Being a feminist killjoy

About a month ago I heard Lola Olufemi, women’s officer for Cambridge student’s union, being interviewed on BBC radio 4, about her anger at being singled out by a right-wing newspaper from an active group of students working to broaden the literature curriculum , and misrepresented as trying to get rid of ‘white authors’.  She identified herself a feminist killjoy and referred to Sara Ahmed’s arguments for this.  Her proud use of this label prompted me  to revisit Ahmed’s work on happiness as a social norm, especially as the media interview

BOURgeois NY Times

Louise Bourgeois

did not give any space for her to explain this work.  Going back to Ahmed’s arguments about the unequal, conditional ‘promise’ of happiness made me realise how relevant they are right now, when the injustices of workplace sexual harassment and violence are at last being brought into public view. 

Ahmed’s argument about happiness as a kind of social norm is philosophically precise, and that makes it a challenge to summarise here.  You can find some references at the end of this post for you to read in full.  She asks us to look at which social groups get to define what happiness is – what kind of lives and objects are pushed as desirable, to be wished for.  What do we do when what is supposed to make us happy is not what we are experiencing?


Renoir’s the boating party from

Ahmed argues that happiness gets attached to what she calls ‘happy objects’.  These can be things we do as well as things we have.  These objects are pointers towards an end point of happiness.  They point  to the path that will lead to happiness if you follow it.  Think of the wedding day, or the exciting new job or role, of balancing career and children in your perfect home.  Such paths have become social goods; they are what we all should desire.  If you experience unhappiness while following them, if there is a gap between what you actually feel and what you think you should feel – then voicing that unhappiness is seen as a threat; as spoiling the happiness of others.  You become the source of tension, the breaker of solidarity, the troublemaker.  And you feel like a stranger.  We can see the reality of this in the experiences of those who are at last coming forward in significant numbers to talk about being treated primarily as sexual objects by those who have power over them in the workplace, what ever their gender.  The happiness of these men with a little bit, or a lot of power, is finally being challenged.

This kind of trouble making is the inevitable role of the feminist says Ahmed.  If you protest against sexual harassment or even assault, or against unequal pay, or work practices that don’t take a man’s responsibilities as a parent into account, then the defense is that you are the problem.  Don’t rock the boat!

Your complaint is turned back on you.  mona-lisaDon’t complain about that powerful man if you want to be successful in your job – find your own ways to deal with it and smile!  This was the message received by many of those who did voice their unhappiness, their hurt and anger, at the way they were being treated.

Ahmed says that instead of the promise of happiness being laid down for us in advance, we can think about the idea of happiness as a sense of possibility,  a sense of opening up new ways of being, rather than following paths that restrict the possibilities of so many of us.

The more of us that do this, the more change we can make, and we can see this now, in the strength of the numbers of people coming forward now, to make public the unhappiness, distress and anger that has been a hidden part of our workplaces.

LIPS Choir


Sara Ahmed

article – ‘Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness’, Signs, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring 2010), pp. 571-594

book – ‘The Promise of Happiness’ Duke University Press

blog –




‘Words are things’: Mary Kelly’s Multi-Story house


IMG_20150226_133142 mary kelly

Mary Kelly: Multi-Story House

Last month I went to the refurbished Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.  I enjoyed the space and light that has been opened up in the development of this old red brick building, and the way it now blurs the boundaries between the park and gardens outside and the wide, white spaces inside.  I was especially struck by the way they have put together specific portraits from their permanent collection – where studies from the eighteenth century are hung next to contemporary paintings, sketches by unknown artists alongside the powerful works of Freud and Bacon.  Here is the link to this exhibition on their website: Whitworth Gallery: Portraits

The majority of the works are drawings and paintings that hang on walls, but they have also included less conventional ‘portraits’ such as the mix of feminist voices in the stories that are central to Mary Kelly’s ‘Multi-Story House’ (2007).  This small, warmly lit ‘glass house’ (the size of a garden shed) is what I want to focus on here.

In contrast with the images of all types of people on the surrounding walls, this bright object creates its portraits through words.  Instead of responding to a representation of a specific body, reading these ‘stories’ summons up a hubbub of different voices.  The words are all carved into acrylic panels in the same cursive style, all are in (or translated into) English, and all address the theme of feminism.  But the words in each extract conjure up a myriad of mouths, because each speaker draws on a differing choice of words and set of contexts.


The narratives are taken from conversations with women of different generations about being a feminist, and to read them you have to move around all the sides of the house, look up at the sloping roof, go inside to read those that present their back to you from the outside.  So it is a physical experience as well as a mental and emotional one, and one I felt I could ‘control’ by choosing which stories to read, by walking away to think about them, and returning later.  However, the artist directs your experience of  the relations between past and present by presenting all the younger women’s narratives on the outside, and the older generation of women (the same generation as the artist herself) on the inside.

Kelly said of this arrangement of time ‘you can’t be in both places‘ in a conversation with Paula McCloskey at the Whitworth in 2011.  She also said that through this ‘dialogue’ between generations of women she is addressing the question of ‘what (-) you feel that you’re obliged to carry on in terms of the legacy.

Questions are fundamental to her work as an artist, she stated in this interview: ‘I recognised that if an artist has a brief, it’s to ask the question – so that’s where I began in my work. It’s not about the answers,’

I like that approach – it makes sense to me – and perhaps helps me work through why I find some art works so stimulating, so thought-provoking.  They fill my mind with questions, they make me look again, physically or mentally.

Words are things

This is the title to a catalogue of an exhibition of her work in Warsaw in 2008.  I don’t know if Kelly chose this title or not, but it caught my eye as it is so central to her work, especially in Multi-Story House, where we are in the collective presence of other feminists through their words.  Words that you can see through, into the interior of the house, carved material symbols that take us on a journey into ourselves and into other selves.

In her conversation with McCloskey, Mary Kelly talked about the re-staging of a street theatre event, originally enacted in 1971, and she referred to the pleasure she remembered of being in the company of women acting together as feminists, a pleasure that re-occurred between the women involved in the re-staging in this century – the pleasure of a ‘collective presence‘.  This kind of pleasure describes well how I felt as I read the stories, and walked round and peered into her Multi-Story House.  I identified with the dialogue on the panels, and a felt a sense of belonging with these speakers from around the world, all actively embracing and re-affirming an identity that means so much to me too.

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Mary Kelly: Mea Culpa 1997 from


Paula McCloskey, in conversation with Mary Kelly, Studies in the Maternal, 4(1), 2012,