» Book Review
What’s It Like to Be a Feminist?
Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed
Duke University Press, 2017,
Paperback, 299 pages, $26.95
Start with the assumption that feminists are angry, pushy, unhappy, irritating, willful, stubborn, insistent, loud, shrill, disruptive, hypersensitive, and humorless spoilsports, policing others’ words and making unreasonable demands.
It isn’t a pretty picture.
Go one step further and call feminists ugly. Pretty women are cheerful not angry, agreeable not pushy, happy not unhappy, accommodating not willful, acquiescent not stubborn, deferential not insistent, modulated not loud, soft not shrill, socially inconspicuous not disruptive, sensitive but not hypersensitive, good-natured not humorless—they are cheerleaders who go along and get along.
Accept these assumptions.
Notice that resistance will simply reinforce them. Say, “No, I’m not,” and you are, once again, being willful, shrill. Calmly and patiently explain what’s not funny about a sexist joke, and you are, once again, an irritation. Demonstrate that your feminist demands are not unreasonable, and you are manifestly pushy. Modulate your voice and try to be socially inconspicuous; when your ideas are ignored and your work overlooked, you will speak a little louder, draw a bit more attention, and confirm that you are, as everyone already knew you to be, stubborn, a disruptive presence. Assert yourself, proudly rebuking prettiness as a bland and artificial mixture of complacency and conformity, and you will appear all the more garish and difficult to countenance. The more forcefully you resist, the more alienated and alienating you become.
Feminists live trapped by these perceptions—that we are angry, unreasonable, ugly.
In her new book Living a Feminist Life (2017), Sarah Ahmed offers a compelling view of what it is like to live inside this trap. By looking from within the subject position of the feminist (who may be known as the nasty woman, the uppity bitch, the difficult colleague, the crazy aunt, the unruly girl, the mad woman), she reveals why it is so hard to be a feminist. That is, she reveals why the interpersonal, emotional, and epistemic position of the feminist is so challenging to occupy. Ahmed’s phenomenological exploration of the life of the feminist will undoubtedly offer solidarity to feminist readers, who will nod, wince, and exclaim in full recognition of the situations Ahmed describes.
The title might suggest that the book is a primer for feminist ideas, history, or analysis; it is not. If anything, the book takes for granted a reader who is already educated or experienced in feminism. But it is also not a book whose goal is to redirect feminist attention to particular cultural and political ills in need of feminist analysis or activism. Neither an introduction to feminist thought, nor a contribution to more traditional feminist scholarship, the book is, by design, difficult to characterize. Stylistically, Ahmed combines academic reference and literary analysis with personal anecdote in prose that wanders and loops, sometimes repetitively, over concepts and associations. The effect is that of having caught the author in the act of creation, of watching how she unwinds an idea or observation. The text is interrupted at intervals with bold-faced fragments; not sub-headings or section markers, these bits of language appear like echoes of speech (e.g., “poor him”), physical gestures (e.g., “rolling eyes”), or affective signposts (e.g., “flinch”). Their presence signifies a poetic impulse to imbue the text with a lived and living presence, not standard in academic writing. Reading this book is more like tracing a butterfly’s meandering course through the air than like watching a jet plane’s trajectory. But this is one fierce, unflinching butterfly.
In a sense, the book is an intellectual autobiography: It explores how Ahmed, an influential and highly successful author who has published nine books, navigated her way through a career in academia and developed theoretical tools out of her own experiences as a woman of color, a feminist, and a lesbian. The book showcases several ideas Ahmed first presented in other texts, including the “feminist killjoy,” “sweaty concepts,” the “willful subject,” and “stranger danger.” Revisiting them here, in the context of sharing her personal experience, she demonstrates that “the personal is theoretical.”
By parallel to the more familiar slogan, “the personal is political,” Ahmed suggests that personal experiences are felt in the particular ways that they are because of the theoretical frameworks that give them shape and that theory is constructed in the way that it is because of the personal experience of the theoretician.
Consider first an example that is not directly feminist. If you live in a capitalist society, you may experience shopping at a mall as pleasurable. You may look forward to it, enjoy perusing the fashions, looking for deals on sale racks, or splurging on an item that beckons with its sparkly new-ness and promises to define or improve your image. Your experience includes positive feelings of anticipation, reward, and affirmation. Your excitement about purchasing is a function of several key concepts—money, disposable income, competitive pricing, bargain-hunting, credit, debt, and worth—which arise from an economic system shaped by capitalist economic theory. If your credit is bad and you have no disposable income, you may have negative feelings associated with shopping at the mall—disappointment, embarrassment, envy, stress—which, of themselves, can be understood as reinforcing the positive shopping experience as the normative ideal to which you aspire. Theory shapes experience.
But experience also shapes theory. And it is from this angle that Ahmed’s book offers its most arresting and crisply articulated insights. She describes how being perceived as stubborn and difficult in conversations at the family dinner table enabled her to develop the idea of the feminist killjoy, the person whose feelings and aspirations are out of line with patriarchal norms and expectations. The feminist killjoy doesn’t laugh at sexist jokes and doesn’t want to partake in patriarchal rituals, heteronormative practices, or norms of femininity. She doesn’t have the same affective inclinations as those who are not feminists, and her difference is experienced by others as disruptive, sour, disagreeable. (To return to the earlier example: It’s like being the person who complains bitterly about the vulgar greed, banal aesthetics, shallow consumerism, unthinking conformity, and sweatshop labor that are represented at the shopping mall. . . capitalist killjoy!) By giving name to the figure of the feminist killjoy and articulating the dynamic in which she becomes trapped, Ahmed constructs a theoretically useful tool.
Similarly, by considering her experience as a brown woman stopped by the police while she was walking in a white neighborhood, Ahmed exposes how the cautionary tale of “stranger danger” relies upon assumptions about race and color that have nothing to do with being a stranger or an outsider, let alone an actual danger. If she is perceived as a sun-tanned white woman, she is not deemed a stranger, not a potential danger; whereas, if she were deemed non-white, a person of color, her presence would signal caution, fear, anxiety, interrogation. The link between “stranger” and “danger” is a construct that disguises forms of racism, colorism, and xenophobia. From personal experience, she seizes an insight that has theoretical utility.
It must be remarked here that the kind of theory Ahmed has in mind is that which appears in certain styles of academic discourse. It is the sense of “theory” that may guide work in English literature and cultural studies, philosophy, sociology, humanities, history, classics, and other areas where academic writers develop sophisticated means of describing and making meaning out of human life. Acknowledging the way in which personal experience may become a resource for the construction of such theoretical work defies the purported objectivity and neutrality of such discourses.
This defiance shows up in Ahmed’s book in two further, significant ways. One concerns her use of pronouns. She employs the first-personal “I,” indicating the subjective perspective of the author. If there are truths to be communicated by the author (and there are), they will be presented without the protective cover of typical academic style, which minimizes the first-person. For example, the preceding paragraph began with the phrase “it must be remarked,” which obscures my presence as the writer, replacing “I must remark” with a phrase that makes it seem as if the decision to remark comes from the ether and is beyond accountability, rather than coming from me. (Here I am, for the first time in this essay. Did you notice my absence?)
But Ahmed also alternates with the second-person “you,” where the “you” affords her the “distance” to discuss certain personal experiences, for example of sexual violence. The effect of this “you” is not only to shield the author in some of the most vulnerable passages, but to invite the reader to recognize her own similar situatedness, her own experience of being doubted or distrusted or of being, as a feminist, trapped in an interpersonally and rhetorically pressurized position. You know the feeling of the quicksand: The more you struggle to free yourself, the more forcefully it threatens to pull you under. (You.)
If the theoretical and the personal are interlocked, and if the personal is political, then the practice of academic citation—which authors and texts are adduced as supporting evidence, as worthy of dispute, or as valuable predecessors and truth-bearers—is itself implicated in the construction of our worlds: a world of personal experience, a world of theoretical interest and influence, a world of political action. Ahmed is explicit: “In this book, I adopt a strict citation policy: I do not cite any white men. By white men I am referring to an institution [. . .] Instead, I cite those who have contributed to the intellectual genealogy of feminism and antiracism.” It is a good thing Ahmed is not up for tenure! Here, her defiance of academic tradition and institutional authority, and their claims to objectivity, is plain. As so many women academics know, failure to engage with “seminal” and canonical (white male) literature is indeed deemed failure; to succeed is to follow in the path of those who have gone before you, and those who have gone before were, by and large, not feminists or anti-racists. (We might even go further to say that insofar as those who went before were feminists or anti-racists, they thereby disqualified themselves from participation in the institution of white men; that’s just what it means to say that “white men” can be understood as an institution, rather than a set of persons who were, merely incidentally, white and male.)
I would like to think that we can strike a middle-ground, that we can continue to engage with the writings of white men, who are among our literary and academic forebears, even if the aim is to critique their work, while at the same time learning to read, discuss, take seriously, and cite works by women, people of color, and others who have been excluded or marginalized. (Did you notice? Now that I am here, in my own essay, I am not going away.) But at the same time, I laud Ahmed’s decision about whom to cite in Living a Feminist Life: Her decision enacts a possibility; it performs the title’s task and the book’s subject in a way that may not be imitable for many women in academia today but sets an important precedent. Brava!
Yet for something to count as a precedent, there must be subsequent instances, which raises the problem of how to alter not just academic citational practices but the larger arenas in which “white men” is the name of hegemonic cultural and political power. In this book, Ahmed returns to a discussion of “diversity work” begun in her 2012 book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Duke University Press). Diversity work, for Ahmed, has two, related meanings. In one sense, diversity work is “the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution.” The work involves, for women, people of color, and the disabled, negotiating expectations and “passing” as “something you are assumed not to be,” such as knowledgeable, competent, informed, reliable, intelligent, authoritative, or scholarly. Once again, Ahmed articulates the difficulty of “being” for those whose “legitimacy is in question” in the context of an institution, like a university, where women or people of color are not only minorities, but bring life experiences, interests, and literatures that have not been built into institutional practice. Like being trapped as a feminist, the diversity worker is trapped by the fact of her being anomalous, by the simultaneous demand that she assimilate to institutional culture and that she be the public face of diversity, and hence of divergence from institutional culture. Ahmed brilliantly describes the experience of being worn down by the effort (emotional, interpersonal, epistemic) required simply to exist when you are not, by virtue of your embodiment or identity, proximate to the norms of white male culture.
The second meaning of “diversity work” is the work that institutions hire people to do (usually women and persons of color) to try to transform the institution, to make it more diverse, and to redress problems of sexism, racism, homophobia, and ableism. In a book replete with incisive observations, it is Ahmed’s discussion of diversity work in this second sense that I found most necessary. I have encountered no other text that illuminates so well the fact of institutional resistance to the diversity work that institutions themselves initiate.
Ahmed details how decisions are made via committees, but never meaningfully implemented; how recommendations for policy are made, then ignored; how the actions taken to measure the extent of the problems (how many faculty of color? how many allegations of campus sexual assault? how many grievances filed?) are perversely repurposed as evidence that the institution is resolving the problems. The diversity work that is done, in good faith and with great effort, by designated diversity workers is co-opted to represent the institution in a good light: Look at all we are doing! The mechanisms and procedures used for assessing the diversity problem seem to replace confrontation with the root causes of the diversity problem. The rubber never hits the road. Ahmed calls the phenomenon “non-performativity: when naming something does not bring something into effect or (more strongly) when something is named in order not to bring it into effect.” For those of us that have done diversity work, cynicism is an occupational hazard, not a temperamental proclivity. Notably, Ahmed resigned from her faculty position at the University of London in 2016 to protest the university’s failure to respond adequately to the problem of sexual harassment on campus.
Is it any wonder, then, that feminists are unhappy? If being subject to gender oppression didn’t make us unhappy to start with, being perceived as unreasonable, humorless, and unattractive when we speak up against gender-based injustice will almost certainly make us unhappy. Finding that our sustained efforts to transform institutions are futile (even institutions that have hired or appointed us to do this very work) will make us unhappy.
As Ahmed argued in her 2010 book The Promise of Happiness, we are guided by social norms toward activities, practices, and relationships that do not necessarily yield happiness, but offer a socially agreed-upon vision of where you are supposed to find it. The important thing is not that you achieve happiness, but that you feel that you are approaching it by following the proper route. For example: college, job, marriage, kids, retirement, grandkids, travel. Deviate and you will be unhappy.
Even if, by some marvel of personal fortitude, meditative achievement, or luck, a feminist manages to live happily—brimming with cheer and optimism, surrounded by warm friends and loving family, peaceful in the pursuit of meaningful projects—she will nonetheless be cast as unhappy, for she will fail to inhabit at least some of the cultural locations in which happiness is believed to reside: She may be unmarried (unhappy in love!), childless (the sorrowful deprivation barely requires comment), showing her age (if only she would keep herself up, sigh), working in a male-dominated profession (why does she want to do that?) or otherwise living outside of the mainstream norms of femininity that offer the promise of female happiness.
The feminist will be moving through institutional spaces and organizations that do not welcome her or share her values. And if she manages to do this affably and with equanimity, she will nonetheless be cast as an unhappy figure insofar as she asserts her feminist ideas and ideals; she will be pitied, excoriated, or ostracized on account of having willfully ceded her own best chance at success. If happiness is promised to reside in participation in these institutions, it will be said, the feminist has only herself to blame if she obstructs her own chance at fitting in by criticizing or seeking to reform the institution. Cast by others as an unhappy person, the feminist becomes a source of unhappiness for others; her presence is felt as negative charge.
Many feminists have explained the sources of their anger and unhappiness: We are agitated about being underpaid, undervalued, disrespected, ignored, politically disenfranchised and under-represented, economically exploited, culturally oppressed, sexually assaulted and harassed, sidelined, disbelieved, silenced, demeaned, abused, and, so often, slain.
Read through that line-up again, slowly. Let the last word fall into place as the logical conclusion of all that precede it.
Much feminist work has been done, by activists, journalists, writers, and academic scholars, to expose the patriarchal institutions, sexist culture, and misogynistic social norms that pervade society. Feminists have documented the situation of women through historical study, literary analysis, anthropological research, economic data, empirical psychology, biological and neurobiological scrutiny, review of legal systems, even philosophical argument. Armed with expertise and facts, feminists assert their claims and suffer the backlash. Ahmed’s thoughtful and bold book explains what it is like to live as a feminist, what it is like to occupy a position that is, in a patriarchal world, intrinsically oppositional. As a feminist, one is always out of tune with mainstream society, always coming up against walls.
In what strikes me as a sad irony, the book could serve as an explanation for why so many women are not feminists and don’t want to be called feminists. Acknowledging feminist claims is by itself an emotionally harrowing experience. Remember the line-up: underpaid, undervalued, disrespected, ignored, politically disenfranchised and under-represented, economically exploited, culturally oppressed, sexually assaulted and harassed, sidelined, disbelieved, silenced, demeaned, abused, slain. Once those claims are acknowledged, the work of living a feminist life adds more emotional and interpersonal demands. Every day. All the time.
Ahmed closes Living a Feminist Life with two sections titled “Conclusion 1” and “Conclusion 2,” no doubt to avoid the potential trivializing that would come from calling them Appendices. Conclusion 1 comprises a “Killjoy Survival Kit,” offering comments on how feminists can find strength and comfort in feminist community, feminist books, feminist humor, and more. This “kit,” more an invitation than a conclusion, is a good resource, especially for young feminists.
Conclusion 2 is a “Killjoy Manifesto,” another great resource for young feminists or feminists feeling isolated, lost, or ambivalent as they deviate from the path of femininity and heteronormativity, and its false promise of happiness. Here, Ahmed enunciates a number of “principles,” each of which begins with either I am willing or I am not willing. For example, principle five is, “I am not willing to get over histories that are not over.” I especially appreciate the brevity and distillation of this Manifesto, and the way these principles are not presented as unyielding rules. Ahmed’s focus on willingness, the ability to recognize the existence of one’s own will and to assert it in resistance to whatever is antifeminist, leaves wide latitude with respect to exactly what, how, and when a feminist summons her will. Principles of willingness afford the flexibility that allows individual women and men to enact their feminist commitment in their own ways. Yet the Manifesto provides a common language for conceptualizing and justifying one’s feminist acts and bolsters feminist courage.
The Killjoy Manifesto may be just what the contemporary moment needs. The #MeToo movement, which was galvanized following Trump’s election, inspired women to give personal testament to their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. This uprising of women’s voices incited thousands of uncomfortable conversations—for the women who spoke up, for their husbands and friends, for their employers and co-workers. The willingness to be the cause of social discomfort is no small achievement for so many women who have been socialized to smooth things over, to deny their own pain, and to sacrifice their own well-being in order to keep the peace at home or at work.
Among the charges that women face when they bring forward allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of classmates, colleagues, employers or others is that they are being selfish, careless, or malicious. They are asked, Why do you want to destroy his life? Set aside the fact that for some women (not all), their experience of sexual harassment or assault has effectively destroyed their lives, causing lasting damage to their emotional well-being, professional reputation, career prospects, vocational or educational opportunities, or family relationships. Set that aside. The question gets its unnerving force largely because women are not supposed to be agents of destruction. To destroy is to exert power and influence, a masculine prerogative. Women are supposed to create and nurture, not destroy. Ahmed’s Killjoy Manifesto encourages women to be willing to destroy systems of white male privilege and the violence they produce. No, feminists are not encouraged to engage in literal, physical violence or killing. But they are encouraged to kill the patriarchal practices and institutions that have been held up as the route to happiness; when this route protects men who assault and harass women, it must be denounced. If taking down a powerful man on account of his sexual misconduct (crime, violence, cruelty, misogyny) makes people unhappy, so be it. Better to kill that foul joy, founded on corrupt behavior, deception, and systems of dominance, than to sustain the silence that perpetuates the misery of women, individually and collectively.
Ahmed sees more clearly than most, I think, that feminism is essentially radical. Her writing offers creative and incisive tools by which to understand and respond to the demands of feminist living. To free ourselves from the trap, we must be willing to. Feminists have explained why they persist, why they insist: We won’t accept anything short of full and equal regard for our fundamental humanity. Almost is not good enough. Better than it used to be is not as good as it should be.
Raise your arm, raise your voice.