Willful Women, Feminist Killjoys, and Jesus: Reflections on Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life by Liz Cooledge Jenkins

I’ve been thinking about willful women and feminist killjoys—two main guiding images in feminist scholar Sara Ahmed’s book Living a Feminist Life (Duke University Press 2017).

The idea of the willful woman (or willful girl, or willful person) is something I can easily get behind. The way I understand it, it has to do with women getting in touch with our own wills and being willing to speak and act and live out of our wills. Particularly if these wills turn out to exist in opposition to the things other people might will for us.

It’s about learning to stand up for ourselves, learning to affirm our full humanity in a world that often expects…less. It’s a way of consciously, intentionally being willing to be called “willful” as a negative thing—as in, stubborn, selfish, antagonistic, difficult—because the affirmation of our own wills is worth it.

I like all of this and find it helpful. Be willful. Expect pushback and penalties for it. Be willful anyway.

Biblically speaking, I would say that the unnamed Canaanite who had a difficult conversation with Jesus in Matthew 15:21-28 was a willful woman. She argued with Jesus, pushing back against Jesus’ statements that centered his own ethnic group at her expense. That takes some guts. That’s how badly she wanted her daughter healed and well.

By the end of the back-and-forth, Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”[1] Or, translated more literally from Greek, let it be done for you as you will.

This woman’s will was strong. It was willful. And Jesus saw her will, respected it, affirmed it. He saw her, respected her, affirmed her.

When I think of willfulness, I also think of Glennon Doyle’s reflections on the things women have told her they desire most. Some examples: “relationships with no lies,” “joy and safety for my children and for everyone else’s children,” “justice for all,” “help, community, and connection.”[2]

These are good things. I love that women will these things, and I want to see women willing to become willful in pursuit of these kinds of things. Our willfulness is a gift to ourselves as women and to our world as a whole. I’m all for willful women.

Ahmed’s second image, on the other hand–the feminist killjoy–is a little difficult for me. It isn’t an image I warm up to immediately and think, yes, this is what I want to be.

I don’t really want to kill joy. I like joy. I like group harmony. I like being liked, and I like getting along with people. The killjoy flies in the face of these desires.

What I like about Ahmed’s take on this image, though, is the idea that feminist killjoys are only pointing out things that are already there. For example, if someone makes a sexist or racist joke, and everyone laughs except one person—and so, by not laughing, she becomes a killjoy—the killjoy only pointed out the issue. She made it visible where it was invisible. She did not create it. It was already there.

Put that way, I see how killjoy work can be important work. It’s the work of exposing things that otherwise might remain hidden. It’s the work of inviting other people to see and confront the problems that were already there. It’s the work of resisting the urge to act like everything’s okay when it isn’t. The person who speaks up about racism or sexism and becomes a killjoy is offering a gift to the community.

To go back to the Bible once more, perhaps we can think of Jesus as a killjoy. Certainly the gospel stories reveal Jesus as a joyful person, often eating and drinking and celebrating with others. But, just as certainly, the gospels also reveal that Jesus was willing to kill the vibe when need be—or at least drastically change it when it needed to be changed.

There was the time, for example, when a bunch of male religious leaders dragged before Jesus a woman caught in adultery—stones in their hands, ready to throw (John 8:1-11). Jesus refused to play their games. And then he asked them to look inward at their own wrongdoing rather than enact judgment on the woman for hers.

Jesus said, Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.[3] One by one, they walked away.

Or, I think of the time a woman known as a “sinner” crashed a dinner party hosted for Jesus by one of the male religious leaders (Luke 7:36-50). Her uncouth behavior likely had the male dinner guests muttering and griping and maybe smirking to one another. One of them thought to himself, If Jesus were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman she is.[4]

Jesus did not grumble or giggle along with the crowd. Instead, he affirmed the woman’s faith. And he wanted the male religious leaders to learn from her example.

Is Jesus a feminist killjoy? Maybe this isn’t exactly what Sara Ahmed is thinking of—but it’s not terribly far from it, either. And, certainly, Jesus sees and affirms the willfulness of willful women.

In these ways, Jesus set an example of what living a feminist life can look like. For those who seek to follow his lead, this is significant. This is powerful. Jesus’ affirmation of women and their wills—our wills—does not only exist in the gospel stories of biblical times but, just as surely, comes alive in our world today. Jesus is both pro-willful-women and willing to kill the joy. This is the Jesus I want to follow.

[1] Matt 15:28 (NIV).

[2] Glennon Doyle, Untamed (The Dial Press 2020), 120-1.

[3] John 8:7 (NIV).

[4] Luke 7:39 (NIV).

BIO: Liz Cooledge Jenkins is a writer, preacher, and former college campus minister who lives in Burien, WA. She regularly shares justice-minded biblical reflections, poems, “super chill book reviews,” and more at lizcooledgejenkins.com. When not writing or reading, you can find her swimming, hiking, attempting to grow vegetables, and/or drinking a lot of tea. You can also find her on FB (Liz Cooledge Jenkins, Writer) and Instagram (@lizcoolj).

9 thoughts on “Willful Women, Feminist Killjoys, and Jesus: Reflections on Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life by Liz Cooledge Jenkins”

  1. “It’s the work of exposing things that otherwise might remain hidden. It’s the work of inviting other people to see and confront the problems that were already there.”

    I don’t like being a killjoy either but I refuse to let lies go.. I don’t use social media except for posting something every single day about nature on FB which almost no one reads. Why bother you ask? I bother because not to is to participate in the great lie that all is well. I will never win a popularity contest for sure.

    And I hate being the outsider but the other option is to go along with the toxic flow of our culture. I do mix my FB narratives sometimes focusing on the joys but today I showed pictures of tree carnage and my guess is that not one person will read what I have said.

    Sadly, I believe we need more killjoys not those that will twist any story into a positive at its end.


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