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Rescuing "Emotional Labor" from Buzzword Vagueness


In the newly released December–January issue of Bookforum, Charlotte Shane reviews Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward by Gemma Hartley, a book based on a viral magazine article from 2017. Shane points to the book as a prime example of the dilution of the idea of “emotional labor” by primarily upper-class feminists, who use the term vaguely and haphazardly, without reference to its radical origins. Here’s an excerpt:

For Hartley, emotional labor is nearly any effort, or even any experience, to which one has an emotional response—a definition so capacious that it renders the concept useless. Though gender isn’t an explicit element in her definition, it’s clear she’s trying to create a more comprehensive map of what women are up against:

Emotion work, the mental load, mental burden, domestic management, clerical labor, invisible labor. These terms, when separated, don’t acknowledge the very specific way these types of emotional labor intersect, compound, and, ultimately, frustrate. . . . It made sense to group these formerly disparate terms under one umbrella, because they are deeply connected.

But it’s as if she’s reinventing the wheel as a square: She hasn’t read enough of the existing literature to explain what connects these elements or why they “intersect.” Though she references Hillary Clinton’s What Happened and several contemporary self-help books (Drop the Ball, Better Than Before, Daring to Rest), there’s no mention of the feminists behind 1972’s Wages for Housework campaign, nor any of the Marxist feminists who’ve been thinking about reproductive labor for decades. Silvia Federici would have been especially useful here. “We are seen as nagging bitches, not as workers in struggle,” she wrote in 1975. “By denying housework a wage and transforming it into an act of love, capital has killed many birds with one stone.” (Federici also wrote that demanding wages for housework was important because it marked “the first step towards refusing to do it.”)

The interlocking systems of sexism and capitalism, and the gender roles that prop both up, are at the core of Hartley’s take on emotional labor. What feels like an interpersonal struggle is actually a politically imposed plight: Women are devalued, then pressured or outright coerced into fulfilling an uncompensated and useful role. When Hartley maintains that emotional labor is objectively “valuable,” and that “we cannot live without emotional labor and we should not want to. . . . It makes us more attuned to our lives,” she’s only half-right, at best. We should not live, nor want to live, without loving and tending to others. But we also shouldn’t confuse class-coded and minute expressions of domestic prowess with manifestations of care. It turns out that an all-purpose phrase, just like an all-purpose cleaner, yields messy results.

Image: Lily van der Stokker, The Tidy Kitchen (detail), 2015. Via Bookforum.