Saturday, April 21, 2018

Rant of the Month: Appalling Selfishness and The Myth of “Emotional Labor”

The Big Stressful Yearly Event I referenced in last week’s “post” went off beautifully if I do say so myself, and I met my primary goal of not getting sick or shattering a bone prior to it. Maybe because of said BSYE I am especially sensitive to certain things right now, but I find myself increasingly perturbed by what I believe is becoming a pervasive trend: Appalling selfishness in the guise of self-liberty. I’ve noticed for some time articles about and references to something called “emotional labor," a term that is now used in certain circles to describe any act a woman performs for the good of another human being, including her own children. In fact, I found one particularly egregious article on a Website That Shall Not Be Named, listing no less than fifty ways “people expect emotional labor from women.” I was shocked to see things on this list that we used to consider just common human decency, such as being a good host to your out-of-town guests, supporting your colleagues, mentoring the young, brokering conflict peacefully, helping your neighbors in need, and taking responsibility for your social behavior. I find it alarming that basic acts of human decency are now demonized as “emotional labor.”

Before I go on to rant about the general culture of selfishness, I want to address more specifically the way that the term “emotional labor” is used in reference to women, mostly because I’m sick of seeing whiny articles about it by women who are seemingly incapable of sticking up for themselves, lamenting how tired and put-upon they are because of expectations that they perform emotional labor. I consider my traditionally “feminine” qualities, such as a desire for interpersonal harmony, concern for other’s well-being, empathy, and the impulse to help those in need to be strengths. I resent that the acts which stem from these qualities are being demeaned with the condescending label of “emotional labor,” as if I have no agency over how I choose to move through the world. I'm not blindly reacting to "societal expectations"--I'm acting from a place of authentic desire to nurture others. If women are tired, put-upon and unfairly overburdened, first of all, welcome to life on Planet Earth, and secondly, the issue does not lie with our impulse to nurture, it lies with our lack of boundary-setting. We are either free and autonomous humans, or we are not. The last time I checked, women are pretty darn free in American society, and presumably at liberty to set boundaries, ask for support, and decide for ourselves if and when it’s appropriate to put our own needs above others. We are not helpless victims of so-called societal expectations, most of which I’m convinced women make up themselves anyway. Somehow, I just don’t believe there is a cabal of men in a shady back room, puffing on cigars and plotting all the ways in which society shall deem to siphon off the lion’s share of women’s emotional energy. They’re too busy being similarly tired, put-upon and unfairly overburdened.

On the heels of all of this, I came across another article entitled “Goodbye to the Tyranny of Thank You Notes”, all about how haaaaaarrrrd and inconvenient it is to dash off a few sentences of thanks to the person who took time out of their day to thoughtfully pick out a gift for you, wrap it nicely, and deliver it to your self-aggrandizing party. Further fueling my ire was a story I heard about a comedian presenter at an awards banquet who basically ripped the entire event to shreds and made the whole thing all about him and the petty suffering having to present the awards caused him. Presumably, he was paid to do this and agreed to it, but instead of honoring the event and being respectful, he chose to make it a platform to showcase his sarcastic “wit,” with no consideration to how this was going to make the award recipients feel. Nonetheless, this comedian was hailed as some sort of pop culture folk hero, because it’s so funny to crap all over people who work hard and just want one night out of the year to celebrate their successes.

I get it. The id is a powerful thing. It’s hard to not be a hedonistic jerk. Putting our own immediate desires aside and exercising emotional self-control requires discipline and sometimes even a little bit of sacrifice. It’s inconvenient to think about the needs and feelings of others. It requires energy and thoughtfulness and effort, and none of that is fun or self-glorifying. But when I start seeing articles describing the expectation of thank-you notes as “tyrannical,” it sets off my Impending Breakdown of Society alarm bells. It’s extremely disheartening that the long-standing and once sacred tenant of being decent and charitable towards others is now considered a tool of oppression.

So please, everyone—women and men alike--RSVP to invitations in a timely manner, write your thank-you notes, extend a helping hand to your neighbor, and be a gracious host to your guests. I know those things are a drag and a bummer and a dreadful burden, but frankly, we don’t have much more to hang onto right now, and I’m getting a pretty worried about what will happen when they go.

--Kristen McHenry


Jo-Ann said...


The Good Typist said...

Thanks for reading, Jo-Ann! :)