Book review: The Feminist Killjoy Handbook

Sara Ahmed’s mini-manifesto shows women how to reclaim the “killjoy” label that they often face when they call out inequalities. 

The Feminist Killjoy Handbook - book cover


In 1982, The New York Times ran an article about “the post-feminist generation”, in which a student says: “Look around and you’ll see some happy women, and then you’ll see these bitter, bitter women. The unhappy women are all feminists.”

Sara Ahmed’s new book, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, is a manifesto for women who want to reclaim such labels. Ahmed explores the history of presenting feminists as humourless party-poopers who rail against everything, citing articles such as the one above, and shows her readers how to resist this narrative. 

“Do you refuse to laugh at jokes you find offen­sive? Have you been called divisive when you point out a division?” she writes. “[Then] you too might be a feminist killjoy. And I have written this handbook for you.”

Ahmed, an independent scholar who formerly worked at London’s Goldsmiths University, says a killjoy feminist is simply someone who is committed to equality – and who doesn’t press pause on this belief just to help work meetings or dinner-party conversations run more smoothly. She encourages the reader to be okay with ruffling feathers, drawing a distinction between intending to upset someone (not good) and accepting that you can’t please everyone (a fact of life).

Do you refuse to laugh at jokes you find offen­sive? Have you been called divisive when you point out a division?

The book is structured around a series of pithy “killjoy truths” and other one-liners, which reframe this label and offer advice. One killjoy truth states: “If you expose a problem, you pose a problem,” to explain why many feminists find that they cause unease amongst others. Another states: “We have to keep saying it because they keep doing it,” to explain why feminists are often seen as dogged and repetitive.

Ahmed also dispels the idea that killjoy feminists don’t know how to have fun or joke around. She points out that many women wonder if they’re being over-sensitive or humourless when faced with offensive ‘jokes’ – but no one should have to laugh off or laugh along with something degrading. Such jokes simply aren’t funny. This feels particularly relevant this week, as a review of the Met Police has uncovered shocking instances of an ‘it was just a joke’ workplace culture around misogyny and racism.

As Ahmed advises: “If it is not funny, do not laugh!”

The killjoy in the workplace

“The Feminist Killjoy Handbook” is the culmination of Ahmed’s work on this topic over the last six years. She runs a research blog called feministkilljoys and she says this theme mainly emerged in her 2017 book Living a Feminist Life

As a result, her new handbook is rich with literary and cultural references, ranging from 18th-century volumes of music history, to the works of prominent black feminists such as Audre Lorde, and even the Oscar-winning 1970s film Kramer vs Kramer. Ahmed is particularly insightful in her take-down of how mothers and fathers are portrayed in that film, and I would have enjoyed more of her analysis of pop culture in this book.  

When it comes to being a feminist killjoy in the workplace, Ahmed talks about the power of not laughing things off or placating others – especially when it comes to discrimination or harassment. But she also acknowledges the extra burden that this places on women at work, when they simply want to do their job: “Sometimes we try not to notice something, because to notice it would be to stop us from doing our work.”

Ahmed’s workplace examples and insights are drawn almost entirely from the sector she knows best: academia. She resigned from Goldsmiths in 2016 over alleged instances of sexual harassment of students, and her book contains anonymised quotes from women at several universities about workplace culture. This focus on academia can feel somewhat limited for readers in other sectors.

But, in the main, “The Feminist Killjoy handbook” fires up the reader to stick to their principles. It also shows the reader that they are not – to use a term so often directed at women – a nag. As Ahmed says in one of her pithy one-liners: “I am not willing to get over what is not over.”


The Feminist Killjoy Handbook

Author: Sara Ahmed. Publisher: Penguin. RRP: from £15.00 (hardback)

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