Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life

By Erin Wunker
BookThug, November 30, 2015, 23.00

Today is December 6, the 27th anniversary of the Polytechnique Massacre.

In Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, her new book of essays on moving through the world in a gendered body, Erin Wunker expands on Nicole Brossard’s idea that the Massacre was not committed by a “lone wolf.” The Massacre — and its remembrance — is not just about “M.L. alone, with his anger and his gun,” Wunker writes. “This is about the history of misogyny.” December 6 is about the particularities of that day — the murder of 14 women whose names we recite every year — but it also fits into a much wider, and deeply ingrained, spectrum of violence.

If M.L’s actions existed on a spectrum in 1989, then the events of 2016 — from the Ghomeshi trial to Pulse to November 8 — demonstrate that it remains firmly in place.

We needed feminism in 1989 when women were murdered for the very fact of taking up space and we need it now. Not necessarily the same feminism, but something that is still coming into being, intersectional, refining its methods, and yet avowed in its project to dismantle patriarchy.

Notes from a Feminist Killjoy is an answer to what is needed now — a self-consciously contingent rejoinder to the question of “who needs feminism?”

An academic by training, Wunker writes in the genre of autotheory recently popularized by feminist thinkers like Roxane Gay and Maggie Nelson. She interweaves personal anecdotes from her life and conversations with friends together with the concepts that are normally the purview of high theory.

Part of Bookthug’s new “Essais” series, the book’s organizing idea is Sarah Ahmed’s concept of the “feminist killjoy,” a figure who boldly ferrets out and stomps on those forms of happiness based on patriarchal oppression (body shaming, off-colour jokes, catcalling, to name but a few).  

In her introduction, Wunker writes that she initially envisioned the book as a handbook for how to “speak a feminist language and live a feminist life.” What resulted instead is perhaps more interesting, and seems to stem, in part, from Wunker’s realization that patriarchy is knotty and that feminism is not always well served by compact dictionary definitions, however badly we might want them sometimes.

At the same time, because Wunker opens by attempting to lay out the various threads of her thinking, the book begins at a somewhat rocky pace, and it’s not always clear how the threads connect.

Wunker truly hits her stride with the three essays that form the core of the book. Here, she tackles three forms of experience that structure women’s lives: rape culture, friendship, and mothering. She questions received assumptions about each and interrogates the narratives that our culture builds up about women.

Why, for instance, do mainstream stories about rape still fetishize the rapist as a stranger, when we know that most sexual assaults are committed by acquaintances? Why is female friendship so often characterized as toxic? And why are expectant mothers told that childbirth and mothering necessarily involve an erasure of identity?

In pointing to the inadequacies of language to describe these experiences, Wunker also draws on critical theory to propose new terms, like the “dark body” of female friendship and feminist mothering as a “sweaty concept.”

Autotheory is a risky mode to operate in: divulge too many anecdotes, and one becomes repetitive or self-serving; pile on too much theory, and the writing becomes inaccessible.

In general, Wunker achieves a delicate balance between these two poles, and some moments, like the story about running through the woods as a teenager to escape a potential attacker that opens “Notes on Rape Culture,” are gut-wrenchingly resonant. Moments like these flow holistically into more abstract questions about the larger narratives that (sometimes invisibly) structure our lives.

For instance, in “Notes on Rape Culture,” Wunker turns to Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry that Weight,” a project in which the rape survivor carried her dorm mattress around on her back as a sign of Columbia’s indifference to her assault. The media turned against Sulkowicz when Facebook conversations with her attacker were released online.

To any survivor of sexual assault, the idea that women respond to danger by “freezing, appeasing, mending, tending, and befriending” is self-evident. But popular accounts of complainants’ post-assault behaviour from the Ghomeshi trial to the Steven Galloway affair show just how pervasive the myth of the “perfect victim” continues to be.

Killjoy’s final chapter is an edited version of an essay originally published in Guts Magazine, one that I found immensely powerful on first reading it there. Wunker brings the concept of feminist refusal into this new version, which I think dilutes somewhat from the original essay’s focus on land, bodies, and the Idle No More movement. Nevertheless, the idea that certain kinds of refusal — refusing to speak, to participate in the system, to perpetuate an unjust world — can also be forms of action in themselves is compelling.

Many of the experiences that Wunker recounts — of violence, but also of joy — are ones that so many women carry around with them, archived on our bodies, and shared, often briefly, online, at bus stops, in living-room corners. Her book reaches toward a language for these experiences.

In that sense, Notes From A Feminist Killjoy operates from the audacious standpoint that building a new world is possible.

Christina Turner is rabble’s weekend editor and a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Toronto.

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Christina Turner

Christina Turner

Christina Turner grew up in Toronto and spent five years in Halifax, where she earned a BA from the University of King’s College. She then picked up and moved to the opposite side of the continent,...