Sara Ahmed's The Feminist Killjoy Handbook: The Radical Potential of Getting in the Way was published in 2023 by Seal Press.
Witty, Wise—But Has the Killjoy become a Fetish?
These Violent Delights
The Joy of Killing Joy in a Joyless Place
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
Witty, Wise—But Has the Killjoy become a Fetish?
For years, on the last day of my introduction to women’s and gender studies class at Smith College, I have assigned “A Killjoy Survival Kit,” the concluding chapter of Sara Ahmed’s 2017 book, Living a Feminist Life. I do this because I know that the knowledge and analytical skills my students have gained over the semester are empowering but will also make their lives harder to bear because they will more clearly see, understand, and feel the daily bombardment of racism, sexism, and homophobia that makes up our twenty-first-century lives. “A Killjoy Survival Kit” gives them practical suggestions for how to live a feminist life—such as forming support systems—and how to survive the ravages of sexism and racism. As my students walk out the door, I recommend to them Sara Ahmed’s website, feministkilljoys.com.
So as you can imagine, I was thrilled to hear that Ahmed was gifting the world with a full-length book of her feminist killjoy wisdom. I mean, has any feminist in the entire world not felt like a feminist killjoy at some point? Or at many points? And while, yes, it can be pleasurable to be a feminist killjoy, it can also be hard. Which is why I wrapped up my Smith intro course with Ahmed’s “Killjoy Survival Kit.” But now, I have a whole handbook to share with them! And goodness do we need it at this particular point in history, as democracies crumble, women’s rights are under relentless attack, transphobia is raging across the country, and white supremacy has ripped off the white hoods and tossed away the dog whistles.
More than ever we need to “get in the way,” as Ahmed suggests in her subtitle, “to speak up and speak back,” and “to be inconvenient.” In cultures across the world, women are taught to be small, quiet, compliant. Ahmed’s reminder of “the radical potential of getting in the way” is a much-needed clarion call. Building on a long history of feminists using humor to survive, Ahmed’s how-to guide to being a feminist killjoy as cultural critic, philosopher, poet, and activist is fun to read but also as deadly serious as the attacks we suffer daily on our reproductive autonomy, our personal safety, our economic security, and our psychological well-being. With her characteristically accessible and amusing style, Ahmed challenges the age-old patriarchal ad hominem ploy of undermining feminism by claiming that feminists are just no fun.
But while I love Ahmed’s wisdom and wit, she verges on glorifying being a killjoy. I wish she had engaged a bit with the circular-firing-squad phenomenon debilitating the women’s movement today. Called “trashing” by Jo Freeman in the 1970s and “calling out” by Loretta Ross today, the widespread phenomenon—in feminists classrooms, in activist spaces, and on social media—of feminists attacking other feminists rather than training their firepower on right-wing imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, to quote bell hooks. Ahmed dismisses critiques of “cancel culture” as just one more right-wing strategy to undermine women’s empowerment, but I think we need better strategies to hold people accountable, ones founded on compassion and human rights.
Here in the United States, progressive social movements are in crisis because of infighting. As Maurice Mitchell argues in “Building Resilient Organizations,” we need to make our movements irresistible by exhibiting “liberatory values, including the practice of radical compassion and humility.” Loretta Ross recommends choosing our battles and using “calling in” strategies.
Being a feminist killjoy is not an end in itself. It’s not a sport. Being a killjoy should not be used indiscriminately, on everyone and everything at every opportunity. We must learn to deploy our criticisms of others strategically and learn effective methods of communication that do not shut others down but invite deeper reflection and create pathways for change. If we can find ways to stay in relationship with people who disagree with us, we have a better chance of creating change and achieving our feminist goals.
Carrie N. Baker is the Bauman Professor of American Studies and Chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Her scholarship and teaching center on gender, law and policy in the U.S. and feminist social movements. She has published several books, including The Women’s Movement against Sexual Harassment, Fighting the U.S. Youth Sex Trade, and Public Feminisms. She is currently working on a book about the history and politics of the abortion pill in the U.S. She is a graduate of Yale University and Emory University School of Law and Graduate School. She is a contributing editor and regular writer at Ms. magazine.
These Violent Delights
During a garden party at a posh family home, a Black man confides in a Black housekeeper, “Sometimes, if there’s too many white people, I get nervous.”
At this, the housekeeper’s face clouds. Something is wrong. She’s troubled and she wants to say something, but for some reason she can’t. Instead, she whimpers and a tear runs down her cheek.
But then a broad smile appears on her face, and she laughs. “Oh, no,” the woman repeats as if he were a child. “No, no, no. Aren’t you something? That’s not my experience. Not at all.”
Rather than acknowledge the truth of his experience, she silences him with laughter. She silences him with a smile.
The reason the housekeeper can’t respond truthfully is because she’s in the Sunken Place, Get Out’s metaphor for white supremacist control over Black bodies and voices. The 2017 horror film is so, well, horrifying, because it hides danger and violence behind family traditions and a good ol’ time, an insidious dynamic that is all too familiar and effective.
In The Feminist Killjoy Handbook: The Radical Potential of Getting in the Way, Sara Ahmed proudly dons the mantle of “feminist killjoy,” the insult lobbed at a person who dares point out that misogynist rhetoric and actions aren’t funny. Her handbook is a collection of maxims, commitments, and musings that illuminate the feminist responsibility to interrupt joy that does violence to others.
After the rape joke told among family or the underhanded sexist comment at the office, there comes the experience of “sitting at the same table but in different worlds,” a dissonance that can stun us into silence. Instead of swallowing the dissonance and pretending everything is all right, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook urges us to talk back to it. Disrupt it.
These moments of interruption are also moments of connection. When the feminist killjoy draws a line and refuses to accept the unacceptable, they tether themselves to radical world-building, as well as to a network and lineage of other killjoys, past, present, and future. In these personal and political acts of refusal, the feminist killjoy insists on a better world.
From the classroom to the kitchen table, Ahmed examines these moments of rupture while holding them up as opportunities. These ruptures don’t stop at feminism’s front door. Ahmed urges us to examine feminism, too, for these gaps, especially the erasure of BIPOC leaders and scholarship and transphobic rhetoric and beliefs.
When the pursuit of happiness is an enshrined tenet of personal freedom, joy is seen as innocent. Just a bit of harmless fun. But one need only look at the tradition of lynching photography, in which white spectators and perpetrators posed with the dead bodies of lynched Black men, these photos later traded and sent as souvenirs, to see that happiness does not equal innocence. Being a feminist killjoy means heeding Zora Neale Hurston’s maxim: “If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
In recent years a thick fog of dissonance has descended, and we’ve been left wondering what power and meaning words themselves retain. The fog has not yet lifted, so it’s up to the feminist killjoy to uncloud their eyes and open their mouth.
The Joy of Killing Joy in a Joyless Place
V Varun Chaudhry
I hated posing for staged photos as a child. It was not because I didn’t think myself cute enough for a photograph – there are enough pictures of me posing, ready for the camera’s attention to show that I certainly knew that I was a cute kid. When it came to staged pictures, I often frowned at the camera, upset that not only did I have to wear [insert ridiculous outfit here], but also I had to sit up with my back straight, or, in the case of my kindergarten class photo, with my hands unnaturally folded on my lap. I recently came across this photo for an Instagram call to share childhood photos that had the “same vibe” as my current self. As a brown trans person, these kinds of social media practices have always felt complicated: it rarely feels right to share the five year old version of myself who did not go by the name I have now, who was seen by those around [her] not as a girl, but a good girl, one who never caused trouble. But in my kindergarten photo, in a sea of twenty mostly white children, I sit in the bottom corner with a look on my face that is a not-quite-smile. Looking closely, it is something more like a grimace. At the tender age of five, I was fed up (still the vibe) and over it. [She] was, I can see now, most definitely a killjoy.
The Feminist Killjoy Handbook builds on Sara Ahmed’s storied career of poetic, provocative, and deeply feminist writing, refining her theorization of this figure that names the social, affective, and material position of being ostracized or made to feel different based on racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic logics. Even if current rhetoric dictates that we should “all be feminists,” the feminist killjoy is almost always a she, whether she wants to be called a she or not. In my read, the assumed “she” of the feminist killjoy position has less to do with gender identity than it does with the persistence of racialized (trans)misogyny. She is a nag, she wants no one to have fun, she wants to critique everything and prevent everyone else (including herself) from being happy. In The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, Ahmed gives us the tools – killjoy truths, maxims, equations, and commitments – for being the feminist killjoy, for loving the feminist killjoy, and for loving to be the feminist killjoy. This is by no means an easy task: indeed, much of the Handbook discusses the boundaries, care practices, and networks that might allow us to sustainably refuse an institution’s call to become more invested in their rewards (which Ahmed brilliantly calls a “reproductive technology” for institutionality) than in our own aliveness, wellness, and deservedness of deep care. What the Handbook offers, most pertinently, is a reminder that, with the right conditions, there is so much joy to be had in being a killjoy. We can roll our eyes at each other across the room, laugh maniacally about the contradictions of racism, homophobia, and transphobia, tenderly hold onto one another, and fall in love with each other.
Ahmed reminds us that the institutions we are often made to align ourselves with and to rely on for resources and material support are most certainly joyless places. They require our compliance, silence, and conformity – which we buy into under the guise of happiness – to sustain themselves. If we take joy in killing the presumed “joy” of these sites, we might imagine worlds where we strive not to be happy, but to be whole, seen, held, and well.
V Varun Chaudhry is an Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University. V’s manuscript-in-progress, “Transcraft: Pedagogies of World-Building,” focuses on the creative and counterintuitive strategies that racialized and gendered communities use to navigate and access institutional resources, particularly in the nonprofit and philanthropic sphere. Their academic writing has been published or is forthcoming in Signs, Transgender Studies Quarterly, GLQ, Feminist Theory, Feminist Anthropology, and differences. V has also written for the Gender Justice Fund (Philadelphia), the Leeway Foundation, and the Trans Justice Funding Project. V sits on the editorial board for Signs, Feminist Anthropology, and The Bulletin of Applied Transgender Studies.