“When you expose a problem, you pose a problem,” writes British Australian scholar Sara Ahmed in her new book, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook: The Radical Potential of Getting in the Way (Seal Press). The memorable zinger, one of many throughout the book, describes that person at the dinner party who refuses to laugh at a sexist joke, or the one at work who interrupts a racist or ableist institutional policy to call it what it is. The person who protests, who refuses to go along to get along. Maybe you’ve met that person. Maybe you are that person.
A figure and a theory, a reclaimed identity and a politic, the feminist killjoy can be found in Ahmed’s work over the last decade, on her blog by the same name and in her many books, including Living a Feminist Life (2017), about which bell hooks wrote, “Everyone should read this book.” This newest handbook is an elaboration on her long developing theory of killing joy.
But while Ahmed is critical of happiness, the Feminist Killjoy Handbook is not joyless. In a recent conversation with Judith Butler, Ahmed elaborated on how its first chapter places an emphasis on killjoy survival to explore not only “what is hard or shattering, but also what it gives us—connections with others who get it because they’ve been there.” There can be loss in killing joy—of professional opportunities, social status, friends, and family members. But killing joy, Ahmed often says, is also a world-making project. With this handbook, she takes examples from literature and poetry (Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ahmed’s own auntie), philosophy and theory (Angela Davis, a trained philosopher, and Lauren Berlant), popular culture (Kramer vs. Kramer, current battles around “the woke” bogeyman), activism (Shulamith Firestone’s “smile strike,” Davis and others’ “abolition feminism”), and her own life to extend the conversation to a wider readership. Ahmed has a rare power for naming what many of us know to be true: Her articulation holds the power of simple, alienating clarity. No wonder, then, that the feminist killjoy is always being told they’re ruining everything by pointing out what others would rather leave unsaid, as is, just how things are.
In 2016, Ahmed left her position as director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London, in protest over what she described as the school’s failure to address sexual harassment as an institutional problem. (The deputy warden of Goldsmiths said in a statement that the school does not tolerate sexual harassment and fully investigates any complaint.) Now an independent scholar and mentor, she is currently working to expand Complaint! (2021), her examination of those who complain about abuses of power, into a second handbook. “You can see why institutional change is so difficult,” Ahmed told me, because “the very effort to change an institution is used as evidence that it’s changed.”
In Queer Phenomenology (2006), a philosophical study of orientation (sexual and beyond), Ahmed uses an image of desire lines, the unofficial paths made by feet leaving the main trail. We are directed toward a straight and narrow walkway, but desire lines remind us we can choose our own path. In a conversation with VF as winding and spirited as a wild garden walk, she discusses the power of naming, the ideal dinner party, the messy and necessary work of intersectionality, Barbie, and the joys of killing joy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Vanity Fair: Who or what is the feminist killjoy, the figure or politic this handbook is perhaps by, for, about—all at once?
Sara Ahmed: The feminist killjoy begins as a stereotype of feminists. That feminists are doing what they do, saying what they say, because they are unhappy and because they want to get in the way of other people’s happiness. And the project of the book is a kind of reclaiming. It’s saying, “If pointing out sexism and racism makes people unhappy, then that is what we are willing to do.” So you sort of take hold of that stereotype, that figure, and with it find a history of those who’ve been quite willing to get in the way of happiness in order to pursue a more just world.