I’m a feminist, but… I don’t call many people out on un-feminist behaviour.

As much as I like the Guilty Feminist podcast, I’m not sure this was what they had in mind when they set up this famous format, nor should it be.

As many feminists before me have noted, feminism is a verb, not a noun; it is not enough to just claim to be a feminist, but you become a feminist via the actions you take. Unfortunately, I naturally shy away from confrontation, I giggle when I’m in an awkward situation, and I would much rather everyone just got along.

Whilst there is no excuse for this, there is perhaps an explanation. It is our job to understand the socio-historical reasons for why women tend to lean towards appeasement rather than conflict, and thus, attempt to shake off the all-too-common auto-hesitation to speak out. This is most important in areas where women have traditionally held less power, so have most greatly feared the consequences of speaking out against systematic discrimination, such as in public institutions, and workplaces.

Acting “Social Lubricant”

Tahmima Anam, bestselling author of The Start-Up Wife, said of being a woman in the workplace:

If I’m in a meeting, I feel that somehow, it is my duty to be like a social lubricant, almost weaving people’s conversations together and being expressive […] I think we feel we have to please others in order to succeed in the workplace, and that we’re not just judged on the merit, productivity, or the content of our work, but on how comfortable we make other people feel.

When I read Anam’s description of how society teaches girls from a very young age to be a “social lubricant”, I felt like I had been hit by a ton of bricks. It encapsulated that feeling I have had many times, and I am sure many others have experienced too, of being present in a room just to keep things pleasant or as a decorative piece, rather than for the purpose of bringing any value to the conversation.

Recently I read Taylor Jenkins-Reid’s, Malibu Rising (I would recommend anything she writes to anyone looking for some escapism!) and although a piece of fiction, I was triggered by the following observation that one of the main characters, made about her sister: “[you feel it is] your responsibility to make things smooth and pleasant for everyone.” I recognised that I expected that constantly of myself as well. Of course, being helpful and accommodating is no bad thing, but when it is consistently placed higher in importance than one’s own needs or desires, then it starts to become an onerous burden. Furthermore, when being helpful and ‘pleasing’ becomes a constant quest to be liked and moreover, valued, then it is not coming from the right place, nor is it useful to anyone.

Social Lubricant vs. Feminist

Feminism is something I feel passionate about – but yet, I tend to only show it within certain personas. Many people know me from my past as the polite, shy girl I was throughout my childhood and teenage years, and looking back, I can see how much this stemmed from a desire to be a “good girl”. Even now, I smile and ask people how their weekends have been when they haven’t shown the remotest interest in mine just to keep the conversation ticking, and I generally let sexist comments slide when I’m around people I don’t feel comfortable with so as not to disrupt the “nice time” everyone is having, nor to halt my career progress. But, when I feel comfortable, for example, around my family, boy, do I give them hell if there is even the slightest whiff of misogyny.

I find that dichotomy so unsettling, and I release that confusing cloak of pretense when I am in a hierarchical environment. I fear what will happen if I become too “mouthy”, and yet I want to build my career working in the gender equality sector. That is a fear I need to build a bridge and get over, and Sara Ahmed’s The Feminist Killjoy Handbook is my bridge-building instruction manual.

The Feminist Killjoy

For anyone who doesn’t know Sara Ahmed, I urge you to read some of her books, or if that is too much, check out her blog, The Feminist Killjoy. The new Killjoy Handbook is the most accessible text I have ever read on feminist theory and I would recommend it to anyone.

Ahmed’s concept of the ‘Killjoy’ is a person who disrupts norms and calls people out on any type of –ism.

Speaking out is always hard work, but doing it during day-to-day convivial social interactions is the most difficult because of what it brands us, the spoilsport or killjoy.

Unfortunately, there is a gendered element to this issue, because women have it drilled into them to be polite at all times, and are therefore, socialized to generally avoid spoiling anyone’s sports. A rude man can be forgiven if he is exceptional enough at what he does, a rude woman supposedly goes against what it even means to be a woman.

As Ahmed points out, the word ‘polite’ shares a root with the word ‘polish,’ to make smooth, to smooth over. If a woman is impolite, she is not fulfilling her feminine duty to make the environment around her more agreeable, to smooth over all the discomforts of everyday life.

I argue that a key element of emotional labour is this idea of being a “social lubricant” or a polish.

A woman’s role being to polish down the sharp edges of the world. Gemma Hartley, American author and journalist, defines emotional labour as “emotion management and life management combined. It is the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy”. Generally, when the average person hears the word ‘lubricant’, their mind will instantly jump to sex and sometimes, even to shame. By re-using Anam’s phrase, I am not saying that we should shame ourselves for acting as “social lubricants”, but rather that we should recognise that this is misogyny at play.  

Shulamith Firestone, one of the early US radical women’s liberationists, hit upon this problem decades ago. She called for radical action, asking women to “instantly abandon their ‘pleasing smiles,’ henceforth smiling only when something pleased them.” The very idea of not smiling at people as I go about my daily life terrifies me. What if I get given rubbish work as a result of not smiling at my colleagues in the office? What if that shopkeeper immediately thinks I am a bitch because I failed to smile as I waved Apple Pay over the machine for my KitKat Chunky? This in itself demonstrates the problem. No one wants to be branded the complainer, but the complainer who just so happens to be a woman, is already in a much more precarious, vulnerable position than that of her male counterpart. Women are more likely to earn less, have less secure employment, and moreover, have dependents.

The Complainer

Once a woman upsets her sunny image, there is no going back. Once you become a complainer, it is as if you have the word tattooed across your forehead. This stops people from speaking out against all kinds of issues, from daily micro-aggressions to rape. People laugh along for fear of the life implications of being seen as a “killjoy.” Ahmed, however, is my inspiration, leaving a secure university lectureship to become an independent academic as a result of the way in which the institution handled sexual harassment. She risked her livelihood for her moral principles, the ultimate feminist killjoy.

As I enter into a new chapter of my life, one where I am starting to create a new-type of inclusive ballroom dance studio – I find myself struggling with the killjoy title that is necessarily associated.

I want to call the industry out on the inherent misogyny, stereotyping and homophobia associated with couples dancing, but at the same time, I do not want to upset any of my old teachers or friends who have taught me everything I know about this beautiful art form.

But I’m trying to navigate a path whereby I can try to change the dance sector for the better, without poking too much at everything that has been done before me and by people I deeply respect and care for. I’m beginning to realise that it’s not an either/or: I don’t have to abandon my principles in order for people to respect me, and it is not necessary to conform to the picture that these people from my past might have of me. I’m shredding that “social lubricant” skin.

I am going to use the Feminist Killjoy handbook in setting up my business and let it guide my everyday life as well. Thank you, Sara Ahmed, for your magnificent work and to Ama Ata Aidoo for first repurposing the figure of the killjoy in her 1977 novel, Our Sister Killjoy. Lazy Killjoys unite!

Written by Lazy Izzi, based in London, UK. Find her latest pieces here!

Illustrated by Lazy Eszti, an emerging illustrator and cultural community coordinator from Hungary, based in Vienna, Austria. Give her a follow!

Lazy Women is an entirely volunteer-run association and independent media. Your support keeps us going.