What is ‘emotional labor’ and why can’t you invoice for it?

Artist and activist Liv Wynter explains why we need to redefine the term emotional labour.

Artist and activist Liv Wynter is exasperated. In a world where movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have the potential to spark radical change, Wynter can’t help but feel it might be in vein. “I’m frustrated at the commodification of radicalism,” she explains, condemning “the capitalist swallowing of ideas such as emotional labor and self-care and feminism and gender. I am exhausted from having people try to sell me things they have stolen from me.”

As a notable voice in the London political arts scene, Wynter has been on the frontline of direct action against issues such as domestic violence, gender inequality, and sexual abuse. As a member of Sisters Uncut, Wytner stormed the 2018 BAFTA red carpet in solidarity with #TimesUp to raise awareness about domestic violence. That same year she made headlines after quitting her position as the Tate Modern’s artist-in-residence. Wynter publicly announced her resignation on the eve of International Women’s Day, citing “invisible inequalities” within the institution, after Tate director Maria Balshaw appeared to dismiss allegations of sexual misconduct against one of Tate’s biggest donors, Anthony d’Offay.

Wynter’s latest performance, And So the Choir Gathers, Before It Is Too Late, addresses all of her frustrations. Ahead of its debut at the Free Word Centre in London on April 4, she explains why her new work is partly fueled by misconceptions about emotional labour.

Caroline Christie—What is And So the Choir Gathers, Before It Is Too Late about?

Liv Wynter—I am trying to add to a widespread conversation about what feminism may or may not look like. [The performance] uses music from The Specials, a band who were heavily politically engaged at their prime, but whose lyrics seem super important and present to me at the moment. It’s about exhaustion and fatigue and anger and rage and survival. I hope you like it.

Caroline—What is emotional labour?

Liv—Emotional labour means lots of things to lots of different people at this moment in time. The term was originally coined by [American sociologist] Arlie Hochschild to specifically describe the act of performing emotion in a job—she gives the example of an air hostess having to appear happy and untroubled whilst giving troubling news. My research is more focused on two roles—the role of the barmaid, and the role of a working-class café owner. Both are female dominated roles, with the expectation of emotional labour as Arlie defines it.

Now, emotional labour has somehow leaked its way out of the specifics of the workplace and become a way to analyze everyday relationships and behaviors. In my workshop at Free Word, people were given different examples of situations and asked to discuss if they were emotional labour or not. Examples would be cooking for a partner who has been working late, listening to a friend complain at length about their partner, looking after a sick loved one, and being expected to explain a micro-aggression in the workplace. Most of them opened up conversation and it was clear that everyone had a different contextual understanding of emotional labour. I guess that’s where my interest stems from.

Caroline—How can women stop carrying the mental load?

Liv—In the original [workplace] sense of the term ‘emotional labor’, it means finding ways to not allow that performative pleasantry and hospitality work its way into your everyday life. Have a clear way to separate the fake smiley face at work and the fake smiley face in the home. This seems incredibly important at a time where so many of us have many jobs and are working disgustingly inhumane hours.

[In terms of] how the term is used now it’s about personal boundaries and how you set and maintain them. I am actually very rubbish at this. I give very excellent advice and then allow myself to get emotionally rinsed and drained. I have very bad anxiety around confrontation and not pleasing people. So, maybe, someone else will have the answers for this.

Caroline—How can we challenge the idea that the “mental load doesn’t exist” or that “there’s nothing we can do about it”?

Liv—It might be more helpful if we stepped back from what we call emotional labor, and consider how lightly we use that term. Just because something is irritating doesn’t mean its emotional labor. Just because something is gendered, I don’t necessarily think that makes it emotional labor. And also, under capitalism, people are turning acts of care into transactional ideas, which feels deeply unradical to me. There a lot of acts that are incredibly one sided, gendered, and unfair. And we must address those. But there’s also a lack of love and tenderness, and that needs to return too.

Wynter will be performing “And So the Choir Gathers, Before It Is Too Late” at Free Word in London on April 4, 2019.