“The Best Revenge is Your Paper”: Notes on Women’s Work

By Alice BolinJune 19, 2016

“The Best Revenge is Your Paper”: Notes on Women’s Work

Labor of Love by Moira Weigel

IN HER NEW BOOK Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, Moira Weigel traces the beginnings of American dating to the turn of the 20th century, when a new class of young, single women entered the workforce. These women were the servants, factory workers, and saleswomen in the United States’s industrializing cities. For the first time, single men and women could meet unsupervised, supporting the United States’s growing consumer sector by participating in leisure activities together. “Shopgirls,” department store clerks whose primary skills were good looks, poise, and charm, used the same techniques to get a date as they did to make a sale. It was understood that many women were in this line of work to meet men from a different social class from their own. But, Weigel argues, it was less that this kind of work prepared women for romance than that the innovation of dating trained women to be good workers.

Women dated because it was how they could take part in leisure activities that they could not afford with their meager paychecks. In order to gain access to restaurants, movie theaters, amusement parks, and the many other new consumer services proliferating around them, they had to attract and please men, who enjoyed higher earning power. They thus provided a service that men, in turn, paid for. Women’s love lives became work in a way that was, from the beginning, ambiguous.

“Ever since the invention of dating,” Weigel writes, “the line between sex work and ‘legitimate’ dating has remained difficult to draw and impossible to police.” Many early female daters were arrested because “[i]n the eyes of the authorities, women who let men buy them food and drinks or gifts and entrance tickets looked like whores, and making a date seemed the same as turning a trick.” Weigel notes that there is still debate about “what exactly makes sleeping with someone because he bought you dinner different from sleeping with someone because he paid you what that dinner cost.” On websites like SeekingArrangement.com, a rich “Sugar Daddy” can seek a “Sugar Baby,” an attractive young woman he will support in exchange for sex and companionship. Despite the evidently transactional nature of such a relationship, many men seeking this arrangement like to imagine that they are not hiring a prostitute, as Alana Massey has observed in The New Inquiry, specifying on their online profiles that “no pros” need apply. Women’s work must not look like work.


Shopgirls, Sugar Babies, and sex workers all perform what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls “emotional labor.” Weigel defines it as “work that required workers to manage their feelings in order to display particular emotions.” “We speak of ‘service with a smile,’” she writes, “but in many jobs, the smile is the service.” Sex work is the ultimate in emotional labor, an industry in which workers have to simulate intense emotions of affection and sexual attraction. But almost all of what we term “women’s work” is emotional labor, and not just because so many women work as salespeople, food service workers, educators, and caregivers. Rather, women are so represented in these sectors because of our expectations of their emotions.

Weigel writes about how a false division between public and private at the time of industrialization devalued the work that women were expected to do: “The idea arose that work was what someone else paid you money to do. Not-work was what you were not paid to do. Work was what men did out in public. Not-work was what women did at home.” The notion of being paid for one’s emotional labor was crass and embarrassing, even when a woman was being compensated in her public or private life for displaying certain feelings. Women came to believe that raising children and taking care of a husband were instinctual, as if “it was simply in their natures to do anything for love.” Labor of Love interrogates these beliefs and “instincts.” Emotions, the book argues, are as socially determined as they are personal, as “[t]he possibilities of how we feel arise from those we feel among.” Weigel’s book is more than a history of dating; it is a history of feelings.


In a 2015 essay for Jezebel, Colette Shade wrote about the strange proliferation of the hip-hop slang word “hustle” in twee, feminine products on Etsy. “Hustling” once connoted selling drugs or sex or making money by other illegal means, trying to survive on the streets. In cutesy slogans like “dream big, hustle hard” and “good things come to those who hustle,” this appropriation now depicts the realities of jobless recovery and the freelance economy. As Shade writes, in the 2008 recession “scant resources, stagnant wages and structural unemployment spread to people who had never before experienced it. In the new economy, everyone became a hustler.” These Etsy products, presumably made by women who are themselves hustling, “exist to soothe workers — specifically, female workers — into accepting this new reality as cute, fun, and, most of all, a self-empowering personal choice.”

The rise of emotional labor came in the wake of the greatest economic recession the United States had ever seen, in the 1890s, creating a class of workers who were doing more work than could even be accounted for, much less compensated. During the second tech boom work has become more personal, more emotional, and more invasive than ever. Social networking, too, is a form of emotional labor, and it is now a 24-7 activity for the creative class, especially women and people of color, for whom barriers to entry are greater. Men are relatively terrible at social media because it rewards attributes that have been socialized in women: to be cute, to be friendly, to be enthusiastic, to be diplomatic, to show interest in things and people they have no interest in, to be always available. Men who join Twitter in order to network are obvious: they have their job, like “writer,” in their screen name. They use hashtags. They retweet a lot, not posts they found amusing, but posts from official outlets in their fields. They tweet infrequently. Looking at these men’s accounts, I always wonder how people can be so bad at social media. How can they afford it?

Men can opt out of this kind of networking because they are allowed to compartmentalize their identities in ways that women cannot. They can sell their work, not themselves. Weigel explains how the idea of “personality” came about around the same time that dating did, to describe the factors in attraction that were hard to define. Although it was often seen as charisma, unselfconsciousness, or animal magnetism, personality has always been a performance. “A Shopgirl knew that the personality she expressed […] was not something she was born with,” Weigel writes. “Personality consisted of myriad effects that she had to work hard to produce.”

Personality is the currency on social media, and some women have made empires from it. The epitome of this new kind of emotional labor, the care and keeping of one’s personal brand, is Kim Kardashian West, who shares herself, body and mind, with her fans through reality TV, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and her exclusive smartphone app. Her high-profile celebrity relationships have formed a large part of her work, so much so that on her video game, dating other celebrities is one way that a player can “level up.” It’s hard to picture Kardashian tweeting, as her husband Kanye West did, “You have distracted from my creative process.” For her, Twitter is the creative process; there is no separation between creation and marketing. “If I wasn’t Bey would you still feel me?” Beyoncé asks on her most recent album Lemonade: an impossible question. A woman in our culture cannot separate her personality from her process: the roles of mother, wife, lover, and victim are ever-present and haunting.


In Labor of Love, Weigel writes about the Real Housewives TV franchise, which has turned a league of women with rich husbands into moguls. They are trading on their feelings twice over: first, by “marrying up,” and second, by parlaying their privileged marital status into TV notoriety, which turns into more money. “We live in an era that tells people to do what they love and let their passion take care of their profession,” Weigel writes. “[The Real Housewife] is a heroine for an age that believes in getting rich by turning your feelings into assets.”

If dating and marriage are work for women, in today’s economy they have found many ways to monetize them. Of course reality stars like Kardashian and the Real Housewives have especially powerful platforms from which to exploit their emotions, but everyday women can do it too. A significant sector of online publishing belongs to women’s interest sites, which often promote a genre that Laura Bennett at Slate termed “the harrowing personal essay.” Many of the headlines that Bennett cites are about relationships: “I Was Cheating on My Boyfriend When He Died,” “I’m Living With My Abuser,” “Why Do I Keep Writing About the Time I Got My Heart Broken?” Women can sell their feelings on the open market, although the question, with this new wave of confessional writing, is whether it’s a fair trade. When sites like xoJane only pay around 50 dollars a story, is dredging up one’s worst experiences worth it?

Bennett criticizes this trend in first-person writing as “knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure, the hot take’s more intimate sibling.” Since xoJane published an essay where a woman claimed her mentally ill friend’s suicide was a blessing, was roundly criticized, and removed the author’s byline and then the piece altogether, there has been discussion about whether publishing a piece “for clicks,” when it is destined to become a hate-read, is ethical, especially when the piece is personal. Bennett writes that many of these pieces are “solo acts of sensational disclosure that bubble up and just as quickly vaporize,” as editors make it clear they are selling experiences, not writing.

Everyone knows female grief is marketable. Since Lemonade came out in April, Beyoncé has been widely praised for her honesty and ingenuity in weaving a story about marital infidelity, rage, sorrow, and forgiveness. Her only two notable critics have been the feminist scholar bell hooks and New Yorker critic Hilton Als. Als, in his ambivalent review of Beyoncé’s Formation tour, worries that, belying her promotion of black women and the idea that girls run the world, “None of [her success] has been separable from men.” Similarly, hooks is concerned with the depiction of relationships in Lemonade, which “glamorizes a world of gendered cultural paradox and contradiction,” clinging too tightly to a survivor narrative common to stories about black women. Both Als and hooks seem dissatisfied with the way the story of Lemonade ends: with Beyoncé and Jay Z back together, and Beyoncé giving “her success to Tidal, her husband’s music-streaming service, bringing the fledgling company more than a million new subscribers” — just another internet start-up feeding on a woman’s pain.

I find it strange that hooks, in her critique of the album as “the business of capitalist money making at its best,” ignores the parts of Lemonade that are explicitly about capitalist moneymaking. “6 Inch” is about an ambiguous sort of women’s work, a glamorous woman who “grinds from Monday to Friday / Works from Friday to Sunday,” and “works for the money, she work for the money / From the start to the finish / And she worth every dollar, she worth every dollar / And she worth every minute.” This boasting feels a bit weird in the middle of such an extended act of vulnerability, but all of Beyoncé’s closest relationships have also been business relationships. She hints on “Daddy Lessons” at the way that her father and former manager, Mathew Knowles, pushed her into show business when she was a child. And her husband, Jay Z, has always been a creative and business collaborator.

Obviously, when Beyoncé made Lemonade, she was in charge of the decision to sell her pain, knowing that, in the world we live in, art is business just as relationships are work. And she was not only selling her own pain but also her unfaithful husband’s, too, showing his ass as an act of vengeance. In this, she and the generation of young female writers now coming of age on the internet may have similar aims. In her essay “The Monetized Man,” Alana Massey writes about her initiation into writing: “The first stories I put on the internet were about dating and sex and body image issues and I placed them where I could […] Some people call these women’s sites ‘the pink ghetto’ but I consider them more like the girls’ side of the lake at summer camp.” She learned to deploy the internet’s demand for first-person writing like a Valkyrie, profiting off of men who wronged her. “When several men’s rights activists devoted a few days to picking apart photographs of me and diagnosing me as unfuckable, I had some shrill girlish feelings about the whole ordeal,” she writes. “Then I took two hours to type […] these feelings out in order to publish them for hundreds of dollars.” There are pragmatics at work here that will obviously frustrate ideologues: men have always had monetary power over women, so women turning men’s bad behavior into money takes back some of that control, but it does not seek to change the system. As Beyoncé’s last words on Lemonade instruct, with only a little irony, the “best revenge is your paper.”


In Labor of Love, Weigel juxtaposes two legendary figures of the sexual revolution: Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Brown, in her books Sex and the Single Girl and Sex and the Office, promoted a vision of a new empowered woman who, in addition to a full schedule of dates and a rigorous beauty routine, was as powerful at the office as any man. And Hefner offered a new ideal to men: he “presented a vision of the life of Playboy as a life of leisure,” always appearing, as he still does, in a pair of pajamas. The two media icons were collaborating on a new model for society, one in which women did 100 percent of the work.

This is the real problem with women dreaming big and hustling hard, with Beyoncé grinding from Monday to Friday and working Friday to Sunday: it’s not fair. Weigel encourages us to abandon sentimentality, and to acknowledge that emotions are labor, relationships have always been work, and love and money are intertwined. But the burden of emotional labor must not all fall on women. Massey reminds us that many stories about “women’s experience” are not really about women’s emotional lives but men’s, and “how the unrestrained, unaccountable emotional lives of men wreak havoc on women […] Women’s issues, I dutifully called the results of their juvenile tantrums masquerading as acceptable adult behavior.” So the girls’ side of the lake is invaded by men, another arena where, as Weigel writes, “[t]his gendered division of labor makes women emotionally overworked and makes men emotionally incompetent.” “No matter how hard women in relationships with patriarchal men work for change, forgive, and reconcile, men must do the work of inner and outer transformation if emotional violence against black females is to end,” bell hooks says of Lemonade, and she’s right — but then why is her criticism of Beyoncé, and not the patriarchal men who have taken over her story? It is sad to think of women holding up the world, constantly selling the only things they have: their emotions, their personalities, their bodies. But we must, at least, not condemn women’s stories for the reality of men’s behavior, asking them to tell something other than the truth, blaming the lemonade for its lemons.


Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls, an essay collection forthcoming from Morrow/HarperCollins. She is the nonfiction editor for Electric Literature’s weekly literary magazine of short things, Okey-Panky.

LARB Contributor

Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls, an essay collection forthcoming from Morrow/HarperCollins. She is the nonfiction editor for Electric Literature’s weekly literary magazine of short things, Okey-Panky. You can follow her on Twitter.


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