Framework: Killjoys and Consequentiality

It is time for white feminists to feel more discomfort. Encounters across difference are deeply infused with emotion, so calls for more intersectionality cannot become a mere intellectual exercise, but we must also find ways to work with emotional responses to activist communications, including discomfort and anger. Given that responses to being challenged in activist circles are often visceral and defensive--"Not this woman"--scholars of technofeminist rhetorics need to incorporate the circulation of these emotions into our rhetorical analyses so that we can interrogate them. Especially for privileged allies, cultivating a specific type of activist rhetorical awareness can help manage these reactions by placing more attention onto the potential consequences of their circulation, knowing when it may be harmful to express certain reactions and when they may have a different impact than intended. As Peoples responded to white women at the march denying her sign, "I'd say, '[Fifty-three percent] of white women voted for Trump. That means someone you know, someone who is in close community with you, voted for Trump. You need to organize your people.' And some people said, 'Oh, I'm so ashamed.' Don't be ashamed; organize your people" (qtd in Obie, 2017). Technofeminist rhetoricians also need to interrogate our characterizations of emotional responses, such as readings of anger or accusations of divisive aggression. If we are going to successfully work across the differences that will inevitably arise in both our online and offline activism and research, we also need better ways to interpret and reframe our own emotional reactions and our perceptions of others' emotions according not to the intentions behind these reactions, but instead according to the consequences of their circulation especially for vulnerable communities.

an image of a crowd of protesters at the Women's March. In the foreground one protester holds a sign saying I'm With Her, with arrows pointing in every direction to indicate fellow protesters

Image by ufcw770, used under a CC BY 2.0 license

The stance that Peoples was protesting--commonly referred to in a shorthand way as "white feminism"--is a particular set of historically and culturally inherited ways in which white women commonly enact our understandings of feminist activism. White feminism has been shaped by centuries of white women advocating for ourselves and excluding women of color, or wrongfully assuming a trickle-down effect for women of color after liberation is achieved for white women. Instead, a social justice framework insists that liberation for all can only be achieved through liberation for the multiply marginalized, and that if anyone is still oppressed, this is not justice (Lorde, 2007).


It is clear that discussions about intersectionality have come to the forefront of mainstream feminisms, despite having been a key concept of women of color feminisms for many decades, even before Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) coined the term itself. For example, Google's search data shows a spike in web searches for "intersectionality" right around the time of the Women's March, showing that the rhetoric of the march is one element prompting curiosity about the term.


A key element of intersectionality is positionality--attending not only to any individual's intersections of identities, but to the various positionalities of all those who are present in the given context, in relation to dynamics of privilege and oppression (Crenshaw, 1991). To further unpack the dynamics of positionality as applied to researching the Women's March, I draw from Sara Ahmed's (2017) work on the figure of the feminist killjoy as applied to women of color in feminist spaces. To show the fluidity of this figure and its uptake in media, I include a live Twitter feed of the hasthag #feministkilljoy alongside Ahmed's theorization of this figure. The fact that I cannot control what appears in this live Twitter feed, and that it will change over time while the text of this article remains static, serves to perform the necessity of listening to disruptions, unexpected interjections, and emotional clashes in technofeminist work.


Ahmed (2017) uses the feminist killjoy as a figure to explain moments of feminist disruption and challenges to the normative. A killjoy is "the one who gets in the way of the happiness of others by the way she appears." The feminist killjoy is also a rhetorical figure, changing positionality depending on context and interactions. For instance, Ahmed explores the complexities of being a killjoy within feminist spaces. Women of color, Ahmed explained, are often seen as "a feminist killjoy who kills feminist joy" by bringing up racism in feminist circles, as trans women are seen as killjoys by bringing up transphobia. Thus feminists must not only embrace being the killjoy, but think more carefully about who we recognize as killjoys: "The figure of the killjoy is not a figure we can assume we always somehow are: even if we recognize ourselves in that figure, even when she is so compelling, even when we are energized by her. We might, in assuming we are the killjoys, not notice how others become killjoys to us, getting in the way of our own happiness, becoming obstacles to a future we are reaching for." In short, "Activism might need us to involve losing confidence in ourselves, letting ourselves recognize how we too can be the problem. And that is hard if we have a lifetime of being the problem."

It is exactly this contextual nature of the killjoy, or the act of killing joy as a feminist, that makes the figure a useful one for rhetoric and composition. We can engage the responses to moments of killjoyness with attention to context, who is present, who is absent, and the affects and emotions surrounding the killjoy moment to understand how others become killjoys to us, and what we need to unpack about our own positionalities to understand why we perceive others as killjoys.


To listen to the killjoy--even when we are used to being the killjoy ourselves--technofeminist rhetoricians need to develop ways to measure the efficacy of material and digital activist rhetorics by the impacts these rhetorics have for vulnerable populations. A focus on impact builds upon work on rhetorical circulation, such as Laurie Gries' (2015) concept of consequentiality as a key element of rhetoric wherein the meaning of a rhetorical production is constituted by its consequences, not by its rhetor's goals, and meaning unfolds in various contexts, making it impossible to judge meaning only through analyzing the reception of one audience or at one moment in time (p. 47). Gries' view of consequentiality as the most important element of rhetoric requires that we shift our view toward futurity, which can be difficult in a discipline traditionally turned toward histories. Gries argued that we need "to turn our scholarly gaze toward futurity--the time spans beyond a thing's initial production and delivery--and create risky accounts of how rhetoric unfolds as things enter into complex associations and catalyze changes" (p. 8). In the following section, I offer one such risky account of the rhetoric of the Women's March. Here, I add to this focus on consequentiality by building an additional layer: accountability.