During an appearance in Florida last fall, Roxane Gay noted that “The national conversation has shifted more towards listening and believing women when we say we have been harmed by toxic masculinity.” Gay herself has been instrumental in this shift, not only via her work as a university professor, a bestselling writer, and cultural critic, but notably from her throne as “Clapback Queen” on Twitter.
Reveling in the “certain petty satisfaction in the ease with which one can dunk on trolls,” Gay has emerged as a superhero of sorts, a “feminist killjoy” avenger wielding her sharp words against trolls drawn to her expression of confidence, audacity, and rage.
Situated at the nexus of feminist, queer, and Black Twitter, and transcending the usual routes to visibility such as the hashtag, Gay illustrates the powerful, if fraught, potential of Twitter.
Scholars Sara Ahmed and Brittany Cooper, drawing on Audre Lorde, inform us that the expression of feminist rage is not only healthy, but powerful. As Cooper explains, “Rage is a kind of refusal. To be made a fool of, to be silenced, to be shamed, or to stand for anybody’s bullshit. It is a refusal of the lie that Black women’s anger in the face of routine, everyday injustice is not legitimate.” By announcing that she is the “Clapback Queen” in her Twitter description, Gay demonstrates her fluency in a brand of Black women’s anger. It is also aligned with an articulation of rage that Ahmed calls “feminist snap.”
Gay deftly navigates multiple Twitter “worlds” while avoiding becoming mired in the thick of what Michelle Goldberg identifies as “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars.” In fact, Gay has been vocal about the importance of careful language use and the need to celebrate the “growing pains” of an increasingly more “intersectional and inclusive” feminism, aided by social media, even if disagreements are at times contentious. But far from a utopic, premature celebration of future promise, Gay does weigh in on the debate, acknowledging, for example, the power of Cooper’s highlighting of the “actual hurt” that Black feminists endure in digital spaces that requires attention.
One of the most important roles that Gay’s feminist activism plays is its amplification of the truths of survivors of all manner of abuses. In Hunger, Gay speaks out against the silencing and shame she’s suffered as a rape survivor, noting that these things aren’t imagined or “in my head. This isn’t poor self-esteem […] For so long I’ve never talked about this. I suppose we should keep our shames to ourselves, but I’m sick of this shame. Silence hasn’t worked out well.” As Ahmed notes, this silencing and shaming is often associated with the demand and then subsequent denial of women’s testimony, a phenomenon American’s recently witnessed playing out on a national stage with Christine Blasey Ford’s public testimony and Kavanaugh’s confirmation following soon after.
Gay’s activism on Twitter moves beyond the power of the hashtag. Ahmed presents key principles that are helpful for understanding the power of Gay’s online actions. For example, the concept of the feminist snap, or “a way of thinking more creatively and affirmatively about breaking points.”
According to Ahmed, breaking points are moments of refusal of inheritances chosen for, not by, women. Importantly, she makes clear that a snap is a moment with a history that has often been obscured. This happens because the person snapping is made to carry the weight of the violence of the moment. Ahmed argues that women need to somehow show how their “snaps” are not the starting points. Gay is able to utilize Twitter to both create community and demand a hearing for its members’ often silenced testimonies. In fact, because of the outrage that Black feminist rage sparks, the act of speaking her truth on Twitter often prompts quick and plentiful reactions from people seemingly eager to demonstrate the kinds of things that women are often accused of exaggerating or making up. In this way, Gay collects a record of proof; offenders speak for themselves.
Gay’s Twitter work provides a real-world illustration of Ahmed’s argument at work without losing the rigor or complexity of what she discusses in what many would consider academese, challenging Gordon Fraser’s recent suggestion that the power of academic thinking “evaporates the moment we reduce our considered findings to a tweet.”
While on the surface Gay’s engagement with Twitter may seem casual and commonplace, her work is quite sophisticated. Gay troubles the scholar/public divide. By leveraging her visibility as a bestselling author and merging her intellectual work and personal experiences, Gay models a public intellectualism that is at once broadly accessible, informative, and fearless in its willingness to push back at offenders.
Twitter is a toxic space that poses many risks. Cooper recognizes that “Rage is costly. And its costs are directly proportional to the amount of power any given woman or girl has when she chooses to wield it.” A particular type of rancor seems to be reserved for the expression of rage from a queer woman of color, and the prospect of being heaped upon by a hatefulness seemingly gone viral is not particularly comforting.
However, as activists Mariame Kaba and Andrea Smith make clear, “Feminists of color know that when we are not on ‘toxic Twitter,’ there is no other place we can go where we won’t have to deal with the intersecting forces of racism, sexism and capitalism.” This considered, the wide-reaching benefits of Gay’s work may outweigh risks, especially as Gay herself discusses the power of finding online communities and the role it played at a sensitive moment in her own life.
When women like Gay and Cooper, aware of their relative privilege and power, knowingly take on these risks, they move theory into practice, and create empowering spaces where silenced women can find community and affirmation that they are not “imagining things.”
Nicole M. Morris Johnson (Ph.D. Emory University) is an assistant professor of African American Literature and Culture at California State University, Northridge, and will begin an appointment as assistant professor of African American Literature, Culture, and Theory at University at Buffalo in Fall of 2019. She has articles published or forthcoming in Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism,and South Atlantic Review, and her work also appears in The Routledge Companion to African American Theatre and Performance. She is at work on her first book project, titled “The South in Her: Black Women, Creolization, Performance,” and is writing an academic article on feminist rage.