A Review of Erin Wunker's Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life
Reviewed by Krista Foss
In the new film, “Equity,” the money-worshipping Wall Street executives at the heart of the story are all women. So are the film’s producers, its main stars and its investors including real-life former heavyweights from the storied financial district such as Linnea Roberts, a one-time partner at Goldman Sachs. Recently she told The New York Times that by laying bare the financial district’s inherent sexism, the film might slow Wall Street’s recruitment of future female talent. “But I do think it raises a lot of the right questions,” she added. “You have to own the problems and the questions first, before we can do anything about them.”
Erin Wunker establishes early that she’s more likely to occupy Wall Street than fetishize its killer price/equity ratios in her debut book, Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life. It’s the problems created by sexism and privilege in a culture propped up by capitalism that have her raising questions.
Over 209 pages of linked notes, the volume wends like a passionate discussion over a long afternoon with your very-smart-and-ready-to-disrupt best friend. By combining critical theory, pop culture and feminist thinking, Wunker comes close to the goal she claims at the onset of writing: “Me, I wanted to write something unimpeachable. Something so clear and objective it could be a little dictionary or translation phrase book for how to speak feminist.” In fact, the book’s introduction and three chapters on rape culture, friendship and mothering can be read as something more, a primer on how to own the problems, own the questions, even respond.
You can tell Wunker — a poet, academic and new mother — has paid her dues in front of large lecture halls where theoretical ideas and critical thinking can be a tough sell. Her introduction provides concise, accessible definitions of bedrock concepts: what exactly is patriarchal culture? What is a feminist? And what then is a feminist killjoy?
For the latter definition and other ideas, Wunker leans on Sara Ahmed, whose blog Feminist Killjoys and its tagline, “Killing joy as a world-making project,” inspired the name and ethos of the book. According to Wunker, “The feminist killjoy takes pleasure in the work of interrupting the patriarchal norms that pass as joys.”
And the joy that needs the most killing is rape culture, or how sexualized violence is not only normalized but also imbued with “…that sense that rape – doing it or having it done to you – is inevitable.” The pernicious combination of normalization and inevitability seeps into the media’s framing of accusers, including Columbia University art student and on-campus sexual assault victim Emma Sulkowicz, and the accused, former CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, for one. The feminist killjoy’s job is to call this toxicity out, name it, and get others to name it, too.
Wunker is encyclopedic on her subject matter and she wisely intersperses her footnoting of other academics and writers with detours into her own life, from a terrifying memory as a young girl running through the North Carolina woods to escape a would-be kidnapper to her own wariness developing friendships with other women.
It’s in these often raw, confessional asides that Wunker’s writing is the most winning. The intimacy of her own experience of childbirth in the final chapter speaks to an uh-huh moment for new mothers: “I became aware of my animal status. There, with an infant on my breast, with my partner, with the midwife sewing me back together and the nurse checking equipment and the surgeon expressing surprise, I felt vulnerable and foreign and strange.”
Wunker’s willingness to be vulnerable takes guts: “I am already anticipating the hate mail,” she writes. But sometimes that anticipation shows up in passages where she sounds a bit defensive, assuring us, in one instance, she’s not some highbrow intellectual who has “never heard of Rihanna and has no memory of the double rainbow guy on YouTube.”
There’s a beautiful generosity to the space Wunker gives to the many writers and academics she admires. It would be interesting to see her bust loose with an even bigger voice of her own – one that’s less freighted with theoretical jargon. Her powerfully disruptive mission coupled with an even more singular voice has the potential to make her readers hit the streets. Or at least insist on occupying the corner office.