As part of my wonderful English degree I am currently studying Shakespeare, and as a result am watching a number of Royal Shakespeare Company productions of the plays. My latest viewing was of ‘Julius Caesar’ – an astounding work of theatre, staging the death of a legendary emperor on his knees; quite literally stabbed in the back by his closest friends. Yet it was not the gore and brutality that struck me. What caught my attention was the fact that the characters greeted and parted each other on stage – every time, without fail – with a kiss on each cheek and a close embrace. This close and constant expression of platonic male intimacy highlighted to me its absence in every day life. In this article, I am going to explore the result of this absence, as part of an ongoing attempt to better understand my own experiences in relationships and friendships, and to highlight the need for a recognition of the emotional labour that women perform on a daily basis.
I have also included some examples of brilliant Instagram comic artists throughout, who are working to highlight similar issues and ideas as the ones discussed here – be sure to check them out!
Before I begin, I would first like to clarify that for the rest of this article, I will be talking about the experience of a particular group of men: cisgender heterosexual men, from families that include a mother figure. I am fully aware that this is not the experience of everyone, nor is my choice to talk about this particular group a reflection of anything other than my personal experiences. However, I am left in no doubt that there will be elements of this that will relate to many other people’s experiences.
For young men, who are newly learning the Western expectations on performative male emotion – aggression or repression rather than emotional intelligence and communication – the first woman with whom they will emotionally engage is their mother. This relationship is, in many ways, unique: young boys will cry in front of their mothers, potentially discuss frustrations or upsets with her, and are likely to openly express emotion in some capacity as part of this familial exchange. As they grow older, they will become less and less likely to express emotion in any way, especially not to other men or boys. Any male-male friendships they form will be with other boys who are learning similar life lessons. This effect is likely to be amplified if, for example, they attend a single-sex school; have no exposure to girls at a similar age; have uncomfortable or incommunicative relationships with sisters or other female relatives; or any number of other issues, then they are unlikely to learn to value and build positive friendships with women. Simultaneously, they are also highly likely to be exploring their sexuality for the first time, and will be definitively drawing a line between their first relationship with a woman – their mother – and the potential future relationships they would like to engage in – namely, romantic and sexual ones.
Women, by complete contrast, are encouraged from a young age to examine and explain their emotions to themselves and to others. A large part of forming female-female friendships as a young woman is the sharing of feelings and emotions with others. If you need examples, look at the ordinariness of the terms ‘best friends’, ‘sleepovers’ to ‘discuss girly things, boys’ etc.
This brings me to the next big issue of the matter – the ‘friend-zone’.
The ‘friend-zone’ is a concept utterly devoid of respect and appreciation for female friendship – in other words, if you describe an attempt at forming a romantic relationship with a woman which ends in her offering to remain friends with you as ‘being friend-zoned’ and you are offended by it, what you are saying is that you see no value in that woman as anything other than a romantic partner. I am not saying that you cannot be hurt by romantic rejection – we’ve all been there, everybody can – but it is uniquely men who describe this rejection as the “friend-zone”. I cannot describe the discomfort experienced by women when you suggest, implicitly or otherwise, that you are disappointed, angry or resentful with her about the idea of a continued relationship between you that is not of a romantic or sexual nature. On a more severe scale, there are an exhaustive number of examples of women who have been sexually assaulted, raped, or even killed because they turned somebody down in lieu of being friends, and it is significantly less common and less severe in outcome when the genders are swapped. Men that genuinely buy into this narrative are the ones who are significantly more like to fall prey to movements like that of the ‘incels’, whose hatred of women stems primarily from ignorance, generalisations, a devaluation of the place of all women in society – let alone female friends – and intense emotional repression.
When it comes to this scenario, something I have both experienced and watched some of my closest female friends go through is a sense of responsibility for the emotions of the men that they were involved with. In all of these situations, these were women who had done nothing wrong – whose only crime was to attempt to form friendships or explore their feelings for men – and in doing so had ended up being treated in a way that had upset them: being blamed for “leading them on” or “misleading them”, or being emotionally insincere. The priority of women, which they have been taught to value over and above their own feelings of rejection and sadness, is to “not hurt his feelings”; in other words, to carefully manage their emotional and dialogical response to the difficulty of the situation to protect the man. It is a situation I have experienced and witnessed time and time again, and I have no doubt that you could ask almost any woman and receive a similar story. This now has a name – emotional labour.
‘Emotional labour’ is a term that was coined in 1983, in order to describe the role of service workers (particularly female air stewards) who – as an expected part of their job – were performing an additional unpaid role of reassuring, tolerating abuse from and generally emotionally supporting the customers they were interfacing with. It has now come to be more widely understood as a phenomenon that the vast majority of women experience in their day-to-day lives and relationships. In part it stems from a cultural expectation of the ‘nurturing’ role of women, both as wives and mothers but also in society generally, and the propagation of the myth of the necessity of male emotional reticence, as well as a widely perpetuated childhood notion that women ‘mature faster’ and must accommodate for the emotional needs of their male counterparts.
The emotional inequality in these situations is completely avoidable, and is essential to our quest for a more equal and peaceful society. We need to educate men about emotional intelligence, and start to break down the barriers that lead men to become abusive, repressive, or even suicidal. We need to support women; to remind them that they bear no responsibility for the emotions of the young men, that they are figuring out the ways of the world alongside of. Most importantly of all, we need to fundamentally recognise that feminism, and the fight for gender equality, is not one-sided – men have almost as much to gain, and the issues that economically, socially and politically oppress women have equally damaging emotional effects on men. Until we start to make progress in these areas…a whole lot of people are going to continue to be hurt.