I have recently completed a book, Willful Subjects, which is forthcoming with Duke University Press. I am sharing with you some fragments from the draft of the fourth chapter of this book, ‘Willfulness as A Style of Politics,’ on feminist killjoys.
And: if you want to share any feminist killjoy stories, please do! We have so many stories to tell. This blog can be a gathering of killjoys!!
Understanding how willfulness is an affective judgment has given me a new handle on the figure of the feminist killjoy. Previously, I have written about my experiences of being a feminist daughter at the family table (Ahmed 2010). Those experiences involve rolling eyes (the rolling eyes might be how some body parts in their expression register the willfulness of others). You are at the table and someone says something you find problematic. Do you say anything or do you say nothing? When nothing becomes a decision, it can feel like something you say. When a decision is required because of how you hear what you hear, the situation can be experienced as hesitation, even as crisis.
It is so familiar that scene. And it can be empowering to find that scene elsewhere, in other words, not only to have your own memories handy but to be reached by the hands of others. I have been collecting “feminist killjoy” scenes. I consider this part of the work of being a killjoy: collection. One scene in Rachel Cusk’s novel Arlington Park touches my feminist killjoy heart.[i] There is a dinner. And if there is a dinner, there is a table, around which friends gather. One character, Matthew is speaking. He: “talked on and on. He talked about politics and taxes and the people who got in his way” (2006: 15). He complains about women who take maternity leave. He relays a story of a woman he is going to sack unless she comes straight back to work after having a baby. One woman, ‘you want to be careful’ and ‘She saw how close she was to his hatred; it was like a nerve she was within a millimeter of touching. “You want to take care. You can start to sound strident at your age”‘ (17). Juliet, is silent at first. But eventually she can’t stand it anymore; she cannot let her silence imply she is in agreement. She says “That’s illegal.” She says “she could take you to court” (16). Illegal: how a word can cut through an atmosphere like a knife. It is Juliet who is heard as sharp. Matthew responds: “You want to be careful.” And then, you come up against it, that wall of perception: “she saw how close she was to his hatred: it was like a nerve she was within a millimeter of touching. ‘You want to take care. You can sound strident at your age.’”(17).
Note how to become a feminist killjoy can be an aging assignment (“at your age”). The woman who speaks out becomes an old hag, a woman who does not take care or does not care, who willingly removes herself from the sphere of male interest. I am reminded of Mary Daly’s treatment of the haggard in Gynecology: “an intractable person, especially: a woman reluctant to yield to wooing” (1978: 15). Mary Daly points out that “willful” is one of the “obsolete” meanings of haggard. Indeed Mary Daly’s radical feminist reclaiming of the haggard (which she calls hagiography) could be considered an important predecessor to my attempts to reclaim the figure of the feminist killjoy, along with other willful subjects. Daly elaborates: “haggard writing is by and for women those who are intractable, willful, wanton and unchaste, and especially those who are reluctant to yield to wooing” (1978: 15-16). Willfulness is often used to diagnose “reluctance to yield” as a problem of female character. Women who do not yield to men’s advances are judged as unyielding.
Feminist killjoys: living in proximity to a nerve. We can hear what is as stake in how women who speak out are heard. To sound strident is to be heard as loud, harsh or grating. Some styles of presentation, some points of view, are heard as excessively and unpleasantly forceful. You know from what you are called. You know that other voices can be saying the same thing over and over again, even saying those things loudly, and not be heard as strident. They can be saying wrong things, unjust things and not be heard as strident. But you become a problem if you even dare to say that what they say is a problem. Oh the frustration of being found frustrating! Oh the difficulty of being assumed to be difficult! You might even begin to sound like what they hear you as being like: you talk louder and fast as you can tell you are not getting through. The more they think you say the more you have to say. You have to repeat yourself when you keep coming up against the same thing. You become mouthy. Perhaps we are called mouthy when we say what others do not want to hear; to become mouthy is to become mouth, reduced to the speaking part as being reduced to the wrong part.
The feminist killjoy is the one who flies of the handle, an expression used to indicate the suddenness of anger. She is viewed as too full of her own will, as not empty enough to be filled by the will of others. To be filled “with will” can be to be emptied “of thought” as if speaking about injustice, about power, about inequality, is just another way of getting your way. Those who “get in the way” are often judged as “getting their own way.” It is as if she disagrees because she is disagreeable; it is as if she opposes something because she is being oppositional.
Feminism: a history of disagreeable women! If we hear this sentence as an exclamation it can sound empowering. And yet, to be given the content of disagreement is how others do not hear the content of your disagreement. There is a “not hearing” at stake in the figure of the feminist killjoy. And there is no doubt that some of these experiences are wearing, even when we convert that figure into a source of energy and potential. And there is no wonder in the repetition of what we come up against, we might snap. I am thinking of this as “feminist snap,” the kind of energy and movement required to break the long thread of a connection.
Willfulness thus becomes an assignment in another sense: a project or task that we can take up in our everyday negotiations with the world. Willfulness is pedagogy: if I was given this assignment, I have learnt so much from it. I have learnt how whatever you say can be swept up and swept away by the charge of willfulness. The sweeping seems to become more vigorous when what you are saying is about the politics of saying. Becoming aware of how willfulness is an unjust assignment can be a lesson in the grammars of injustice. I am not only referring here to a sense that we might have that willfulness is false as a charge, an unfair dismissal, though this sense can be acute: we can feel a falsely. The experience of being attributed as willful can also heighten your consciousness of the work required to keep social surfaces shiny; the work required to keep up the signs of getting along. When we don’t keep up, so much can surface. The experience of being assigned as willful can be a mobilizing experience.
When we are not willing to adjust, we are maladjusted. Perhaps willfulness turns the diagnosis into a call: don’t adjust to an unjust world! As with other political acts of reclaiming negative terms, reclaiming willfulness is not necessarily premised on an affective conversion, that is, on converting a negative into a positive term. On the contrary, to claim willfulness might involve not only hearing the negativity of the charge but insisting on retaining that negativity: the charge after all is what keeps us proximate to scenes of violence. Consider Eve Sedgwick’s powerful reflections on the term “queer.” She writes: “it is a politically potent term…because far from being detached from the childhood scene of shame, it cleaves to that scene” (1993: 4). Willfulness might be a style of politics precisely insofar it too cleaves to that scene. The experience of being that willful subject can be a crucial part of political mobilization. The scene is not only a childhood one: there are many scenes of being seated at a table with others, meeting tables, in which willfulness becomes a charge that is taken up or taken on by those who are charged. Have you been charged?
A charge can be carried by words, by bodies. Oh how many of our histories are histories of willful words! Let’s think about the word “assertive.” How often minority subjects are called assertive! In being called assertive we have to become assertive to meet the challenge of this call. We might have to assert our existence in order to exist. We might have to insist to be. Audre Lorde has taught me this: how caring for one self can be “an act of political warfare” as a form of self-preservation not self-indulgence (1988: 131). There are “those of us,” she reminds us, who were “never meant to survive” (1978: 32). If some have to be assertive just to be, others are given freedom from the necessity of self-assertion. It is the effort “just to be” that might give us a different way of being. For some, willfulness might be necessary for an existence to be possible. When willfulness is necessary another world becomes possible.
Ahmed, Sara (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.
Cusk, Rachel (2006). Arlington Park. London: Fable and Fable.
Daly, Mary (1978). Gynecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Beacon Press: Boston.
Lorde, Audre (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books.
———————-(1978). Black Unicorn. New Rork: W.W.Norton.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1994). Tendencies. London: Routledge.
[i] I found this novel because reviews compared it to Mrs Dalloway, a novel I wrote about in The Promise of Happiness (2010: 70-75). As with Mrs. Dalloway, we have a whole life depicted in a single day; in this book too, unhappiness seems to seep into the tasks of that day. I should add that the scene in this book that I am describing as a feminist killjoy scene is quite unlike any in Mrs. Dalloway, perhaps because Mrs. Dalloway as a character is too busy caring for the happiness of others: so careful that does not speak of the causes of her grief or speak in a way that might cause others grief.