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“You Would Look So Much Prettier If You Smiled”

While emotions feel deeply personal, they are often governed by social rules. That is, we are often told to hide our true emotions and use our face, tone of voice, and words to perform emotions we aren’t actually feeling. In this piece Nathan Palmer connects these emotional performances to how we socially construct gender.

The people who watch and care for my 6 year old daughter only pretend to love her. That may be too harsh. I’m sure that some of her teachers and the adults at her after school program do genuinely have love for her (I mean, how could they not, she’s the sweetest little girl in the world). But it stands to reason that some of the adults who educate and care for my child don’t have a particular affinity for my little girl (and that’s okay, FYI).

However, all the adults in her world act as if they love her. That is, they perform the emotions of love, nurturing, and caring even if that is not how they feel inside. Much like a stripper, a restaurant server, or a nurse, childcare workers act like they care about you because you pay them to.

The Social Rules Governing Emotion

While emotions are often experienced as visceral (i.e., deeply personal and originating from inside the body), emotions are actually governed by social rules. For instance, if you feel like laughing at a funeral, you best hide those emotions behind a reverent somber exterior. A funeral is just one of the many social situations that have clearly prescribed emotional expectations. You are supposed to be happy at a surprise birthday party. You are expected to be concerned and/or crying while in the emergency room waiting area.

As we talked about above, sometimes the presentation of emotion is a part of our job. The sociologist Arlie Hochschild (1979) coined the term Emotional Labor to describe how manufacturing displays of emotion are a part of many careers. For instance, sometimes before I teach class I am feeling exhausted, stressed, and anxious, but no matter what, as soon as class starts I perform as a teacher who is calm, excited to talk about the class material, and emotionally available for my students.

Your gender can also play a big role in the emotional labor people expect you to perform. Stereotypical masculinity is defined as being rugged, independent, strong, aggressive, and dominating while stereotypical femininity is defined as being passive, submissive, being a supporter, and being dependent upon others. With these stereotypes both men and women are told what emotions they are expected to display.

For instance, if a male confidently tells everyone around him what to do, we often call this strong independent leadership. But when women exhibit the same emotions we often call them bossy and/or another b-word I won’t say here. Furthermore, we stereotype women as being emotionally unstable or as creatures who are controlled by their emotions. We also stereotype men as being emotionless (“don’t cry, be a man”) with one exception; men seem to have a near monopoly on socially acceptable public displays of anger. These social rules of emotions can get even more complicated when the gendered expectations collide with professional emotional expectations.

The Politics of Emotion and the Emotion of Politics

Female politicians are often caught in an emotional labor double bind. That is, the social expectations we have for women and the social expectations we have for politicians are often contradictory. If female politicians show their emotions they are often said to be, “too sensitive” or “too emotional” for public office. However, if they don’t show emotion they are said to be “cold hearted” and/or that b word again. There is also a profound double standard in how we treat male politicians displays of emotion.

Recently this has been in the news after Jon Stewart of The Daily Show lampooned how the national media treats female expressions of emotion. Let’s watch this clip and then you can discuss it below in the dig deeper questions.

NOTE: there are swear words used in this video and it may not be appropriate for all audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.

Dig Deeper:

  1. After watching the clip above, how are male expressions of emotion talked about differently than female expressions of emotion?
  2. In the first clip, Stewart discusses how the political system/media treated Hillary Clinton, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and Bridget Anne Kelly (an aide to New Jersey Governor Chris Christy). How do each of these cases reinforce the stereotypical definitions of femininity. That is, how are these women being framed as “typical women”?
  3. At the end of the first clip from The Daily Show, Stewart sarcastically reiterated the unsolicited advice often giving to many women: “You could look much prettier if you smiled”. How is suggesting that a woman smile an example of instructing a woman on the emotional labor they are expected to perform?
  4. Think about emotional labor personally. How are you expected to perform emotions in your daily life?

References:

Hochschild, Arlie. 1979. The Managed Heart: the Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.