Inside Story

Letting loose

Sara Ahmed’s celebration of the feminist killjoy continues

Zora Simic Books 26 April 2023 1034 words

“To identify yourself as a feminist is to be judged as a killjoy,” says Ahmed.

The feminist killjoy, Sara Ahmed writes, began her political life as a stereotype, “a negative judgement, a way of dismissing feminism as causing and caused by misery.” As such, the feminist killjoy sits alongside, and cross-pollinates with, other caricatures of feminists as lesbians and man-haters (to name just two). All of these pejoratives have been delightfully and creatively reclaimed or reimagined by feminists at various points, including from within the movement. When Betty Friedan, back in 1969, lamented the apparent threat of the “lavender menace” to mainstream US feminism, her thinly veiled homophobia at least partly inspired a breakaway group of the same name and the beginnings of lesbian feminism.

Ahmed, one of the world’s leading feminist and queer theorists, can rightly claim considerable credit for building solidarity around her ongoing celebration of the figure of the feminist killjoy. After the killjoy’s first appearance in her 2010 book The Promise of Happiness, Ahmed has since launched a feminist killjoy blog, curated a Killjoy Survival Kit and issued a Killjoy Manifesto. The last two appeared in Living a Feminist Life (2017), which Ahmed intended as a crossover book designed to generate “feminist theory out of the ordinary experience of being a feminist.”

Certainly, Living a Feminist Life brought Ahmed new fans — it’s an ideal introduction to feminist thought, and crucially to feminist feeling. Both clever and generous, Ahmed has a talent for bringing her readers with her, without ever dumbing down or sugar-coating her politics, love of theory, or lived experience as a queer woman of colour who works (or worked) in the academy. She also often circles back to her earlier work, and key themes and preoccupations, modelling how her thinking has evolved, including in tandem with her audience and through new and enduring sources of feminist inspiration.

Along the way, as Ahmed shares, the figure of the feminist killjoy has “created a feedback loop.” Readers have been inspired to write letters and songs, to form dedicated book clubs and to proudly proclaim the identity for themselves. Now, in Ahmed’s tenth book, she expands the possibilities even further, dedicating chapters to the feminist killjoy as cultural critic, philosopher, poet and activist. “Killjoy truths, killjoy maxims, killjoy equations, and killjoy commitments,” along with a reading list and questions for discussion, are collected in a dedicated handbook.

Ever attentive to the “uses” of things, particularly when repurposed for “queer” ends — see her 2019 book What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use for further exposition — Ahmed distinguishes her handbook from the conventional sort. The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, she writes, “does not give you a set of instructions, information or guidance on how to become a feminist killjoy. Rather, it shows how being a feminist killjoy gives you a set of instructions, information and guidance about living in this world.”

This kind of distinction is classic Ahmed, in both style and politics. She enjoys playing with genre, with words and with sentences, but there’s always a point to it. She reminds us that she is one among many feminist killjoys, rather than the anointed authority.

Ahmed’s assumed reader, then, is already a feminist killjoy. For them — or us, for I count myself as one — the handbook is offered as a “resource,” a “helping hand” and a collection of stories about being a killjoy, both Ahmed’s own and those shared with her. These include some of the stories gathered for her 2021 book Complaint!, written in the wake of her resignation from her prestigious academic post because of ongoing institutional failure to address sexual harassment. Ahmed reveals in the chapter featuring feminist survival tips that she also resigned because “I couldn’t do it anymore, fighting so hard not to get very far.” Feminist killjoys must pick their battles, and Ahmed’s decision in that case to “leak” and to “let loose” made it easier for others with stories to find her.

All feminists are killjoys in the sense that “to identify yourself as a feminist is to be judged as a killjoy.” But the feminists Ahmed brings to the front, her killjoy pantheon, are those who are the antithesis of “paper feminists,” a wonderfully succinct term to describe those who pay lip service to feminist politics while clinging to institutional power. As she has consistently done, Ahmed recovers, honours and extends a “Black and brown feminist killjoy lineage,” ranging from hugely influential American figures like bell hooks (to whom the book is partly dedicated), Angela Davis and Audre Lorde through to the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo, author of the 1977 novel Our Sister Killjoy, and from Australia, Aboriginal writers and professors Aileen Moreton-Robinson and Chelsea Watego, among others.

Ahmed has lived in Britain for some time now, which ensures that the distinctive history of Black British feminism is attentively addressed. She was raised in Australia, though, and this is reflected in her increasing engagement with the powerful work of First Nations women.

Occasionally Ahmed’s predilection for pithy maxims and truths, alongside her explicit method of revisiting her earlier work, tested the patience of this long-time reader and fan. Still, there is no doubting her abiding commitment to what she calls feminist killjoy “world-building.” She is clearly in for the long haul and knows what the stakes are.

Some of this book’s most potent moments come when Ahmed addresses the challenges of the present, including rising transphobia, some of it in the name of feminism. Here her critical eye extends beyond trans-exclusionary feminists to modes of philosophical inquiry. Drawing on the work of trans-feminist philosopher Talia Mae Bettcher, Ahmed questions philosophers who ponder race, gender and trans issues as though debating the existence of tables.

Ahmed’s special talent, though, is for elucidating first principles such as this one: “So much activist work is the work of exposure.” Or: “When you are questioned about your right to occupy a space, you are being questioned about your right to occupy a category.” In an era where accusations that “woke” culture has gone too far vastly exceed actual “cancellations,” Sara Ahmed’s ongoing project of platforming and protecting the feminist killjoy remains vital and refreshing. •

The Feminist Killjoy Handbook
By Sara Ahmed | Allen Lane | $39.99 | 336 pages