Note: I am beginning to post more opinion/blog style pieces on Econogist, and this is one. This piece makes sweeping generalizations about gender & gender roles, not because I think they are correct, but because when analyzing the monetary incentives behind gender roles & treating genders differently one must look at the traditional roles. 

I read a startling article in the New York Times last week. Did you know that “at least one in four women in America now takes a psychiatric medication, compared with one in seven men”? Women’s natural emotions are often classified as hysterical or excessive (by men) and drugs are seen as the cure. What motivates the need to “cure” women and people in general, rather than letting them take time to work through their feelings naturally? Don’t get me wrong—psychiatric drugs are vitally important for many people, allowing them to more manageably handle mental illnesses. But, there are times when instead of allowing a person to work through a period of non-chronic depression or anxiety (conditions most people will experience, however mildly, at some period in their lives!), drugs are prescribed. So again, why the urgency? Why can’t we leave people to feel their feelings instead of numbing them out?

The push towards medicating emotion is due to the money-driven nature of modern society. For one thing, emotions are at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Only when one has adequate food, shelter, etc. can they focus on the intricacies of their feelings. Women most certainly experienced post-partum depression in the days before industrialization, but laying in bed all day was simply not an option. There were no prepared foods or refrigerators full of leftovers; your family would not have anything to eat, any clean clothes, or a roaring fireplace if you did not tend to these laborious tasks throughout the day. (Perhaps unless you were wealthy and had hired help.) With industrialization and automation, household responsibilities are still rather large, but can be ignored for longer without grave consequences. Industrialization led to more free time—giving rise, in part, to the “bored housewife” stereotype—which allows one more time to experience emotions.

For many in the first world today, having anxiety about something, being sad, or trying to “be happy” is their foremost concern. If you are reading this on the internet, chances are, you aren’t starving, you have a home, and you are cared for enough physically that you are able to consider how you feel. Though it may sound counterintuitive, the ability to dwell on/even feel depression or anxiety is one only the privileged have. 

The explosion of communications and inter-connectivity has both helped and worsened the emotional turmoil many feel. On one hand, social media can make anyone feel inadequate or like they are not doing enough. On the other hand, reading others’ stories about struggles with emotions, experiences, and mental illness can help assure people they are not alone or guide them on how to improve their circumstances.

The most important effect of communications expansion, however, has been in combatting inequality and injustice. Women are still treated as inferiors to men, but today discrimination is much less obvious. It is harder to combat perceptions of a confident woman being “aggressive” than it is to require equal legal standing.

“Women are moody. By evolutionary design, we are hard-wired to be sensitive to our environments, empathic to our children’s needs and intuitive of our partners’ intentions. This is basic to our survival and that of our offspring. Some research suggests that women are often better at articulating their feelings than men because as the female brain develops, more capacity is reserved for language, memory, hearing and observing emotions in others.” - Julie Holland, Psychiatrist, from NYT article linked at top

While I am highly skeptical of any “inherent” differences between men and women (how could we ever *know* while society still shoves gender roles down our throats?), in our current state at least the above is quite true.

The pursuit of happiness is something only widely afforded to the privileged citizens of the first world. Interestingly enough, people in poorer countries tend, on average, to be happier than those in the first world. Without the mantra “anyone can achieve what they want if they work hard” rubbed in their faces, people feel less inadequate when they have not been successful. They understand that success is not something you can simply work hard for. There are often insurmountable obstacles in the way. Poor people in Venezuela probably understand that their corrupt government means they will not rise in the ranks and become wealthy if they work hard, it is clear to them that the system is rigged. This isn’t to say the “happier” people in poorer countries are just so content and fine, just that they accept their reality instead of grasping at ideal visions of the future—which is by all means a recipe for contentment. Lower expectations = greater chance at happiness. 

The narrative of the American dream/pursuit of happiness is harmful, as it promotes the idea that America is a meritocracy rather than a system controlled by corporations and puppets (also known as politicians). Inner city kids who end up in gangs are just “thugs” who didn’t work hard enough, right? There are a few standing at the top of a steep mountain while the masses try to roll boulders up the hill and reach the top. Little do they realize what a Sisyphean task they are undertaking in the quest to obtain the American dream.

So... how does this relate to women’s emotions and drugs?

Today, everything has a fiscal cost assigned to it. Gender reassignment surgery paid for by government healthcare? Oh, but look at the cost! Taxpayers should never have to pay that ungodly amount! This is an effective argument, because how can you tabulate the emotional cost for the individual of not undergoing a surgery they feel is necessary? [Noteworthy that a similar tactic is used to discredit the anger of protestors against police killings. People are obsessed with damage from looting—much more concerned with loss of property than life. What a wonderful world.]

Emotions, quite handily, do not come with a price tag attached. Human labor and work, however, does. For every day that a woman is depressed and not doing much, she is not contributing to society. This is the mantra—“why don’t you get up and be a productive member of society?”, “Yep, I finally decided to get my sh*t together and be a productive member of society”. Obviously, we are talking productive here from a monetary standpoint.

An employee who feels the insidious, gnawing malaise of depression will probably be less productive than a happy employee. So what if her husband just died and she is naturally grieving? She needs to get back to work!

As it happens, women tend to have more complex emotional lives than men do. This could be partially genetic (I mean honestly who knows), but largely conditioned by society’s standards for the respective genders. The war against women’s emotion by men is a war against men as well. By encouraging the view that women should be less emotional (less emotional compared to who? Other women? No, the implicit message is that they should be more like men.), we reinforce the view that men should be the unemotional ideal. We turn men into emotional cripples who are unable to express the most basic feelings of sadness, anxiety, and love due to conditioning that they should not share their feelings and instead “man up”. Side note—it is for this reason that many men gain more from relationships than women do, they have a person to share their emotions with (something most guy friends don’t do), while women more often have close friendships.

Women are encouraged to form tight-knit emotional friendships, talk about their feelings, and be "sensitive", while men are scorned for doing so. (I feel the need to add here that obviously the people encouraging these senseless gender norms are living in 1950, and I really hope you, dear reader, don't scorn men for having feelings.) When’s the last time a group of guys discussed over lunch how one felt like he was trying to fill an emotional void through causal sex? Oh, what’s that you say? That’s never happened? Right you are.

Preserving the bias against female emotion helps to maintain the status quo of a male-driven workforce populated with emotionless drones always in search of “time hacks” to increase productivity. The stakes of emotion are so much higher now, too. A yearlong rebellious phase in response to parents divorcing might later mean a bad GPA, college admission, or failure to get the “right job”. The opportunity costs of emotion are higher than ever before. (At least higher than in the industrialized era, because before that, the costs of a rebellious phase or depression were much more likely to be death.) Given that women are more emotional (usually—as with every wide assumption about genders made in this essay, my intention is to be as generalist as possible, and while there are certainly some very emotional men and emotionless women out there, this is not as common), they have many more chances to be “unproductive” and thus given a drug to help them function as a notch on one of the many gears that make up modern capitalism. Allowing people to fully feel, treat, and understand their emotions is inherently at odds with the requirements of modern capitalism. Say it with me one more time:

Allowing people to fully feel, treat, and understand their emotions is inherently at odds with the requirements of modern capitalism.

Outside of just the workplace, maintaining a highly partisan and divided government requires individuals to not possess empathy and understanding for others’ circumstances. In essence, the maintenance of a partisan government relies on a lack of emotion (Okay, I will concede here, though, that the main emotion felt in politics is hate and anger for the opposition. These are emotions, but the point is that partisanship relies upon a lack of understanding and empathizing with emotions and circumstances.). In turn, the maintenance of a partisan government acts as a distraction from the wealthy interests controlling the policies and individuals that govern America—the same interests who profit from capitalism. Republicans and Democrats too busy hating each other don’t look up and see that Congress is not materially improving their living standards either way.

In Short:

Acknowledging emotion in a healthy way is costly. Females tend to be impacted by emotional events more. Prescribing drugs allows the return to productive activities. Females are given psychiatric drugs much more often than men, probably because their emotionality is inherently at odds with capitalistic aims. 

AuthorIsabel Munson