.”
My mother refuses to call herself a feminist. During dinner table debates, wielding freshly sharpened silverware, I have fought to change her mind, pointing out the bra-burning evidence stacked against her:
You’re a triple board-certified doctor in a male-dominated field.
You throw around the terms “mansplaining” and “manspreading” with Gen-Z ease.
Not to mention, you believe women are equal to men. And you’re willing to fight for that belief.
My mother is unmoved. This is how she explains it: she wants to be seen as a success, not as a woman who managed to be successful. She wants to be defined by her accomplishments, rather than her gender. And she doesn’t want to be viewed as a “man hater.” Because in her mind, and in the minds of many, that’s what feminists are.
Put simply, my mother knows that word comes with a lot of baggage, and she’s not willing to carry it.
That, I can understand. So can Dr. Roxane Gay, who explores the word’s burden in her TED Talk, “Confessions of a Bad Feminist.”
Now, Dr. Gay is a brilliant writer but hardly a once-in-a-generation orator. She reads off a script, barely makes eye contact, and rarely pauses for dramatic effect.
And yet, to date, her speech has almost two million views. Not to mention, it got a standing ovation.
So, why does this speech work so well?
Because it’s practical.
This may seem counterintuitive. After all, “practical” is not a very sexy word. Consult any speechwriting book and you’ll be hit over the head with another word: “inspirational.”
Great speeches inspire us, and great endings… well, call us to greatness. They compel us to save the planet, start a revolution, storm the barricade.
But Dr. Gay’s call to action reads more like a to-do list.
She does not tell women to be the change they want to see in the world. Instead, she tells us to “change the channel when a television show treats sexual violence against women like sport.” To “change the radio station when we hear songs that treat women as nothing.”
To “spend our box office dollars elsewhere when movies don’t treat women as anything more than decorative objects.” And to “stop supporting professional sports where the athletes treat their partners like punching bags.”
She declares a trade war on misogyny. People boycott Amazon, so why not sexism too? She’s blunt in her methodology: to impact change in a capitalist society, impact the bottom line.
This litany isn’t catchy or concise. But it is practical.
And it gives feminists — “good, bad, or anywhere in between” — a place to start.
Unlike my mother, I consider myself one of those feminists, though I wonder if I’m worthy of the word.
On the outside, everything adds up. I don’t wear a bra (#freethenipple). I read memoirs about finding yourself after divorce (#eatpraylove). And when my dad says Olivia Benson looks “too old to be on TV,” I throw the remote at his head.
But to quote the hosts of the Great British Bake Off, I worry that I’m “all style, and no substance.” A well-decorated cake with curdled batter.
I am, after all, a sexist stereotype: I’m bad at math, and driving, and regulating my emotions. “Sorry” comes up 194 times in my Slack messages. I view other women as competition. When I’m around men, I don’t voice my beliefs.
If Gloria Steinem egged my house, I’d understand.
Like Dr. Gay says, “I’m a mess. I am full of contradictions. There are many ways in which I’m doing feminism wrong.” And she’s the expert. She literally wrote a book on feminism. By admitting she’s a mess, she’s giving us permission to be messy, too. And to keep trying to get better.
I have a lot of work to do. And sometimes, that work feels insurmountable, and quite frankly, worthless. Like playing whack-a-misogynist.
Which is maybe why Dr. Gay’s speech resonated so deeply and — despite its pragmatism, or maybe because of it — I feel inspired. When I’m facing all that’s wrong with the world and within myself, there’s nothing more encouraging than a to-do list. Something I can check off.
The last item on that list is the most abstract — and perhaps, the most challenging — item of all. She calls all women — even overly emotional, overly apologetic ones — to be feminists, because she’d rather have a “bad feminist than no feminist at all.”
Like all good speakers, and all good speechwriters, Dr. Gay wants us to leave her talk feeling good. But here’s what sets Dr. Gay apart: she also wants us to feel capable. Because she needs us to take action.
Equality can’t afford to wait. Women can’t walk alone without fearing for our lives.
Which is why, even when we feel like we don’t deserve to claim feminism…we have to anyway. Because only armed with that word can we take on the challenges she’s levied — turning off the channel, switching the station, raising our voices — and the challenges all around us. Trolling us on social media. Ogling us on the subway. Following us home at night.
I struggled with how to end this essay. I even considered lying. Because what I have to say next isn’t very inspirational. And it definitely won’t move you to your feet.
My mother listened to Dr. Roxane Gay’s speech, and she liked it. But she still won’t call herself a feminist. My mother is stubborn. When a pair of high heels gives her blisters, she walks in them anyway. Until her feet bleed.
I’m a bad feminist, and I will keep trying to be a better one. I will keep trying to change my mother’s mind while she keeps holding her ground.
But I think that Dr. Gay would welcome her anyway. So, whenever she’s ready, feminism is waiting. Filled with messy, stubborn women — fighting for change until our feet bleed.
— Gemma Simoes Decarvalho (WWW intern)
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
Watch Dr. Roxane Gay’s 2015 TED Talk here.
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