Michelle Marie Ryder, USA, SSH Blog Correspondent
A sex-obsessed Harry Block in the film Deconstructing Harry asks the prostitute he’s just slept with if she likes her job. Still under the sheets, she replies “It’s okay, it beats the hell out of waitressing.”
“That’s funny,” Harry laughs, “every hooker I ever speak to tells me that it beats the hell out of waitressing. Waitressing’s gotta be the worst fucking job in the world!”
Perhaps not THE worst job, waitressing is without a doubt ONE of the worst jobs. I’ve toiled away, overworked and underpaid, in a number of unenviable trades, including as a janitor hauling trash and scrubbing toilets, but what made waitressing so unbearable was that thing that often separates men’s work from women’s work: emotional labor.
In her book, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, noted sociologist Arlie Hochschild defined emotional labor in the workplace as “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display… sold for a wage.”
Emotional labor is a kind of mandatory fakeness, a display of affected emotion, usually warmth and enthusiasm, in order to manage the expectations of the customer. It commonly entails displays of deference from those who “occupy disadvantaged structural positions within society,” and as a result, is strongly associated with occupations dismissed as women’s work, such as waitressing, nursing, teaching, childcare, social work and sex work. Not surprisingly, emotional labor contributes to occupational segregation and the gender pay gap.
In highly sexualized industries like the restaurant business, emotional labor makes substantial psychological demands on the individual. Attesting to this, after just a few months on the job I had to make a promise to myself daily not to burn the place down.
The power differential between customer and server meant male customers felt entitled to my company, my time and even my body. My hospitality was often mistaken for flirtation, and in a culture of sexism and male entitlement, this “mandatory fakeness” served as justification for sexual objectification and harassment.
The last straw for me was when a male patron asked if he could take professional photographs of me. He was puzzled when I declined his offer, confident I desired nothing more than to be the privileged object of his gaze. He was double my age and it was hard to miss his “Lolita Complex.” I could see Nabokovian fantasies flowering between his eyes every time I looked at him.
The thought of being fetish fuel for this man’s erotic preoccupations – and to have it all captured on film – pushed me to my breaking point. That night I walked out with no intention of returning.
I felt liberated. The air never tasted so sweet and I managed a few lungfuls of it before a stranger at the bus stop demanding my attention and asking me questions like what I did for a living (oh the irony!) tried to grope me. That’s when I realized a woman’s work is never done, only now there was no paycheck or Title VII protections.
Freshly unemployed, I couldn’t escape the burden of emotional labor. It was still my job to make creeps feel at home. Either I defer to the male ego on the street or I reject its advances and disrupt a sense of entitlement so draconian I risk my own safety. The threat of violence is always there, ominous, circling, ready to unleash its attacking power because gender-based street harassment is nothing less than an expression of power in a society heavily invested in minimizing and normalizing violence against women.
The type of emotional labor women are expected to perform in public is exhausting and requires split-second decision making that is shaped by our socialization to be open, kind, friendly and forgiving.
This means that despite years of calling out harassers, I still struggle to break the logic of this system. Often, before my sympathetic nervous system can determine “fight or flight,” an even deeper level of social programming kicks into gear and pulls the “polite” lever instinctively. It’s an opening harassers exploit to escalate the situation because anything other than unapologetic hostility is interpreted as an invitation. This is what happened at the bus stop.
Women are raised from birth to please others. It’s why over half of the female workforce ends up in jobs that require them to display friendliness and defer to the emotional demands of others. It’s why a woman walking down the street (or waiting tables) is viewed as sexually available and existing solely to satisfy men.
It’s why we are told to smile wherever we go.
Emotional labor is a double standard that makes public space a playground for men and a battleground for women. And it is work I am increasingly refusing to do. Consider slam poet Venessa Marco’s masterful poem “Patriarchy” my long overdue resignation speech.
Because I quit.
Michelle is a freelance writer and community activist. She has written for Infita7.com, Bluestockings Magazine, and The New Verse News on a range of social justice issues, and shares her poetry regularly at poetrywho.blogspot.com.Share on Facebook