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Sara Ahmed on feminist killjoys

Ever feel like a feminist killjoy? In this 2010 essay, Sara Ahmed deconstructs the cultural tropes of the “killjoy feminist” and “angry black woman.” Check out an excerpt of the text below, or the full version here.

It can be hard to remember becoming a feminist if only because it is hard to remember a time that you did not feel that way. Is it possible to have always been that way? Is it possible to have been a feminist right from the beginning? A feminist story can be a beginning. Perhaps we can make sense of the complexity of feminism as an activist space if we can give an account of how feminism becomes an object of feeling, as something we invest in, as a way of relating to the world, a way of making sense of how we relate to the world. When did “feminism” become a word that spoke not just to you, but spoke you, that spoke of your existence or even spoke you into existence? The sound of it, your sound? How do we gather by gathering around this word, sticking to each other by sticking to it? What did it mean, what does it mean, to hold onto “feminism,” to fight under its name; to feel in its ups and downs, in its coming and goings, one’s own ups and downs, one’s own comings and goings?

What is my story? Like you, I have many. One way of telling my feminist story would be to begin with a table. Around the table, a family gathers. Always we are seated in the same place: my father one end, myself the other, my two sisters to one side, my mother to the other. Always we are seated this way, as if we are trying to secure more than our place. A childhood memory, yes. But it is also memory of an everyday experience in that quite literal sense of an experience that happened every day. An intense everyday: my father asking questions, my sisters and me answering them, my mother mostly silent. When does intensity become tension?

We begin with a table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you consider problematic. You are becoming tense; it is becoming tense. How hard to tell the difference between what is you and what is it! You respond, carefully, perhaps. You say why you think what they have said is problematic. You might be speaking quietly, but you are beginning to feel “wound up,” recognising with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. In speaking up or speaking out, you upset the situation. That you have described what was said by another as a problem means you have created a problem. You become the problem you create.

To be the object of shared disapproval, those glances that can cut you up, cut you out. An experience of alienation can shatter a world. The family gathers around the table; these are supposed to be happy occasions. How hard we work to keep the occasion happy, to keep the surface of the table polished so that it can reflect back a good image of the family. So much you are not supposed to say, to do, to be, in order to preserve that image. If you say, or do, or be anything that does not reflect the image of the happy family back to itself, the world becomes distorted. You become the cause of a distortion. You are the distortion you cause. Another dinner, ruined. To become alienated from a picture can allow you to see what that picture does not and will not reflect.

Becoming a feminist can be an alienation from happiness (though not just that, not only that: oh the joy of being able to leave the place you were given!). When we feel happiness in proximity to the right objects, we are aligned; we are facing the right way. You become alienated—out of line with an affective community—when you do not experience happiness from the right things. The gap between the affective value of an object and how we experience an object can involve a range of affects, which are directed by the modes of explanation we offer to fill this gap.

If we are disappointed by something that is supposed to make us happy, we generate explanations of why that thing is disappointing. We can be disappointed without ever being happy. Think of the wedding day, imagined as “the happiest day of your life” before it even happens! What happens when the day happens, if happiness does not happen? In her classic The Managed Heart, Arlie Russell Hochschild explores how if the bride is not happy on the wedding day, and feels “depressed and upset,” then she is experiencing an “inappropriate affect,” or is being affected inappropriately. You have to save the day by feeling right: “sensing a gap between the ideal feeling and the actual feeling she tolerated, the bride prompts herself to be happy”.[2] The capacity to “save the day” depends on the bride being able to make herself be affected in the right way, or at least being able to persuade others that she is being affected in the right way. To correct our feelings is to become disaffected from a former affection: the bride makes herself happy by stopping herself from being miserable. We learn from this example that it is possible not to inhabit fully one’s own happiness, or even to be alienated from one’s happiness, if the former affection remains lively, persisting as more than just memory, or if one is made uneasy by the very necessity of having to make oneself feel a certain way.

You cannot always close the gap between how you do feel and how you should feel. Behind the sharpness of this “cannot” is a world of possibility. Does activism act out of this gap, opening it up, loosening it up? Not to close the gap between what you do feel and what you should feel might begin as or with a sense of disappointment. Disappointment can involve an anxious narrative of self-doubt (why I am not made happy by this; what is wrong with me?), or a narrative of rage, where the object that is “supposed” to make us happy is attributed as the cause of disappointment. Your rage might be directed against it, or spill out toward those that promised you happiness through the elevation of such objects as good. We become strangers, or affect aliens, in such moments.

Affect aliens are those who experience alien affects. You are unseated by the table of happiness. If you lose your seat what happens? Activism is often a matter of seats. The word “dissidence” for instance derives from the Latin dis—“apart” + sedere “to sit.” The dissident is the one who sits apart. Or the dissident is the one would be unseated by taking up a place at the table: your seat is the site of disagreement. In Queer Phenomenology I was too obsessed with tables to notice the queerness of the chair. But I did suggest then that if we begin with the body that loses its chair, the world we describe might be quite different.[3]


To be unseated by the table of happiness might be to threaten not simply that table, but what gathers around it, what gathers on it. When you are unseated, you can even get in the way of those who are seated, those who want more than anything to keep their seats. To threaten the loss of the seat can be to kill the joy of the seated. How well we recognise the figure of the feminist killjoy! How she makes sense! Let’s take the figure of the feminist killjoy seriously. One feminist project could be to give the killjoy back her voice. Whilst hearing feminists as killjoys might be a form of dismissal, there is an agency that this dismissal rather ironically reveals. We can respond to the accusation with a “yes.”

The figure of the feminist killjoy makes sense if we place her in the context of feminist critiques of happiness, of how happiness is used to justify social norms as social goods (a social good is what causes happiness, given happiness is understood as what is good). As Simone de Beauvoir described so astutely “it is always easy to describe as happy a situation in which one wishes to place [others].”[4] Not to agree to stay in the place of this wish might be to refuse the happiness that is wished for. To be involved in political activism is thus to be involved in a struggle against happiness. Even if we are struggling for different things, even if we have different worlds we want to create, we might share what we come up against. Our activist archives are thus unhappy archives. Just think of the labor of critique that is behind us: feminist critiques of the figure of “the happy housewife;” Black critiques of the myth of “the happy slave”; queer critiques of the sentimentalisation of heterosexuality as “domestic bliss.” The struggle over happiness provides the horizon in which political claims are made. We inherit this horizon.

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. To be willing to cause unhappiness might be about how we live an individual life (not to choose “the right path” is readable as giving up the happiness that is presumed to follow that path). Parental responses to coming out, for example, can take the explicit form not of being unhappy about the child being queer but of being unhappy about the child being unhappy.[5] Even if you do not want to cause the unhappiness of those you love, a queer life can mean living with that unhappiness. To be willing to cause unhappiness can also be how we immerse ourselves in collective struggle, as we work with and through others who share our points of alienation. Those who are unseated by the tables of happiness can find each other.

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.

We can consider the relationship between the negativity of the figure of the feminist killjoy and how certain bodies are “encountered” as being negative. Marilyn Frye argues that oppression involves the requirement that you show signs of being happy with the situation in which you find yourself. As she puts it, “it is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful. If we comply, we signify our docility and our acquiescence in our situation.” To be oppressed requires that you show signs of happiness, as signs of being or having been adjusted. For Frye “anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous”.[6]

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.”[7] 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.

Political struggles can takes place over the causes of unhappiness. We need to give a history to unhappiness. We need to hear in unhappiness more than the negation of the “un.” The history of the word “unhappy” might teach us about the unhappiness of the history of happiness. In its earliest uses, unhappy meant to cause misfortunate or trouble. Only later, did it come to mean to feel misfortunate, in the sense of wretched or sad. We can learn from the swiftness of translation from causing unhappiness to being described as unhappy. We must learn.

The word “wretched” has its own genealogy, coming from wretch, meaning a stranger, exile, banished person. Wretched in the sense of “vile, despicable person” was developed in Old English and is said to reflect “the sorry state of the outcast.” Can we rewrite the history of happiness from the point of view of the wretch? If we listen to those who are cast as wretched, perhaps their wretchedness would no longer belong to them. The sorrow of the stranger might give us a different angle on happiness not because it teaches us what it is like or must be like to be a stranger, but because it might estrange us from the very happiness of the familiar.

Phenomenology helps us explore how the familiar is that which is not revealed. A queer phenomenology shows how the familiar is not revealed to those who can inhabit it. For queers and other others the familiar is revealed to you, because you do not inhabit it. To be “estranged from” can be what enables a “consciousness of.” This is why being a killjoy can be a knowledge project, a world-making project.

Feminist Tables

A feminist call might be a call to anger, to develop a sense of rage about collective wrongs. And yet, it is important that we do not make feminist emotion into a site of truth: as if it is always clear or self-evident that our anger is right. When anger becomes righteous it can be oppressive; to assume anger makes us right can be a wrong. We know how easily a politics of happiness can be displaced into a politics of anger: the assumption of a right to happiness can convert very swiftly into anger toward others (immigrants, aliens, strangers) who have taken the happiness assumed to be “by right” to be ours. It is precisely that we cannot defend ourselves against such defensive use of emotion that would be my point. Emotions are not always just, even those that seem to acquire their force in or from an experience of injustice. Feminist emotions are mediated and opaque; they are sites of struggle, and we must persist in struggling with them.[8]

After all, feminist spaces are emotional spaces, in which the experience of solidarity is hardly exhaustive. As feminists we have our own tables. If we are unseated by the family table, it does not necessarily follow that we are seated together. We can place the figure of the feminist killjoy alongside the figure of the angry Black woman, explored so well by Black feminist writers such as Audre Lorde[9] and bell hooks[10]. The angry black woman can be described as a killjoy; she may even kill feminist joy, for example, by pointing out forms of racism within feminist politics. She might not even have to make any such point to kill joy. Listen to the following description from bell hooks: “a group of white feminist activists who do not know one another may be present at a meeting to discuss feminist theory. They may feel bonded on the basis of shared womanhood, but the atmosphere will noticeably change when a woman of color enters the room. The white woman will become tense, no longer relaxed, no longer celebratory.”[11]

It is not just that feelings are “in tension,” but that the tension is located somewhere: in being felt by some bodies, it is attributed as caused by another body, who comes to be felt as apart from the group, as getting in the way of its enjoyment and solidarity. The body of color is attributed as the cause of becoming tense, which is also the loss of a shared atmosphere. As a feminist of color you do not even have to say anything to cause tension! The mere proximity of some bodies involves an affective conversion. We learn from this example how histories are condensed in the very intangibility of an atmosphere, or in the tangibility of the bodies that seem to get in the way. Atmospheres might become shared if there is agreement in where we locate the points of tension.

A history can be preserved in the very stickiness of a situation. To speak out of anger as a woman of color is then to confirm your position as the cause of tension; your anger is what threatens the social bond. As Audre Lorde describes: “When women of Color speak out of the anger that laces so many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are ‘creating a mood of helplessness,’ ‘preventing white women from getting past guilt,’ or ‘standing in the way of trusting communication and action.’”[12] The exposure of violence becomes the origin of violence. The woman of color must let go of her anger for the white woman to move on.

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. You become angry at the injustice of being heard as motivated by anger, which makes it harder to separate yourself from the object of your anger. You become entangled with what you are angry about because you are angry about how they have entangled you in your anger. In becoming angry about that entanglement, you confirm their commitment to your anger as the truth “behind” your speech, which is what blocks your anger, stops it from getting through. You are blocked by not getting through.

Some bodies become blockage points, points where smooth communication stops. Consider Ama Ata Aidoo’s wonderful prose poem, Our Sister Killjoy, where the narrator Sissie, as a black woman, has to work to sustain the comfort of others. On a plane, a white hostess invites her to sit at the back with “her friends,” two black people she does not know. She is about to say that she does not know them, and hesitates. “But to have refused to join them would have created an awkward situation, wouldn’t it? Considering too that apart from the air hostess’s obviously civilized upbringing, she had been trained to see the comfort of all her passengers.”[13]

Power speaks here in this moment of hesitation. Do you go along with it? What does it mean not to go along with it? To create awkwardness is to be read as being awkward. 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. There is a political struggle about how we attribute good and bad feelings, which hesitates around the apparently simple question of who introduces what feelings to whom. Feelings can get stuck to certain bodies in the very way we describe spaces, situations, dramas. And bodies can get stuck depending on the feelings with which they get associated.

Getting in the Way

A killjoy: the one who gets in the way of other people’s happiness. Or just the one who is in the way—you can be in the way of whatever, if you are already perceived as being in the way. Your very arrival into a room is a reminder of histories that “get in the way” of the occupation of that room. How many feminist stories are about rooms, about who occupies them, about making room? When to arrive is to get in the way, what happens, what do you do? The figure of the killjoy could be rethought in terms of the politics of willfulness. I suggested earlier that an activist archive is an unhappiness archive, one shaped by the struggles of those who are willing to struggle against happiness. We might redescribe this struggle in terms of those who are willing to be willful. An unhappiness archive is a willfulness archive.

Let’s go back: let’s listen to what and who is behind us. Alice Walker describes a “womanist” in the following way: “A black feminist or feminist of color… Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one… Responsible. In charge. Serious.”[14] Julia Penelope describes lesbianism as willfulness: “The lesbian stands against the world created by the male imagination. What willfulness we possess when we claim our lives!”[15] Marilyn Frye’s radical feminism uses the adjective willful: “The willful creation of new meaning, new loci of meaning, and new ways of being, together, in the world, seems to be in these mortally dangerous times the best hope we have.”[16] Willfulness as audacity, willfulness as standing against, willfulness as creativity.

We can make sense of how willfulness comes up, if we consider a typical definition of willfulness: “asserting or disposed to assert one’s own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will without regard to reason; determined to take one’s own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse” (OED). To be called obstinate or perverse because you are not persuaded by the reason of others? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before? When you are charged with willfulness it is as if your being is an insistence on being, a refusal to give way, to give up, to give up your way. Can what we are charged with become a charge in Alice Walker’s sense, a way of being in charge? If we are charged with willfulness, we can accept and mobilize this charge.

We have to become willful, perhaps, to keep going the way we are going, if the way you are going is perceived to be “the wrong way.” We all know the experience of “going the wrong way” in a crowd. Everyone seems to be going the opposite way than the way you are going. No one person has to push or shove for you to feel the collective momentum of the crowd as a pushing and shoving. For you to keep going you have to push harder than any of those individuals who are going the right way. The body “going the wrong way” is the one that is experienced as “in the way” of the will that is acquired as momentum. For some bodies mere persistence, “to continue steadfastly,” requires great effort, an effort that might appear to others as stubbornness or obstinacy, as insistence on going against the flow. You have to become insistent to go against the flow; you are judged to be going against the flow because you are insistent. A life paradox: you have to become what you are judged as being.

It is crucial that we don’t assume that willfulness is simply about lonely individuals going against the tide of the social. At the same time, we can note how the social can be experienced as a force: you can feel a force most directly when you attempt to resist it. It is the experience of “coming up against” that is named by willfulness, which is why a willful politics needs to be a collective politics. The collective here is not assumed as a ground. Rather, willfulness is a collecting together, of those struggling for a different ground for existence. You need to be supported when you are not going the way things are flowing. This is why I think of a feminist queer politics as a politics of tables: tables give support to gatherings, and we need support when we live our lives in ways that are experienced by others as stubborn or obstinate.

A flow is an effect of bodies that are going the same way. To go is also to gather. A flow can be an effect of gatherings of all kinds: gatherings of tables, for instance, as kinship objects that support human gatherings. How many times have I had the experience of being left waiting at a table when a straight couple walks into the room and is attended to straight away! For some, you have to become insistent to be the recipient of a social action, you might have to announce your presence, wave your arm, saying: “Here I am!” For others, it is enough just to turn up because you have already been given a place at the table before you take up your place. Willfulness describes the uneven consequences of this differentiation.

An attribution of willfulness involves the attribution of negative affect to those bodies that get in the way, those bodes that “go against the flow” in the way they are going. The attribution of willfulness is thus effectively a charge of killing joy. Conversations are also flows; they are saturated. We hear this saturation as atmosphere. To be attributed as willful is to be the one who “ruins the atmosphere.” A colleague says to me she just has to open her mouth in meetings to witness eyes rolling as if to say, “oh here she goes.” My experience as a feminist daughter in a conventional family taught me a great deal about rolling eyes. You already know this. However you speak, the one who speaks up as a feminist is usually viewed as “causing the argument,” as the one who is disturbing the fragility of peace. To be willful is to provide a point of tension. Willfulness is stickiness: it is an accusation that sticks.

If to be attributed as willful is to be the cause of the problem, then we can claim that willfulness as a political cause. Queer feminist histories are full of self-declared willful subjects. Think of the Heterodoxy Club that operated in Greenwich Village in the early 20th century, a club for unorthodox women. They described themselves as “this little band of willful women,” as Judith Schwarz reveals in her wonderful history of this club.[17] A heterodoxy is “not in agreement with accepted beliefs, or holding unorthodox opinions.” To be willful is to be willing to announce your disagreement, and to put yourself behind a disagreement. To enact a disagreement might even mean to become disagreeable. Feminism we might say is the creation of some rather disagreeable women.

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.

Political forms of consciousness can also be thought of as willfulness: not only is it hard to speak about what has receded from view, but you have to be willing to get in the way of that recession. An argument of second-wave feminism (one shared with Marxism and Black politics) that I think is worth holding onto is the argument that political consciousness is achieved: raising consciousness is a crucial aspect of collective political work. Raising consciousness is difficult as consciousness is consciousness of what recedes. If the point of a recession is that it gives some the power to occupy space (occupation is reproduced by the concealment of the signs of occupation), then raising consciousness is a resistance to an occupation.

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. To recede is to go back or withdraw. To concede is to give way, to yield. People of color are often asked to concede to the recession of racism: we are asked to “give way” by letting it “go back.” Not only that: more than that. We are often asked to embody a commitment to diversity. We are asked to smile in their brochures. The smile of diversity is a way of not allowing racism to surface; it is a form of political recession.

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.[18] 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.[19] 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. Take the film Bend it Like Beckham (2002, dir. Gurinder Chada): the film is very much premised on the freedom to be happy, as the freedom of the daughter, Jesminder, to do whatever makes her happy (in her case playing football—her idea of happiness is what puts her in proximity to a national idea of happiness). Her father’s memory of racism gets in the way of her happiness. Consider two speeches he makes in the film, the first one takes place early on, and the latter at the end:

When I was a teenager in Nairobi, I was the best fast bowler in our school. Our team even won the East African cup. But when I came to this country, nothing. And these bloody gora in the club house made fun of my turban and sent me off packing… She will only end up disappointed like me.