n a recent Washington Post interview, my friend Donatella Galella—a theater professor and activist—identified herself as a “feminist killjoy.” She defined the phrase as “a figure who points out how everything is terrible and people blame her for the problem rather than the troubling material.”
As a fellow feminist killjoy, I smile at her definition. I’m the one pointing out the sexist tropes in your favorite movie, complaining about the gender ratio in your workplace, calling out mansplaining among your friends. I’m impatient and restless when it comes to gendered relationship dynamics, and I’m not one to let my partner rest on his feminist laurels.
For a long time, I assumed that my husband put up with this at best and resented it at worst. Then, over dinner one night—as we meandered our way through a typical date-night conversation about emotional labor—he said, “Your feminism is important to me. You make me a better person, and I love that about you.”
I put down my fork. “Tell me more,” I said.
Willful Feminism and Intimidating Womxn
The term “feminist killjoy” was coined and popularized by the scholar Sara Ahmed in a 2010 essay “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects).” Ahmed describes the killjoy condition as one of willfulness, and I, for one, am nothing if not willful. Like many other smart, strong-willed girls, I entered adolescence on a wave of warnings from adults. Boys might not know how to handle you. You’re intimidating. They’re not ready for a strong personality like yours. It was intended as empowerment, but I took the implicit message: Boys don’t like “intimidating” girls. When in doubt, they would opt for someone smaller, gentler, more easily governed. Someone entirely unlike me.
So even as I built a relationship with my husband—where I’m a feminist killjoy, and he’s the man who lives with a feminist killjoy—I wondered, on some level, why he stuck around. I knew he liked me for my stubbornness, my loud mouth, my sharp tongue. But I assumed that he preferred it when I trained that tongue on others.
Putting In The Hard Work
I find that much of my feminist joy-killing happens one-on-one, at home. A lot of it is mundane territory: I pick the fight when my husband unloads the dishwasher but leaves dishes in the sink. I harp on the overwhelming white maleness of his favorite movies and TV shows. I let him know when I’m upset about a sexist interaction or just tired from existing as a woman in public.
And there are harder negotiations, too. When we began discussing joining finances after marriage, he struggled with the realization that—as the primary household breadwinner—he would no longer have unilateral access to all of “his” money. Shortly after we got married, I got sick, and he had to rearrange his work schedule to help care for me. That meant asking for family flexibility as a man in a male-dominated field, and grappling with the fact that his newly-minted wife couldn’t (and wouldn’t) let his career take priority. When my father became ill earlier this year, I asked him to take on more than his allotted half of household maintenance so that I could focus on helping my parents. He bristled at the prospect of an “unfair” division of labor, and he had to get used to the idea of taking on a full second shift at home while his spouse was occupied with other priorities.
And, sometimes, there are the really tough moments. The ones where he says something that reveals the hold the patriarchy still has on him—about how mansplaining is unfair to men, say, or how #MeToo makes it scary to interact with womxn. These are the closest we ever come to knock-down drag-out fights, with tears and profanity and me explaining my pain through gritted teeth. I’ve caused scenes in public places over comments like these; I’ve gone to bed angry.
My husband wants to think of himself as a good person. It’s a deeply human impulse, and he’s a sensitive soul; I’ve seen him get sick to his stomach over the thought of having upset someone. So I could shy away from these conversations: they’re infrequent enough, and I still carry that early conditioning that makes me reluctant to hurt a man’s feelings. But I don’t shy away.
That recent evening over dinner, he put things in perspective. “I like that you don’t let me get away with things,” he said. “I think I’m a better person for having that kind of self-awareness.”
More Than Emotional Labor
What does it mean when we say, “My partner makes me a better person”? It’s such a broad, squishy phrase that I never put much stock in it. And why is it my job to make him better, anyway? But hearing it out of my husband’s mouth crystallized it a bit for me. It’s not just that he’s passively absorbing my feminist rants; he’s recognizing the work I put into our relationship, and using it as a foundation to grow and change of his own volition.
This man I married is pretty remarkable, but a man nonetheless. His outlook on life has been shaped by a patriarchal society, one that teaches its men to expect a certain level of accommodation and ease and its womxn to avoid troubling the waters. Unlearning that is work, truly hard work, on both our parts. But he is rising to my killjoy challenges, and that is a joy in itself.