Close this search box.

Feminist Horror Scripts

A Review of Sara Ahmed’s Complaint!

June 1, 2022

The book cover of Complaint! By Sara Ahmed, featuring a photo of two off-white doors leaning against a wall.
by Sara Ahmed
Duke University Press

Complaint! is a horror story about labor. It’s a tale of inevitable prefigured doom, of marginalized intellectual workers, mostly young, mostly women, who are abused, violated, and denigrated in their workplaces, then find the violence against them exacerbated and their careers gravely wounded when they attempt to make formal complaints within institutional channels.

Posited as an exploration of “the gap between what is supposed to happen when complaints are made and what actually happens,” Complaint! argues that “to make complaints within institutions is to learn how they work and for whom they work,” that “complaint” is itself “feminist pedagogy.” Ahmed “explores how complaints are made behind closed doors and how doors are often closed on those who complain. To open these doors—to get complaints through, keep them going, or keep them alive,” Ahmed emphasizes, “requires forming new kinds of collectives.” The book is billed as “a systematic analysis of the methods used to stop complaints and a powerful and poetic meditation on what complaints can be used to do,” and as a “consideration of how institutional change becomes possible and why it is necessary.”

But ultimately, the horror of the story is that it simultaneously points the reader back towards the exact same channels and labels it critiques, reifying their primacy as feminist praxis. Ahmed draws on the Black feminist tradition to frame the process of complaint, based on extensive testimony from academic complainants, as degrading, dangerous, and ultimately futile in securing justice, let alone systematic change. But she also remains committed to valorizing the complaint process and searches for ever more abstruse justifications for its use as a political practice. In so doing, she recapitulates the painful repetition of her own central narrative.

These simultaneous and incompatible aspects of Ahmed’s argument take on the intimacy that all great horror achieves when she applies them to the complaint experiences she and her comrades had in challenging institutional sexual harassment at London College. The trope she uses in telling and producing this story—one of naive co-eds trapped in a hostile and claustrophobic environment, pulled ever deeper into the clutches of the beast in their own attempts to escape—makes for jarring reading in the context of an earnest and thoughtful attempt to develop a liberatory politics within the academy.

Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology…entraps the reader in the unbearable condition of opposing and yet accepting the complaint process as the only means to resist sexual harassment.

The contradiction between the critique and the prescription demands investigation into Ahmed’s basic philosophical orientation. Complaint! is an application of Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology to the political sphere. It is that worldview that entraps the reader in the unbearable condition of opposing and yet accepting the complaint process as the only means to resist sexual harassment.

Ahmed’s worldview draws on the classic phenomenological playbook of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, approaching consciousness descriptively, in direct experience, rather than attempting a qualitative summation of species-being or human nature. It’s on this bedrock that she considers the possibility of the queering of one’s orientation, as the root of literal queerness under patriarchy and as a shift possible in an extremely broad array of circumstances.

This queering relies on an encounter with counterhegemonic stimulae in some way producing a rupture in the young potential-queer’s existing trajectory, one based on expanding the range of the possible in their own life by rejecting the heteronormativity and “homonationalism” Ahmed herself memorably codified as the enemy of liberation. This encounter defines Ahmed’s understanding of “queering” in the broader sense. For Ahmed, anything can be queered by encountering a jarring other and turning toward it, identifying with what might at first seem wrong, strange, or alien.

This satisfyingly composed framework strains rapidly and badly under questions of desire. Jeta Mulaj makes note of this in “A Critique of Queer Phenomenology,” where she uses Jean Laplanche’s psychoanalytic approach to sexual formation to highlight the conspicuous absence of the unconscious in Ahmed’s philosophical universe. This absence makes the measure by which one would choose to realign toward queering phenomena or turn away from them and toward patriarchal normativity quite opaque.

A lack of a clear account for the interplay between stimulae and the unconscious brings with it a lot of consequent intellectual implications. Most pertinently, it drastically pulls the focus away from the urges that interact with the horizon of the political subject to produce a coherent ideology, rendering a subject whose actions are defined almost exclusively by the logic of the institutions they inhabit. The only truly viable disruptions of this pattern must, therefore, occur by happenstance.

It is this netherworld of rudderless, undesiring beings that Ahmed examines in Complaint!. She depicts how and why women and trans people do or do not complain in the university system but omits any preceding motivation for the situation and circumstances that produce the necessity of complaint. Having spent the first part of the book discussing in intimate detail how a university’s administrative apparatus, leading faculty, and in-group culture form an internally coherent and highly sophisticated apparatus to dissuade, intimidate, and disorient the complainer during both informal and formal complaint, she turns back the clock in part two of the text to consider what animates a complaint in the first place.

In classical phenomenological fashion, her main focus here is the harassment and degradation that the would-be complainer experiences in academia. However, she must at some point turn from “complaint” to the complainers themselves and consider the state of consciousness that moves them from a state of denial and from resignation to action. When she does so, her focus lasers in on the reactive, the spontaneous, the near-involuntary.

Pulling from the extensive body of interviews that ground the work, she presents the following testimony of a woman who receives a stream of inappropriate sexual overtures from an older, more established colleague:

And then I was in a meeting with my line manager and … he emailed me, and I made a sound, eehhhh, there’s no way to articulate it, someone’s dragging your insides like a meat grinder, oh god, this is not going to stop, and I made that sound out loud, and my line manager’s line manager said, what happened? And I turned my computer around and showed him and he said, for fucks sake, how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email?

A few pages earlier, she summarizes the reflexive condition that she understands to produce complaint. “When violence gets in, a complaint comes out.” Recognition of workplace violence results in complaint, like the dropping of a rubber ball results in its return to the hand.

The strange—and contradictory—thing, however, is that she recognizes the choice not to complain as an often conscious one, presenting numerous examples of this throughout the book, as a mechanism of self-preservation, a mode of career advancement, and a means of supporting one’s family. In what world does it make sense to present the choice not to complain as necessarily conscious but the choice to complain as necessarily autonomic?

The answer lies in the politics Ahmed must tacitly accept as inevitable in the absence of any politics of desire, one that would account for human action motivated by “what women want” rather than exclusively what we don’t. What remains is a politics of fear. In a world where fear is the sole animator of political activism, one has access to a range of conscious and even self-conscious justifications for maintaining political obedience (including the forms of silent or extremely quiet subversion that can easily constitute a readily celebrated feminist micropolitics).

Only a particularly jarring encounter with queering stimulae, one that properly knocks the wind out of you, could possibly push you out of line thoroughly enough to force you to move against your conditions in an active fashion. When it does so, it must necessarily drag the potential complainer into the political sphere. Because it is circumscribed by what is not wanted, rather than what is, or what might be made possible, limited to imagining “freedom from” without the “freedom to” that drives any revolutionary and liberatory politics, Ahmed’s construction of complaint—and complainant—cannot bear this weight.

This is ultimately why Ahmed must inexorably point the reader towards the violent and unreconstructed modalities of formal institutional complaint that she herself goes to so much trouble to condemn. Her politics of fear is also a politics of spontaneity. Because Ahmed’s imagination of potential reactions to harassment and violation are limited to fear and self-conscious self-discipline, a perspective itself born of long and thorough academic socialization, the bankrupt institutional channels she loathes become the only ones that exist.

From the perspective of any seasoned labor organizer, this is a particularly unsettling, if familiar, mental snare. On reading Complaint!, one wonders if Ahmed has any familiarity with the forms of organization that might deploy the hard class power necessary to force an institution’s hand, to position a complaint as an opening gambit or a threat, and develop workers who form the academy’s intellectual and pedagogical backbone as agents in their collective working lives. (The workers who form the academy’s physical backbone, the low-waged service and cleaning laborers, are completely absent from Ahmed’s story, except for a single kindly maid, who lets a professor of color into an academic building late at night near the end of the book.)

With this limited stage set, and the world-building complete, Complaint! can finally tell the story that animates Ahmed’s project, the one that pointed her to studying complaint in the first place. This is the story of her complaint collective, a group of mostly PhD students, supported and mentored by Ahmed and other professors, who attempted to use the institutional complaint process over the course of several years to produce a sea change around the culture of harassment at London College.

By now, the reader knows the story by rote. The students, dehumanized by lecherous professors, treated like sex objects at every turn and systematically ignored or silenced by their own university, take an initial swing back at the monster in the form of a collective, anonymous report on the abuses they’ve faced. The administration, predictably, demands they complain individually using extant grievance procedures. The students, distrustful, but taking as given the need for their demands to be “legible” to the institution, walk directly into the monster’s maw.

The formal institutional process takes years of their lives. Discussions with their coworkers take the amorphous form of “awareness” and consciousness-raising, while many are alienated from the complaint project out of their own even greater fear of institutional retribution, exhaustion, or old-fashioned, targeted misogyny. Several members leave academia entirely. In the end, the college quietly changes its policy language that had, until then, actively condoned teacher–student relationships, but none of the harassing professors are ever held accountable for their actions, and no clear change in the institution as a whole is produced.

In a burst of frustration, one collective member writes down the repulsive actions of one notorious professor in the copies of his books in the university library. Shortly after, the university shuts down the collective’s entire academic department, in a move that reaffirms Ahmed’s fear-based politics, in an act of collective punishment, an indirect response to multiple complaints registered individually. The monster kills the children, eats them, and burns down the haunted house to cover its tracks. The final redemptive scene is of a metaphorical plant poking through the torched floorboards: a blog, set up years later, documenting the confessions scrawled into the lecherous old prof’s book. It is all the more tragic for its tenuousness. The end.

The concluding chapter of Complaint! is devoted to justifying the doomed politics of the boss-driven, boss-determined grievance procedure by presenting it as a driver of fortuitous happenstance. A lone wolf administrator secretly drops a folder full of fiery accusations onto a university copy machine. The process of attempting to hold a school accountable for decades-old sexual abuse brings old friends together. Bonds are formed, and the loose possibility of cultural change is posited.

Ending the story here, Ahmed turns toward the macabre. Suddenly, complainers and the complaints they make are “ghosts, graveyards, hauntings” of the institutions that proverbially killed them, dogging their torturers with their own agonized whispers, pestering the institutional consciousness and, by implication, its conscience. Complainants are described as “the spirits who linger…because of the violence that has not been dealt with.” Corpses of beaten-down women poke their hands up through the soil, mirroring the Grimms’ fairy tale of the willful child. The language of colonialism as a form of soul death, and the colonized as undead, appear forcefully and shockingly, indicating connections between the politics of Ahmed’s queer institutional feminism and that of Afropessimism.

I read this concluding move to these expansive, evocative metaphors about ghosts as a warning, fittingly unconscious, against exactly the kind of politics that Ahmed advocates. It is in this last chapter that Ahmed explicitly describes the kind of hope that complaint activism produces as “non-agentic.” It is a politics built to fail, justifying itself in the accidental consequences of this same failure, driven by a sense of duty, and driving at moralistic appeal. Most significantly, it forces its practitioners into the imposed silence of the confidentiality agreement, depoliticizing the complainants, even when they take on complaints in the collective mode. While this praxis is presented with particular vividness by certain strains of academic feminism, it can be found in any milieu where the dangerous, libidinal stickiness of desire is excluded out-of-hand.

It is no coincidence that Lenin connects this sort of political spontaneity to that of opportunism, to which the only plausible alternative is strategic, politically oriented organization. This Leninist notion points toward a narrow path past Ahmed’s graveyard of doomed whispers and formal pleadings as ends-in-themselves. The union drives that have swept US academia, at precisely the time when #MeToo accusations against high profile academics like Avital Ronell and John Comaroff have rocked the mainstream press, offer a powerful alternative to the vagary and institutional capture of the Title IX office, whose failure (along with its British counterpart) to provide any meaningful justice or systemic change for victims of sexual violence Ahmed so vividly illustrates.

Militant labor action in the university is especially well suited to combating the conditions of isolation and precarity that expose marginalized academics to the risk of sexual harm with particular viciousness.

Militant labor action in the university is especially well suited to combating the conditions of isolation and precarity that expose marginalized academics to the risk of sexual harm with particular viciousness. Ahmed focuses on the voices of women whose tokenization as isolated people of color in their departments, along with their housing instability, pushed them to the edges of their institutions and made them especially vulnerable to predation. It is not incidental that rising costs of student housing and racial and gender inequity were centerpiece concerns that drove the runaway two to one unionization vote at MIT.

This mode of formal organization, which necessarily takes place first outside the failed institutional apparatus for such complaint, requires a degree of ideological direction and consistency, driven by collective political desire on a mass scale, far beyond what is possible within the constraints of unorganized university structures and likewise beyond Ahmed’s philosophical and political imagination as presented in Complaint!. Strike action, and its credible threat, gives force to complaint, transforming plea and petition into a demand, by presenting a scarier alternative. “Trick or Treat” as the 1986 horror classic so aptly put it, in the old-time tradition of that most working class of redistributive and retributive holidays.

Over the last several years, union victories in the California university system, at Columbia University, at NYU, and at dozens of other state and private universities and colleges have specifically focused on or included new policies and mechanisms for defending the rights of trans people, women, people of color, and disabled faculty, staff, and students to work and study free of harassment and exclusion. The movement’s dramatic and public results, albeit still very partial, have opened lines of solidarity and new ways to imagine the possibility of concrete redress and reform, across universities, professions, and industries. Strike action, rather than complaint, in reality turns out to be the powerful pedagogical force, apparently even for Ahmed herself. In March of this year, Ahmed made the principled public decision to rescind a speaking engagement at the Queen Mary University of London in solidarity with University and College Union  workers striking over pension disputes with the university. The transparency of this and similar acts of militancy and solidarity stand in stark contrast to the backroom discussions and nondisclosure agreements of the world of formal institutional complaint.

Even in the universe of the tried and true tropes of the horror film genre, it is not, actually, complaint that is the autonomic response to inevitable terror or attack; instead, we know to expect horror actors to involuntarily jump, or scream, or hide, and then inevitably, one by one, die. In those films, when there’s a “happy” ending, and the terror in some way ends, what it takes is not a petition or even the ability to accurately anticipate what we all know is coming next, but some group of characters working in concert precisely to get outside the logic of the monster’s total power.

Switching from complaint and subterranean affinity of “non-agentic,” “momentary mutual recognition” to union organization and action might be something like the last-minute “surprise” ending to Jordan Peele’s masterpiece of the horror genre, Get Out. Its hero, Chris, having discovered the full nature of the plot against him, forced to recognize his false allies and having identified the plot’s previous victims, finds himself framed, sirens wailing, lights illuminating a grim scene. He stands, awaiting the arrival of police who will certainly arrest, charge, and possibly execute him for a mass murder that was in fact (but unprovably) a massacre committed in self-defense, just like those brave enough to pursue formal complaints anticipate correctly that everything in the existing university system will be working against them and the truth.

Instead, Peele’s imprecise avatar for a broader, working class, Black “good sense” and solidarity, TSA Agent Rod, who, it turns out, has been there all along, advising against Chris’s individualism and willful naivete at every step, arrives to lend a hand from outside the “sunken place” and the trap Chris spent the bulk of the movie walking right into, refusing to fully understand, or to leave. For beleaguered and marginalized precarious academics, similarly, coming to recognize the double bind of institutional redress and formal complaints isn’t the end of the working class feminist response to harassment and assault. It’s a first step, at best, toward throwing out the old, dreaded script, and writing an entirely new kind of scene.


Please Log In

You must be a subscriber to access articles from the print issue.

Not a subscriber yet?

Create an Account


While logged in, you may access all print issues.

If you’d like to log out, click here:


Support our Work

Gift Subscriptions, Renewals, and More