‘They Call it Love’

by: , March 30, 2023

In her essay They Call It Love. The Politics of Emotional Life, Alva Gotby makes clear our emotional lives are inherently political. Her analysis of the politics of reproductive labour is a cogent criticism of the bourgeois capitalist logics of feeling, of the free labour of intimacy and of normative femininity. Taking her cue from Marxist feminist theories of reproduction, especially the concepts and ideas conceived by the Wages for Housework movement since the early 1970s, Gotby sets out to understand the continuities of exploitation under current heteropatriarchal capitalism. Informed by Queer and Trans studies as well as by Black feminism, she calls for a ‘reproductive revolution’ (118), that is the abolition of the nuclear family as a ‘primary site of heterosexualised emotional reproduction’ (xix), and for collectivised forms of reproduction. 

It is through coalition of bad mothers, sex workers, queers, and other deviant reproductive subjects that we can begin to make another world. (108)

Her essay hammers almost trancedly our need to ungender emotions so as to challenge naturalised conceptions of gender and family, and emancipate from privatised emotional bonds.

She says gestures of love are made invisible. Words of emotional reproduction remain inaudible. Yet both contribute to create good feelings within relationships. As a form of care, they participate in the construction and consolidation of social relations and shared commonalities. 

The work of love is essential for communities yet it is devalued, naturalised as feminine and underpaid. 

The work of love seeks to make up for the hurt, boredom, and stress of life under capitalism: it heals the harms of oppression.

The work of love exalts exclusive bourgeois family values. 

The work of love reproduces social hierarchies and patterns of exclusion as it is ‘stratified along lines of class, race and migration status’ (40). 

The work of love is valued differently as the emotional labour of queer women, women of colour and migrants is still devalued and stigmatised, compromising their reproduction and survival.

The work of love reinforces individualism since it ‘helps people form a sense of being a unique and valued individual’ (35), versus de-individualising or dehumanising experiences at the workplace.

The work of love is a corporealized knowledge ‘enacted through repeated practices which bring gendered subjectivity into being’ (69). 

The work of love appears as non-political, as if outside of capitalist relations: it appears natural and desirable, versus the constraining regulations of waged work.

The work of love is simultaneously glorified and obliterated.

In five efficient chapters, Gotby anatomises the political economy of love in which the state promotes what it deems to be ‘good reproduction through welfare policies and normative family values’ (42). She examines how naturalised unwaged labour, which turns mothers into love experts that maintain the family institution, works hand in hand with commercialised and commodified forms of emotional labour. Her exploration of gendered forms of work underlines the ways femininity is perceived as a work function and an ideal co-constitutive with whiteness and strict heterosexuality.

On top of her staunch denunciation of contemporary assumptions on autonomy and self-sufficiency, Gotby mobilises emotions in an emancipatory way. She advocates feminist forms of refusal and resistance to the work of love. Nurturing outlaw, non-normative or undesirable feelings, such as rage or anger, are politically subversive and it can help constructing alternative ways of being and living together. In this way, lesbianism and paid sex work provide powerful strategies ‘to refuse doing the work of love for free’ (102).

They Call It Love incites its readers to queer emotional reproduction so as to move away from the alienation of individualism, privacy and property. Building on queer and communist politics of reproduction, it convincingly upholds a radical politics of friendship, which highlights our co-dependencies and our visceral need for a more equally shared emotional care.

Download article


Feeling inspired by MAI? Dedicated to intersectional gender politics in visual culture? Want to keep your feminist imagination on fire? MAI newsletter will help refresh your zeal for feminism with first-hand news on our new content. 

Subscribe below to stay up-to-date.

* We'll never share your email address with any third parties.


The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.

However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:

Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers

Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey