My friends talk about emotional labour a lot. They are quick to name and taxonomize it, in their friendships and queer romances and collective house meetings. And I often find those conversations jarring.
In 2011 I was working on a labour studies degree, with a focus on women’s labour. I encountered the phrase ‘emotional labour’ a lot in that context. It was used to highlight how service jobs and pink-collar labour pools often demand a sort of double duty: completing the job requirements, while simultaneously coddling & mothering & enticing everyone you encounter while on shift. The concept of emotional labour was powerful because it provided a theoretical basis for organizing across a number of underpaid, unstable, feminized, hard-to-unionize industries. Personal assistants, secretaries, servers, baristas, strippers, and other sex workers all performed emotional labour, and analyzing their work in these terms revealed how their struggles were interconnected. Emotional labour wasn’t just an apt observation about how capitalism and patriarchy intersect — it generated praxis about how to organize.
It seems like the discourse about emotional labour has been shifting steadily. It was extended to discuss women’s unpaid domestic labour, from mothering to housework. That extension was super important! It built on decades of materialist feminist insight about how domestic work is real work. Good stuff. It was also extended to discuss the ways that women in heterosexual marriages are often expected to act as caretakers and emotional heatsinks for their husbands, effectively acting as round-the-clock personal assistants even in their most intimate of relationships. That extension makes a lot of sense too! It was also extended to discuss all social relationships, and how participants put in disparate amounts of work to maintaining them (and those amounts tend to be predictably tied to gender). It also makes sense, sure, yes.
There’s not any specific extension of ‘emotional labour’ that I would point to as being faulty or disingenuous, really. They all logically proceed from one another. But we’ve arrived at a place, or at least my friends and peers have, where basically any form of acting kind or social is ready to be categorized as emotional labour (and therefore politically weaponized). Talking to your roommate about how they haven’t been doing the dishes is no longer “a drag,” it’s unreciprocated emotional labour. When you have to wait extra long at the library for your girlfriend to meet up with you, because she’s always late to everything, it’s no longer “kind of annoying.” It’s emotional labour. There’s even an omnibus document circulating around the internet about all the things that count.
I’m not trying to say anyone should be barred from using the phrase to discuss the relational demands of their own life. Emotional labour exists in many forms. But when I hear that phrase being used in ways that are decoupled from a critical analysis of capitalism and patriarchy, I feel confounded. I find myself wondering: what does this have to do with unionizing strip clubs? What does this have to do with providing stable, harassment-free work to waitresses? Is this the discourse that will lead to controlling, abusive husbands seeking out counselling? What does this person see as being the core of emotional labour?
If we’re going to be politicizing basic kindness between friends and community members, I worry about doing so with the language of labour. Because labour demands compensation, and I think “my kindness to you demands compensation” has insidious implications. I also worry about voiding ‘emotional labour’ of its anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal specificity. It seems more depoliticized and individualistic as a result. I’m not trying to tell anyone that they can’t use the phrase to discuss the relational demands of their own life… I just hope that when my friends use the term, they think about the materialist implications (including calls to action) of how they use it.