A Matter of Care: Notes on Racialized and Gendered Performances of (Sometimes Digitally Mediated) Intimate Labor

Let’s begin with an exercise:

I will list a series of occupations. As you hear me name each, close your eyes and visualize someone performing it.

 A flight attendant.

A massage therapist.

A yoga instructor.

A nurse.

A house cleaner.

 In your mind, how many of them were women? Were they all white?

The commodification of feeling has complicated the boundaries between personal interactions and economic transactions for more than half a century; it started gaining force with women’s rights movements and our incorporation into the job market and has increased exponentially as economies globalize and shift their focus from goods to services. As paradigmatic as these transformations might seem, they carry over assumptions about gendered, classed, and racialized performances that perpetuate old power dynamics in new contexts. These transmutations grow all the more concerning as affective-, emotional-, care-, intimate-, and/or reproductive labor expand and become digitally mediated.

Last month I was working at a coffee shop that doubles as office space for grad students and freelancers and I spotted a flyer advertising an app that offers professional cuddling services. How does a professional cuddler look, smells, sound, feel, move?

The following is a collection of materials at the intersection of intimate labor, gender, race, and digital technologies. It is a mixtape of sorts that plays in the background as I try to make sense of my own ideas and experiences on the topic. It includes photos and videos of performances as well as texts from fields including anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies. I provide external links for pieces that are publicly available (whether in full or in part). For texts that are behind an academic paywall, I’ve found shorter open-access articles or interviews with the authors and included external links to them as alternative readings. There is only one video-performance for which, due to unavailability, I provide nothing but my own commentary and a still frame of the piece. I’ve decided to keep it as part of the list because in spite of its limited access the account of the performance (I believe) still contributes in significant ways to the whole collection.

 As you will soon realize, each of these pieces explores different dimensions of the gendered and racialized (and digitally mediated) character of emotional and intimate labor. They try to answer their questions via different methodologies and have distinct ways of presenting their arguments. In the process of assembling this collection, I have struggled to set a final structure as I see conversations and tensions emerging in multiple directions. As I write the sentence that precedes this one, the words “durational” and “endurance” (two qualifiers that characterize performances included in this list) come to my mind, maybe as a reminder that this piece is also something still in the making.