Reflecting on Living a Feminist Life
2018 was, for me, a difficult year. Difficulty presents itself in a number of ways, typically articulated to my family and close friends as a litany of PhD related problems and mental health concerns; by no means exclusive just to me. They crept up in the subtlest of ways, almost going unnoticed, until it boiled over into a sort of mini-crisis point. My point here, however, is not to dwell on what has mostly felt like the shittiest year thus far and how each shitty part compounded upon another. Rather, it is to shout out, against my cynical nature, to the feminist community that I surround myself with each and every day, who consciously or not helped me ‘do me’, and to fly the feminist flag in the face of continuing challenges.
As 2018 draws to a close, I find no words more fitting than Ahmed’s in her 2017 book Living a Feminist Life. I’ve only just survived the usual disagreements over the festive period, typically on Boxing Day when you see the extended family or on Christmas Eve when you head to the local pub in the town in which you grew up, perhaps you overhear an offensive comment that you absolutely must challenge. What happens when you challenge it, though, is to be told by the more forgiving members of present company that they didn’t mean it like that, and you bite your tongue to avoid an uncomfortable conversation over the holidays. You don’t want, after all, to be that disruptive figure… Really, it’s killing you to not say anything. Feminism, to the denouncers, is a personal tendency. If you disagree, it is because you are ‘disagreeable’. If you oppose, you are ‘oppositional’ (2017: 38). In other words, you are just difficult. I know this, but can’t I be both ‘difficult’ and feminist? The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
“Feminists: looking for problems” (2017: 39)
We are the ‘feminist problem’. It begs the question, then, of whether we are the creator of our own problems and if our lives would be a little easier if we simply left such vitriol alone; if we left the status quo unchallenged. These problems, though, have always been there. Unnamed, unchallenged, universal. We are, as Ahmed notes, ‘feminist killjoys’. Being a ‘killjoy’ can feel as though we make life harder than it needs to be. If we ‘stop noticing exclusions’, our ‘burden’ is eased (2017: 235). Once you have acquired the feminist gaze, however, can you ever unsee exclusions? They are always there, permeating every aspect of our lives. You can’t even make it through your favourite TV show or listen to some music without hearing a line or witnessing [often gratuitous] violence that simply must be commented on. It’s bloody exhausting.
This sentiment of the feminist as the problem, rather than identifying the problem, becomes nowhere more obvious than over this joyously festive period of the year. It is precisely for this reason that I want to revisit Ahmed’s work to remind myself that our feminist frustration is not misplaced. The acrid taste on your tongue from the missed opportunity to use your well-rehearsed feminist rebuttal to Great Uncle Clive’s misogynistic comment, or ‘s anti-immigration rhetoric in the pub on Christmas Eve remains. All for the sake of saving any embarrassment for the rest of the group. This taste also takes a few too many glasses of sherry to get rid of. And, after that point, you can no longer be held responsible for what the sherry makes you say.
There is an irony in being called wrong for calling out someone for saying/doing something offensive, which is almost laughable [in a sort of ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ way]. For Ahmed, “if feminism allows us to redirect our emotions towards different objects, our emotions can become their objects. We are dismissed as emotional” (2017: 38). No bloody wonder. We talk about emotive subjects all day long, never turning it off or hanging up that feminist apron (excuse the kitchen reference, here!) at the end of a long day. If it does not follow us around at every point of the day, can we truly call ourselves feminist with utmost conviction?! And expect others to believe it, too?
In Sara Ahmed’s highly motivational she describes feminist action as ‘ripples of water’; each movement making another possible. In other words, it is the “dynamism of making connections” (2017: 3). When you are heard and identified as a feminist, it is all too possible that you are received as too ‘reactive’, or ‘overreactive’, “as if all you are doing is sensationalising the facts of the matter; as if in giving your account of something you are exaggerating, on purpose, or even with malice” (Ahmed, 2017: 38). Feminist survival is to do more than ‘living on’. It can, and usually is, what we do for others and with others: “we need each other to survive; we need to be part of each other’s survival” (2017: 235). It is not an individual battle. But, the feminist collective can certainly help individuals in need; to thrive and to survive.
Let me conclude, then, by urging my feminist friends to reclaim the space we have been guilty of vacating simply to be accommodating (Ahmed, 2017). Let this be a year where we reclaim the space in which we know we belong. Feminism is supposed to be bothersome; a continuous attempt at disrupting the status quo. To revel in the eyerolls of those around us; knowing full well that one small ripple does not a frightening collective make. Rather, that the strong underwater current of such ripples undulates and ensures the feminist movement, in all its varieties, is carried on. I could not agree with Ahmed more when she says feminism causes fear: “together, we are dangerous” (2018: 17). Make no mistake, though. To be dangerous is not to be violent and cause physical or psychological harm. It is to be dangerous to the patriarchal ideas and structures that are so ingrained; to challengeand disruptwhat we are supposed to accept as ‘given’.
As we embark into 2019, I would say to my fellow feminists – whether online, in PGRNS, or in the office – to live a feminist life is to live in very good company indeed! How lucky I am to have discovered and embraced feminism many years ago, through reading the ‘classics’ and finding my place amongst them, in teaching undergrads on the importance of the feminist debate, and to having this wonderful platform through which to communicate with feminists far and wide. To be feminist is to expect struggle and difficulty, and to give us something to hope for: “hope gives us a sense that there is a point to working things out, working things through” (Ahmed, 2017: 2).
Beth Wallace is (ignoring that she is) in her third year of her PhD at the University of Aberdeen, and is on the committee of PGRNS.
Ahmed, S. (2017)Living a Feminist Life, Durham: Duke University Press.
I am so uncomfortably aware of such seemingly flimsy millennial statements. Yet, it does accurately sum up precisely what I want to say… Am I really a millennial, after all?!
Jo and Clive are, obviously, fictitious names at the risk of calling out anyone I know who may actually read this.