Feminist Complaint

I have offered a feminist equation

Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.

I want to make sense of this equation, or to show how this equation makes sense.

I first came up with this equation – not necessarily in these exact terms – as a sense of something. I realised how much I had learnt from how eyes roll when I open my mouth, when I was listening to a diversity practitioner. It was an interview. My ear was open; my mouth was shut. She was telling me of her experience of meetings at the university. These are her words, delivered to me with force as well as wit.

She said:

“You know you go through that in these sorts of jobs where you go to say something and you can just see people going ‘oh here she goes.’”

How we both laughed when she said this; we both recognised that each other recognised that situation.

We had both been there.

Oh here she goes.

An assignment.

The diversity worker is appointed by an institution to transform the institution. That is her sort of job, a sort of job that makes her, one speculates, “out of sorts” as she is trying to sort things out. She is given this job: sorting.

Not sorted.

How is she heard? We learn from hearing. We learn from how we are heard. Which is to say: we learn from how we are not heard. That is the basis of my feminist equation.

Others within the institution who are also appointed by that institution, who are seated around the table, experience her as wearisome. They hear her as just “going on.” She can hear people hear her this way before she says anything.

She has to keep saying it when they keep doing it. One repetition is striking, the other recedes because it is familiar.

It was a transformative moment, having my own experiences so perfectly encapsulated by someone else’s words. This interview took place in 2003. It was whilst I was writing Queer Phenomenology (2006) before I had even begun the research that led me to write my feminist critique of happiness; before I had even picked up the figure of the feminist killjoy and put her to work. I began thinking of those experiences, both at work and at home, in the meeting table, in the family table, when I was met with rolling eyes.

I learnt this too: how a feminist killjoy can recognise herself in what she receives from others.

You are heard as making a complaint; you are heard as being complaining. You are heard as expressing annoyance about something. Grumbling; grumble; grump; grumpy.

You might be offering a careful critique. You might be taking care. It doesn’t matter how much care you take; how much time you take in assembling a case.

It is a quick judgment. You are judged before you say anything. The judgment has priority.

Feminist grump; feminist grumps; what a lump.

You are heard as being annoyed. You might not be annoyed. Being annoyed might under-describe the relation you have to the world that is made the subject of a complaint. How annoying! How annoying to be heard as annoyed!

How you are heard: you are formed not found. You still find yourself there.

So emotional; so moved by being heard as emotional. You are used to this. Eyes rolling. You are used to this. Feminists are heard as being emotional whatever they say, which is to say, again, independently of what they say. Being called “emotional” is a form of dismissal. How emotional. Just look at you.

A container, a leaky container.

Be careful: we leak.

And feminists of colour, well. She does go on, rather.

She will go on.

Rather she goes on.

A complaint: a matter of life and death.  A complaint: to strike at the breast. The word “complain” shares a root with plague. We hear this: complaint as a matter of life and death. A complaint: sick speech. Maybe she is heard as speaking from ill-will: not only as being ill herself, but as being willing to make the whole body ill.

Ill-will, willful.

They listen: damage control.

Not listening.

She makes an announcement. She is an announcement. She strikes her breast.

The word “complaint” is striking. Willfulness too is striking. Willfulness comes up, like the arm in the Grimm story with which I opened my book. That arm that pulses with life became the key figure in my willful history of willfulness. This arm will not be a supportive limb. The arm has been shaped by a history of lending its hand to the master. But having lent this way, the arm can dissent. The arm the built the house is the arm that will bring it down.

No wonder the arm comes up; it keeps coming up. The arm is a complaint. The arm is complaint made flesh.

She comes up; she keeps coming up. She has not been beaten. She persists. Mere persistence can be an act of disobedience.

She strikes her breast. The arm is striking.

A complaint is disobedience. She does not obey; she is willing herself that way.

To be heard as complaint: to be beaten.

We are not beaten: we make a complaint.

We notice what comes up. We don’t notice the ground being dislodged. What a striking figure. She stands out because what she complains about is not revealed.

The complainer: a revelation.

What a revelation.

You are heard as complaining. And maybe you are making a complaint. Or maybe you are making a critique which is heard as a complaint. But to be heard as complaining is also to be heard as speaking in a certain way: as expressing yourself. Heard thus: you complain because you are being complaining. This is what the figure of the feminist killjoy taught us. You are making that point (pointing of sexism, pointing out racism) because that is your tendency. That is what you are like.  How like you! When you are heard as only ever expressing yourself, then you are not heard. Eyes roll as if to say: well she would make a complaint; she is so complaining. And what we learn from those eyes rolling is that they roll before you say anything. You could say anything, you could be talking about anything, and still they roll. To hear you as complaining is not to hear you at all.

An anything: quite something.

Complaining, moaning, whinging.

Anti-feminism is a structure of hearing, a way feminists are eliminated from a conversation; a way certain forms of critique are dismissed in advanced of being made.

And we learn: anti-feminism is an extension of sexism. Women are already heard in this way, as complaining, moaning, whinging. If women do not accept the place they have been assigned, they are heard as complaining, moaning, and whinging. These are willful assignments; given to those who are not willing to accept how they are assigned.

Feminists: willful women.

I have heard this judgment expressed as action; in action. Students who testify about their experience of sexual harassment, students who have to testify again and again, are heard as complaining. What have they got to complain about? Yes, he is like that; it is like that. Like that. In the assumption is an injunction. Accept it, don’t make such a fuss. Stop talking about it.


Starts again.

That they have to testify to violence repeats that violence. And they have to testify, again. How they are heard when they testify to violence reproduces that violence.

Complaint: a history of violence.

And we know this too: men have used this way of hearing women as justifications of violence, even murder; she was nagging, moaning, whinging, whining.

She was being.

Nag: she was being.

Courts of law have heard these hearings as right which is to say, they heave heard complaining as justifying violence.

This is serious stuff.


A distribution of life and death can be a distributions of words.

So 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.

Others: not so much.

We are surrounded by words that register that some in being are being above themselves. Think of the word “uppity.” The word “uppity” is probably the most explicitly racialized of willful words, particularly in U.S. politics. Adia Harvey Wingfield and Joe Feagin note: “the word ‘uppity’ has long been used by racist whites to describe African Americans who ‘don’t know their place’” ([2010] 2013: 88). The word “uppity” has a very specific political genealogy, but can be related to other willful words that imply a racial and social hierarchy: being is judged as being above oneself, such that to know one’s place requires adjustment and submission. Such judgments are expressed in action. A judgment is how an idea is in action.

What have you got to complain about? Oh the necessity of complaining about this about.

We must complain. There is a lot to complain about.

Justifications of death as right; of killing as a right.

When how you are perceived is wrong, is a wrong, but is made right.



If they hadn’t complained some of us wouldn’t be here.

If we don’t complain some of us won’t be here.


Harvey Wingfield, Adia and Joe Feagin (2013) [2010].  Yes We Can: White Racial Framing and the Obama Presidency. New York: Routledge.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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21 Responses to Feminist Complaint

  1. “persistence can be an act of disobedience” – love it!!

  2. Lawi Odera says:

    Reblogged this on Teargas Lawi and commented:
    “How is she heard? We learn from hearing. We learn from how we are heard. Which is to say: we learn from how we are not heard. That is the basis of my feminist equation.”

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