living a feminist life review

In Living a Feminist Life Sara Ahmed shows how feminist theory is generated from everyday life and the ordinary experiences of being a feminist at home and at work. Building on legacies of feminist of color scholarship in particular, Ahmed offers a poetic and personal meditation on how feminists become estranged from worlds they critique—often by naming and calling attention to problems—and how feminists learn about worlds from their efforts to transform them. Ahmed also provides her most sustained commentary on the figure of the feminist killjoy introduced in her earlier work while showing how feminists create inventive solutions—such as forming support systems—to survive the shattering experiences of facing the walls of racism and sexism. The killjoy survival kit and killjoy manifesto, with which the book concludes, supply practical tools for how to live a feminist life, thereby strengthening the ties between the inventive creation of feminist theory and living a life that sustains it.

Living a Feminist Life by Sarah Ahmed is an academic feminist text that takes theory and puts it into practice. In my time at university, I have read a lot of feminist theorists, and learned a lot of really important things about how to view institutionalised sexism and how to view the world in an intersectional light. However, I have never before read a non-fiction text that so beautifully and accurately describes what it really means to act as a feminist. Not to think like a feminist, but what it is like to stand up to people who are screaming for you to be silenced.

 

Through feminism you make sense of wrongs; you realise that you are not in the wrong. But when you speak of something as being wrong, you end up being in the wrong all over again. The sensation of being wronged can thus end up magnified: you feel wronged by being perceived in the wrong just for pointing out something is wrong. It is frustrating! And then your frustration can be taken as evidence of your frustration, that you speak this way, about this or that, because you are frustrated. It is frustrating to be heard as frustrated; it can make you angry that you are heard as angry. Or if you are angry about something and you are heard as an angry person (an angry black feminist or an angry woman of colour), then what you are angry about disappears, which can make you feel even angrier. If feminism allows us to redirect our emotions towards different objects, our emotions can become their objects. We are dismissed as emotional. It is enough to make you emotional (38).

The feminism in this book is undeniably intersectional. Throughout, there are discussions of antiracism, queer theory, and to a lesser extent, disability. Ahmed often includes her own experiences as a lesbian feminist of colour, which are always pertinent and interesting. The second part of the text is particularly significant, as it focuses on how diversity can be a more ‘palatable’ word for racism and sexism, as well as the role of diversity workers within universities. The denigration of female professors, particularly those of colour, is illustrated through various anecdotes. Ahmed explores the constant under-estimation of female professors, and the institutionalised sexism that still exists in academia today. Furthermore, the exhaustion of constantly fighting for the right to exist in an academic setting is explored. All of this is beautifully compared to variety of traditional feminist texts, such as Mrs Dalloway, Audre Lorde, and the writings of George Eliot. The Grimm’s fairytale of The Willful Child is also repeated throughout – a silent symbol of feminists who will not be stopped.

 

Ahmed concludes the text with the Feminist Killjoy Manifesto, a document that attempts to expose the existing violence of institutionalised sexism, and to disturb those who are willing to progress their careers through an academic institution that constantly depreciates the contributions of women.

  1. I am not willing to make happiness my cause
  2. I am willing to cause unhappiness
  3. I am willing to support others who are willing to cause unhappiness
  4. I am not willing to laugh at jokes designed to cause offense
  5. I am not willing to get over histories that are not over
  6. I am not willing to be included if inclusion means being included in a system that is unjust, violent, and unequal
  7. I am willing to live a life that is deemed by others as unhappy and I am willing to reject or to widen scripts available for what counts as a good life
  8. I am willing to put the ‘hap’ back into happiness
  9. I am willing to snap any bonds, however precious, when those bonds are damaging to myself or to others
  10. I am willing to participate in a killjoy movement

According to Ahmed, to be a feminist killjoy, and to live a feminist life, is to take the eyes that roll at us and make it our pedagogy. Watch us roll.

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