Thursday, July 28, 2005

Alienated Emotional Labor

Confined spaces do wonders for thinking and focus. On the plane ride I read and wrote relentlessly. I first read cover to cover the Washington Post, which turned out to have some interesting recipes for beets, including a version on the Mojito with pureed beets (go figure!). I discovered the wonder of the beet after impulsively buying some at the farmer’s market two weeks ago.

Anyway, after reading a very interesting piece by Sandra Lee Bartky (“Feeding Egos and Tending Wounds: Deference and Disaffection in Women’s Emotional Labor” from Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression), I started thinking about a former professor of mine who was killed in a hit-and-run accident almost two years ago. What I loved about her was that underneath all of her scholarly papers was the musings of a sort of mystical thinker. People who knew her well had figured that out about her, but many others took her to be a psychoanalytic social theorist. One of her most interesting theories centered on the “exchange of affect.”

In essence, she argued that women were physically and intellectually depleted in two significant ways:

1. By investing their energy in those they were prescribed by patriarchy to tend to (men, children and the elderly), they depleted their own energetic resources

2. The cultural imaginary, which devalues women’s labor, leaves them with uninspiring models by which to chart their future paths. These uninspiring images of women simply do not energize them.

What is mystical underneath this all is a belief that energy is some sort of force moving between and among people. This force, however, needs to be harnessed and directed towards something. The only way to direct this energetic force is to bind it to certain images. The way I have always understood this is by analogy to the sort of visualization that premier athletes or martial arts utilize to enhance performance.

Her work was totally interesting because it was kind of wacky. But, when I read Bartky’s piece yesterday, I started thinking how plausible my professor’s work was. Bartky argues that the women are alienated by their emotional labor, which centers on propping up male egos and tending to their wounds. Bartky is borrowing Marx’s notion of alienated labor and emphasizing one aspect: it disempowers laborers by prohibiting the cultivation of their own creative talents and capabilities.

Traditional gender roles—which admittedly are more contested now than in the past, yet still pervasive—depict women as self-sacrificing, tender, and nurturing. Women are destined to be “mothers,” and hence endowed, “naturally” with these qualities. Or, that is how the story goes.

Feminists have been pointing out for at least a century, that young women are taught to be nurturing (see Mary Wollstonecraft, for example). Women learn to ask questions of their company, nod their head and smile to show interest and enthusiasm for their speakers, to rush to point out the excellent and underappreciated qualities of their male partners who might feel threatened at work.

What this emotional labor gives men is a deep sense that they are important, worthy, and valuable. Women’s emotional labor is integral to men’s sense of entitlement, their “natural” sense that they are efficacious, worth listening to, and capable. Women’s labor, that is, is essential to helping men become autonomous or self-determining.

And yet, women certainly do not get a good return for the emotional investment that they make in men. Absolutely there are exceptions—the true good guys, as Bitch. Ph.D. describes them (“Nice Guys and Bitchy Women”). But many women do not find their male partners nodding with enthusiasm as they describe their ideas, nor do they find their male partners constantly reassuring them that they will excel in their work and that whatever so and so said was just a sign of their own insecurity etc. Men are not socialized to do this labor.

I agree with Bartky that the particular way this hurts women is by prohibiting their own development (unless they are lucky enough to find a good guy or they are totally free from the need for male attention). Women simply have fewer resources, less energy for their own projects.

And, yes, here it comes folks: this is where Prozac (and other SSRIs) come in. Just look at this advertisment to get what I mean:

Prozac: Compliance, Confidence, and Convenience