Jennifer Pan argues in this essay that publicists are ridiculed because they fail to adequately hide how they “perform emotional work for money.” Publicists, who are predominantly women, are set apart from everyone else who does emotional work for money (i.e. everyone in a postindustrial service economy) and scapegoated, so the rest of us can feel better about all the publicity work we do in our lives. “So often these misgivings manifest as indictments of the publicist and her work,” Pan writes, “rather than of the neoliberal economy that enables and necessitates this form of labor.” Don’t hate the player.
It’s apparently harder for people to do that when the player is female; Pan notes how gender stereotypes are roped in to suggest that women are naturally suited to PR work, which mutually reinforces the supposed triviality of both.
Pan’s essay then detours into a discussion of emotional labor, and how it has been traditionally associated with women and thus trivialized and undercompensated in sexist society.
Publicists are similarly told to “depersonalize,” not to take rejection from editors to heart, not to let it get under their skin when angry clients berate them, and to maintain a cheerful disposition. This disengagement, though necessary for self-preservation, is also what often provokes the ire of editors and writers.
Clearly publicists need to maintain false fronts, but I am not sure that it’s entirely the cheerful disposition of publicists that makes editors hostile toward them. It may be more that publicists are the shadowy other of tastemaking editors and culture journalists, who are often shills themselves but like to pretend they are not. Sometimes the mantle of male authority is enough to mask their cravenness and their dependence on publicists to do their job of touting commercial products and white-washing it as disinterested and “objective.” Sexist society allows a male voice to almost intrinsically pass as authoritative and autonomous.
But sometimes one must explicitly repudiate publicists so that you can create some room to get away with doing some publicity yourself. The problem with publicists isn’t exactly that they are doing the emotional labor that comes with dealing with promoting things you don’t care about; it’s that everyone is trying to hide from the way they have to be publicists themselves. They can point to pro PR people and say, Well, at least I am not as sold-out as that. As Pan notes, “the phoniness of PR work is used as a foil for the more authentic work of the writer or editor.”
Emotional labor seems to me a bit of red herring in this. Publicists are loathed by would-be tastemakers not because publicists are phonies but because tastemakers want to pretend they live in a universe where PR doesn’t need to exist, and where they themselves can be the all-knowing masters of all the cultural product in the world without having to be tipped off by professionals.
Pan writes that “Publicity, therefore, is not so much a corrupt form of work as it is a symptom of the way that neoliberalism structures all work.” But it is still a corrupt form of work. Social media and the self-promotion it has unleashed has rooted the “symptom” even further into contemporary life, making publicity not merely a part of neoliberal work but of all of one’s life.
“We should concern ourselves with the plight of the publicist because what is demanded of her is exactly that which is increasingly demanded of all knowledge workers under neoliberalism,” Pan argues, but I’m not convinced that emotional labor is the right lens for focusing that concern. It makes it seem as though there some be some form of work that is unemotional, that we should embrace work that could be performed in perfect alienation, that we should compete with the robots for jobs that might otherwise be automated, given that they require no emotional input.
The problem seems more that “male” gendered emotional work is privileged and valued over “female” emotional work. So the problem here is sexism more than the nature of work or the ways in which that work is inauthenticated.
If anything, we should call our attention to the ubiquity of emotional work so that we can possibly build a society in which we can stop construing emotionality as work, stop trying to wrench alienable value out of every human impulse.