An Ode to Killjoys

Being a feminist killjoy is something that I’ve reflected on a lot, and held close to my heart, ever since reading “Feminist Killjoys” from Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness in Women’s Studies 101. Ahmed has written an inspiring amount about being a killjoy and her words have done a lot to transform something that I had once felt shame about into a label I wear with pride. Here is her definition of “feminist killjoy” from The Promise of Happiness,

“The feminist killjoy ‘spoils’ the happiness of others; she is a spoilsport because she refuses to convene, to assemble, or to meet up over happiness. In the thick sociality of everyday spaces, feminists are thus attributed as the origin of the bad feeling, as the ones who ruin the atmosphere…”

But Ahmed asks us to wonder if it is the feminist killjoy who caused the bad feeling, or if she merely pointed out a bad feeling that already exists. Ahmed tells a story of sitting around a dinner table and voicing her disagreement with a problematic remark made by a family member. The mood instantly changes and becomes negative. Was it the killjoy who changed the atmosphere by challenging the remark? Or was it the maker of the remark (or the remark itself) which brought the negativity forward?

In my own life, moments of killing joy are some of the most authentic I’ve ever experienced. But I’m also aware that being a killjoy can be difficult. It can exhaust us, sadden us, silence us, or even make us unsafe. At the very least, it’s disheartening to notice “people’s eyes rolling as soon as [we] open [our] mouth[s]” and to feel that we have “ruined the atmosphere by turning up or speaking up.

When I get caught up in feeling shame for being a feminist killjoy, it can take a lot of strength to fight the instinct to apologize. Often, that’s a battle I don’t win. I call out an oppressive remark, the mood becomes negative, and I shoulder the blame for the gloomier atmosphere. I feel myself teetering uncertainly on the thin line between socializing “like everyone else” and being true to my ethics. I’ve taken up too much space in the conversation with my negativity. So I apologize.

What happens when we start apologizing for other people? When we try to dilute our killing of joy by playing down the negativity of what we find to be problematic?

A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend that stayed with me for many reasons. She explained to me that she had been told by a supervisor at work that she should be careful about how she dressed. Her supervisor was worried that if she looked “too good” she would distract men and make women jealous. Only a few weeks later, another friend explained her experience of being singled out in a room of co-workers (as she was the only Black person in the room) when someone made a joke about Black women being “easy.”

What connected these two stories for me was the ways that both of my friends started telling them. The first friend began with “I really don’t think this guy is sexist, but…” and the second started with “not to say this person is racist, but…”

What my friend’s supervisor said is sexist. The joke my friend’s co-worker made is racist. Whether or not we want to go ahead and use this as evidence of one being a racist or a sexist, these are both clear examples of the kinds of racist and sexist microaggressions that are so hard to quantify, yet so impactful in perpetuating structural oppressions.

Despite this, both of my friends started their stories by apologizing for someone else and by taking the responsibility for killing joy on themselves. It is as if the commenters weren’t the source of negativity, but that my friends were for pointing out the sexism and racism inherent in their remarks.

This post isn’t a criticism of my friends, or their choices made in telling their stories. On the contrary, it’s an expression of the empathy I feel regarding their instincts to apologize for being killjoys. For that reason, I want to say to my friends, and to all of us who’ve felt the same:

Killing joy is kick ass. It’s the kind of truth we deserve. I will always love you, honour you, and cherish you for all the joy you kill because that is what is required for us to led authentic and whole lives. We kill joy and space is made for our experiences to be validated. That is space we are all deserving of.  

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3 Comments on “An Ode to Killjoys”

  • M.

    I love this post :)

  • J.

    I love this a lot, very inspiring and informational. Its going to help me a lot when I try to explain what the “Feminist Killjoy” saying on my bracelet means.

  • Melody

    I am the sort of person who will stand down a table of football jocks harassing a lesbian friend, tell beloved family members they are being racist, and confront strangers abusing their children in public (yes, this has happened multiple times unfortunately), so I really relate to this. I don’t want to be in a confrontational position, but my integrity necessitates it.

    I am a ethical vegan killjoy, as well as a a feminist killjoy, and in my experience veganism provokes much more intense backlash, as it has thus far received less cultural acceptance and saturation. Animals cannot demonstrate for themselves, so acknowledgment of their inherent civil rights has lagged behind other progressive movements.

    A shockingly high percentage of people become angry with me just for being vegan, before I ever say anything. I would be interested in your thoughts on intersectionality as pertaining to animal rights. Most abolitionist vegans are feminists, but most feminists are not vegan, and I can’t help but be curious about the apparent disconnect.

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