Economy of emotions

Unwritten rules that define what we’re allowed to feel

On the outside, Western society has made progress when it comes to embracing the emotional. But a closer look will tell you that not everyone is encouraged to feel everything. It pretty much depends whether you’re a boy or a girl. The general rule of this economy of emotions seems to be: what is good for one, isn’t good for the other.

So girls are allowed to cry, but boys aren’t. At least not publicly. If they do, they are called the worst name possible: a girl. Boys are encouraged to express other emotions like anger. Kicking a ball, punching garbage bins, bags, sometimes other boys, that’s what boys are supposed to do. It’s socially acceptable for boys and men to express anger. It’s even seen as an inseparable part of their identity, so naturally it must be denied to women.

When women express anger, they’re called everything from crazy, neurotic and aggressive to manly. However, women don’t get punished just for expressing anger, but also for expressing other emotions. Why are you being so emotional? It sounds almost like an accusation: How do you dare expose me to your human side? How do you dare show me how you feel?

There’s a fair amount of doublespeak behind this economy of emotions though. The economy of emotions affects both men and women, but it affects them to a different extent.

Our society socialises women for empathy and inequality and men for strength and leadership. In the end, women are worth less because they are emotional. On the other hand, they are being exploited for it: women still do the unpaid work, because we have been socialised to care and nurture.

It’s women who are expected to smile and create a pleasant working atmosphere. Sometimes smiling is even a required part of their job, without any financial compensation. They are expected to perform free emotional labour on demand, to be kind, to comfort, to support, to care and love.

The biggest irony of this economy of emotions isn’t about how we express our emotions publicly but in our intimate lives.

We are socialised to express our emotions through different modes. Because boys are taught that showing care and love is a sign of weakness, they learn to express their affection through money, while girls are socialised to express their emotions through unpaid labour. So they cook, clean, iron and perform dull and endless housework, which in the eyes of most men only means performing their ‘duty’.

We never agreed to this unwritten set of rules, and it harms us all in different ways. The only path towards real equality seems to be the long and tedious task of fighting gender norms and rewriting the economy of emotions. The small things we change along the way might seem to demand too much effort for too small a reward. But really, what is the alternative if we change nothing?