Feminist Killmojis: Discursive Affect as Resistance

Raechel Anne Jolie, Robin McDowell Sep 17, 2018
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“There can even be joy in killing joy. And kill joy, we must and we do.” -Sara Ahmed

This project is an extension of Feminist Killjoys, PhD, a podcast that emerged in the spirit of Sara Ahmed’s theory of killing joy as a necessary component of feminist praxis. Ahmed suggests that harkening back to early feminist “consciousness-raising” (as well as to Marxist notions of “false consciousness”) is a useful (re)turn in order to make sense of our contemporary cultural desire for happiness. Ahmed argues that the happy housewife is the foil to the construct of the “angry black woman” or, she posits, the “feminist killjoy.” That is, the feminist who ruins a good time by speaking about injustice, inequality, their dire position as women, and so on. She writes:

Feminists might kill joy simply by not finding the objects that promise happiness to be quite so promising. The word feminism is thus saturated with unhappiness. Feminists by declaring themselves as feminists are already read as destroying something that is thought of by others not only as being good but as the cause of happiness. The feminist killjoy ‘spoils’ the happiness of others; she is a spoilsport because she refuses to convene, to assemble, or to meet up over happiness.


With that in mind, Dr. Melody Hoffmann and I launched the Feminist Killjoys, PhD podcast with an aim to bring feminist theory to the masses and to, indeed, spoil the happiness of anyone who wasn’t awake to critical perspectives on things that are hegemonically perceived as ‘good.’ It is in this spirit that these digital “sticker” emojis were created as a digital langue and archive of radical iterations of contemporary feminism.  

Our role as killjoys was never more evident than during the 2016 election cycle. While the majority of feminist podcasts were singing the praises of and endorsing Hillary Clinton, we steadfastly critiqued Clinton’s track-record of hawkish foreign policy, her racist prison policies, and generally, her complicity in the maintenance of neoliberal capitalism. “Pantsuit Nation” Facebook groups populated by the millions, Hillary emoji stickers were purchased by eager supporters, and “I’m With Her” merchandise sold in droves.

During the election cycle, feminism became associated with a particular type of activism and aesthetic. It was shallow, if at all, in its intersectional analysis. It was pink pussy hats and an ultimately anti-sex work Women’s March. It was a celebration of capitalism, and a dismissal of Third World politics. It was civility over disruption.

In contrast to how historical trajectories often track feminism (in distinct “waves”), this brand of mainstream feminism is not the defining feature of Fourth Wave feminism. Rather, existing alongside of decidedly white, neoliberal feminism exists (as it always has) iterations of feminist praxis that is rooted in radical and intersectional politics. Just as First Wave Feminism was not simply white suffragettes (lest we forget the militant Black feminism of Harriet Tubman), nor was the Second Wave all Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine (Steinem defended the CIA while Black Panther members were hunted by COINTELPRO); Third Wave feminism is not exclusive to neoliberal consumption (Riot Grrrls gave away their zines for free), and Fourth Wave Feminism is not only about pussy-hat memes. Despite popular historiographies of the waves, radical ideologies and organizing has existed as long as feminism has, and has shaped it accordingly.  Our podcast, and these stickers, reflect that.

In the package we’ve created, we designed images that are explicit in their politics: pro-sex (vibrators and dildos become mimesis for the side of the sex wars that values sexual pleasure, expression, and work); anti-fascist (heels stomping a swastika a symbol of militant antifa femininity, and a hair-tossing Black Bloc femme as an ironic nod to anarchist resistance); and invested in solidarity (the iconic resistance fist—which harkens both the Black Power fist and labor movement imagery—with painted nails). The Feminist Killjoy banner is an overt badge of honor that one might send in an exchange that gleefully takes pride in a dialogue of killjoy-ing.

The production process was also feminist and intentional. Both the artist of the images (myself) and the designer (a feminist graphic designer, Robin McDowell) were compensated for our time and labor, and our ease of collaboration emerged from a shared radical politics. (In addition to being a Harvard graduate student/researcher, McDowell is a racial justice community organizer).

Extending our podcast through emojis makes the politics dialogic and non-hierarchical rather than static and top-down. Instead of providing a listener with a t-shirt, the stickers enable users to create something new, to make meaning with an image that denotes something in-group members will know well, but also used in a way that will be unique and distinct within each communicative exchange.

Meaning-making in the age of emojis is a poststructural process of creating with images that becomes synecdoche for more detailed expositories—but our brains make sense of them. We fill in the blanks, and as intersectional feminists, we find community in the ability to do so.

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About the Authors

Raechel Anne Jolie

Raechel Anne Jolie is an educator, writer, and media-maker. She received her PhD from the University of Minnesota in 2013. Her work focuses on radical social movements, healing justice, prison abolition, queer politics, pop culture, and more. She's been published in Teen Vogue, Mask Magazine, Bitch Magazine, among others, as well as numerous academic journals. She is the co-host and co-producer of the Feminist Killjoys PhD podcast and the mom to a perfect black boy-cat named Diesel.

Robin McDowell

Robin McDowell is a Ph.D. Candidate in African and African American Studies at Harvard. She holds an A.M. in History from Harvard (2018), an M.F.A. in Design from the University of Texas at Austin (2015), and a B.A. in Fine Arts from The University of Pennsylvania (2008).

Her current work focuses on race, labor, and environmental histories of capitalism in Louisiana’s River Parishes in the 19th century. This research is influenced by ongoing work in New Orleans and beyond as a community organizer, French Quarter tour guide, and graphic designer.