The Roxane Gay and Mamamia podcast debacle reveals inherent misunderstandings about trauma, divulgence, and who gets to speak.
As most of you will probably know by now, yesterday it came to the public’s attention that Australian women’s media network, Mamamia, had royally fucked itself. It had, in a cringe-inducing, painfully tone-deaf podcast introduction, caused pain and embarrassment to one of the world’s most humble, respected, and intelligent feminist theorists and authors – and by extension, to all the people who feel represented by her.
Oh Mamamia. When good intentions just do so much damage… this is appalling pic.twitter.com/Kni2nKpvkp
— courtney robinson (@courtney_ro) June 13, 2017
The woman who so sneeringly (and definitely not for the first time) got a taste of what cruel, misinformed white feminism is, was the one and only Roxanne Gay.
Gay was in Sydney for the Writer’s Festival to talk about her previous publications – including the bestselling feminist tome ‘Bad Feminist,’ and the heartbreakingly raw short story collection, ‘Difficult Women’ – and to promote her new book, ‘Hunger’, which is a memoir from the perspective of her body, which records and ruminates on both the indexical and non-indexical traces that experiences such as being gang-raped as a child, and being tormented for being overweight, have left on her flesh and in her mind.
Gay’s non-fictional works are known for their honesty. Gay often allows us to bear witness to incredibly horrific events in her life. ‘Hunger’ is the most detailed example of this yet, but it is not a new way of writing for Gay, or impelled by a radical new ethos of transparency.
In ‘Bad Feminist,’ she writes a chapter called “The Illusion of Safety/ The Safety of Illusion,” which puts forward some of her views on the use of ‘trigger warnings’ in discussions about trauma. Gay not only questions the usefulness of trigger warnings, but also suggests that the illusion of safety they create is potentially dangerous. By allowing readers to avert their eyes from discussions that may be hard for them to take in, or that may make them revisit their trauma, Gay suggests that trigger warnings are actually providing a false sense of control for victims of trauma, and are preventing them from dealing with what they must deal with in order to work through what they inevitably must.
Among other incisive criticisms, she writes, “Trigger warnings aren’t meant for those of us who don’t believe in them, just like the Bible wasn’t written for atheists. Trigger warnings are designed for the people who need and believe in that safety… When I see trigger warnings, I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel protected. Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
In ‘Hunger’, Gay writes about the multitude of continuous anxieties felt, and preparations that must be made, as an obese women who exists in the world. Things that non-obese people would not consider, like whether a chair will be wide enough to contain one’s girth, or whether eating an unhealthy food in public will be the cause of dirty looks from passers-by, are things that obese people must navigate on a daily basis. Gay is honest about such intimate anxieties in her writing. She does not use trigger warnings.
So the main problem with Mamamia’s podcast introduction is not that it exposed anxieties that Gay is not already willing to share – although (tangent happening here), the hyperbolic questioning of whether Gay would be able to fit into an industrial-sized lift is clearly a departure from anything that Gay has ever divulged, or could divulge, because it is so obviously not a viable concern.
This author has in fact stood inside the lift that goes up to the Mamamia offices in Surry Hills. It is a big lift. In fact, a quick Google search reveals that last year on April 5, a development application was made for the building in which the Mamamia offices reside, a section of which sought to demolish the existing lift in order to construct an even bigger one. On its website, lift company Stannah Lifts offers a 6 person lift as the smallest lift it makes – this lift can carry up to 450 kg. At her heaviest, Gay has said she weighed approximately 262 kg. In conclusion, for Mamamia to say that it was worried about Gay fitting in the lift is at best completely ignorant about lift capacity, and at worst a flagrant example of using fat shaming as entertainment. (Tangent over.)
The main problem with Mamamia’s podcast introduction is that it fundamentally misunderstands what honest divulgence about personal anxieties (in this case, stemming from intimate bodily violence and emotional trauma) ‘allows’ other people to discuss. If someone decides, for whatever reason, to divulge something very personal and hard to you, that does not give you the right to continue the conversation as if you are coming from their perspective.
You are, always, the other in their story, and you have to work from that position. To weirdly mirror their trauma in a way that shames them, instead of reacting with compassion to the experience of shame that they have shared with you, is to compound the trauma, not to alleviate the burden.
That’s without even going into the ingrained racial prejudices that accompany the dehumanising description of a black, Haitian American woman, and the ignorance that would make a slim, white, female interviewer decide that an obese, black female interviewee’s decision not to have her picture taken is somehow a personal affront rather than a self-protective choice.
Mamamia has now issued a 600 word apology that manages to entirely miss the point, and Gay has talked further about her experience with Mamamia on the Wall Street Journal Book Club’s Facebook Livestream.
The Mamamia talk starts at about 13 mins in.
At the Sydney Writer’s Festival, the reason for Gay’s time in Sydney, there was a lot of discussion about how privileged, white writers might try to contribute to progressive dialogue about race, body and privilege itself. The answer from almost all of the diverse panelists was unanimous: don’t translate; amplify. Use your privilege to direct readers to the writers who know what they’re talking about when it comes to these areas, and who can write with more authenticity and nuance than you will ever be able to from your position.
So, without further ado, here’s the kicker: go and buy Roxane Gay’s new memoir, ‘Hunger’. It is wonderful, sincere, challenging, and necessary reading. Don’t let the foolish misstep of a naïve interviewer distract you from that.