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The Cost of Misusing the Term ‘Emotional Labor’

We’re doing everyone a disservice when we focus only on who spends more time doing the laundry

Earlier this month, in a viral article for Harper’s Bazaar about the female burden of male friendlessness, writer Melanie Hamlett referred to the concept of emotional labor. “[The idea of an ‘emotional gold digger’] has gained more traction recently as women, feeling increasingly burdened by unpaid emotional labor, have wised up to the toll of toxic masculinity,” she muses, “which keeps men isolated and incapable of leaning on each other.”

It’s not the first time Harper’s Bazaar has made viral content out of the unacknowledged work women do for men. In September 2017, the magazine published an article by Gemma Hartley about trying to get her husband to purchase her a housecleaning service for Mother’s Day and emotional labor more generally, which the dek hints is “the unpaid job men still don’t understand.” Hartley describes her stress and difficulty with being the manager of her household and cites reminding her husband about his family’s birthdays, planning meals for the kids, keeping track of what food and household items they’re running low on and “the unending hell that is laundry” as examples of the emotional labor she performs.

The article caused a sensation, leading to a book deal for Hartley and the biggest spike in Google searches for “emotional labor” in the U.S. in the past 25 years. The problem, however, is that both Hartley and Hamlett — and at this point, almost everyone on the internet — is misusing the term.

That’s according to professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, Arlie Hochschild, a fairly solid authority on the matter considering she coined the term in her 1983 book on the subject, The Managed Heart. The original meaning was the labor involved in regulating, evoking and suppressing certain feelings while you’re at work — as Hochschild puts it, it’s “trying to feel the right feeling for the job.” It described work for which you are paid (although not always adequately compensated) and didn’t only apply to labor performed by women. So while pink-collar roles like flight attendant, waitress and teacher require the presentation of certain feelings — a dour or snappy flight attendant isn’t performing the emotional labor expected of her — so do blue-collar roles like policeman and bill collector (a cop with a Julia Roberts smile has also missed the mark).

Now, the term “emotional labor” has expanded, perhaps mutated. It’s most often used to mean “the unpaid labor expended by women to cement social relationships and keep households running,” which is the way it’s used in the above Harper’s Bazaar articles, on MEL’s own guide to emotional labor and a similar guide written by yours truly (life comes at you fast). On Twitter, where there isn’t so much concept creep as concept hyper-acceleration, the term now essentially means “women expending energy on some unpaid task.” Reminding your boyfriend what star sign you are? Emotional labor. Explaining your tweet to a Reply Guy? Emotional labor. A constant, now irony-poisoned refrain is that men should Venmo women who “educate” them about sexism and male privilege, even if such education consists of little more than replying to an obtuse or sexist remark with a paragraph about Male Privilege 101 ($50 please).

Well, so what? Women do perform constant, thankless background labor to cement social relationships and keep households running, and men have historically tended to take this for granted (if they notice it at all). Men often haven’t bothered to learn even the basics about feminism and how sexism manifests in daily life, and it can feel like a chore to explain it to them. Anticipating and catering to men’s needs can feel annoying, tedious, draining and unfair. Whether or not it’s “emotional labor” — isn’t it worth talking about?

And even if the term isn’t always being used strictly as originally intended, hasn’t its expansion had a measurably positive impact? The man on the Clapham omnibus is now more likely to notice unpaid labor performed by women, view it as real work and understand that expecting his girlfriend or wife to act like his therapist, personal assistant, maid and life coach is lazy and highly gendered. How can that be a bad thing?

Men being more aware of the unacknowledged background work women put into their relationships is an unambiguous plus, but there are several problems with using the term “emotional labor” to describe the range of tasks it now covers. As Hochschild explains to The Atlantic, the first and most basic is that many of the tasks are, quite simply, labor, like doing the laundry (physical labor) or planning school lunches for the week (mental labor). These tasks don’t necessarily involve internal emotional regulation; they’re just domestic work, pure and simple. Calling them “emotional labor,” as Julie Beck points out, has the curiously sexist implication that all work performed by women is somehow about feelings. “It almost seems like we’re saying that women do the work and women are emotional, so that must be emotional work,” she notes. “Like, chores are just labor.”

Of course, some chores are a lot more burdensome than others, and Hartley has been criticized for her lack of perspective. Having to nag your husband to book a cleaner is probably not so much a “women’s problem” as it is a telltale sign of a relatively charmed life — most women aren’t the Hartley in the situation; they’re the minimum-wage cleaner her husband books.

Apart from the blurry categorization of types of labor, though, it’s also worth questioning why we’re using the word “labor” at all to describe these acts, and the implications that has. “There seems an alienation or a disenchantment of acts that normally we associate with the expression of connection, love and commitment, like, ‘Oh, what a burden it is to pick out gifts for the holiday for my children,’” Hochschild says. “I feel a strong need to point out that this isn’t inherently an alienating act, and something’s gone haywire when it is.”

The suggested solution to this alienation — to conceive of social/caring acts in terms of their market value and demand crude monetary compensation for them — strikes labor studies graduate Avery Alder as dubious. “If we’re going to politicize basic kindness between friends and community members, I worry about doing so with the language of labor,” she writes. “Because labor demands compensation, and I think ‘my kindness to you demands compensation’ has insidious implications.” Rather than speaking in corporate terms about the “overheads of caring” and demanding a market rate for women’s care, Hochschild says we should be questioning what pressures are causing our home and social lives to feel like an office or factory floor, and how we can reclaim the private sphere from the logic of the clock-watching boss.

To do so, we need to return our attention to the traditional site of labor: the workplace. We know that work performed in those spaces feels alienating because bosses take all the profits, and that women were forced to enter the labor force in droves in the second half of the last century to make up for declining wages of men. In the neoliberal order in which we all find ourselves, workers, regardless of gender, are expected to put in punishingly long hours for wages that have been stagnant for 40 years and to be constantly contactable due to technological advances (iPhones, email, Slack). As Blink 182 astutely noted, work sucks.

But now home kind of sucks, too. We’re all burnt out, and despite women now being equal participants in the workplace, they’re still performing most of the unpaid domestic labor around the household, the kind of work that’s now being mislabeled “emotional labor.” This is the “second shift” — another concept coined by Hochschild — and it can help explain why women feel exhausted and begrudging about traditionally “enchanted” tasks around the home, like planning birthday parties for the kids.

To fix home, then, probably involves fixing work, by fighting collectively for higher wages, more time off, paid parental leave and improved working conditions, as well as advocating for a robust welfare system. “It seems to me that if you want to socially engineer a loving and responsible masculinity, men themselves must become thoroughly optional — meaning their participation in romantic partnership and/or parenting wouldn’t be necessary to the financial security of either a woman or a family,” writer Amber A’Lee Frost. “It’s not complicated. Economic security and a comprehensive welfare state make for involved dads in a startlingly direct fashion.”

Which gets at the main reason the rapidly shifting meaning of “emotional labor” does matter: It diverts attention from the original focus on labor struggle and suggests depoliticized solutions that offer women no real power or lasting independence like “guilt trip your man” and “ask Reply Guys to Venmo you $50.” It also makes bourgeois women the focus of a discussion that was meant to provide a theoretical basis to unite working women (and non-women) — teachers, sex workers, bartenders, flight attendants —in a struggle for better labor conditions.

As Alder puts it, “What does this [conversation] have to do with unionizing strip clubs?”