Feminist Killjoy vs. Feminist Chic

by Jennifer Bab on August 31, 2019

We’ve already explored the term Moxie. Now I will turn my attention to the word CHIC. Stylish. Smart Elegance. Sophisticated Dressing. It’s a positive term. I like positive. “Feminist Chic” -- that seems to be a powerful and positive combination.

What I can’t quite figure out is why it is so popular -- indeed fashionable -- these days, to promote female power by expressing anger and being coarse. For example, on college campuses everywhere, feminists are sporting “Feminist Killjoy” shirts. Do we really have to go there?  It just seems to me that this sort of negativity undermines rather than enhances the feminist movement; it hurts the very person it aims to help. (By the way, lots of feminist t-shirts express anger, usually in the form of putting down men and I’m not down with those either. I use the Feminist Killjoy shirt as the representative sample here because of its potential for multiple interpretations worthy of exploration).

For those not in the know on this, Feminist Killjoy is a term coined by feminist scholar, author and public speaker Sara Ahmed who defines herself as a Feminist Killjoy.*  Before Sara Ahmed fans get angry with me -- hold up. I am not taking issue here at all with her very thoughtful treatment of feminism. Her prolific works are worthy of study and discussion. I respect her and admire her passion. However, the term “Feminist Killjoy” standing on its own has so many potential negative connotations and ramifications for both the wearer and the reader (especially when read by those entirely unaware of the context, philosophical discussion and analysis of the intentions of its author). And that is what I want to address.

When I first heard/saw the term (on a t-shirt), I thought that the feminist wearing it possibly wanted to kill the joy of those who didn’t agree with her feminist views. Or maybe it meant that her joy has been killed by living a life fraught with injustice. Other potential meanings floated in my head. I was a bit confused and very curious, but one thing was clear:   “feminism” was being related to “killjoy”. As a woman, I was disappointed. Whatever the intended meaning, it is a message (about feminism or the female sex) filled with anger. Is anger what we really want to promote and advertise? Maybe. But maybe not.

Anger may win a few battles, but I don’t believe it will win the war.  

I get that women are frustrated -- maybe even angry to the point of rage -- about seeing and living injustice. Fighting for equal rights is a long, hard fought and ongoing battle. I propose that women fight with savvy, intelligence, wit and grace  -- not anger, shrillness and coarseness. And wouldn’t that be better for everyone? After all, what is the endgame here?

If the endgame is to elevate a girl’s place in this world -- then let’s elevate her.  The best way to do that seems to be elevating her dialogue and the dialogue about her. Given the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (one of my go-to psychological phenomena), celebration (of girls) will lead to the elevation (of girls). To the extent Feminist Killjoy is a self-proclamation, thinking oneself a “Feminist Killjoy” -- by its own terms -- has the ugly potential to pull down and keep down those wearing that label (and those reading it for whom it resonates).  Using positive energy just seems to be the better approach.

If the endgame is for the feminist voice to be HEARD, then let’s speak so people will listen. Our feminist voices need to be heard in order to evoke change. And don’t people tend to turn away from, discount and tune out anger? We want to move the needle, not needle those very people we want and need for support. Again, using positive energy just seems to be the right approach.

I don’t know about you, but surrounding myself with positive people has always felt better than the opposite. I would much rather spend my time with and align myself with girls who want to explore and change the world with smarts, savvy and positive energy, rather than those who see in shades of anger and make remarks potentially denigrating or alienating to large parts of our population (even if unintentionally), many of whom deserve better (other girls included, but men too, as most men are NOT the likes of Matt Lauer or Harvey Weinstein). 

I am talking about evoking positive change (for girls) with positive energy (by girls).

Let me turn to equal rights trailblazer Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I think we can all agree she’s achieved so much -- for all women and men -- and has a seat (a bench in fact!) at the table. She is a person of import and influence. I could fill this entire blog with story after story of RBG’s getting to where she is despite the discrimination to which she was subjected. In My Own Words should be on your bookshelf and On the Basis of Sex in your video library. In every instance, she handled herself with supreme savvy, grace and wit. RBG’s response to injustice is positive and balanced (the scales of justice come to mind for obvious reasons). On anger and the power of persuasion specifically, RBG gives us her guidance:  


"When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best to tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade."
"Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you."
"Don't be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment. These just zap energy and waste time."
 "You can disagree without being disagreeable."

So while I am cool with Gloria Steinem’s symbolic burning of the bra (afterall, they can be too confining sometimes, right?! And protests are a necessary part of the movement), I believe we should be celebrating girls (with or without bras). There is not enough energy or space for hate and anger when there is so much work to be done and so much positive messaging to broadcast.  

And about those bras -- fact is, girls are different than boys (for starters, women are the ones who give and nurse human life, not men). While of course women should have all the same basic rights and privileges as men, should we want to be treated exactly like men in every instance? (I don’t, but that’s a more complicated analysis and discussion).

And that begs the question -- whether there is a place for old-fashioned etiquette anymore? I am a big fan of good manners (with a twist). For example, I teach my son Maier to hold doors open for people (not only women, but also elderly and, frankly, anyone immediately behind him). Being kind and thoughtful is just good practice. It would be society’s loss if anyone was offended by Maier’s gesture, though I suspect a “Feminist Killjoy” wearer may take issue with the door being held for her. And that would be a shame. Civility and kindness -- we need more of that. While there may be a time and a place for venting, we would seem to do better, feel better and get further with positive energy in general. 

So, back to the question of fashion and feminism. I invite girls to trade in their “Feminist Killjoy” shirts for more positive feminist CHIC messaging. Flaunting witty, edgy, playful girl power shirts imputes a sense-of-humor, pride, strength and self-esteem to the girl wearing it -- and perhaps just as or even more importantly -- it advertises and promotes that image (for all girls to share) to the world. Much like our feminist icon RBG, let’s try to “wear” civility, wit and grace for a while and see how that works.  

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 * The term comes from her book The Promise of Happiness where she explores a (western) cultural obsession with the attainment of happiness and how achievement of that is problematic for those with experiences that belie happiness.  "To kill joy," she says, "is to open a life, to make room for life, to make room for possibility, for chance." From that, the term "killjoy" was born.

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