I remember my first encounter with the term “feminist killjoy.” It was in my gender and media studies class, and we were assigned feminist scholar and writer Sara Ahmed’s Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness as one of our readings. The term, I’ll admit, had me worried at first – I’d had enough of hearing feminism has a PR problem – but as I read on, I understood that Ahmed was highlighting a very real and very unfortunate phenomenon: that feminists are constantly read as being joyless and unhappy by nature, which works to draw attention away from and oftentimes dismiss the issues we’re unhappy about.
Enter Erin Wunker. As chair of the board of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) and co-founder/managing editor of the feminist academic blog Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe, she’s the perfect candidate to follow in the tradition of Ahmed. Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life (BookThug) is a collection of essays that urges us to embrace the feminist killjoy now more than ever and to continue conversations about gender, feminism and inequity to better our world for future generations.
It’s clear from the beginning that Wunker is writing with her newborn daughter in mind, including a letter to her as the preface. She writes:
I think, now, about the only kind of prayer I utter with fervency: may you be comfortable in your body and know it is yours. If your body doesn’t fit you, may we find ways to make it yours. May your body only know pleasure and empowerment. May we give you the language to say yes, to say no. May the world be gentle with you.
To achieve this gentler world, Wunker emphasizes how critical it is for feminists to continue operating as feminist killjoys, taking “pleasure in the work of interrupting the patriarchal norms that pass as joys.” Indeed, the feminist killjoy has no problem calling out that sexist joke or pointing out inequities. In doing so, we chip away at the harmful narratives perpetuated by a patriarchal culture – that women should be enemies, should hate their bodies, shouldn’t walk alone at night, shouldn’t wear that short skirt or else they’re “asking for it.”
Wunker is also quick to note her privilege as a white, cisgender, and middle-class woman. She acknowledges her blind spots and doesn’t shy away from interrogating her own position in society. She addresses the intersectionality of the goals of the feminist killjoy: to achieve equality and happiness for all. She covers all the “joys” of a patriarchal culture that need killing, and that includes body shame, racism, transphobia, and misogyny.
In all, Notes From a Feminist Killjoy is an honest, personal feminist work essential to this moment, when reminders of why we need feminism are all around us. There’s still a long way to go, which, as Wunker argues, necessitates the role of the feminist killjoy (which you may well be, if you’re “concerned with the state of the world, enraged and discouraged by inequity, and fuelled by the desire to do something”).
You may even find that recognizing the ways in which “killing joy is a world making project” can, in fact, be emboldening. After all, if what is isn’t working for many of us, the working towards what could be is an exercise in hope.
(BookThug, Nonfiction, Hardcover, November 2016)
LESLEY LEROUX is a writer, editor and artist based in Canada’s capital (originally from Newfoundland). She graduated with a degree in journalism from Carleton University. Her fiction, nonfiction and photography have been published both in print and online, and she has occasionally dabbled in radio and television. She is a feminist, bibliophile and yogi who can be found tweeting about any of the above @LesleyLeRoux.