emotional labour · risky writing


This weekend I saw a trailer for Sini Anderson‘s documentary about Kathleen Hanna called The Punk Singer. 

While talking about the emergence of the Riot Grrrl movement, Bikini Kill, and Hanna herself, one of the interviewees says “feminism was really good at critiquing pop culture, it wasn’t good at making it.”

I found myself immediately thinking about academic feminism, about being a feminist in the academy. As a self-identified feminist working in the academy I am very good at critiquing academic culture. I can talk about labour inequity. I can talk about the ways in which I understand marginalization to function from my own standpoint and I welcome the opportunity to have frank and challenging discussions with others about their own situated knowledge. But do I make academic feminism? What would that mean, and what might that look like?

I remember the first time I heard Bikini Kill. I was in grade eight in North Carolina. My parents and I had taken a drive into Chapel Hill, which was about an hour and a half from where we had moved when we left Ottawa two years previous. Chapel Hill seemed to me a bastion of liberal- and counter-culture in what, to my fourteen-year-old self, felt like a completely alienating new space. I didn’t fit in my new school (though who knows if I would have in my old school in Ottawa either). What I did know, standing in the aisle of School Kids Records, was that I had to have the album that was playing. This singer’s voice sounded something like mine: a bit childish, a bit young. But holy hell could she ever scream! And she was swearing and yelling and talking about sexism and sexuality and violence and women. I worked up my nerve to ask the impossibly cool sales clerk what it was, I bought the album, and I wore it out. I had to listen to it with headphones on because my parents would have been appalled at the language. I didn’t care. Here was a band full of women only a few years older than me, and they were calling out everything that they knew was wrong. They were doing more than calling it out! They were naming it. Amazing. I aspire to such truth-telling, I decided. I aspire to tell it like it is and call injustice by its name.

Watching the trailer and remembering fourteen year-old me got me thinking about those promises to yell in the face of inequity and systematic as well as subjective injustice. I’m now six years in to precarious labour and I often wonder: how much of that do I really do? In addition to critiquing academic culture, how much academic feminist culture do I make? How much do we all make? And how much of our individual experiences get silenced, left unspoken, or rendered unspeakable?

You can read between the lines, of course. The answer is that while I am good at critiquing academic culture I am not certain I am so good at creating it. In great part this disconnect is systematic: I am careful about critiquing the very system I want to make room for me. My care–more accurately, my trepidation–is in service of trying to make myself appealing and necessary for the system. But here’s the kicker for me, the kick in the pants, the kick in the teeth: any activism is activism against and within an unjust system. I know all this. I know it mostly because of my training in the very system I critique.

So often these last few years I have found myself writing posts about the working conditions of the academy. These posts are necessary, they make room for additional conversations about working conditions. But how often — and how?! — am I making academic feminist culture? How much do we all make? And how much of our individual experiences get silenced, left unspoken, or rendered unspeakable?

One thought on “Unspeakable

  1. A hell of a lot. For every post we do about these injustices, these inequalities, there are a hundred more voices that remain silence out of fear and/or shame. I know this because of the emails I get from people thanking me for the writing that I do, for naming those things that we are told not to name, not so speak, not to share. If anything, we are encouraging community, to know that we are not alone in our circumstances, and that there is strength in numbers. We write these posts and engage on social media and elsewhere because we seek to support each other and through that support, empower, one small piece at a time.

    Unlike you, Erin, I was too much of a good girl back then to ever listen to that kind of music and even if I did, it was too much for me; it scared me, so I avoided it. I still have trouble screaming and agitating, but I can lend my support to those who do. I know it isn't much, but it's what I can do.

    Keep writing. Keep speaking. It makes a difference.


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