November 16, 2016
On the evening of Friday November 4th, I was walking down the street with a copy of Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy in my bag. Striding with purpose, something vital playing through my headphones, and a man on the street approached me. He was holding a clipboard, wearing a vest that identified him as a fundraiser whose job it is to get passersby to sign on in support of a charity. The kind of person I tend to smile at, shaking my head, as I keep on walking. Usually I am also herding recalcitrant small children, which makes me less of a target. But that night I was unencumbered, and although I gave no indication of wishing to engage with this person, he wouldn’t relent. Walking alongside me, asking questions, even though I was listening to music, never made eye contact, never answered him.
He didn’t stop and finally I had to say to him, each word delivered with such deliberateness as I waited at the intersection for the light to turn green: “I don’t want to talk to you.”
The light turned green, and I stepped into the street, and I could hear him behind me: “Oh, that’s really nice,” he was calling out to me, as though I’d refused him something he was entitled to, as though his invading my space necessitated a kind of niceness that ought to be returned.
But, No, no, no, I was thinking. I’m not having any of that.
There is something about notes. Notes have an irrefutability that a manifesto lacks, albeit in a shrugging-off kind of womanish way. “When I started this book, I wanted to write something unimpeachable,” writes Erin Wunker in the introduction to her Notes From a Feminist Killjoy, but her book turned out to be something very different. Or not. “Unimpeachable” is like a red rag to a bull in the realm of discourse. You’re going to go out and build this solid thing just to have someone break it. They call this “debate”. It’s logic, rhetoric. When you debate you’re not meant to get emotional, to remain at a remove, which is easier to do when you’re not personally invested. When it’s theoretical and you can examine it cooly, not getting all hysterical. Okay then, let’s talk about you policing my body, for example. About campus rape. Let’s call abortion a debate.
It’s back and forth. It gets you nowhere. Turns my actual life into a game of ping-pong. I get hysterical.
Notes, on the other hand. Wunker: “I remember that I tell my students that reading and writing are attempts at joining conversations, making new ones, and sometimes, shifting the direction of discourse.”
“Notes” is a way of ducking.
Also, ducking is a mechanism of survival. What is wrong with being unwilling to be a target, with refusing to play that game?
“Notes” is different game happening on a whole other level.
If I wanted to “impeach” Notes From a Feminist Killjoy, there would be a couple of points I’d start from. The chapter on feminist mothering, for one, which seems to be unaware or else does not to take into account the substantial body of scholarly work on this subject—Sara Ruddick, Andrea O’Reilly, my friend May Friedman, for just a start. Although the chapter poses something familiar to those of us who’ve lived it—the woman on the verge of discovery of this vast world of motherhood and feminism, the questions motherhood necessitates and the unfamiliarity of it all. The complete inapplicability of everything we’ve ever learned before to serve as solutions to our problems. This is a chapter written by an author who is still lost at sea. And there is usefulness in that kind of documentation. But yes, it might have been helpful to have some suggestion of the shore.
My other problem with the text was with the nature of the killjoy, whose moniker I’d wear with relish, actually. Particularly a feminist killjoy. That IS the kind of no-fun I most want to be. (Wunker takes her title from Sara Ahmed’s blog, feministkilljoys, which has been a tremendous discovery for me since reading her book—”joining conversations, making new ones.”)
But I kept being tripped up by the noun becoming a verb—the killjoy actively killing (patriarchal) joys. For a few reasons, one being the violence implicit. I don’t want to kill anything. And also that I have certain amount of reverence for joy. (One of my daughters’ middle name is “Joy.” The other’s middle name is “Malala,” which means sadness, so don’t think I don’t get the whole picture, but she gets to be named for a kickass feminist heroine so it all comes out even.) Joy and happiness, which Wunker writes about as a socialized and commodified product, a social imperative. “Happiness as restricted access. Happiness as a country club, a resort, an old boy’s club for certain boys only.” Happiness as an impossibility.
And yet it’s that notion, not of happiness itself but of its impossibility, that chafes me. Partly because I believe in (even insist on) a genuine happiness that need not be commodified at all—the way the afternoon sun shines right now on my cup of tea, for example. It’s about being present, eyes wide, curious and ready to receive it. It’s about the peace of a moment. Happiness is small and it is slippery, but it’s real.
There really is such thing as joy, and to refer to patriarchal violence as such a thing undermines it. Undermines the spaces we need to create for joy to exist in our personal corners of the world.
Of course, there has been very little joy for anyone who considers herself a feminist in the past week. (It is November 15 as I write this.) That Friday evening as I asserted myself and said, “I don’t want to talk to you,” seems like a relic of a bygone age. When we were reading (excellent, amazing) news articles with headlines like, “The Men Feminism Left Behind.” When I was thinking that progress was slow, but how far I’d come to be able to speak up and say those words to the man on the street. To not have to worry about being nice. When I was taking comfort in my daughters coming into the world on the headwinds of so much necessary, vital change.
After I crossed the street that night and left the man behind, I got on the subway and read Wunker’s chapter about rape culture. The part about her running through the woods to flee a man who’d tried to lure her into his car on a country road. I remember the details: her Birkenstocks, the wound on her foot. The sense that all of us have had of being chased, the fear. Rape as a thing and rape as a sceptre, an inevitable that we steel ourselves for. By not walking at night, for example. There is no joy here either. There is darkness illuminated by streetlights, but even there you can’t be safe.
Notes is a way of starting. Trying. Essai. If a manifesto is a red rag, then a note is a building block, a puzzle piece. The reader responds not by charging, but by saying, Yes and, or Yes but. She doesn’t respond by tearing the whole thing down.
I love the way the narrative thread of Wunker’s book makes its way with seeming effortlessness. There is nothing laboured about how a discussion of rape culture leads to the Jian Ghomeshi trial leads to women coming together leads to a chapter on friendship. (Which references The Babysitters Club. Yes, and!!) Why are so few of our formative texts about female friendship? “What is it about female friendship that inspires such insipid descriptors?” What are relationships between women often so fraught?
“Is it too hard to write your own narrative and witness another’s, simultaneously?”
As I watched the election results last Tuesday night (and felt as heartbroken as I’ve ever felt in my life, perhaps, which is saying something for how lucky I’ve been in a world that’s notoriously hard to live in) I was trying to read the book I’d been reading for a couple of days, Making Feminist Media: Third Wave Magazines on the Cusp of the Digital Age, by Elizabeth Groenveld. I started reading it because those third wave magazines (Bitch and Bust) were what taught me to call myself a feminist, made me realize that I’d been a feminist all along. I’ve always loved magazines—you know, the kind that smelled like perfume—but then one day I stumbled into the magazine rack at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore and discovered there was a kind of magazine that didn’t make me feel like less than a person. That there were things other than just a boyfriend that could make my soul complete—do you know what a revelation this was to me? It’s still shocking to consider just how much.
I never noticed when I was writing them that everybody in the magazine was white. It would take me years to realize there was anything strange about that, what a departure from reality such whiteness actually is. I also recall reading letters in Bitch about whether this was a magazine for feminists or lesbians, and (I say this with shame) feeling similar consternation. I didn’t know there was such a thing as intersectionality then. I have learned a lot since I started reading these magazines a decade and a half ago.
What occurred to me though on the day after the elections as I finished reading Grovenveld’s book was the difficulty all these magazines have had in surviving—how the feminist message remains so niche. Considering this in the context of the number of white women who voted for a misogynist fascist seems sort of unremarkable. Why doesn’t feminism sell more? Thinking too about what Grovenveld writes about identity politics and how focusing on distinct groups creates a sense of community among the group’s members, but ultimately it keeps the focus too narrow for widespread change to occur. For the magazine to be sustainable, she means. (Although she writes that a magazine being short-lived is not fair as a standard of failure. The fact that it even existed at all, and was read, defies so many odds.)
On Friday morning I was walking with my friends and we were talking about that group of women who voted for a misogynist fascist, and one friend framed this too in the context of intersectionality, which I’d never properly considered. I’d been thinking about the failure of intersectionality as women break apart instead of coming together (although I understand entirely, and I get that #solidarityisforwhitewomen) but never thought about the troubling intersectionality of these white women with their allegiances to the patriarchy. No woman is a highway.
What is it that makes women go so far out of their way not to support other women? Why did so many people dislike Hillary Clinton so much. To the point of going out of their way to elect a fascist, I mean. Is it because of the lack of representation of female relationships that Wunker references? To the end of getting to the answer to that question, Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck came in for me at the library.
Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why is a historical and pop-cultural look at the women who’ve stirred up shit from the margins and who (as Doyle posits) may have actually been prophets but it’s just that the world wasn’t ready yet. (Billie Holiday on rape culture, anyone?)
I needed a bit of levity these last few days, but also some more context as to how we’ve arrived here, and this book offered both. Why do we set up women to fail with impossible standards, and then decide it’s our job to punish them, to destroy them, when they do?
What the trainwreck shows us, Doyle writes, is that “in a sexist culture, being female is an illness for which there is no cure.”
Which bring us to here.
And no, no, no. I’m still not having any of that.