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On emotional labor
Hello everyone! Today’s piece is co-authored by Claire Comstock-Gay. Claire writes weekly horoscopes for New York magazine's The Cut and is the author of Madame Clairevoyant's Guide to the Stars (Harper 4/21/20). She lives in Minneapolis.
Claire is also a friend of mine. I am delighted that she agreed to write this piece with me.
Eleanor: On January 20, 2018, the New York Times put out an op-ed by Jill Filipovic: “Donald Trump and His Work Wives.” Released on the heels of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Filipovic hones in on one of Wolff’s insights: Trump has different relationships with the women on his staff compared to his relationships with the men. This difference stems, in part, from Trump’s personal belief that women are, by their nature, more docile, more subservient, and thereby more trustworthy. Trump, even separate from his role as president, is a man who needs a lot of attention and support in his daily life. The way that the women in his life perform the tasks that make up their job is inseparable from the jobs themselves; the relationship is the job. Filipovic writes,
The term ‘emotional labor’ gets vastly overused, but this is a textbook example. The women who work for Mr. Trump aren’t just required to perform their professional tasks; they also have to coddle and care for a volatile patriarch. (link)
Somewhere around 2017 or 2018, the term “emotional labor” seemed to reach peak saturation. In the 2010s, it meant everything from labor that is invisible (or unnoticed), to the emotional support that women give to men in both friendship and romantic relationships (also unnoticed), to Filipovic’s use of the term: essentially, the maintenance of civility and managerial order in the professional workplace (this is getting noticed). It would seem the evocative nature of the phrase allowed the original definition to fade away. In turn, perhaps it is the poetry of the name itself that led to the term’s querulous status in contemporary Western bourgeois culture. “Emotional labor” sounds like something complicated but true; something vulnerable in execution, costly, valuable.
I’m reminded of the Kate Bush hit “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God).” The song was the lead single for her 1985 album, Hounds of Love. If the dominant understanding of emotional labor is that it is an asymmetrical vulnerability, an uneven exchange, I think “A Deal with God” (Bush’s preferred title) offers a more hopeful vision on what that exchange–or “deal”– could look like. In an interview that same year with Tony Myatt, she comments on how the song is about the nature of love:
…and the strength that is created between two people when they're very much in love, but the strength can also be, um...uh...threatening, violent, dangerous as well as gentle, soothing, loving. And it's saying that if these two people could swap places—if the man could become the woman and the woman the man, that perhaps they could understand the feelings of that other person in a truer way, understanding them from that gender's point of view, and that perhaps there are very subtle differences between the sexes that can cause problems in a relationship, especially when people really do care about each other.
She re-creates the cissexism and binary thinking of Filipovic, unfortunately, but I think her goal— increased understanding through embodying another’s perspective, vis-a-vis divine intervention, no less!— seems a lot more desirable.
I don’t know. Something to think toward. Rethink what exchange, transference, experience can mean, equate, supplement. Let it percolate in the back of your mind as you read on.
Emotional labor as a feminist concept certainly sheds light on the position of working women in the US. But, in the late 2010s, the class strata that received most of that light was also the class strata of the lighting operators. But when the term was first introduced, its meaning was quite precise, if complicated. First named and defined by sociologist Arlie Hochschield in her 1983 book The Managed Heart, “emotional labor” is,
the work for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feelings for the job. This involves evoking and suppressing feelings. Some jobs require a lot of it, some a little of it. From the flight attendant whose job it is to be nicer than natural to the bill collector whose job it is to be, if necessary, harsher than natural, there are a variety of jobs that call for this. Teachers, nursing-home attendants, and child-care workers are examples. The point is that while you may also be doing physical labor and mental labor, you are crucially being hired and monitored for your capacity to manage and produce a feeling. (link, emphasis mine)
However, now, in March 2022, the term’s ubiquity has fallen. But just because the term has passed the mark of peak relevance to domestic identity politics and social media discourse doesn't mean it is adequately understood, as I think Hochschield shows us. Saturation doesn’t imply comprehension, just interest. While the term’s pervasiveness to the point of meaninglessness has been subject to recuperation (see The Atlantic interview linked above) , I think that the journey of the concept is instructive and emblematic of a larger issue in contemporary social (media) politics. What is the actual best understanding of emotional labor? What other concepts did it give rise to? Has it been replaced? What’s replaced it? Has it transformed—transmogrified—into something else?
First I want to figure out what it actually is. From what I get from Hochschield, while some jobs require more strenuous emotional labor than others, it seems implied that all jobs involve some degree of emotional labor, if just by virtue of the fact that all laborers have emotions. By extension, I might posit that, if the laborer is a human being participating in a capitalist economy—a system that places alienation as its fulcrum, its desiccated but nonetheless pumping, bleeding heart—then all labor, to varying degree, is emotional labor. To feel alienated is to withdraw, to feel cleaved. Labor is tearing you asunder.
By saying that all labor is emotional labor I’m not downplaying it. In fact, I think the idea’s omnipresence speaks to its potency and resilience. Hochschield laments that the term has lost the precision in application for which it was initially devised. That makes sense. For me, it’s not that I resent Filipovic and others for attempting to elaborate upon the meaning, or even reinvent emotional labor entirely. Actually, I’m obsessed with the reinvention of concepts, the loosing of concepts from too-tight definitional strictures—the urgent muddling through words and figuring out what they mean to you that is, I believe, intrinsic to the act of writing.
When I say “everything is emotional labor,” as optics, it resembles the very thing of which I accuse Filipovic: the denuding of a concept to suit your particular conceptual needs at the expense of the world outside your own, to mark a term as so rampant and forceful yet highly specific to individual experience that is carefully policed by self-selected arbiters that it comes to mean, even if not intended, both everything and nothing.
But if emotional labor is a symptom and outlet for capitalism, then, in a sense, it is, precisely, both everything and nothing. With the the increasing commoditization of the subject under late capitalism, the slashbetween the private/public becomes thinner and thinner, eventually to the point where the two domains collapse into one. In 2011, Mark Fisher writes,
Since 1989, capitalism’s success in routing its opponents has led to it coming close to achieving the ultimate goal of ideology: invisibility. In the global North at least, capitalism proposes itself as the only possible reality, and therefore it seldom ‘appears’ as such at all.” (“The privatisation of stress,” Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture, vol. 48, 124)
The ideology’s success ushers in the everything and nothing of what Fisher calls “capitalist realism.” In our current moment, it gives a soporific to the collective imagination. Capitalist realism names the sense of ever-renewable hopelessness we feel, trudging through each day, hour, minute. With this frame, I offer that what Filipovic imagines Trump’s work wives suffer from (though I, for one, am not convinced someone like, say, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Mary Kay upline without the ambition or work ethic, “suffers'' at all) is capitalism, and specifically capitalist realism.
The line between one’s public and working life and labor and one’s personal life and sense of interiority doesn’t exist. Frustration descends. This is unbearable. This is impossible to withstand. In Filipovic’s article, she describes the silent acts of tallying men’s transgressions or acts of inertia that create the oppressive work wife culture she decries. The itemizing is the practice that makes legible the emotional labor women are already doing by adding yet another labor—the itemizing of others’ inertia—to their workload. Calling the extra work that women do to make up for men’s shortcomings “emotional labor” and then making lists of these tasks, as social acts, maps onto the accumulative mindset and work life created by capitalist patriarchy at the same time as this labor and, specifically, list-making, is also a practice performed as a way of coping with capitalist patriarchy.
I’m concerned about these passive-aggressive acts of itemization and list-making, especially the gleeful sense of indignance with which they are performed and discussed. I also just don’t think they’re effective coping mechanisms. Logging domestic and professional transgressions and grievances puts a number to the acts of life and living that make up whole relationships, romantic, domestic, and occupational. At the same time, these are the same relationships that, in so many ways, are supposed to make those same acts of life and living bearable, and even meaningful. Isn’t that the function of a “work husband” or “work wife”? These roles are named such because they both contain and exceed the relational values and behaviors of the workplace and the sphere of professionalism.
Lists can index aspects of these relationships, but can never contain them. Turning your relationship—even one tainted by the confinements of the workplace—into a list is to commodify it, to manage it. In this way, what Filipoviak calls “emotional labor” is the attempt to conquer—or if not conquer, name, and attempt to manage—a relationship between human beings.
The tallying of men’s transgressions may lead you to feel momentarily righteous, which can be intoxicating. And it’s important to always notice when someone seems to be treating you poorly, and to take steps to make them stop. But the experiences you have while feeling taken for granted and the list-making you undertake in order to channel it into a righteous outlet is closer to the “nothing” aspect of emotional labor than the “everything,” despite Filipovic’s efforts. It’s also not feminism—or at least any feminism that recognizes labor equity as something more complicated than just the question “where’s mine?”
I know I sound unkind. Worse—I sound condescending, dismissive, reductive. I want to note that labor and gender equity are worthy values, but I don’t understand them to be a goal or ideal outcome for feminism. Tallying the number of your boyfriend’s pubic hairs he left on the toilet seat in order to make a point about domestic labor equity isn’t effective feminist praxis (though could, with some workshopping, be ‘70s art). In fact, I think the tendency indexes the kind of ineffectual politics comprising White Feminism as an ideology: the act of itemizing complaints against coworkers, friends, and lovers is foundational to how capitalist realism structures not just supposedly one’s own proactivity but also how people react and attempt to manage the behaviors of others.
This version of emotional labor is exactly the thing Filipovic criticizes men for: learned helplessness. It’s using the tools of commodification in order to deal with the experience of commodification. It’s understandable, considering the state of the world, but it’s nothing to be righteous about. Learned helplessness, as a thing to decry and point fingers at while ignoring or not noticing those same symptoms in yourself, is the state that remains, I think, even while the term it helped to obscure is no longer the height of the gender wars.
Now, in March 2022, what does learned helplessness look like? At the same time, in our recent moment, how does Hochschield’s understanding of emotional labor help us to understand some of the more recent movements on labor’s front lines?
Claire: The trend in talking about emotional labor has been to put such heavy emphasis on emotion that in popular usage, it’s become essentially synonymous with “care work.” (If you’ve learned about emotional labor from social media alone, you could be forgiven for having no idea that Hochschild’s original research in The Managed Heart focused on two professions—not just professionally sweet flight attendants, but also professionally scary debt collectors.)
And it’s not just linked to a general sort of care work, but specifically with a mid 20th century fantasy about the experience of Being A Wife—whether “work wife” or actual wife (as in Gemma Hartley’s Harper’s Bazaar article about the unbearable emotional labor of hiring a housecleaner (!). The Wife is responsible for running the household/office/family unit, for maintaining strong social bonds, for keeping others feeling good—regardless of how miserable she is. By definition, The Wife is long-suffering. Hartley insists with surprising stubbornness that her misery and frustration are inescapable.
After all, we cannot refuse to feel, which means that if emotional labor is primarily an emotional issue, then we’re stuck. We can, however, refuse to work. Rarely without consequence or without conflict, but even if we cannot refuse our emotions, we can refuse our labor.
This has never been clearer—at least, not in my lifetime—than over the past two years. On an individual level, workers have quit their jobs in huge numbers—particularly in low-paid, high-covid risk industries like food service. On a collective level, workers are unionizing and striking. Call it “nobody wants to work anymore,” call it “The Great Resignation,” call it Striketober, the strike wave, the “quitagion” (come on). Workers are refusing their labor.
In the last year, workers went on strike at Kellogg, Nabisco, and John Deere. As I write this, over a thousand miners have been on strike against Warrior Met Coal for nearly a year. Workers are currently organizing at REI, Amazon, and Starbucks. And these are just a few that have gotten national attention.
Importantly, workers in the so-called caring professions have been organizing and striking too. 32,000 healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente authorized a strike in November. In 2019, teachers in LA stopped work for six days, and won a contract that included not just a salary increase, but also smaller class sizes, more support staff, and fewer standardized tests. In Minneapolis/Saint Paul, where I live, teachers have authorized a strike set to begin March 8th.
Flight attendants, too—exemplars of the caring side of emotional labor—are refusing. In January of this year, flight attendants for Piedmont Airlines voted unanimously (!) to authorize a strike, resulting in a wage increase and work rule improvements, and avoiding cuts to their healthcare. Flight attendants for Frontier Airlines are currently organizing against changes to their sick policy. When emotional labor, just as any other kind of labor, becomes unbearable in the workplace, the remedy isn’t to seethe and wish other people would act better. It’s to organize.
Outside of organized labor, high-profile individuals have refused, too. Gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021: “...it's OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are — rather than just battle through it.” Also in 2021, Naomi Osaka announced a hiatus from tennis:
I feel like for me, recently, when I win, I don’t feel happy, I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad…Basically, I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.
The catch, of course—nowhere more visible than Biles’ and Osaka’s press appearances—is that refusal itself is a kind of emotional labor. Appropriately producing a feeling of strength or humility or sadness at a press conference is textbook emotional labor: “being monitored for your capacity to manage and produce a feeling.” Labor organizers, too, must perform emotional labor, only here, the feeling required is courage, solidarity, determination.
Refusal isn’t a way out of emotional labor, only a different form of it. Ideally, it’s one that feels less burdensome than the status quo, or one that creates better, more life-giving possibilities. Hochschild herself has written that in a healthy society, emotional labor can be “both meaningful and fun.”
In Gemma Hartley’s viral article, she writes of her frustration that there is “no one to acknowledge the work you are doing, and no way to change it without a major confrontation.” It’s a telling moment: “There’s no way to change it without a major confrontation” is just a different way of saying “the way to change it is through major confrontation.”
Eleanor: Gemma Hartley pleads to her husband: “I don’t want to have to ask.”
Kate Bush, on the other hand, extends an invitation to her lover, to God, and to the listener. She sings,
Come on baby, come on darling
Let me steal this moment from you now
Come on angel, come on come on darling
Let’s exchange the experience, ohhh…
Exchange, a steal, a shared experience. Oooh-uhh.
I’m reminded of a scene in Zoolander (dir. Ben Stiller, 2001) when Derek Zoolander and his nemesis, Hansel, are among the late ‘90s glitterati at an industry awards show. Fabio, in a cameo appearance, is presented with the “slashie” award. He says, “What this, the slashie, means is you consider me the best actor slash model, and not the other way around.” This is a perfect example of the total fusion of not just the laborer with their job—like Derek and Hansel are male models, which makes their job the activity of being (versions) of themselves—but also the creeping imperative to diversify one’s skill set in the labor force that, as we can see from the contemporary gig economy, has become a vital structural aspect of US work culture.
He goes on to write: “Atilio Boron argues that capitalism has been shifted to a ‘discreet position behind the political scene, rendered invisible as the structural foundation of contemporary society,’ and cites Bertolt Brecht’s observation that ‘capitalism is a gentleman who doesn’t like to be called by his name.’”