Alva Gotby speaks to AnOther about her new book, They Call It Love: The Politics of Emotional Life, looking at love as work and the wide-ranging potentials of friendship
“How do you know you are loved? How do you know someone cares for you?” asks writer and academic Alva Gotby in the opening lines of her new book, They Call It Love: The Politics of Emotional Life. Often it’s in small gestures – a surprise phone call, a coffee ready-made for when you get out of bed, kind words after a difficult day – that we feel our most safe, warm, and cherished. But whether these gestures take a lot or a little effort – and no matter if they’re done by choice – they’re still, says Gotby, a form of work.
In fact the work of emotional support and, as Gotby calls it, “creating ‘good feeling’”, occupies our entire lives. We want those around us – partners, friends, family, colleagues, even strangers – to feel nice, and so we strive to ensure they always have that feeling. This work tends to be invisible and thankless, but it’s also an essential part of capitalist societies, which couldn’t function if people didn’t feel well enough to go to work.
Love, then, is a form of reproductive labour – that is, writes Gotby, “the work that goes into maintaining and replacing the labour force and ensuring people’s wellbeing”. Some of this work, like pregnancy, household chores, and caring for the sick, is covered under the umbrella of ‘social reproduction’. While the emotional work of this reproduction is less discernable, it’s no less important – and so, in They Call It Love, Gotby presents her concept of ‘emotional reproduction’.
Writing from a Marxist feminist perspective, Gotby offers a fascinating and exhaustive explanation as to why emotions are a political issue. Importantly, she criticises the privatisation of care that positions the family and romantic relationships as the only places where emotional needs can be truly fulfilled, thus excluding those who don’t or can’t adhere to a normative ideal of the bourgeois, heterosexual “good life”. Gotby also delves into why this work falls on women’s shoulders, unpacking how the naturalisation and performance of femininity (which itself is work!) has led us to perceive certain emotional skills as inherent in women.
Ultimately, she concludes, in order to be freed from this burden of emotional reproduction, we must abolish capitalism – as well as the family and gender – and look to the “more playful and liberatory potentials for emotion and desire” that already exist in many queer and otherwise marginalised communities.
Here, Gotby reflects on people’s receptiveness to this idea of love as work, discusses how we can begin to refuse it, and explores the radical potentials of friendship.
Brit Dawson: What influence might the current climate of austerity, wage stagnation, and the cost of living crisis – during which people may become more reliant on familial and romantic systems of support – have on people’s receptiveness to the idea of viewing love as a form of work?
Alva Gotby: A lot of people might feel more resistant. There’s also this scarier and more reactionary framing, where a lot of people who feel like the current economic system isn’t meeting their needs turn to a more conservative version of the family. You have this phenomenon of tradwives and the desire to return to a pre-feminist understanding of what the traditional family looks like. The people who espouse these narratives are obviously resistant to the idea that the family is anything other than natural and a good bond of love.
On the other hand, a lot of people are pushed back into more traditional gender patterns when there’s a recession and more pressure on the household economy. During Covid, a lot of mothers especially felt the pressure of being responsible for looking after their children 24/7, and doing so while also doing some form of paid work. So for people who are feeling pressure to provide more care for the people around them because of the economic system, there might be something helpful in this [concept of emotional reproduction, and in resisting the idea] that some people are made to be responsible for looking after everyone’s needs.
BD: In the book, you explain that women are tasked with creating ‘good feeling’ and keeping conflict at bay, all the while erasing signs of this emotional work. You observe that this stems from a naturalisation of femininity – how can we begin to denaturalise it?
AG: I recently had this thought about myself because I’m in a situation where I’m doing a lot of care and emotional support – not within a family setting, but more generally – and I was thinking of myself as someone who’s quite good at it. But then I had to stop and be like, ‘Actually maybe it’s not because I’m inherently good at it, but more that I’m doing a lot of it and therefore I’ve developed skills for doing it.’ So that’s a way of starting to denaturalise it, and ask questions about why certain people – mostly women – have developed the skills, but not everyone.
We can think of this in our own lives, but also as a more collective project. In 1970s feminist activism, you had these consciousness-raising groups, and a lot of discussion [that happened in them] was a way of providing a base for women to reflect on their own lives from a political and collective perspective. If we want to really denaturalise these gendered characteristics and say, ‘These are actually political things,’ it needs to happen in the context of a feminist movement.
“I recently had this thought about myself because I’m in a situation where I’m doing a lot of care and emotional support, and I was thinking of myself as someone who’s quite good at it. But then I had to stop and be like, ‘Actually maybe it’s not because I’m inherently good at it, but more that I’m doing a lot of it and therefore I’ve developed skills for doing it’” – Alva Gotby
BD: You also discuss how mainstream feminism has historically encouraged men to get involved in reproductive labour – why is this not the solution?
AG: Even though we had this push for gender equality a very long time ago, it hasn’t changed as much as people were hoping. My explanation for this is that you can try to do certain tasks in a more balanced way – taking turns cooking dinner, for example – and that’s quite easy to do. But it’s much harder to get out of these naturalised, gendered assumptions of who’s responsible not just for the task itself, but the overall responsibility of making sure that everyone has what they need, are relatively happy, and feel taken care of. That’s the sort of mental and emotional labour that’s much harder to get at because it’s so invisible – someone needs to do the work of even noticing what’s needed for family members to feel good.
There’s also an issue with the assumption that the family or romantic couple is the ideal unit for meeting people’s needs. Those social units tend to be quite unequal and hierarchical; but also, a lot of people aren’t actually part of families, or don’t have particularly good relationships with them. There’s no other established way of looking after these people’s needs; maybe they have close friendships, but they might not meet all of their needs. When you think about equality in this narrow way – between heterosexual relationships – that’s a problem, because it’s still assuming a lot about what types of relationships we should have.
BD: When the work of emotional reproduction is tied up with love, how can we refuse it?
AG: It’s important to recognise that that’s a really difficult thing. It’s hard to say no to the needs of the people we love. Socialist feminists have often used this idea of the strike, but the strikes that people have managed to pull off within the reproduction sphere are often very short – like a day long – because otherwise, it would become intolerable. What could make it easier to start refusing this work is to create a society where emotional labour is much less exclusive to the private sphere. Then it would become easier for people to say, ‘Actually I’m doing way too much of this work of looking after other people and I need some time on my own.’ If there were other people who could pick up some of that work, that would make it less difficult.
BD: You point to the queer potentials of friendship as a possible alternative to the family’s privatisation of care. How might friendship free us from the burden of emotional reproduction?
AG: Friendship isn’t inherently radical – obviously many people spend a lot of time with friends, and that doesn’t necessarily change how society works. But friendship often prioritises joy, and there’s more pleasurable interactions that are less weighed down by these ideas of gendered responsibility for emotional labour. It’s also less exclusive, so you don’t have this idea that you can only have close emotional ties with a very small group of people. You can easily tie that to a more radical political project, where you have emotional repsonsibility but you’re also receiving emotional care from a much broader group of people. And that can be the precondition for being able to be involved in political struggle as well.
They Call It Love: The Politics of Emotional Life by Alva Gotby is out January 31.