“Feminist Killjoys.” The Promise of Happiness

“Feminist Killjoys.” The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Sara Ahmed

In “Feminist Killjoys,” Sara Ahmed critiques the role of happiness in women’s culture and the depiction of feminists as unhappy, bitter, or “killjoys” because they disrupt our ability to simply enjoy the things that are meant to make us happy.*

This chapter fits within Ahmed’s larger work on affect aliens, or people who are are read as unhappy because they live outside normative ideas of happiness (the hetero-family, for example) and are therefore alienated from the community because they are not affected as they should be. Her chapter on migrant melancholy is also really helpful and has a really solid critique of Bend it Like Beckham, if you’re so inclined.

According to Ahmed, femininity is largely constructed around the fantasy of the happy housewife, “a fantasy figure that erases the signs of labor under the sign of happiness” (50). This figure operates under the assumption that working for the family makes women happy and that happiness motivates the work they do. Of course, this figure also conceals the domestic labor done by women of color and working class women who often invisibly support the work of the “happy housewife,” or whose work outside the home is not a matter of choice (as Projansky critiques elsewhere) (51). Looking to the resurgence of the happy housewife archetype (Mommy Bloggers, Pinterest, I’d say), which she sees a s a placeholder for women’s desires, Ahmed asserts: “The image of the happy housewife is repeated and accumulates affective power in the very narration of her as a minority subject who has to reclaim something that has been taken from her. This affective power not only presses against feminist claims that behind the image of the happy housewife was an unspoken collective unhappiness but also involves a counterclaim that happiness is not so much what the housewife has but what she does: her duty is to generate happiness by the very act of embracing this image” (53).

Ahmed moves through an analysis of how happiness is used to justify unequal divisions in labor (53) and education as an orientation device to a particular type of social values (54-55) to an argument about how happiness is used as a sort of boundary on gender roles: “Any deviation from gender roles defined in terms of women being trained to make men happy is a deviation from the happiness of all” (55). The goodness of  women is thus judged on the happiness of their homes and the happiness they give others, rather than their own merits or happiness.

From there, Ahmed goes into a quick, but helpful explication of different philosophies of happiness, including conditionality, sociality, communities of feeling, and fellow-feeling (56-67), which helps to make clear the way in which the happy housewife’s happiness is not really about her happiness and how therefore happiness is used as an instrument of hegemony. She also has what, to me, is a really helpful paragraph about the happiness imperative for children, who must be happy because their parents have deferred their own happiness into the success of the next generation through self-sacrifice of time and resources (59).

Feminist Killjoys

Within this framework, then, feminists are troublemakers because they refuse the imperative to be happy. Through a reading of The Mill on the Floss, she charts the association between the female imagination and trouble as “it teaches us how the happiness duty for women is about narrowing of horizons, about giving up an interest in what lies beyond the familiar” (61).

She writes, “Feminist readers might want to challenge this association between unhappiness and female imagination, which in the moral economy of happiness, makes female imagination a bad thing. But if we do not operate in this economy–that is, if we do not assume that happiness is what is good–then we can read the link between female imagination and unhappiness differently. We might explore how imagination is what allows women to be liberated from happiness and the narrowness of its horizons. We might want the girls to read the books that enable them to be overwhelmed with grief” (62).

In Ahmed’s reading, “to be good as a girl is to give up having a will of one’s own” (62). Conventional happiness for girls and women is about giving up on one’s own desires in favor of keeping the peace, fulfilling duties, and making others happy. It can also be a way of “avoiding what one cannot bear” (64).

I think what’s really liberating and really persuasive about Ahmed’s argument is that she is not arguing against happiness itself, but rather against the way that happiness is constructed in really limiting ways and is used to control certain groups of people, in this case women. Thus, in refusing the imperative for happiness, one can expand the horizons of actual happiness (vs. constructed happiness) as well as for liberation from hegemonic powers. For Ahmed, refusing to be happy when one is not opens up the possibility for living more fully and more freely.**

So, the feminist killjoy then is a figure of unhappiness because she disrupts the ease of other people to be affected by the objects and practices that are supposed to make them happy. “Feminists might kill joy simply by not finding the objects that promise happiness to be quite so promising. The word feminism is thus saturated with unhappiness. Feminists by declaring themselves as feminists are already read as destroying something that is thought of by others not only as being good but as the cause of happiness. The feminist killjoy ‘spoils’ the happiness of others; she is a spoilsport because she refuses to convene, to assemble, to meet over happiness” (65).

Drawing on her own experiences as a “feminist daughter in a relatively conventional family,”*** Ahmed asks, pointedly, “Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy?” (65)

Ahmed writes on to critique the idea that women become feminists because they are unhappy and of other tropes such as the “angry black woman” arguing that, for example, “feminists are read as being unhappy, such that situations of conflict, violence, and power are read as about the unhappiness of feminists, rather than being what the feminists are unhappy about.” (67)

Finally, in her conclusion, Ahmed argues that “Feminist consciousness can thus be thought of as consciousness of the violence and power that are concealed under the language of civility and love, rather than simply consciousness of gender as a site of restriction of possibility” (86). She calls for a revitalization of the critique of happiness and suggests that to be willing to do so is to be willing to be “proximate to unhappiness”. But, “There is solidarity in recognizing our alienation from happiness, even if we do not inhabit the same place (as we do not). There can be joy in killing joy. And kill joy, we must and we do” (87).

See Also:

Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects)

Feminist Killjoys

On Being the Feminist Killjoy Among Your Friends

*Again, as Megan and I write about here: Veronica Mars and Philosophy: Investigating the Mysteries of Life (Which is a Bitch Until You Die) (The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series)

**”If anything, the false smile sustains the very psychic and political condition of unhappiness. The feminist who does not smile when she is not happy wants a more exciting life. Indeed, as [Shulamith] Firestone argues: ‘Eroticism is exciting. No-one wants to get rid of it. Life would be a drab and routine affair without at least that spark. That’s just the point. Why has all the joy and excitement been concentrated, driven into one narrow difficult-to-find alley of human experience, and all the rest been laid to waste?’ (155; second emphasis added). Feminism involves challenging the very ‘pressure’ of happiness, the way it restricts the possibilities for finding excitement, for being excited. (69)

***”My experience of being a feminist has taught me much about rolling eyes. This is why when people say the bad feeling is coming from this person or that person, I am never convinced. My skepticism comes from childhood experiences of being a feminist daughter in a relatively conventional family, always at odds with the performance of good feeling in the family, always assumed to be bringing others down, for example, by pointing out sexism in other people’s talk. Say we are seated at the dinner table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something that you consider problematic. You respond, carefully, perhaps. You might be speaking quietly; or you might be getting ‘wound up,’ recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. The violence of what was said or the violence of provocation goes unnoticed. However she speaks, the feminist is usually the one who is viewed as ‘causing the argument,’ who is disturbing the fragility of peace” (65).

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