Thoughts on “feminist killjoys”

I just finished this excellent article by post-colonial (among other attributes) theorist Sara Ahmed; it’s rather long but worth reading, and the introduction is particularly touching—but I just wanted to quote here some parts that I found especially important and which really spoke to certain things I’ve encountered.

[The bolding is mine, the italics are from the original text]

On the idea of feminists (and others) being “killjoys” for openly calling out oppression:

To be willing to go against a social order, which is protected as a moral order, a happiness order is to be willing to cause unhappiness, even if unhappiness is not your cause. . . .

So, yes, let’s take the figure of the feminist killjoy seriously. Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy? Does bad feeling enter the room when somebody expresses anger about things, or could anger be the moment when the bad feelings that circulate through objects get brought to the surface in a certain way? The feminist subject “in the room” hence “brings others down” not only by talking about unhappy topics such as sexism but by exposing how happiness is sustained by erasing the signs of not getting along. Feminists do kill joy in a certain sense: they disturb the very fantasy that happiness can be found in certain places. To kill a fantasy can still kill a feeling. It is not just that feminists might not be happily affected by what is supposed to cause happiness, but our failure to be happy is read as sabotaging the happiness of others. . . .

To be recognized as a feminist is to be assigned to a difficult category and a category of difficulty. You are “already read” as “not easy to get along with” when you name yourself as a feminist. You have to show that you are not difficult through displaying signs of good will and happiness. Frye alludes to such experiences when she describes how: “this means, at the very least, that we may be found to be “difficult” or unpleasant to work with, which is enough to cost one’s livelihood.” We can also witness an investment in feminist unhappiness (the myth that feminists kill joy because they are joy-less). There is a desire to believe that women become feminists because they are unhappy. This desire functions as a defense of happiness against feminist critique. This is not to say that feminists might not be unhappy; becoming a feminist might mean becoming aware of just how much there is to be unhappy about. Feminist consciousness could be understood as consciousness of unhappiness, a consciousness made possible by the refusal to turn away. My point here would be that feminists are read as being unhappy, such that situations of conflict, violence, and power are read as about the unhappiness of feminists, rather than being what feminists are unhappy about.

On anger and uncomfortable disruption (in the passages I haven’t included, Ahmed writes at length about the politics of “willfulness”):

The figure of the angry black woman is a fantasy figure that produces its own effects. Reasonable, thoughtful arguments are dismissed as anger (which of course empties anger of its own reason), which makes you angry, such that your response becomes read as the confirmation of evidence that you are not only angry but also unreasonable! To make this point in another way, the anger of feminists of color is attributed. You might be angry about how racism and sexism diminish life choices for women of color. Your anger is a judgment that something is wrong. But then in being heard as angry, your speech is read as motivated by anger. Your anger is read as unattributed, as if you are against x because you are angry rather than being angry because you are against x. . . .

Power speaks here… Do you go along with it? What does it mean not to go along with it?… Maintaining public comfort requires that certain bodies “go along with it.” To refuse to go along with it, to refuse the place in which you are placed, is to be seen as causing trouble, as making others uncomfortable. . . .

Political histories of striking and of demonstrations are histories of those willing to put their bodies in the way, to turn their bodies into blockage points that stop the flow of human traffic, as well as the wider flow of an economy. When willfulness becomes a style of politics, it means not only being willing not to go with the flow, but also being willing to cause its obstruction. One could think of a hunger strike as the purest form of willfulness: a body whose agency is expressed by being reduced to obstruction, where the obstruction to others is self-obstruction, the obstruction of the passage into the body. Histories of willfulness are histories of those who are willing to put their bodies in the way.

On how we can see these dynamics in discourses surrounding racism:

Take the example of racism. It can be willful even to name racism: as if the talk about divisions is what is divisive. Given that racism recedes from social consciousness, it appears as if the ones who “bring it up” are bringing it into existence. We learned that the very talk of racism is experienced as an intrusion from the figure of the angry black woman: as if it is her anger about racism that causes feminist estrangement…

Racism is very difficult to talk about as racism can operate to censor the very evidence of its existence. Those who talk about racism are thus heard as creating rather than describing a problem. The stakes are indeed very high: to talk about racism is to occupy a space that is saturated with tension. History is saturation. One of the findings of a research project I was involved with on diversity was that because racism saturates everyday and institutional spaces, people of color often make strategic decisions not to use the language of racism. If you already pose a problem, or appear “out of place” in the institutions of whiteness, there can be “good reasons” not to exercise what is heard as a threatening vocabulary. Not speaking about racism can be a way of inhabiting the spaces of racism. You minimize the threat you already are by softening your language and appearance, by keeping as much distance as you can from the figure of the angry person of color. Of course, as we know, just to walk into a room can be to lose that distance, because that figure gets there before you do.

When you use the very language of racism you are heard as “going on about it,” as “not letting it go.” It is as if talking about racism is what keeps it going. Racism thus often enters contemporary forms of representation as a representation of a past experience. . . .

Consciousness of racism becomes understood as a kind of false consciousness, as consciousness of that which is no longer. Racism is framed as a memory that if it were kept alive would just leave us exhausted. The task of citizenship becomes one of conversion: if racism is preserved only in our memory and consciousness, then racism would “go away” if only we too would declare it gone. The narrative implicit here is not that we “invent racism,” but that we preserve its power to govern social life by not getting over it. The moral task is thus “to get over it,” as if when you are over it, it is gone.

Most of what Ahmed wrote speaks for itself, but to add my own thoughts…

The descriptions I usually hear of “angry feminists” are interesting, because these women generally become reduced to their anger—as if because they cannot find enjoyment in [whatever they are complaining about], then they cannot find enjoyment in anything—they simply are angry beings, perpetually, rather than being people who have been exposed to issues that deserve the response of anger.

But anyone who knows the given feminists as individuals, as people, knows that they enjoy themselves; they spend time with friends and they laugh and they watch TV or listen to music or dance or read or play a sport or do whatever brings them joy; and if they cannot find much joy in life anymore, those who know them also know what loss brought them to such an existence.

Thus the stereotype of this group as “angry” is actually rather dehumanizing: reduced to some enraged echo, as if this woman, having shown so much anger, is no longer recognizable as a whole person if she doesn’t constantly remind us how she is one. (It’s not so different from how various groups—consider certain immigrant nationalities seen as threatening—can claim their rights, their worthiness, only after having proven, having ‘auditioned’, for their humanity.)

It reminds me of a response that I’m sure many open feminists are familiar with: a friend/acquaintance/family member doesn’t like feminists in general, but they like you—regardless of how, in actuality, you’re not so different from the others—because despite having generalized, they can see how you don’t fit the stereotypes (e.g. you’re not a “man-hater”—as if any of the others are); they’re also aware of your existence as a full person (e.g. you’re not always angry; you are other things besides an angry feminist).

Of course, it also highlights how, as a critique, talking about “anger” is completely silly (not to mention the broader problem of tone-policing).

One thing that drives me insane is the utterly banal joke about “angry feminists” coming after men/those who disagree with them, because it’s generally used to imply assault—whereas the threat of violence for some is very real, and it’s generally what the very feminists being belittled are fighting against. As if men are going to be overrun by swarms of angry feminists on the streets; as if criticizing someone’s awful rape joke is like punching him in the face. (Meanwhile, the rape and death threats some female writers receive regularly? Not worth raising our voices about.)

Somehow, the annoyance at being called out is felt viscerally, like responding to a threat—not creating a false equivalence between, but actually giving precedence to the feelings of the people called out over the violence being protested—violence not felt by the person whom the given critique annoys. Back to what Ahmed wrote: “our failure to be happy is read as sabotaging the happiness of others.” But as many have reiterated: annoyance and discomfort are no fun, but they’re not oppression (not that the people complaining understand how oppression as a matter of power works anyways!).

Finally, there’s the irony that righteous anger is actually a central facet of the construct of masculinity, yet “angry feminists” is meant as a pejorative. Of course, as a “masculine” trait, anger is considered awesome and manly for men but becomes a negative attribute if exhibited by women, and such anti-feminists generally don’t want people transgressing these gender roles. So the righteous male anger at feminist women’s wrongful anger is ideologically consistent, even if not logically sound.

Ultimately, as Ahmed points out, there’s a lot to deconstruct in these tropes of feminist anger and joy-killing, and her article is worth a serious read.


UPDATE: A few more thoughts—are male feminists ever described as “angry”? It seems to me that they’re more likely to be called sissies (I don’t know that anyone still uses this word, but I mean it to stand in for any descriptors which insinuate that they’re not a “real” man), or “whipped,” or something of the sort implying their emasculation. It doesn’t really feel like a hit to call the male feminist “angry,” does it? I think we could argue that how people choose to mock feminists who are actually male (or how we insult men in general) says a lot about the use of “angry” I described above—specifically, the gendered ideals that each pejorative draws upon to do its damage.

Also, to expand upon what I discussed earlier about feminist women being conceptualized as perpetually angry—there’s also a tendency, I’ve noticed, to attribute anger when there is none. So there isn’t just the situation where one’s actual anger is deemed unseemly or the label “angry” is deployed pejoratively; there’s also many cases where anger is misperceived when in fact, the feminist (I also recall instances where this occurred when someone was calling out racism) is totally calm while making their critique. This, of course, happens mainly online when the aura of the person writing isn’t easily translated through typed text.

But the ironic part is that the person being criticized will often tell the critic to “calm down” or “chill,” when the person who was called out, in fact, is the one who’s angry—evidenced by their use of all caps, or implied tone when spamming with defensive replies, or simply by what they’re saying. If such a person knows that someone with whom they’re speaking is a feminist, I think this misattribution of anger is more likely, because of the “angry feminist” stereotype—for, how could this feminist talk about something where gender is relevant, let alone anything, without anger, when she is anger? To slightly alter Ahmed’s phrasing, “your speech is read as [always] motivated by anger.”

I don’t mean to be totally conclusive with anything I’ve written here; these are just some reflections that come to mind. Feel free to comment with your thoughts if you have more to say or totally disagree with something I’ve suggested.

A gif from the short video "But I'm A Nice Guy"
A .GIF derived from the short editorial cartoon “But I’m A Nice Guy” by Scott Benson.

One thought on “Thoughts on “feminist killjoys”

  1. Thanks for this. It was a great read, and I agree with pretty much everything. I think, though, it’s important to point this out – and you do mention it: structures of power and domination are contained within the very language that we use. An alert feminist, therefore, will have to be an active feminist – because one never knows where and when there will be something to call out, something almost sub-conscious, that the speaker is probably not aware of himself or herself. Right from the fact that we use the generic “he” as the default term for the third person, to stock phrases like “Be a man! Don’t crumble under pressure!”, it’s all-pervasive, and it happens in contexts that have nothing to do with feminism, or even politics. I’ve noticed that people get especially upset when called out in those circumstances, because they think that they meant absolutely no offense (and indeed, it’s a natural response – I found myself reacting when someone did it to me). This perhaps is the reason for so much of the “angry feminist” labels.

    All of which underscores the need, of course, to continue to be angry feminists.


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