Month 2: Femme Labor

I recently laid in my apartment catching up on the quarterly print magazine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture from Bitch Media when I came across a citation for the origin of the term “emotional labor.” It struck me. As someone who thinks and talks about emotional labor frequently I’d never thought about where the concept came from. Unfortunately, I don’t remember exactly which article by whom the citation was in (I believe it was from the most recent Fall 2018 issue, “Ghosts”) because once I finish them I usually pass them along. However I scribbled myself a note in my journal and brought it to the library.

The citation was The Managed Heart by sociologist and academic Arlie Russell Hochschild (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983). Fast forward a few weeks and an interlibrary loan later, and I was back to laying in my apartment, this time reading The Managed Heart to see what I could learn about emotional labor from an academic and historical perspective.

Russell Hochschild’s work focused on flight attendants in the 1970s and early 1980s because they were predominantly women and their work so heavily and explicitly involved catering to the needs of customers without showing anger (even when customers lashed out towards them) or fear and anxiety (even when in danger in the air) for prolonged periods of time in a confined space. Unlike more current associations of emotional labor including within relationships, communities, and in the absence of wages, her original study focused on the context of paid labor. In her definition, she wrote, “I use the term emotional labor to mean the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display; emotional labor is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value. I use the synonymous terms emotion work or emotion management to refer to these same acts done in a private context where they have use value.” (page 7) Russell Hochschild was concerned with how influences on emotional labor from institutions (in this case, airline corporations) impacted women’s (flight attendants) relationship with their own feelings and identity.

I’m concerned about this too, particularly as it relates to femmes in present day. Throughout the month, I will shift my focus to the impacts of emotional labor on femmes and to art and writing that expands our awareness of it. Because while so much of Russell Hochschild’s writing from 1983 still rings true, it ultimately comes from a largely cishet normative lens. However to kick off this month’s theme, Femme Labor, I’m rolling up my sleeves and looking more closely at the term “emotional labor’s” origins in The Managed Heart.


Russell Hochschild described emotions as “a biologically given sense, and our most important one. Like other senses- hearing, touch, and smell- it is a means by which we know about our relation to the world, and it is therefore crucial for the survival of human beings in group life.” (page 219) In other words, “..when we lose access to feeling, we lose a central means of interpreting the world around us.” (page 188)

She proposed a social theory of emotion that built off of previous physiologically-based and socially, cognitively, and physiologically-based ones of the time. “We need a theory that allows us to see how institutions- such as corporations- control us not simply through their surveillance of our behavior but through surveillance of our feelings.” (page 218) Her interest in developing this theory of emotion stemmed from the question, “How do institutions control how we ‘personally’ control feeling?” (page 219)

Jobs that call for emotional labor were characterized by three common factors:

  1. They require face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact with the public.

  2. They require the worker to produce an emotional state in another person- gratitude or fear, for example.

  3. They allow the employer, through training and supervision, to exercise a degree of control over the emotional activities of the employees. (page 147)

Although professions like doctors, lawyers, and others do emotional labor but don’t fulfill the third criteria, “they supervise their own emotional labor by considering informal professional norms and client expectations.” (page 153)

Consequently, “a person who does emotional labor for a living must face three hard questions that do not confront others, the answers to which will determine how she defines her ‘self.’”

  1. How can I feel really identified with my work role and with the company without being fused with them?

  2. How… can I use my capacities when I’m disconnected from those I am acting for?

  3. If I’m doing deep acting for an audience from whom I’m disconnected, how can I maintain my self-esteem without becoming cynical? (pages 132-134)

Thus, when an employee is expected to create a highly manufactured experience that represents the employer’s interests, a scenario which demands emotional labor, how does one distinguish their own feelings and their own sense of self without either adopting those of the employer or facing resentment?

Connected to looking at the influence of the corporate airline on women flight attendants identity and distinguishing of their own feelings from that of the corporation imposed on them, Russell Hochschild also looked at their experiences with customers (who were predominantly male in the 1970s when flying was financially inaccessible to most and done largely for business) and the impacts of these dynamics. To say it outright, “Where the customer is king, unequal exchanges are normal, and from the beginning customer and client assume different rights to feeling and display. The ledger is supposedly evened by a wage.” (page 86)

Here we discover a corollary of the ‘doctrine of feelings’: the lower our status, the more our manner of seeing and feeling is subject to being discredited, and the less believable it becomes. An ‘irrational’ feeling is the twin of an invalidated perception. A person of lower status has a weaker claim to the right to define what is going on; less trust is placed on her judgments; and less respect is accorded to what she feels. Relatively speaking, it more often becomes the burden of women, as with lower-status persons, to uphold a minority viewpoint, a discredited opinion. (page 173)

Russell Hochshild laid out the gendered misunderstanding of emotion, “the idea that when possessed by emotion we are led to act irrationally and see distortedly” that perpetuates the catch-22 so many of us are all too aware of. (page 202) “For the harder women try to oppose the ‘doctrine of feeling’ by expressing their feelings more, the more they come to fit the image awaiting them as ‘emotional.’... The only way to counter the doctrine of feelings is to eliminate the more fundamental tie between gender and status.” (page 174)

When a flight attendant feels angry at a passenger, what does her anger signal?... that she is oversensitive, too touchy. It does not signal a perception about how emotional display maintains unequal power between women and men, and between employees and employers. It indicates something wrong with the worker, not something wrong with the assumptions of the customer or the company. In this way the company’s purposes insinuate themselves into the way workers are asked to interpret their own feelings. (page 197)

As a result of emotional labor, “we come to accept as normal the tension we feel between our ‘real’ and our ‘on-stage’ selves.” (page 184) Further, women are more susceptible to being used within the social uses of feelings “not because her self is weaker but because her ‘true self’ is bonded more securely to the group and it’s welfare.” (page 196) Here Russel Hochshild references childcare and domestic labor as work commonly performed by women that builds their bonds to the well-being of others. As a potential result, “either she will overextend herself into the job and burn out, or she will remove herself from the job and feel bad about it.” (page 189) Because gender roles are so entrenched, women are often left experiencing guilt that their burnout is a personal failure. The notion of individual responsibility falls on women instead of the very expectations of emotional labor created by patriarchal institutions being fully addressed.

Russell Hochshild ends her book by summarizing her point

Those who perform emotional labor in the course of giving service are like those who perform physical labor in the course of making things: both are subject to the rules of mass production. But when the product- the thing to be engineered, mass-produced, and subjected to speed-up and slowdown- is a smile, a mood, a feeling, or a relationship, it comes to belong more to the organization and less to the self. And so in the country that most publicly celebrates the individual, more people privately wonder, without tracing the question to its deepest social root: What do I really feel? (page 198)


Therapy can be an opportunity to shift from feelings of guilt, burn out, personal responsibility, and either loss of sense of self or cynicism. In therapy you can explore how you really feel and shift towards action in a way that best serves you. “Indeed, we are most likely to sense a feeling rule as a feeling rule, and deep acting as deep acting, not when we are strongly attached to a culture or a role but when we are moving from one culture or one role to another. It is when we are between jobs, between marriages, or between cultures that we are prone to feel at odds with past feeling rules.” (page 75)

I’ll end my own blog post with this example of resistance when a young businessman said to a flight attendant, “Why aren’t you smiling?”

She put her tray back on the food cart, looked him in the eye, and said, ‘I’ll tell you what. You smile first, then I’ll smile.’ The businessman smiled at her. ‘Good,’ she replied. ‘Now freeze, and hold that for fifteen hours.’ Then she walked away. In one stroke, the heroine not only asserted a personal right to her facial expressions but also reversed the roles in the company script by placing the mask on a member of the audience. She challenged the company’s right to imply, in its advertising, that passengers have a right to her smile. This passenger, of course, got more: an expression of her genuine feeling. (pages 127-128)


Stay tuned @mopheadfemme_therapy for more on Femme Labor throughout the month of November

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Image reads: “Embrace your shyness! Cry in public! Have big big feelings! Be a mess!”