Rebecca Solnit’s essay collection Men Explain Things to Me and Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist opened the floodgates for a spate of similar works from writers ruminating on the exasperating experience of being female in today’s world: Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, Lindy West’s Shrill, Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object, and Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today among them. Notes from a Feminist Killjoy is a Canadian contribution to this subgenre from Erin Wunker, who holds her own as an eloquent, very necessary voice in the ongoing discourse on gender politics.
Wunker is an assistant professor of English at Dalhousie University and the chair of Canadian Women in Literary Arts, an advocacy organization that surveys women’s presence in the country’s literary scene. In her single-author debut, she calls upon multiple theorists on gender and beyond – from Sara Ahmed and Amy Berkowitz to Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault – to synthesize relevant scholarly theory and disheartening, disturbing anecdotal experiences of misogyny (which, nevertheless, resonates as deeply and undeniably pertinent to women universally). This makes for a text that is well-rounded and informed, but not so academic as to dissuade a broader readership; a book that is appealing in its relatability while offering new information and potential solutions. For a work that takes up a discouraging subject and strikes on a personal level for its author (and, most likely, its readers), the hopeful undertone is admirable.
A chapter on rape culture references contemporary newsmakers like Jian Ghomeshi and Emma Sulkowicz (the Columbia University student who carried the mattress from her bed around campus as a protest after the school treated her rapist with impunity) to produce a snapshot of our current moment, and to reveal aspects of the social environment some more privileged individuals (read: men) may not be cognizant of, but surely should be.
And while writers like Dunham have been criticized for white, narrow, even solipsistic perspectives on topics related to oppression, Wunker proves to be hyper-aware of her privilege as an upper-middle class, white, cis-gendered person. She attempts to combat this by extending her points to acknowledge struggles faced by women of colour, trans women, and others outside her own, admittedly myopic, experience. The argument of exclusionary semantics that may have been used to disqualify authors of similar titles certainly does not factor here: Wunker is far-reaching and intersectional in her feminism.
In owning Ahmed’s concept of a feminist killjoy, Wunker sets herself against the status quo: “Happiness as restricted access. Happiness as a country club, a resort, an old boys’ club for certain boys only. Happiness as body-shame, as racism, as transphobia, as misogyny.” On the contrary, she proclaims definitively, “These are the joys that need killing.” Notes from a Feminist Killjoy forges into a mosaic first-hand experience, current events and media coverage, accessible theory and philosophy, and justified polemic against patriarchy and misogyny in a style simultaneously academic and personal. Wunker renders the label “feminist killjoy” one that readers can be proud to wear.