Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on everyday life takes a closer look at some of the principles presented in Sara Ahmed’s article “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects)”. And both works are perhaps better for it.
To be a feminist is often to be considered a killjoy. The two go hand in hand due to a lack of knowledge about the history and goals of feminist movements, or feminists in general. However, there is power in joining these words together. As Wunker explains, “When brought together, ‘feminist’ and ‘killjoy’ trouble the habitual understandings of each other.”
Pairing these terms creates a new meaning: where a killjoy disrupts the happiness of others or rains on the parade, the feminist killjoy smashes the patriarchy. She lights a match and watches it burn with a smile on her face.
Wunker revels in the subversive aspects of this term of endearment for all those who rage against the patriarchy. She explains the necessity of the phrase and its namesakes. Without feminist killjoys, our society would not be the still imperfect, but undoubtedly better version of itself that we currently live in. Without feminist killjoys, we would not have progress. We could never achieve a sense of equity.
What’s remarkable about Wunker’s work is her intense self-awareness and her cautious but sure-footed approach to critiquing feminism and calling for intersectionality.
Wunker owns her shortcomings in the journey towards a more intersectional feminism. Down to the footnotes, her “essays on everyday life” show her devotion to challenging not just a patriarchal society or her readers, but herself.
She structures her thoughts about being a feminist killjoy into four parts—three chapters and a postscript—which follow a letter to her daughter and an introduction to what exactly these “notes” are meant to be. In short, they are meant to be personal.
The personal and the political are irreversibly intertwined. Our experiences are impacted in every way by our stations in life, the totality of our beings, our identities.
In her introduction, Wunker explains that she puts the “I” in her writing because she cannot speak to anyone’s experience but her own. This, in and of itself, makes her more honest than most. She does not aspire to preach nor does she claim to understand struggles that are not her own.
The three chapters that follow show Wunker’s attempts to grasp three concepts within feminist discourse: rape culture, friendships and motherhood—and what it means to interact with these things as a feminist killjoy.
I found her thoughts on rape culture difficult to read at times because they felt too real. Toeing the line between academic explanation and personal narrative, Wunker tries to explain what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society. She takes us back through times we modified our behavior, feared our surroundings or blamed ourselves instinctively, because that is what society teaches us to do. While personal, her experience feels connected to mine. It’s somehow comforting and heartbreaking all at once.
In her chapter on friendship, Wunker provides a thoughtful analysis on the nature of relationships amongst women. What it means to be friends with other women, how we interact with each other and how society talks about these relationships. She describes other theorists’ work on the subject and ties it to her own experience, pushing out of the patriarchally-mandated animosity among women to develop deep and complex relationships.
Wunker explains that while often trivialized, always underestimated and treated as a pop culture punchline, women’s friendships are vital to our survival in a patriarchal society. Our relationships with the women around us can make us or break us. They deserve respect.
In her analysis of feminist motherhood, Wunker delves into what it means to be held and what it means to hold. She notes the perceived differences between parenting and mothering and situates those distinctions within feminism. Mothering exists in a gendered context; parenting does not. Wunker aspires to live in a world where the connotations for those terms are the same. Her discussion of the intersections between her feminism and her motherhood show a self-consciousness and self-searching likely familiar to a lot of mothers.
Wunker’s discussion of the feminist killjoy feels at once familiar and fresh. Though inspired by Ahmed’s work, it is her narrative, the “I” in the equation which makes it so timely and necessary right now.
Her postscript on refusal as a feminist act toys again with the notion that words with negative connotations are sometimes the ones we need to claim most of all. In a world that still desperately needs feminism, Wunker’s notes seem like a solid first step.
Kelly Livingston is a freelance writer with a passion for intersectional feminism. After four years studying English and Anthropology at the University of Florida, she remains fascinated by the ways we can use writing to comment on and change our culture.