‘Fed Up’ and Emotional Labour

The genesis of Gemma Hartley’s new book Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward was an essay she wrote for Harper’s Bazaar, titled “Women Aren’t Nags – We’re Just Fed Up”. The essay described her own experience of inequality in how she and her husband did, or didn’t do, housework – and the reaction to the essay showed that it wasn’t just her who was tired of doing everything. The essay went viral, and that led to the book.

Well, I’m fed up too, but not from doing emotional labour. I’m fed up with writers who grab a catchy-sounding term from social science research and misuse it for their own purposes. Hartley certainly isn’t the only author who’s done this, but what she calls “emotional labour” is clearly not what a substantial body of research says is “emotional labour”. That’s not only misleading to readers, but also insulting to the many researchers whose work has produced fascinating insights into this aspect of the workplace.

It’s telling that when Hartley mentions the first in-depth research investigation of emotional labour – Arlie Hochschild’s 1983 book The Managed Heart – she omits the book’s subtitle. The full title of the book is The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, and the subtitle indicates a key characteristic of emotional labour: “commercialization”. Hochschild describes “emotional labour” as the work that employees perform when their employer expects them to display emotions that make a transaction more pleasant for the customer. The employee must use their own emotions, or must be able to generate appropriate emotions, to meet the employer’s requirements. Emotional labour is “commercialized” because the employee’s own emotions become part of the commercial transactions of the business, and because the employee presents the desired emotions in exchange for the salary they receive from the employer.

Hochschild’s research indicated that emotional labour could be as difficult and as tiring for employees as any of the other tasks they did in their jobs. It also had effects outside the workplace, such as employees becoming emotionally exhausted in the rest of their lives, or resenting their employer for making them manufacture emotions that were opposite to how they would usually feel. The extensive research on emotional labour that followed Hochschild’s work has investigated such topics as how employees manage their emotional labour in dealings with the public when the employer’s reputation is tarnished; how or whether the experience of emotional labour varies across demographic groups (e.g. differences in how male and female workers experience emotional labour); and what emotional labour looks like in different types of occupations or workplaces.

Hartley says “emotional labour” is the work around emotions that women do in the home, including regulating their own emotions, helping others in the household to feel positive emotions, and making sure that tasks get done in the household, or get done the right way. All of these are work, and all of them involve emotions. The division of household labour, including the emotions around that division and that labour, is an important topic – especially, as Hartley rightly points out, when women continue to do most household work. But being annoyed at managing the household and working to keep it running is not “emotional labour”, and Hartley does not make a convincing case why it should be.

Hartley claims that “it wasn’t until much more recently [after 2005] that the topic started gaining more widespread interest outside the academic world” (p. 11), which is not an accurate statement. Her support for this statement is a 2015 article on the website The Toast which Hartley alleges “opened the public conversation about emotional labor”. I’d never seen this article before or heard of the website it appeared on. That doesn’t mean that either aren’t important – but I can’t accept that this article “opened [a] public conversation” when it appears to be what some would call only “Internet-famous”.  Since Hochschild’s book is now in its third edition and was named a “notable book of the year” by the New York Times, I’d suggest that in the 30-plus years since its publication, The Managed Heart has done much more to bring “emotional labour” into the “public conversation” than posts on the Internet in the past few years.

Hartley asserts that “countless” articles were recently written on “emotional labor and its iterations” (p. 12). She doesn’t cite any in her bibliography beyond one of her own, and two others she discusses at some length, both of which also seem to misunderstand the meaning of “emotional labour”. Then she states, “As many journalists before me had, I expanded the definition of ‘emotional labor’ just a little bit further, hoping to give readers a new lens through which they might see their own relationship dynamics more clearly” (p. 13).

This statement really bothered me, and not only because there’s no proof that “many journalists” did what Hartley claims they did. When researchers develop a term to describe the findings of their research, it’s wrong for someone else to “expand the definition” of that term without doing any  research of their own, or without providing plausible evidence to justify why the definition needs adjusting.

The rest of Hartley’s book is a lengthy exploration of her own personal experiences in relation to what she calls “emotional labour”, with occasional references to others’ experiences and some outside sources. The problem with this approach is that personal individual stories are not necessarily accurate representations of wider experiences. However, to be fair to Hartley, her viral article appeared in September 2017 and her book was released in November 2018, which means she likely had less than a year to write the book. She probably didn’t have time to do more thorough research, and had to go with what she knew. So perhaps her publishers or editors are more to blame than she is for the lack of substance in the majority of the book.

But, nevertheless, this book is irritating. Hartley does raise important points about inequities between men and women – even modern, supposedly enlightened men and women – in how they contribute to the work that’s necessary for households to run smoothly and enjoyably. But the misappropriation of the meaning of “emotional labour” overshadows those points. Kim Bosch, who reviewed the book for the Jezebel website, contends that Hartley also misinterprets Hochschild’s research in proposing solutions to the problem of inequities in housework. “Rather than take up Hochschild’s call to specifically hold government and private enterprise accountable, Hartley encourages readers to ‘look within’, as so many gurus have done before her.” In other words, Hartley tells readers to escape excessive emotional labour by either doing more emotional labour themselves, to redistribute the burden of work, or by expecting others to engage in more emotional labour as well. This is hugely problematic, Bosch rightly suggests, because it completely overlooks the effects of the larger societal and economic forces that result in women being largely responsible for household management.

I also don’t buy the “language evolves, get used to it” argument from some of Hartley’s defenders. The linked article uses the term “intersectionality” as an example of how words move from academic discourse into broader popular usage, and into different contexts from the research generated them. But as another famous wordsmith said, “one of these things is not like the other“. The popular usage of “intersectionality” retains the core of the academic definition: the recognition that life experiences differ for individuals who belong to multiple demographic groups, in comparison to the life experiences of those who are part of a single group, because of how those multiple identities are perceived and how they interact. Unlike “emotional labour”, “intersectionality” is not being redefined in ways that overlook or contradict essential components of the concept.

However, I’m going to leave the last word on Fed Up to the researcher who knows more about emotional labour than anyone. Arlie Hochschild herself is uncomfortable with her ideas being used inappropriately in Hartley’s book. She told The Atlantic magazine, “I love the idea that people are exploring the realm, and so I welcome that, but I guess I don’t like the blurriness of the thinking….If you have an important conversation using muddy ideas, you cannot accomplish your purpose. You won’t be understood by others. And you won’t be clear to yourself.” Those are wise words for any researcher or author to remember.

One comment

  1. You are such a marvelous writer, Fiona — and a marvelous reader too. Even without having read either of these works I have a sense of their scope, and share your annoyance with Hartley’s terminology. Hochschild said it best, perhaps: “If you have an important conversation using muddy ideas, you cannot accomplish your purpose.” A great lesson there for us all.

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