In Praise of the Feminist Killjoy

I've never been called a feminist killjoy, but there are other epithets that have been directed toward me -- less kind ones, which I won't repeat here -- that approximated the concept. In short, the feminist killjoy is the stick-in-the-mud, the fun-sucker, the ruiner of happiness. Though I'm not humorless or joyless, I admit there's something apt about the term.

I change the radio station when Chris Brown comes on, I don't laugh at my coworkers' sexist jokes, I don't engage in the girl-hating gossip my 16-year-old sister often thrives on. I'm not a perfect feminist, of course (see Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist), but being critical about the world around me sometimes means I disrupt others' enjoyment of what seems to be, on the surface, no big deal. In these scenarios, I'm always the one to blame. It's not sexism's fault the mood was killed; it's mine.

But these are almost negligible when compared to the larger happinesses I reject. Though happiness (with a capital H) seems like the most neutral thing in the world, it remains socially constructed. Happiness usually means a checklist of things: a job, a spouse, a family, a nice home.

Happiness is a concept we all sprint toward, unquestioningly, without realizing how limiting this ideal actually is. Really, it says something similar as does "American dream," a term I can't believe people still use without a trace of irony. Like its distant cousin, "happiness" is loaded with images of nuclear families, white picket fences and nostalgia for a time when political correctness didn't exist. This normative model for happiness means we are all required to read from gendered, raced and classed scripts that encourage us to obey society's rules. This is to say that to achieve this standard of happiness you must be white, heterosexual, beautiful; you must desire children, prove your worth in a capitalist society and operate within the gender binary.

Life is made harder for those who don't follow this path to happiness. And for feminists, it is this very requisite we contest. It's why I have this burgeoning frown line, why my eyes are always rolling and why I can't always just brush off a sexist comment; it's why I'm a feminist killjoy. In certain ways, I've chosen to isolate myself from happiness, to abandon it, if it means participating in oppressive structures.

Though I'm not alone, an isolation from happiness can feel like an isolation from most of the world: from my parents, whose deepest desire is for me to be happy, but whose own happiness depends on my mine; from old friends, whose feminist consciousness never bloomed; from those coworkers, whose jokes I didn't find funny; from anyone who believes money, a boyfriend, or a nuclear family are the sole guarantees for a joyful life. I'm not better than anyone else who deeply desires these things -- and of course, I often do too -- but I'm looking for something else.

But how do we liberate ourselves from happiness? And what's next?

Joy. There's no one way to experience joy, and there's no linear path to it. It's not a destination or a finish line. Joy comes in waves and bursts. It doesn't insist you smile all of the time (like those catcallers on the street require you to) and it doesn't demand your complicity in systems of inequality. In fact, killing joy brings me joy. In proudly donning the label "feminist killjoy" I'm celebrating my liberation from happiness and learning how to laugh at myself. In her book The Promise of Happiness, Sarah Ahmed, whose ideas inspire my own thinking on the subject, writes, "...We can talk about those [difficult] conversations we have had at dinner tables or in seminars or meetings; we can laugh in recognition of inhabiting that place. There is solidarity in recognizing our alienation from happiness...There can even be joy in killing joy. And killing joy, we must and we do."

One Thursday night in college, I went to listen to jazz music at the campus club. The artist, whose guitarist admitted he wasn't sure what moshing was, posed a question to the audience: "What's moshing?" There came a scattering of voices from the crowd.

"Rowdy dancing!"

"Pushing and shoving!"

"Whatever you want it to be!"

And then, after two beats of silence, a fourth voice -- it wasn't my own, but it felt like it could be: "White male aggression!"