Culture  A kill-joy, and loving it

Sara Ahmed challenges the figure of the happy housewife

Last week, the McGill community gathered to listen to international scholar Sara Ahmed’s talk, entitled “Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness.” Hosted by Media@McGill and the McGill Centre for Research and Training on Women, Ahmed presented her paper – an excerpt from her forthcoming book The Promise of Happiness, which examines the “history of happiness through a feminist lens.” Ahmed is Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. As McGill’s Dr. Marc Raboy described Ahmed in his introduction, as “one of the most exciting thinkers” in the fields of feminist, postcolonial, and queer theory. Indeed, Ahmed did not disappoint, as she presented an original and incisive take on the history of feminist struggles and offered a new way of envisioning feminist consciousness in the future.

Ahmed began by introducing the figure of the “happy housewife.” She claimed that the genealogy of this figure – one that can be traced from the 18th century to the present day – is exemplary of the conflict between feminism and happiness: the housewife has come to embody the way happiness translates “norms” into “goods.” In other words, it is the happiness of the happy housewife that validates and then normalizes her status in society. Ahmed cited feminist denunciation of the happy housewife as a fantasy figure that conceals “signs of labour” beneath signs of happiness. Further, she claimed the image of the happy housewife erases the labour of impoverished women excluded from the possibility of attaining this happiness.

Next, Ahmed discussed the role of the queer subject. She cited Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness as a text that exemplifies the way the “queer life is constructed as an unhappy life.” That is, in order to maintain the “happiness of the straight world” as the norm, queer must equal unhappiness. Ahmed argued that the happiness of the straight world is thus itself an injustice, since the supposed unhappiness of the “deviant” supports the straight world’s marginalization of the queer subject. Consequently, Ahmed believes it is “because the world is unhappy with queer love that queers become unhappy.”  

Similarly, Ahmed expressed her frustration with the stereotype of the “feminist kill-joy” and pointed to the “myth of the joyless feminist” in the writings of Caribbean-American feminist writer Audre Lorde. It seems this stereotype is invoked to prove the feminist’s unhappiness and then justify her dismissal; sadly, the injustice she protests will then often go unnoticed. Perhaps, as Ahmed claimed, it is our dissatisfaction with the world that leads us to a feminist ethic; we are not unhappy because we are feminist, we are feminist because we are unhappy with the way things are. Ahmed defined feminism as the “inheritance of sadness in seeing gender as a restriction of possibility.” And yet, ultimately, she argued it is the feminist kill-joy’s refusal to “just be happy” that unveils the true character of happiness – as “loss” and “false consciousness.”

In the end, Ahmed highlighted the possibility for laughter in “swapping stories of being the kill-joy,” and the potential for “solidarity in recognizing [our] shared alienation from happiness.” Together, she says, we must reclaim the figure of the “feminist kill-joy” and, in turn, find joy in challenging patriarchal norms.