- Speaking from the Heart: Gender and the Social Meaning of Emotion
This fresh analysis by Stephanie Shields is important for anyone interested in gender or emotion, in the past or the present. It is a brief but densely-argued work. For present purposes, let me extract four of its key propositions. [End Page 232]
The first and most central is that emotion constructs gender and vice versa. The second proposition is that the process by which we learn and practice emotion (in both senses of “practice”) is a gendered process. The content and the experience of learning about emotion differ for the two sexes. In turn, this gendered process by which we learn emotion is crucial to the way we learn and experience gender. Shields draws on a broad array of psychological research to show that the propositions we learn (and practice) about emotion are largely phrased in terms of gender—and thus many of our most important gender boundaries involve adherence to norms of emotion. Because these norms are attached to the way we feel about everything, the way we live with gender boundaries is vital to maintaining our sense of self throughout life. And so gender boundary violations, implies Shields, become emotion-drenched violations of the intimate sense of self.
What, then, are the gendered norms of emotion? They grow out of the third proposition, which is that there are good and bad styles of managing emotion, with the good one marked “male” and the bad one marked “female.” The fourth proposition is that these gendered emotional styles have a history. Shields dates them to the late nineteenth century when early social scientists began to explore gender difference. They viewed man and women as prone by nature to different forms of reason and emotion. “Feminine reason” was about common sense and a keen perception of the everyday. It was limited in scope and modest in strength. To these late-Victorian scholars, “feminine emotion” had good and bad sides. At its best, women showed deep empathy and sympathy, the very qualities of emotional style needed to be a nurturing mother. The danger of feminine emotion was its tendency to overwhelm women, to drown them in a flood of their own sympathy and sentiment. Ultimately, these early scientists cast feminine emotion as emotion-out-of-control, “bad emotion.”
By contrast, they saw male reason and emotion as a powerful, productive combination. “Male reason” was strong, abstract, broad-ranging, dispassionate. It thus made a perfect balance wheel to “manly emotion,” which consisted of powerful and urgent passions. In the eyes of the social scientists, male reason channeled manly emotion into passionate commitments to sweeping causes, large ideas, broad goals. Manly emotion, then, was “good emotion,” emotion that was socially creative, under control. When the late nineteenth-century scholars addressed the dangers of male emotion, they described it as destructive, urgent passion ungoverned by reason; and—being themselves elite white males—they attributed this ungoverned passion to “savages” and animals, to men of lesser classes and races.
Shields says that these formulations have come down to us today in modified form but with the fundamental idea intact: that women are victims of their own emotionality. One of the key modifications, in Shields’s view, is a shift from “passions” as the core of “manly emotion” to a more specific focus on anger at the center of things. But anger serves, as the passions once did, to provide a social driving force, and this driving force—under the rein of reason—achieves great social aims. Thus, men—who of course have better access to manly emotion—deserve to exercise the dominant power in society. And this connection of power to gender and emotion has a personal correlate as well: all of us (women as well as men) must measure up to the standard of “manly emotion” as “good emotion,” [End Page 233] even though men’s emotional education teaches them to meet that standard and women’s doesn’t. “Manly emotion” is the...