On the Bookshelf: Governance Femininity

In her books Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism and Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help, Eva Illouz examines the emergence of “therapeutic discourse,” an amalgam of Freudian theory and the American tradition of positive thinking. Within therapeutic discourse, the self is viewed as the product of past trauma, particularly trauma experienced within the family, and is the site for suffering in the present that must be overcome in order to achieve happiness and success. The keys to this overcoming are several: identification of and reflection on the traumas that have shaped the self; the heroic work, often undertaken with the help of support groups and/or experts in the “helping professions,” of leaving behind the traumatic past; and, in relationship, the mastery of “communication:” the art and discipline of seeing oneself through the eyes of others, constantly managing one’s interpersonal performance, including one’s emotional expressiveness, and effectively articulating one’s “needs.”

Illouz does not spend time berating or extolling therapeutic discourse; as a sociologist of culture, she is interested not in judging it but in describing what it does. One of the things she says it does is scramble the categories of public and private. Workplace and family, she argues, are equally ruled by therapeutic discourse. A thriving industry of how-to books for success in business exhorts managers to become emotionally intelligent, by managing their own emotions and those of their co-workers, bosses, and employees. In private life, people are encouraged to learn better communication skills, make “I statements,” and pursue their self-interest, including making strategic decisions about whether various relationships “work” for them. Illouz concludes: “Throughout the twentieth century, under the aegis of the therapeutic discourse, emotional life became imbued with the metaphors and rationality of economics; conversely, economic behavior was consistently shaped by the sphere of emotions and sentiments.” This, for Illouz, is the heart of “emotional capitalism”: affect is made an essential aspect of economic behavior, while emotional life follows the logic of economic relations and exchange.

A little-noticed implication of emotional capitalism, according to Illouz, is that – at least in the world of middle managers who read all those business self-help books – the traditionally feminine virtues have triumphed. The professional workplace no longer favors traditional hegemonic masculinity, understood as “a model prescribing men to be self-reliant, aggressive, competitive, oriented to mastery and domination, emotionless, and, when necessary ruthless. In contrast, the kind of emotional control commanded by psychologists combined two attributes: the capacity to be rational in the pursuit of one’s self-interest and the capacity to defuse conflict and to create friendly relationships.” In the workplace, historically a key site for the reproduction of masculinity, a radical gender project is underway.

The same is true in the family. Despite the cultural anxiety that surrounds this project (see the one trillion movies involving Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow, and/or Michael Cera featuring lovable boy-men who find themselves unable or unwilling to submit to being “sivilized” by their indulgent girlfriends and wives), therapeutic discourse insists that everyone must learn to recognize and manage their emotions, communicate their needs, and otherwise submit their emotional lives to intelligent introspection, empathy with others, and rational mastery. What’s at stake is nothing more than happiness itself.

In both the market and the home, then, a single therapeutic discourse reigns, prescribing a single set of norms for success. Call it (with apologies to Janet Halley) “governance femininity.” Like Halley’s governance feminism, governance femininity provides women, and stereotypically female ways of being in the world, with access to a certain kind of authority, and undermines a simplistic analysis of gender subordination in which men always have their feet on women’s necks. Furthering this point, Illouz calls attention to the collaboration between psychology and feminism that continues to fuel therapeutic discourse.

If governance femininity now rules the business world, however, it’s puzzling that women continue to lag behind men in corporate America. Despite their lifelong training in emotional management, communication, and relationship building, women hold only about 15 percent of board seats in Fortune 500 companies and head two percent of boards. Does a different, older kind of masculinity still reign at the very top of the corporation — is developing emotional intelligence not so much of a priority for Steve Jobs? Or is there just something about a penis?

This entry was posted in markets and group identity, Resources Of Interest, who is middle class?. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On the Bookshelf: Governance Femininity

  1. Martha McCluskey says:

    Thanks for more rich readings and questions, and since you’ve gotten me thinking more I’ll jump in again, hoping for more conversations from others as well !

    Perhaps I’m in a crankier mood about the political economy of work or gender equality at the moment, but it strikes me that Illouz is getting it exactly backwards. Why isn’t rampant “emotional capitalism” likely to be a sign of feminized (and racialized) class subordination and servitude more than “governance femininity” ? What is “new” about this blurring of private emotion management with the public workplace — is it something different than what Arlie Hochschild wrote about nearly 20 years ago in her book The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, which opened with stories of commodified labor from Marx’s Das Kapital , and with a quote from C Wright Mills: “The one area of her occupational life in which she might be “free to act” — her own personality — must now also be managed, must become … the instrument by which goods are distributed.” Buffalo Law Professor Dianne Avery has been doing fabulous work recently on how corporate capitalism enforces particular performances of sexualized femininity on young low-waged women workers as a part of a system of heightened gender and class hierarchy — see http://www.buffalo.edu/news/12213 “The Sexing Up and Dumbing Down of Women’s Work.” Is Illouz describing the professional or older women’s version of the same kind of enforced gender performance — the ideal wife and mother (nanny? mammy?) charged with civilizing a workplace where unmanaged emotions and lack of empathy is taken as a sign of masculinized strength and capability? Among legal scholarship, Mary Romero’s work on nannies’ emotional expertise as subordinating servitude comes to mind; also discussions of how legal research and writing teaching is devalued, not rewarded, to the extent it is constructed as gendered emotional management work. Are the managerial self-help books Illouz observes wielded more as a double standard, reminding us that our jobs include not only smiling more brightly as we get more hits and cutbacks but also figuring out how to subtly soften or clean up after those higher up the ladder in a political economy more likely to reward bullying and emotional tone-deafness ?


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