Happiness is a feminist issue

// 18 April 2013

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This is a guest post by Caroline Pearce. Caroline is a PhD student at the Open University exploring the management of emotions and narratives of recovery in grief. You can follow Caroline at @politicsofhap.

 It was after reading an interview with Kate Zambreno in Hazlitt talking about her novel Green Girl that I started to reflect on how the shopgirl is the perfect modern avatar for frustrated feminist ideals of happiness.

It is no small coincidence that it was an interview for a sales assistant job in which I was asked “What makes you happy?”. It is the shopgirl’s job to feel happy and be positive in order to create happiness for others. Yet being successful in the retail environment entails performing happiness in a particular way. The shopgirl is a blank slate, void of a history, personal life, thoughts and feelings. The ideals of the establishment in which you work are projected onto you, as are the ideals of the customers that are investing in what you are selling.

As someone who has almost 10 years’ experience of retail work, fully qualified in latte-making, book shelving and professional clothes-folding, and who now studies and researches emotions, it struck me how the emotional work involved in retail is rarely highlighted. Furthermore, retail is often a particularly feminised occupation. Being a shopgirl is an experience that features in the lives of many women, an experience only increasing in prevalence as women, young and old, faced with raising rates of unemployment and fierce job competition are forced to take retail work not merely as a stopgap but as an essential safety net.

Adopting the identity of the shopgirl I felt always sat uneasily with my feminist identity. To declare oneself as a feminist is a statement that acts to disrupt the status quo, a status quo that is considered by others as producing happiness. Feminists are by nature troublemakers, not conformists. We use our unhappiness to bring about justice.

To create a convincing shopgirl identity, then, involved detaching my feminist self and replacing it with a smiley face. I was nudged into these norms of being, sometimes explicitly: “You need to smile more”. At other times I picked up cues from my environment that told me acting a certain way would produce bigger sales, which in turn would lead to financial rewards and positive encouragement from my peers. Actively managing one’s emotions and surveilling one’s self for bad feelings became a daily practice necessary to work productively and efficiently. What results is not a self devoid of emotion but a self full of emotions deemed appropriate, in this case “happy” emotions. However, these emotions were often quite distinct from how I actually felt on a day-to-day basis.

The emotional management that the shopgirl must undergo is, I would suggest, part of a broader gendered pattern in mental health. Empirical studies that have sought to explore the link between women and higher rates of depression often cite a process of “self-silencing” as a cause. Depression arises when women “silence” themselves and neglect their own needs and desires. Alternatively, for a woman to speak out about her desires, to resist conventional norms, has historically been identified as a form of hysteria. The hysterical depressive or suicidal female artist is constantly reproduced to remind us of what happens when we fail to transcend our female bodies and become overwhelmed by irrational emotions.

Happiness is increasingly a project of self-management, and not only for the shopgirl. The government’s interest in measuring our well-being and the growth of organisations such as Action for Happiness have reinforced the belief that happiness is an attainable object that we all deserve to pursue in the name of autonomy and self-empowerment. But whose happiness are we working towards? And is happiness even something we should desire? Happiness is often attached to particular objects, like getting married, having children, a steady job and a mortgage. An unmarried, childless, irregularly employed woman may not sit so comfortably in this vision of happiness. The legacy of the female hysteric and the persistence of depression diagnoses in women suggests that happiness is not always an easy object for women to attain. Just as the shopgirl is trained into conducting herself appropriately, to silence our unhappiness is to become complicit in validating a way of life that might be contrary to our ideals as feminists.

So what would a happy feminist future look like? I suggest it should involve the exploration of a form of happiness that did not work towards certain objects, that did not silence itself, that did not seek to avoid or overcome unhappy feelings. It might mean being a troublemaker, ruffling feathers and brushing people the wrong way. It might mean seeing depression not necessarily as pathological but in some cases as a form of resistance to conventional norms. It might mean encouraging the shopgirl to stop silencing her bad feelings and salvage her unhappiness as a political statement. It means claiming happiness as a feminist issue.

The photo shows a smiling cashier handing a credit card back to the outstretched hand of a customer who is out of shot. Shared by WhiteHaus Marketing, under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Lisa // Posted 18 April 2013 at 9:39 am

Mary Daly* claims not happiness, but passion, as a feminist issue. In Pure Lust, she describes a passion as a fully-felt emotion with a clear object which urges you toward expression. Examples might be joy and rage. She contrasts it to plastic passions, which are free-floating feelings which don’t seem to “connect”, and potted passions, which seem to have objects but are in fact tightly bound into (tacitly) approved mini-psychodramas, the resolution of which is designed to leave the world unchanged. Daly argues that patriarchy (I’d say white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy) pushes plastic and potted passions at the expense of real roaring passion.

In your example, I’d say that joy is the passion. Joy connects us to the world and inspires us to do things, and gives us energy to do them. We know what makes us feel joyful and we move toward it. The plastic passion would be the disconnected, impersonal “happiness” that we’re all supposed to demonstrate and which we can even come to believe is an emotion we’re feeling. And the potted passions would be the societally mandated/approved happiness dramas, such as Valentine’s Day when he (naturally assuming there’s a “he” in the picture) remembers to buy a rose.

And all these things, of course, serve to cover up our (righteous) rage…!

Lrselfe // Posted 18 April 2013 at 10:16 am

What a brilliant, timely article. I would go even further with the case of depression; depression , I would argue, can indicate a healthy, appropriate reaction to an oppressive and exploitative system. In other words, it’s less “normal” to not be depressed by the way things are…

Feminist Avatar // Posted 18 April 2013 at 12:10 pm

The historian William Reddy (The Navigation of Feeling) argues for the concept of emotional liberty, which for him is emotion free from repressive regimes and cultural restrictions (that shape emotional norms). It is a model that operates as if emotion is something innate within us, waiting to be ‘set free’ through the correct social conditions. He ultimately believes there is something within us that desires ‘freedom’ (whatever that means).

I disagree with this position because I think all emotion is ultimately taught (there is no innate or natural emotion) and so we learn the restrictions and regulations upon emotion at the same time as we learn emotion itself. I think therefore the challenge for feminists is to work towards creating conditions and emotions that result in the greatest equality for all social groups. So, that happiness becomes something we construct, not just something we ‘work towards’ through removing the conditions of ‘unhappiness’.

I’ll be looking forward to reading the results of this research. One of the big criticisms of Erving Goffman’s work on the phenomenon of the ‘smiling service professional’ is the lack of gendered analysis, although the growing field on ’emotional labour’ has opened this up, with gender being a primary way of exploring this issue.

taryn // Posted 18 April 2013 at 1:45 pm

As a feminist and a retail worker myself, I’m happy to see this topic being explored. I just wish there was a solution… whether in the article or not. Of course there isn’t much of a solution, since any unhappy worker not faking enthusiasm would soon be fired. Sad!

The Goldfish // Posted 18 April 2013 at 4:48 pm

This is a really important and interesting subject, but depression is an illness. It’s causes, symptoms and diagnostic criteria all exist within a cultural context – and a very gendered one at that – and it’s really important and useful to discuss this particular tangle. But depression isn’t and shouldn’t be understood as the opposite of happiness. Depression is necessarily unhappiness which delves below and beyond a healthy response to the current environment and manifests in physical and psychological symptoms which can stop a person functioning. It is sometimes a fatal illness.

Unhappiness, deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, may be a rational political position. A person with depression may have such a point of view. But depression itself is not the point of view, any more than suicide is a political act.

Lisa Whelan // Posted 18 April 2013 at 6:55 pm

Oh my god yes, this has struck so many chords. I have always worked in retail, and the word “bubbly” is always used to describe how I *should* behave. As much as I can handle being told to smile, it’s having to smile at the customers who call me “love” and make inappropriate sexual comments about me that makes me uneasy. I hate that I’m not “allowed” to call out a customer, or even refuse to serve them, after belittling me for being female. Because, y’know, sales come before my own personal wellbeing apparently. I’d like to mention that my male colleagues (It is a techy kind of shop so it’s not as female-dominated) are rarely told to be “bubbly” — they just have to be well-informed enough to advise customers.

VS // Posted 18 April 2013 at 10:48 pm

The author & the commenters have made a number of interesting points. It does seem strange that people are expected to present a false image of being happy to work in certain service sector jobs.

The nature of human life is that sometimes we are happy & sometimes we are unhappy. And, normally, when we are happiest is when we are not at work. So it seems very odd that firms want to make workers pretend that they are happy at work to customers when they are not. It seems sinister – like they are trying to take away normal human responses and human variation. And, like people say, these expectations do seem to be stronger for women than for us men.

Caroline // Posted 19 April 2013 at 12:36 pm

Wow – thank you for such insightful and encouraging responses! I would like to take the opportunity to address all your points in turn:

Lisa – thank you for directing me towards Mary Daly’s fascinating ideas. I absolutely love the idea of ‘passions’ and I think her separation of ‘plastic’ and ‘potted’ passions will be very useful to my research. It also reminded me of Sianne Ngai’s idea of ‘Ugly feelings’ which in contrast to Daly’s roaring passions are characterised by having no object or intention, that are minor, non-cathartic feelings like irritation and anxiety. These ugly feelings are the type to seem to me to fester in such retail settings, they don’t get the opportunity to emerge into fully fledged rage. Here’s more about ugly feelings: http://politicsofthehap.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/ugly-feelingsa-world-unravelling/

Lrselfe – Indeed! Depression is read as a psychological disorder but this reading neglects the extent to which depression can be a response to an environment which structures feelings in certain ways.

Feminist Avatar – This leads me to your point about how emotions are taught not innate. I would absolutely agree, I am a sociologist not a psychologist. You put it beautifully when you wrote: “I think therefore the challenge for feminists is to work towards creating conditions and emotions that result in the greatest equality for all social groups. So, that happiness becomes something we construct, not just something we ‘work towards’ through removing the conditions of ‘unhappiness’.” Creating the conditions for happiness rather than creating happiness is a integral distinction. This helps build situations where different forms of happiness and passions can emerge, Feminism is about diversity not sameness after all. The challenge for me is in thinking about emotions and feelings that straddles this divide of a social constructionist view and one that allows room for thinking about affect and passions that have no cause or direction (seemingly irrational and not consciously taught). And your mention of Goffman is interesting, as yes he pretty much forgot gender in all his writing and this is in dire need to addressing.

Taryn – where’s the solution? Hmm yes we all have to make a living and ‘suck it up’. This can feel like a powerless state to be in. I have found the work of Ivor Southwood useful here. He talks of the act of ‘estranging oneself’ in order to create distance that enables you to ‘withhold’ your emotional labour. Southwood speaks of this as a defensive strategy that will enable us to re-occupy our minds. So it seems to me that this is the first task: re-occupy our minds and withhold our emotions. Then we might work towards finding ways to construct those situations where happiness and passions can exist freely. More about Ivor Southwood’s ideas here: http://politicsofthehap.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/how-to-estrange-oneself-and-not-become-a-robot/

The Goldfish – Thank you for your comment. I think the important thing to remember is that depression can be read in many different ways. Historically depression has not always been seen as an illness. This is not to deny the reality of depression for many women or to devalue women who seek treatment for depression. But it is to suggest what depression might be a response to. What if we paused for a moment and saw depression not as something caused by low levels of serotonin or bad neurotransmitters but as a emotional response to the ways in which our minds have been occupied by certain obligations and norms? Depression is not always political nor radical, I agree. And nor are happiness and depression antithetical – my argument lies more in this specific form of happiness which in fact has little to do with feeling joy, passion, but has increasingly become tied up with dominant notions of how to live a life and how to be a good citizen, which evidently has implications for women, because these dominant understandings are not constructed by or for the well-being of women.

Lisa Whelan – Yeah don’t call me darling!! It is a sad state of affairs to see these gender difference still being played out.

VS – I think companies that try to promote happiness at work are very clever. After all if my boss is encouraging me to be happy and smile how can I complain about that?? Smiling is GOOD and happiness is GOOD and anyone who wishes to dispute this is a grumpy feminist.. Thing is, happiness does things, it creates sales. Happiness is good business. Unhappy feelings get in the way, unhappy feelings say ‘Actually this situation is not working’. When we constantly silence those feelings then we neglect to listen to what that unhappiness is trying to say. Training us to perform happiness then is a way of suppressing our unhappiness back into the system that created it.

Lisa // Posted 19 April 2013 at 3:32 pm

From a quick read through, those ideas of “ugly feelings” look to correspond very closely with what Daly calls “plastic passions”. So yes, I think it links up well. Also, I’m almost sure you’ll be familiar with it, but have you encountered Sara Ahmed’s “The Promise of Happiness”? Some of what you wrote seemed to correspond so closely I wondered if you were working from any of Ahmed’s ideas. If not, I think you’ll also find it a useful resource. It was a slow and academic read for me, but there again look who else I read!

On that note, Daly’s “Pure Lust” isn’t an uncritical recommendation. Just for three examples, I think her work on race there is a bit of a disaster, I totally reject what she says about transsexuality, and I’m deeply suspicious of the sections on “masosadism”, which seem to match up very closely with the worrying “people calling me privileged oppresses me” discourse that regularly does the rounds (has it ever stopped?). So I suggest reading it actively (moreso than most work) and picking and choosing with great care, keeping her correspondence with Audre Lorde in mind.

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