This is an excerpt from a longer chapter titled “Notes on Rape Culture” and is posted with permission from the author.
Every now and then in the writing of this, I catch myself holding my breath or staring at the computer screen while I actually wring my hands. Or I feel my heart racing. Or I am sharp. I want to yell, but I don’t know whom to yell at. And that’s usually where the physical affects of my anger shift to something else. Exhaustion. Despair. I cry while I’m writing, and this, too, pisses me off. It makes my nose run. It makes me feel weak, even though I know I am not. I know that crying is not a sign of weakness. Will anyone read this? And, if they read it, will they use it against me? I am already anticipating the hate mail.
Each time I experience these physical reminders of the anger and outrage that I carry with me on a daily basis, I am returned to the ways in which they—these feelings—are also part of rape culture. I remember that they need to be addressed and worked through. It is work. And that work makes me tired and angry.
So before anything else, let me pause here. Let me stay with how a feminist killjoy might deal with her anger. Let me think about whether anger can do anything, and if we can do anything with anger.
Who gets to be angry?
At least since Freud pathologized women’s anger—and any other “excessive” display of emotion—as evidence of hysteria, anger has fallen under the umbrella of toomuchness. And this devaluation and depoliticization of women’s emotions only increases if you are a woman of colour; especially, as Blair L. M. Kelley writes, if you are a Black woman. The first “black women” American audiences saw on the American stage were minstrel “Negro wenches,” writes Kelley. Using burned cork and greasepaint to blacken their skin, white men performed as black men and women; these performances became wildly popular in the mid-19th century. White men used crude drag along with the burned cork to mark black women as grotesque, loudmouthed, masculine and undeserving of the protections afforded to white “ladies” in American society.10 In other words, white male minstrel performers enacted the first so-called popular representations of Black women, and they did so in public performances that used racism and ridicule in the service of “humour.” In these shows, Black women’s anger was not their own; their anger was a derogatory performance enacted by white men. And yet the restrictive and racist trope of the “Angry Black Woman,” which does not emerge out of Black women’s own forms of anger but rather out of racist representations of it, sticks to this day. White audiences loved that disrespectful shit—still do, I fear—and that is an example of patriarchal joy that needs killing.
Who gets to be angry?
Sianne Ngai has written about the ways in which white patriarchal culture dilutes strong affective experiences, especially when they are experienced by racialized women. For example, rather than write about anger, Ngai writes about an affect she calls animatedness. Animatedness, for Ngai, is the by-product of the racialization of emotion. It occurs when people of colour are characterized as effusively emotional—“zesty” and “lively” are but two examples of this thinly veiled subjugation of emotion. As Eu Jin Chua writes, excessive emotionality [in Ngai’s work] becomes the paradoxical index of a very real subjugation, the sign of a racial logic in which rational (emotionless) autonomy is ascribed only to white male subjects.11
Here’s the thing: even emotion is susceptible to the repressive mechanisms of patriarchal culture. We can feel all the feelings, but there is absolutely no guarantee our feelings will be read as legitimate. Anger, when expressed by white women, women of colour, people of colour, differently abled people, queer people, and trans people, gets repackaged and represented as something else, something less powerful: animatedness, hysteria, otherness.
Patriarchy, as my dear friend and colleague R. wrote to me, is a joy (in the unironic sense of the word) that women and other Others do not experience. But as a white woman, white supremacy is a joy I do experience. I experience the “joys” of white supremacy and white privilege in the way that men experience the “joys” of patriarchy—in a state of blissful unconsciousness. What R. means is that I benefit from this “joy” that needs killing, so I’m not forced to do the daily hard work of thinking through it, chafing against it, and resisting its attempts to delegitimize my life. What R. means is that it’s easy for me and other white women not to do the work. What she means is that even though patriarchal culture chafes me and wounds me, my whiteness gives me more privilege than others have in this unequal system. So one of my responsibilities, as a white, cis-gendered woman, is to learn how to be a traitor to the “joys” of patriarchal culture that I experience, however unconsciously. As R. puts it, we have to learn how we become weaponized against certain bodies. And then we need to learn to re-weaponize against the systems, not the bodies. Learn how you experience certain “joys” that afford you comfort zones that others don’t get. Learn how to stop participating in your unearned privilege. Kill that joy and fight with other Others in solidarity.
A feminist call might be a call to anger, to develop a sense of rage about collective wrongs. And yet, it is important that we do not make feminist emotion into a site of truth: as if it is always clear or self-evident that our anger is right.12
That’s Sara Ahmed writing about the feminist killjoy and other wilful subjects. Ahmed draws on Black feminist writing generally, and Audre Lorde specifically, to think through the ways in which anger is crucial for the necessary energy to react against injustice. Lorde writes:
My fear of anger taught me nothing…. Anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification…. Anger is loaded with information and energy.13
Anger, as Ahmed puts it, is framed here as a response to injustice; as a vision and version of the future; as a translation of pain into knowledge. Anger, she writes, is not simply a response to the past; it is also an opening up into the future. It is a means of moving forward out of what is, without forgetting what was. If anger energizes feminist subjects, it also requires those subjects to “read” and “move” from anger into a different bodily world.
Ahmed and Lorde are not the only writers who extol the vitality of anger for a feminist, anti-racist, social justice movement, but they are two that I find myself coming back to again and again because they articulate so clearly for me why anger is necessary and empowering.
And why anger is only a beginning. Here is Ahmed again:
When anger becomes righteous it can be oppressive; to assume anger makes us right can be a wrong…. Emotions are not always just, even those that seem to acquire their force in or from an experience of injustice. Feminist emotions are mediated and opaque; they are sites of struggle, and we must persist in struggling with them.14
This gets me every time I read it: When anger becomes righteous it can be oppressive.
Oof. I mean, part of what I appreciate about righteous anger is, well, how right it makes me feel. Justified. Indisputable in my emotional response.
I have been guilty of this oppressive righteousness, I think. When I was unfairly passed over for a permanent job I had worked really hard for and was more than qualified to do, I became righteously angry. After I peeled myself off the floor (okay, my partner helped peel me off the floor over the course of several months), I couldn’t stop the anger from flooding out of my mouth. I seethed. Anger seeped out of me. I felt good, because this wrong was a wrong that others recognized as such. No equivocation; what had happened was wrong. But after a while, after months of radiating an anger that moved me through my day, after vibrating with an anger so incandescent that listening to myself talk was like an out-of-body experience, my righteous anger didn’t sustain me. And then it just made me tired. And now, though the situation hasn’t changed, though that wrong hasn’t been publicly acknowledged or righted, though I still don’t have steady employment in the field I’ve worked in for more than a decade, and though my anger hasn’t dissipated, my righteousness has burned out.
I think, upon reflection, that it has to do with what Ahmed warns the feminist killjoy about. It’s not that anger isn’t useful or even necessary for feminist killjoys. In fact, in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Ahmed writes about the necessity of anger for the feminist movement. Rather, what I read in her words is a caution: Don’t let your anger—especially if it is righteous, especially if you know you’re on the side of right—fool you into thinking that it makes you right. Don’t be precious about your anger, warns Ahmed. Don’t let your anger become a site of oppression—for you, for others—when it can be a site of struggle. Don’t let your own experience of anger—feminist, justified, understandable—become totemic. Don’t let your anger be a stopping point. Don’t let your anger stop you from doing the hard feminist work of killing the joys of patriarchal culture. Don’t let your anger blind you to the anger others experience, differently. Don’t think your anger is universal. Don’t think because your anger is feminist that it is meaningful for all women. Don’t fetishize your anger.
Going back to Ahmed’s quote again: Feminist emotions are mediated and opaque. So how does the feminist killjoy manage anger as a reasonable response to rape culture? Can anger motivate movement rather than keep us cycling through a feedback loop of volcanic emotion? How might we persist in struggling with anger?
Killing the “joys” of patriarchal culture means training ourselves to recognize these systemic oppressions and also organizing against them.
When positioned externally, as a site of struggle, rather than locked inside me as a self-referential feedback loop, anger can provide traction:
If anger is a form of “against-ness,” then it is precisely about the impossibility of moving beyond the history of injuries to a pure or innocent position. Anger does not necessarily require an investment in revenge, which is one form of reaction to what one is against. Being against something is dependent on how one reads what one is against…. The question becomes: What form of action is possible given that reading?
Anger isn’t just about that old wound that happened in the past. Instead, as Ahmed writes, anger can be a way of moving into the future that remembers the wrong but isn’t stuck there with no way forward.
I am trying to think differently about that scar on my foot now. When I look at it, that pale trace of an event, I am still angry. But I am trying to use the anger that I feel—about this and other events—as a text to be read and revised, read and revised. I am trying to position my anger as a form of against-ness for myself and for encountering and working with others. Certainly, that is what this chapter is: positioning my anger at rape and rape culture as a form of against-ness. Against explaining it away. Against reductive narratives. Against victim-blaming. Against internalization and towards another form of public discussion.
Back, then, to one of those so-called joys that the feminist killjoy is working against. Back to thinking through one of those so-called joys that bring us to places of anger, to places of risky self-righteousness.
Back, once more, to the pervasive “joy” of rape culture. It is a strange thing to call rape culture a joy, isn’t it? Strange, too, to call rape a culture. And yet, here we are. As Ahmed suggests, the so-called joys of patriarchal culture don’t just chafe against feminist killjoys and other wilful subjects; they actively work to annihilate them.
I have spent my whole adult working life on university and college campuses. Really, I became an adult on campus. With the exception of one year (ruefully referred to as “the lost year”) spent in a converted 1970s Ford school bus, I have been on university and college campuses every year since 1997, when I started my undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina. I have gone from being a naive first-year student living in a dormitory to a graduate student newly trying to figure out systems of power to a teaching assistant, research assistant, instructor, and, finally, a fully PhD’d precarious worker teaching several classes a semester. Campus cultures have become familiar to me. I learned something of who I was and who I was becoming while in university. As cliché as it is to say, I learned something of the world, there in Chapel Hill, in Montreal, in Calgary, surrounded by the ostentatiously gorgeous azaleas and the pervasive smell of wisteria, then the mountain, and then the mountains in the distance.
One of the world-building things I learned was that periodically a tacit understanding between women who are strangers emerges. Like when I started my first university job, working at a café on Franklin Street. Franklin Street is the main drag of Chapel Hill, a classic American university town. The street is wide, tree-lined, and filled with cafés, shops, restaurants, and bars. The university campus bumps right up against the south side of the street: expansive, tree-covered quads peppered with old, ivy-and-wisteria-covered buildings. It is a beautiful campus. The café where I worked was right across from the North Quad. In the fall, we’d watch hundreds of girls who’d pledged sororities run screaming across the grass to their new sorority houses. For me, a transplanted Canadian, it was a bizarre and disconcerting sight. It seemed an exuberant but edgy adaptation of the end of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, where women ooze out of the woods; only in this version, the women are loud and happy and wearing pastel colours.
Anyway, the café was open until midnight, and I was a dishwasher, so I didn’t finish until nearly one in the morning. Sure, there were Point-to-Point vans (that’s what the safe passage on campus transport was called), but they didn’t come to the end of town I worked in, and they took forever to get to my dorm on the far edge of campus. Yes, there were cabs, but I was a student working to save money. So I walked. I like walking.
One night, as I started the forty-minute walk home across the tree-filled campus, taking care to avoid the botanical gardens, trying to stay on the lit paths, I became aware of someone else walking. I could see out of the corner of my eye that it was another woman. We matched pace with one another, exchanged one quick glance. That was it. The other woman, whom I recognized from another café, was wearing headphones. We walked a few metres apart. Across the North Quad. Past the Old Well. Across the South Quad. Through the Pit. Down the hill and under the bridge and past the football stadium and the tennis courts, all the way to the Hinton James dormitory. We parted ways there. I don’t even think we waved. But for that long, quiet walk home in the dark, we didn’t lose one another. That’s one of the things that I learned on campus: as a woman I was both responsible and culpable for my own physical safety.
10. Blair L. M. Kelley, “Here’s Some History Behind that ‘Angry Black Woman’ Riff the New York Times Tossed Around,” The Root, 25 Sept 2014.
11. Eu Jin Chua, “Review of Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings,” Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature 6, Feb 17.
12. All of the Ahmed quotations on anger in this section come from “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects),” Polyphonic Feminisms: Acting in Concert, ed. Mandy Van Deven and Julia Kubala, The Scholar & Feminist Online <http://sfonline.barnard.edu/polyphonic/ahmed_04.htm>.
13. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 124, 127.
Erin Wunker is the chair of the board of the national non-profit social justice organization Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) and co-founder, writer, and managing editor of the feminist academic blog Hook and Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe. She teaches Canadian literature and culture atDalhousie University. She is also the author of Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life, published in 2016 by Book*hug Press.