Over the last couple of years, something terrible has happened to the term “emotional labor.” Coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, “emotional labor” described the demand that workers suppress negative feelings in order to project a cheery demeanor at their jobs—think flight attendants or food service workers. Now it’s come to mean, well, whatever you want.
In a 2017 piece for HuffPost that's making the rounds once again, writer Gemma Hartley argued the amount of emotional labor required of women can increase exponentially around the holidays. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Hartley said she’s responsible for arranging Christmas photoshoots and mailing holiday cards, which requires hours of scheduling and licking envelopes “until [her] tongue is swollen.” She’ll have to organize potlucks and holiday parties, plan coat drives and family events, plus figure out what gifts to buy everyone.
“Of course, I could forgo this emotional labor and take the cards off my list entirely,” Hartley reflected. “It would free up a little mental space in an already hectic time, but it would also come with the consequence of disappointed relatives.”
One can easily imagine how emotionally exhausting completing Hartley’s lengthy to-do list would be, and see how skipping even just one task could deflate some of the “holiday magic” her family members have come to expect. But while there may be emotional stakes riding on whether or not Hartley mails the cards, plans the potlucks, and so on, much of the work that she’s doing isn’t “emotional labor”—it’s just labor.
Hartley seems to be well aware that she isn’t using the term as it was originally intended. In an interview with Quartz earlier this year, she explained that though she thought “invisible labor” or “care-based labor” might be a more apt way to characterize the sort of work she was describing, the term “emotional labor” was already in the zeitgeist. She said she's more interested in talking about the idea than “fighting about the language.”
But it’s far from petty to point out that people like Hartley are misusing “emotional labor”—there are real consequences for doing so.
When we decide to call housework “emotional labor,” we deny the extent to which housework is simply work, which capitalism has historically extracted from women, for free. And in that obfuscation we make it more difficult to forcefully rebel against those conditions.
In her seminal 1974 essay, “Wages Against Housework,” Silvia Federici argues that it’s necessary to fight for financial compensation for labor done in the home because to do so would mean gaining recognition that “you are a worker, and you can bargain and struggle around and against the terms and the quantity of that wage, the terms and quantity of that work.” These are the preconditions for refusing to do the work at all, and exposing the way a capitalist society has profited off women’s work while rendering it invisible. (Chloe Angyal, a contributing editor at Marie Claire, pointed out on Monday that many writing residencies she was applying to promised the same services afforded to many men whose partners perform the bulk of household chores: “peace and quiet, meals cooked for you, limited domestic labour to distract from your ‘real’ work,” she wrote in a tweet.)
“To say that we want money for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it, because the demand for a wage makes our work visible, which is the most indispensable condition to begin to struggle against it,” Federici writes, “both in its immediate aspect as housework and its more insidious character as femininity.” Calling holiday planning "emotional labor" is counterproductive to attempts to recognize that housework is labor.
The fight for a wage isn’t just for the sake of women as a group, Federici says, but for the benefit of the working class, which, once united, can better protest against the ways “capital has been able to maintain its power” at its expense. As the writer Sarah Miller put it, in an August piece for The Cut, about her boyfriend paying her to do housework: “Federici’s end goal is not a happy household for little Sarah Miller, but the liberation of the human race from wage slavery.”
Hochschild’s theory of “emotional labor” also necessitates a rigorous class critique: While the expectation that workers appear happy to meet the basic requirements of their job isn’t confined solely to waged (as in not salaried) jobs, it is far more common in lower-paying positions. When people call activities like party-planning and Christma card-sending “emotional labor,” often they’re merely describing the pressures associated with a bourgeoisie—rather than working class—lifestyle.
“One thing that I read said even the work of calling the maid to clean the bathtub is too much,” Hochschild recalled, speaking to The Atlantic in November 2018. “I felt there is really, in this work, no social-class perspective. There are many more maids than there are people who find it burdensome to pick up the telephone to ask them to clean your tub.”
Though this distorted view of “emotional labor” still persists, recently it’s been more eagerly applied to the basic demands of human relationships.
Over the last two weeks, Twitter has been awash in debate about whether accommodating friends’ emotional needs falls under this descriptor, sparked by a viral tweet arguing that people should ask for “consent” before asking a friend to perform “emotional labor” in the form of listening, advice-giving, and comforting. On Wednesday, Leah Fessler, the senior manager of editorial and brand voice at Chief, a private club for women executives, wrote in a tweet that the reason why women being told they're addicted to their phones “feels like a microaggression” is because “constant contact with family and friends via text is an essential element of emotional labor.”
If maintaining relationships with friends and family has begun to feel like work, as Hazel Cills argued in Jezebel, perhaps the problem isn’t that it’s “emotional labor,” but that the conditions of our paid labor often leave us with little energy to attend to the social spheres of our lives, and the people who populate them. And perhaps it is those conditions that make texting back a friend or creating “holiday magic” for our families feel alienating, rather than enriching. If this is indeed the case, the answer isn’t to make sure men take an equal part in these bad feelings, Hochschild says. Instead of divvying up the work that makes us miserable, we should challenge the social mechanisms—including capitalism—that make it so.
“I don’t think it’s a solution if both husband and wife are now 50-50 with alienated labor,” Hochschild told The Atlantic last fall. “There’s a fantasy that equity will be a solution…I’m saying, ‘Well, why has it become alienated work?’”
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