Being happy sounds nice, right? Happiness becomes less pleasurable, however, when you’re expected to be happy. Those who are marked as cis-gendered female persons can probably relate to the pressure to be happy. The demand of staying happy, satisfied, calm and understanding, even when you encounter nasty comments or unfair treatment, is not only unnerving but also a sly political move.
Our political system is built on unjust and uneven power distribution. If those at the shorter end of this distribution address the oppression and injustices they may experience and want to express their discontent, the duty to be happy may keep them from doing so. In our society, this means that women may have difficulties naming and addressing sexism and harmful patriarchal patterns. Having to be a happy, ever-satisfied good wife, a good girl, or whatever roles a woman takes on (or may have to take on) serves an unjust system. The duty to be happy, then, can be seen as a tool to uphold the status quo of inequality.
If you are a woman, can you recall being told: “Why can’t you for just once be happy?” “You take everything so seriously, just relax!” “Take it easy, you ruined the vibes!” and so forth? The feminist, queer theorist and diversity worker Sara Ahmed calls this being a killjoy. “She kills joy because of what she claims exists.” And if she does kill joy, that’s maybe not such a bad thing to do. Always having to be joyful in a world full of sexism, racism, ableism, classism, casteism, et cetera may amount to the inability to address these injustices. Or, to put it in somewhat harsher terms, it’s a form of violence.
Sure, everyone should get to experience happy moments. What the unveiling of the obligation of happiness does though, is to show how emotions can be politically manipulated; how happiness, or the duty to be happy, can be used as a means of preserving a politically unjust order.