Content warning: This blog post contains swearing and stories about sexism and racism. This article is written from the perspective of a privileged and educated White cisgender woman.
A snap is the sound of a feminist killjoy.
A killjoy is a feminist that sabotages a situation. She interrupts the proceedings. She ruins an otherwise pleasant moment. When she arrives, the atmosphere changes. Her eyes widen. She raises her voice. She refuses to laugh at bigoted jokes. She has a wilful tongue. She bangs her cutlery at the dinner table. She recognises what she is up against. Other people perceive her snapping as dramatic or rash or even as an act of aggression. For them, it looks as though she’s “losing it” or “flying off the handle” (Ahmed 2017, 189 & 205). But actually, she is protesting.
The sound of a feminist killjoy is like the snap of a twig. You can hear it in her voice. It cuts the atmosphere like a knife. It’s the sound of a feminist who just can’t “take it anymore; when she just can’t take it anymore” (Ahmed 2017, 190). The moment she gives in to the pressure, when she can’t bear it anymore, is the moment she experiences the sensation of a feminist snap. The sensation of having to share a world with people who cause her to break.
Living in Canberra is enough to make any feminist snap, despite being filled with self-proclaimed “progressive” public servants. If you thought your hometown was bad, it’s got nothing on Canberra. Living here forces out the feminist killjoy in you. She’s probably always been there, but what you come up against in this city causes her to come out screaming.
The first time, you do not snap. But you want to.
You’re out drinking on a Saturday night. You have the sudden revelation that there is somewhere else you’d rather be. You say goodbye to your friends and you walk to a live music venue. You wouldn’t usually go to these things alone, but you’re feeling loose. You grab a drink and pay for your ticket. You go in, you sit down. The music’s pumping. Suddenly, you’re dancing. You’re having a great time. You don’t know it, but someone is watching you.
The gig ends. You sit down to finish your drink. A man comes up to you and starts talking to you. You know nobody, so you’re happy to have some company. You sit down to have a chat with the stranger. ‘What do you study’, he asks? ‘Guess’, you respond. ‘Archaeology? Anthropology?’ He guesses. ‘You’re so close’, you respond. One of the staff members is overhearing. ‘Sociology?’ she guesses. Bingo! She is instantly cooler than your company. He enquires further, ‘What’s your research about?’ ‘Feminism’, you respond. He pauses and stares at you. ‘Don’t we live in a postfeminist world, though?’ He inquires. You stare back, flabbergasted. It’s a patron who overhears this time. ‘Buddy, do you really think we live in a postfeminist world?’, laughs the patron. You laugh too. The patron becomes instantly cooler than your company.
The next moment, there are some intruders in your conversation. Welcome intruders. The other patron and his friends have come over to chat. ‘You don’t really believe that we live in a postfeminist world, do you?’ they inquire to your company. The conversation rolls on and you’re glad to have some new friends. Especially as you’re not a big fan of ‘postfeminist man’. Speaking of, he goes to the bar. ‘We aren’t interrupting a date, are we?’ your new friends inquire. ‘God, no!’ you respond, ‘He wants to fuck me, but it’s not going to happen’. He is back, and he hears you. ‘I did want to fuck you’, he says, ‘but not anymore’. You all laugh. Upon reflection, you’re not sure why it was funny, but it seemed funny at the time. You’re just happy to have some new friends who don’t believe we live in a postfeminist world.
You continue hanging out with your new friends and postfeminist man, despite knowing what he wants. It seems like he is waiting for something. Waiting for you. Despite saying that he was not interested in you anymore. He tries to coax you and your new friends to leave the venue. ‘Shall we all go to Mooseheads?’. ‘No thanks’, you say. You mention in passing that you lost your bike bag at the last bar. ‘Do you want me to help you find it?’ he asks. ‘No thanks’, you say.
Finally, he admits defeat. He leaves. You’re relieved. Because, quite frankly, postfeminist man was becoming drunk and annoying. After he is gone, you continue to chat with your new friends. Finally, you think, we can have an interesting conversation without postfeminist man hanging around. A few minutes pass. You are mid-sentence when, to your great disbelief, you realise that postfeminist man is back.
Yes, he is back. Why is he back? You know why he’s back. Suddenly, you feel like you are about to cry. You want him to go away. You express your discomfort to those around you. A staff member and one of the patrons take you to a separate room to get you away from him. You are choked up. The owner gives you a hug and the patron comforts you. The patron does a really good job of doing this until he mentions two or three times how “cute” he finds you, but don’t worry, he won’t try to “fuck you”. Not helpful, you think, but you’ve had enough to contend with tonight.
This may be a normal Saturday night in Canberra for some. But it’s not normal. You’ve experienced unwanted male attention, and it’s not okay. This is a form of sexism and harassment. This man felt entitled to sleep with you. The thought makes you feel sick to the stomach. You feel objectified. Why didn’t you say something to his face? Why didn’t the people around you say something to his face? The feminist killjoy inside of you is screaming, but you didn’t let her out. Why didn’t you let her out?
Its fine, you learn from this experience. This night was “the start of something” for you: a transformation (Ahmed 2017, 194). This event triggers something in you that ensures your feminist killjoy will be ready to come out next time you so desperately need her.
The next occasion soon arrives, and it is unexpected, as is the first instance. As Sara Ahmed puts it: “Snapping is not always planned” (2017, 199). Especially when you’re out on a Saturday night, trying to make some friends. Again, you’re out with some people you know in a bar. At 9pm, you decide to leave and go to a burlesque show, which is where you’d rather be anyway.
You go to unlock your bike and suddenly a group of male patrons you don’t know engage you in conversation. They seem nice enough, so you talk to them. The conversation is going fine until, out of nowhere, one of the men makes a joke. A joke about a Black staff member doing a “shit on the toilet”. You look at patron in disbelief. The Black staff member is standing right there and he can see and hear everything that is going on.
You begin to snap. ‘Dude, you’re sounding kind of racist’, you say to him. Well, does he lose his shit, or what? He is now up in your face, yelling at you. ‘I’m not racist’, he says, ‘how dare you! I have an Aboriginal wife and kids’, as if this is some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card. You try to speak, but he keeps interrupting you. This is normal for a feminist killjoy. As soon as you sound like you’re complaining, men mysteriously do not hear you anymore. You are silenced for pointing out what he could not possibly be.
But you don’t give up without a fight. You snap some more: ‘Even if you weren’t being racist’, you say, ‘you don’t make a joke about a staff member doing a shit on the toilet’. ‘It was only a joke’, he says. ‘It’s not a funny joke’, you respond. You say it wasn’t. He says it was. A friend of his comes to his aid: ‘A joke about a staff member doing a shit on the toilet? That’s hilarious’, she says, without laughing. It’s you against them.
He continues to yell at you and interrupt you when you try to speak. ‘You’re very entitled’, you tell him, ‘and having an Aboriginal wife and kids does not mean that you can’t be racist’. That’s the last straw for him, it seems. He is outraged. ‘Get on your bike’, he yells at you, ‘what are you even still doing here? Get on your bike. No one wants you here’. ‘You’re very fragile’, you tell him, which further inflames him. ‘Get on your bike’, he says, ‘no one wants you here’. He continues: ‘You don’t speak for him’, referring to the staff member, ‘have you even spoken to him?’. ‘No’, you say, ‘but I can see you’re making him feel uncomfortable and he is not in a position to complain’.
You’ve about had enough of 'Mr Shitjoke' and you can feel tears coming on. The injustice of the situation is getting to you. The staff member has the right to go to the bathroom in privacy without a patron making a joke about it. The Black man has been demoralised.
Now you’ve really had enough. Mr Shitjoke continues to tell you to leave. ‘You’re a piece of work’, you tell him. You exit the conversation. He yells “see you at the ANU”, where you study and he works, as if it’s a threat. You complain to the manager and have a chat with the staff member in question to make sure you have not misinterpreted the situation. You have not. The staff member does not say much, but he does say “thank you”. He does not need to say thank you.
In this situation, you have not done anything wrong. But he makes you feel like you are in the wrong. He wanted you to feel like you were wrong because he could not accept the possibility that he was wrong. People like him might see you as an aggressive and outspoken bitch. But actually, you’re a brave and wilful feminist killjoy. You refuse to be a bystander. What makes you snappy is that you snap. You snap to right a wrong. You are often told or are made to feel as though you are too emotional, irrational or hysterical. To snap is to resist against people who tell us not to feel or react on our emotions. If they tell you that you are too emotional, you will be emotional.
To this day, you do not forget these experiences. The body does not forget. After a while, being a killjoy becomes routine. You go about your everyday life and you find yourself trying to convince people that they are being sexist or racist; or, worse yet, trying to convince them that these things still exist. Trying to convince people that we do not live in a postfeminist or postracist world is a part of the feminist killjoy job description.
Challenging people becomes commonplace. You get in to an argument with your friend's housemate on a Friday night because he says he doesn’t like Indian people: ‘That’s racist’, you argue. Or you’re sitting in a pub, relaxing on a Sunday evening, and the owner of the establishment is dancing on a table, exposing himself: ‘I’m not coming back here’, you say bitterly. You argue with men online who don’t believe the things you are saying. You come to expect that you will interact with bigoted people wherever you go.
Being a killjoy is a full-time job.
In the beginning, you fought your battles with tears. Now your resilience is growing. As a White person, you are in a privileged position to fight these battles. We can think about bodies like they are twigs. The stronger the twig, the harder it is to snap. Some bodies are more resilient then others. Some bodies have been forced to become more resilient in order bear the brunt. Brown bodies, black bodies, queer bodies, gender non-conforming bodies and other traumatised bodies. They are forced to be stronger and more resilient to survive in the world. It takes a lot for them snap. Even if they don’t give in to the pressure, the damage is still there.
White bodies are strong enough bear the brunt too. But they often don’t. They aren't often forced to. But they need to. White bodies need to take more of the brunt. These feminists need to become snappy. They need to bring out their inner feminist killjoys to help out their sisters and brothers.
No matter who you are, it can be hard to snap. But it can be even harder not to snap. Be warned: to snap is not a road to happiness. As Sara Ahmed puts it: “Snappy is not happy” (2017, 196). But it can be a path to freedom. It can mean resisting the path expected of you and instead following the path less travelled by. The feminist path. It may be a hard road, but it can be the road to living your desired life. Walking this path can be lonely. You will find it hard to deal with people who aren’t empathetic to your values. You will feel like you are shutting yourself off from the rest of the world. But snapping can be a lifeline: it can mean escaping an existence that was even harder to survive and finding the freedom to lead a feminist life.
Postlude: In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed uses the pronoun “you” instead of “me” to describe some of her experiences of what she has come up against in the world. Telling stories about being a feminist can be a strain or cause tension within us. I myself was struggling to write this story down in the first person as I was so angry and upset about the bigotry I had seen in Canberra. So much internalised anger. By using the pronoun “you”, I was able to distance myself from these feelings and to write this story down. This is my story. Maybe it’s your story too?
As Ahmed puts it: “Telling the story is part of the feminist battle” (2017, 203). Which is why I felt inspired to share my story. These stories need to be heard by feminist ears and they need to be spread far and wide. I want to inspire others to be feminist killjoys and to read Sara Ahmed’s work, as it has made such a difference in how I conceptualise feminism in my own life.
This blog post is also a call to action! Next time you see bigotry, don’t be a bystander. Say something. Say anything. Yell. Scream. Make a scene. Or just give them a glaring look. Get up and leave. Make a statement. Or Just make a noise. How you do it is up to you. Let them know their behaviour is not okay. Doing something is better than doing nothing. And it may seem scary at first. When I first became a killjoy, I cried a lot! It's hard to displease people when you've been socialised to please them.
But, after a while, you become somewhat desensitised to it. You learn that there is no right or wrong way to deal with these situations, except that it’s better to react then to not react. As an educated White cisgender woman, I have begun to realise that I am in a privileged position to fight these battles. Especially when other people may not have the energy. We have an opportunity to change people's ways of thinking in the everyday. We need to commit to being good allies and refuse to be a bystanders.
I understand, however, that not everyone has the energy to take up the killjoy fight. Especially marginalised or vulnerable feminists who are often forced or expected to educate and resist on a daily basis. Or those who are just trying to survive in the world. This blog article is not directed at you - I know that you take more than your fair share of the brunt. Privileged feminists – especially White cisgender feminists – I’m looking at you. If you’ve got the energy to be a killjoy, use it.
If you haven't read Living a Life by Sara Ahmed, I urge you to read it. It will change your life. If you can't afford a copy and you are local to Canberra, contact me, I may be able to help.
Ahmed, S 2017, Living a Feminist Life, Duke University Press, Durham.