Girls Will Be Girls
What is emotional labour? It is a very gendered phenomenon. By and large it’s the act of (mostly women) having to acknowledge and deal with the emotions of others (mostly men) as well as their own. In addition, they’re made to feel that they can’t opt out because otherwise, they’ll be viewed as bad, cold or emotionally inept.
One widely familiar example is that of hospitality work, an industry which statistically consists of mostly women. The term emotional labor was coined in 1983 by sociologist Hochschild, who also expressed the concern of ‘pink collar workers’ - (coined by writer and social critic Louis Kapp Howe in the late 1970’s)- jobs done mostly by women, such as waitressing or retail. In these roles, women are expected to go beyond their job descriptions and humor the anecdotes and emotional needs of strangers. In order to keep their jobs, they must provide ‘service with a smile’ and cannot let this act slip. Workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors. This includes fabricating emotional responses or suppressing emotions that are felt but not expressed. This phenomenon of ‘surface acting’, can be psychologically and socially damaging to service workers. Emotional labour on the job can often lead to exhaustion and burn out. Consequently, the service industry has the highest employee turnover rate amongst all industries.
It is the same story inside of the home. Women are expected to manage their partner’s emotions (as well as their own), tiptoe around, and be constantly conscious of their partner’s feelings as not to anger or upset them. We are sold this myth from a very early age. We are taught that girls are more emotionally mature than boys and therefore must be patient with men’s outbursts and emotions. Is this problem biological or purely societal?
Girls are raised to be soft, gentle, and caring. Boys and their rough outbursts and angry flare-ups are often ‘let off the hook’ because ‘boys will be boys’. In turn, this means that young girls eventually grow into young women who are burdened with the emotional labour of their boyfriends and male friends. They have to be aware of how those around them are feeling, all the while they learn not to complain as it is expected and hardly ever questioned. In general, boys are not taught how to process feelings or be in tune with the emotions of others or their own. They are not raised to care. For men, emotional labour is always a choice and they are praised to no end when they opt in to caring about the feelings of others. On the other hand, women are supposed to be this bottomless well of empathy, warmth, and compassion. Women must be soft, compromising and easily melded into what men want from them. They must never say no, be angry, or irritable. The truth is, playing into the projection of docile femininity is emotionally draining.
In heterosexual couples, it is often presumed that the woman will remember the birthdays, take note of a change in a friend’s health, be mindful of the odd jobs that need doing around the house, plan special events, and organize holidays. Women accept that they are ‘just better at these things’ and they forgive their boyfriends/husbands for their forgetful absent-mindedness. Women listen, are perceptive and more emotionally in tune, and “that’s just the way it is.” But what if it’s not? There is no scientific research to back up the claim that women are biologically more adept to being emotionally aware. We raise our daughters to take on the same expectations as generations before us and the cycle continues. According to Emma M. Seppälä Ph.D., “compassion is natural and no gender differences have emerged across studies.” We all naturally have a compassionate instinct but “a large body of research has shown that men and women have very different experiences and that they are socialized very differently as of infancy.”
There are hundreds of jokes and tropes based on the idea of women multitasking and men being forgetful or only having a one-track mind. A good example of this in current pop culture is the relationship between Jake Peralta and Amy Santiago in Brooklyn 99, Jake is lovable and well-meaning but oftentimes forgetful and bumbling, leaving Amy to be the planner and pick up the slack, the crux of her character is that she enjoys this and it is second nature to her and yes both characters are comedic exaggerations but they are an archetypal example of how the endearing ‘man-child’ ends up with a woman who is intelligent and level-headed.
A lot of women (myself included) would argue that they actively want to take care of their loved ones. They like picking out birthday gifts or organizing events to show they care, they want to allow the men in their lives to emotionally off-load. They argue that they can take it, because if they don’t, then who will? But are women autonomously deciding to listen and be sensitive? How can we differentiate between our own wants and those of our society?
Emotional labour is hugely damaging and often invisible. It is generally not something men have to even consider or think about. Recognized in sociology and feminist discourse, emotional labour has burdened women for hundreds of years and like everything that is a result of the patriarchy, it also hurts men. Since men are not taught how to practice emotional intelligence, they generally have difficulty in expressing their emotions and without having a woman in their life to rely on, they experience a profound lack of connection with the world around them. Because while single women have their girlfriends for emotional support, male friendships lack openness and practiced compassion.
Emotional labour is a burden for women but also emotionally stunting and damaging for men. Mental health charity, Samaritans did a study that suggests “the way men are taught, through childhood, to be ‘manly’ does not emphasize social and emotional skills. Men can experience a ‘big build’ of distress, which can culminate in crisis.” Because men are not taught how to be open and vulnerable they often reach a crisis point where something like a breakup- especially if their partner was their only form of emotional support- or career difficulties can tip them over the edge. According to a study by Peeter Varnik Suicide in the World, globally, suicide occurs 1.8 times more often among men than women and, more shockingly, according to the Mental Health Foundation and office for national statistics, suicide is the most common cause of death for men aged 20-49. Emotional labour is not just damaging; it is deathly.
By: Jodie Brooksbank