In Gemma Hartley's Fed Up, Emotional Labor Is Everything and Nothing 


In 2014, on the 25th anniversary of her 1984 book The Second Shift, sociologist Arlie Hochschild was asked if we had made progress on the “double burden”—labor done both in the home and in the workplace—experienced by a growing number of women joining the workforce in the 1980s. Hochschild expressed that we had moved into a second “stalled revolution.”

Yes, women had gained entrance to employment outside of the home, and “men [had] changed substantially” in their role within household labor, but that the family as a collective unit had become a “shock absorber of larger trends.” With the influx of women into the workforce, Hochschild noted, “we don’t have paid parental leave… we don’t have subsidized childcare… the government has not stepped up. And we’re finally seeing that these are not individual, private problems, but that they point to a larger cause.”

Four years later, by Hochschild’s definition, the revolution remains stalled. The American family still doesn’t have adequate paid parental leave (many U.S. workers have no paid leave) or affordable childcare, and the total cost of raising children has grown 40 percent from 2000 to 2010. Instead, there is increased privatization and a new form of government austerity. Self-seeking capitalism and the myth of the work/life balance are all that’s offered as shaky family care in America today.

Hartley’s Fed Up is the hair flip equivalent to Hochschild’s considerate critique of labor

Even though Hochschild’s extensive work is ostensibly the foundation for Gemma Hartley’s new book Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, it is surprisingly absent. Instead, Hartley’s Fed Up is the hair flip equivalent to Hochschild’s considerate critique of labor. A follow up to her Harper’s Bazaar article that Hartley notes “went viral in spectacular fashion,” her new book is an “expansion” on Hochschild’s work on emotional labor to “uncover” this (fundamental sociological) concept, and which Hartley inexplicably claims, “unlike the divide of domestic labor, which was easily visible and correctable, emotional labor has been sticky because of its invisibility.”

Hartley’s expansive definition of “emotional labor” includes “emotion management and life management combined.” Neither term is explained or qualified. She quickly folds together the two sides of Hochschild’s original concept—emotion work (unpaid work in private life) and emotional labor (work done in a public paid capacity)—into one simplified term emotional labor, but also envelops “the mental load, mental burden, domestic management, clerical labor, invisible labor” into her all-encompassing definition as well. Her apparent reasoning for creating this melting pot of terms is “to give readers a new lens through which they might see their own relationship dynamics more clearly.” Through this universality, however, Hartley not only participates in an “overextension” of Hochschild’s thesis and concept creep, but more importantly, sets up “emotional labor” as a catchall for what are various and complex gender obligations set out by patriarchy.

But that overextension is typical of Hartley’s approach. Throughout Fed Up she blurs the lines between “female,” “feminine,” and—even blurrier still—“emotional,” creating a bland symbiosis between these words and their meanings. “Flight attendant” is interchangeable with “stewardess,” just as “traditionally feminine” is with “emotional labor-based.”

This blurring of terms to the point of abstraction affords Hartley the confidence to expound about feminism at large. “Women today have made great strides in the past century, the work remains incomplete in a large part because of the demand for our emotional labor,” she writes. “It is why so many women, even today, hesitate to label themselves feminists: they are worried about the connotation more than the actual meaning of the word.” Hartley doesn’t specify what “work” to which she is referring; instead, she relies on vague proclamations of womanhood.

Her feel-good vagueness ranges from the most innocuous instances—for example, that all women feel the burden of an unclean house—to the egregious. She argues that working women must “care deeply about how their demeanor and tone affect those around them [because] if men want to work with you… it doesn’t matter how qualified you are for a certain job: you won’t get it.” It made me want to pitch the book out the window.

Hartley extends this homogenization in her attempts at “including men in the conversation,” while simultaneously reinforcing the two-gendered binary. She garners an extensive list of things that “men don’t,” which includes taking “the initiative to think deeply about the needs of their partners” and having “the natural skills necessary to take over emotional labor.” There are also observations on what “men want,” including “ […] emotional labor from women, certainly, but they prefer to see it as a natural extension of our personalities.”

She cites pop culture references to explain “who men are” and “who they are encouraged to be.” At one point Hartley uses Nicholas Sparks’s storylines as support for setting up a high standard for men “taking on emotional labor,” claiming that Sparks “takes emotional labor to the extreme, and then hands the load over to men. That’s what young heterosexual women call romance.” These generalizations are further complicated throughout the book, and at times in the same sentence, when Hartley expresses a general importance of “freeing men from toxic masculinity” while simultaneously reinforcing masculine stereotypes, therefore painting all men with the same dude-brush. “Men,” Hartley writes, “often have a slower timeline or lower standard when it comes to domestic work.”

Similarly, Hartley also attempts to encompass “intersecting identities” as part of her affected audience, including interviews with “a disabled person” with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, to “trans nonbinary” activist Naseem Jamnia, to Vincent Ambo, “who lives with his same-sex partner in Norway.” Where Hartley’s intersection becomes ugly is through its continued insistence that everyone’s experience of emotional labor is always the same.

Take, for example, Hartley’s consideration of emotional labor through the “lens of race.” She explains how the growing area of care work in the service industry is done by women of color and how black women “have it worse” when it comes to emotional labor, because “they face layers of judgment and castigation across their intersecting identities.” Hartley states these intersections while simultaneously glossing over them. “While there is certainly much to be said about how devaluing of service industry labor reflects systemic racism in our country,” she writes, “it is also very telling of our cultural attitude toward emotional labor.”

Here Hartley does what bell hooks once critiqued Betty Friedan (incidentally the only feminist theorist cited in Fed Up) for doing, “[making] her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women.” This is best exemplified in Hartley’s interview with Reema Zaman, a South Asian writer who has written considerably about how race and gender intersect in her life. Hartley describes Zaman’s struggle with her abusive husband only to synonymize it with her own experiences, writing, “it took me thirteen years to broach the subject [of emotional labor] with my husband. It simply wasn’t worth it until I reached my breaking point. For me, it was a seemingly innocuous blue Rubbermaid storage bin in the closet. For Zaman, it was the day she realized that she could never bring a child into their abusive relationship.”

By continuously claiming that “we’re all the same” under emotional labor, Hartley not only obfuscates the importance of various kinds of labor but the experiences of the people who perform that labor

In Fed Up, emotional labor is therefore not only wide in a terminological sense, but in its affected audience, too. By continuously claiming that “we’re all the same” under emotional labor, Hartley not only obfuscates the importance of various kinds of labor, but also the experiences of the people who perform that labor. “The higher we climb, the more likely we are to off-load our personal emotional labor onto women who are paid very little for that work,” writes Hartley, who then fails to specify who the “we” is here, although we can safely assume that it is not marginalized workers, often women of color from the Globalized South. By failing to ask these questions, Hartley participates in what feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins calls “symbolic inclusion,” which is the shallow inclusion (or tokenism) of intersecting experiences “as a substitute for bona fide change.” Hartley continues in the tradition of white feminism by failing to ask the same question of emotional labor: Once “we” are freed from doing emotional labor for men, who exactly will pick up the shift?

What is obvious throughout Fed Up is Hartley’s desire for her definition of emotional labor to become part of the feminist canon.

This is evident in Hartley’s attempts to solidify emotional labor as a part of generic fourth wave feminism by linking it to recent topics, be it Hillary Clinton (“she is still the one in charge of emotional labor on the home front as well”), or the MeToo movement. Hartley cites how “stories of rape and abuse… childhood horrors and male friends who had betrayed their trust” all of these stories “had a common theme: emotional labor.” This tenuous connection flattens assault, making it akin to a husband leaving his dirty socks on the floor.

Not to mention that Hartley’s book lacks in-depth research, including feminist and sociological theory to solidify it as part of an ongoing critique. To be fair, Hartley’s hasty research could be the result of the six-month turnaround time. And sure, not every book about the gendered-labor experience has to include detailed references to global social movements or Silvia Federici’s Wages For Housework, but it certainly would have helped Hartley define the very ideology she believes herself to be expanding on.

Despite Hartley’s self-admitted struggle with “being put in the position of expert” and “grappling” with the subject of emotional labor, she sets herself up as a kind of prophet of emotional labor—one with a new feminist way forward. A self-confessed “anti-feminist throughout high school,” she admits that she once “strongly associated feminism with the image of angry women who hated men and family and high heels and pie baking (and I made a mean apple pie),” and that she “actively denounced feminism.” She recounts that it was through her unnamed awakening that she came to see feminism as “the simple universal concept” of equality. She’s certainly come a long way to becoming a “feminist journalist” as her website describes her, or to having her book included on HelloGiggles’s list of “11 feminist books to gift your bestie who’s busy smashing the patriarchy.”

Hartley’s prophetic expertise is further exemplified through the personal revelations found throughout her “journey.” She writes extensively about her “need to fix [her marriage] before this book came out or I would be a total fraud” and spending “many days feeling like a fraud, wondering if I would get to the end of my book and have to make some half-hearted attempt to pretend that what I was writing had any worth whatsoever.” This self-reflective honesty is shallow, however, when only a few paragraphs later she praises her husband’s progress and her marriage’s strengthened bond as “mov[ing] past these stagnant roles.” Or when, in sweeping fashion, she writes that her book will prevent “our sons and daughters [from knowing] the struggle with emotional labor that we have known. They will know better and do better.” Through this sobbing selfie version of performative anxiety, Hartley sets herself as triumphant over emotional labor while simultaneously curating her role as a new feminist role model.

If Hartley establishes herself anywhere in the feminist arena, it’s as part of the neoliberal sect. She participates in the sophistry popularized by the “empowered female boss” genre pervasive in the business books section on Amazon. In Fed Up, much like the other books in this genre, we are presented with Hartley’s #girlboss form of feminism as the tool to our success. In this respect, Hartley sets herself up as an expert of emotional labor in the “how-to-succeed” literary genre which Catherine Rottenberg described in a critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as a “palimpsest for her brand of feminism.” In this genre, substantive critiques are replaced by hollow inspo-rhetoric solutions (as two of Fed Up’s chapter titles exemplify: “Creating a Culture of Awareness” and “Owning our Worth”) and where indeterminate bogeymen run rampant (not unlike “the dialogue” in Ivanka Trump’s Women Who Work). And it’s “society” or “culture,” more than men per se, where Hartley locates the blame for women’s collective emotional labor woes.

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

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. Despite Hartley’s argument that “society” is the reason for our collective struggle, she actively turns away from her responsibility to hold to task the specific socio-political forces that hold women down.

If, according to Hartley, “society” is the archer, then “perfectionism” is surely its arrow. She writes extensively about the “external pressure to be the best mother, the best spouse, the best career woman we can be, even when we know its hurting us, breaking us, wearing us down to the bone.” Fed Up presents us with a serious condition: the gendered perfectionism which “society” demands of women. But is that true?

As Miya Tokumitsu writes, “neoliberalism has not only given us crippling anxiety, but also its apparent remedy.” So too does Hartley hype a problem of perfectionism that she blames on the ghost of “external pressure,” as well as its distinctly individualized solution in the form of awareness and balance of which Hartley, a self-proclaimed “mindfulness writer,” is an expert. All socio-political realities of oppression related to labor will be resolved if we can just find the right blend of green tea and a reliable yogi. “Most of us aren’t interested in diving off the deep end and shedding all of our emotional labor,” writes Hartley, “but that doesn’t mean that we can’t reevaluate our priorities and find a better balance […] You have to get clear on what really matters to you, to take those emotional labor problem-solving skills and apply them to yourself.” Here, Hartley whittles emotional labor down to a wellness issue, offering feminism as a form of self-help.

Hartley’s book is no different from Rachel Hollis’s Girl Wash Your Face, where the lie continues that “you and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are,” or where essential oils, SoulCycle, or MLMs promise an individualized method of health, success, and happiness. What Fed Up offers is the same nostrum ad nauseam predicated on an individualistic bootstrapping and that subsequently frees government and capitalist structures from the family support that Hochschild and others have insisted upon.

But perhaps what’s most ironic about Fed Up is, that by imploring women to “become aware,” “own our worth” and “find a balance” to free ourselves from emotional labor, Hartley is asking women to do more work. Then there is her assertion that “we need to encourage men to share in emotional labor not only to get relief, but to give them a chance, too.” But for Hartley, this is the kind of emotional labor worth doing.

Kim Bosch is a writer and professor based in Ottawa, Ontario. You can follow her on Twitter @KimmmBosch.

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