Transcontinental Disability Choir: Emo - a hip way to police emotional expression

"Emo" means a whole lot of things in a whole lot of contexts. It's a musical genre. It's a style, with distinctive clothes and hair. It's a type of poetry, type of drawing, type of dance. There is even an emo cow.

While I'm as guilty as the next person for snarking on diagonal-cut bangs (how do you see??), I'm concerned that at the core of the "emo" label is a judgment of both the validity and the presentation of another person's strong emotional expression. These judgments echo some of the ways that people with mental illness, especially mood disorders such as depression or bipolar, find their emotions critiqued and dismissed by others. Also, because the vast majority of bands classified as "emo" are made up of males and have male vocalists, this is an especially easy way to police men's emotional expression. This is particularly problematic as men are already significantly less likely to seek assistance for mental health problems, so these ideas may encourage them to continue to suppress or conceal problematic emotions.

When I examined how the term "emo" is used as a pejorative and the connotations is carries, I found three primary elements that I'd like to unpack further. First was the existence of a very strong emotion. Next was a critique of the emotion itself and a judgment of whether or not it was appropriate or genuine. Finally was a critique of how the emotion was presented and judgment of the appropriateness of that presentation.

Strong Emotion
"Emo" as a music genre grew out of the hardcore punk scene and was named for the emotional and deeply personal lyrical content of the songs, which set the genre apart from more traditional punk. This emotional component is still the core of the "emo" concept, with lyrics like "I really think it's guts that matter most/ I displayed them for you/ strung out about from coast to coast" ("All Over You", The Spill Canvas) and "picked the scabs and picked the bleeding/ and assumed that it was all in vain" ("Let it Bleed," The Used). The vocals often sounds as if they're being physically wrenched from the singer, with lots of wailing and screaming.

These strong, dramatic, and intense emotions are also associated with mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder, which are defined by having negative (depressive) or positive (manic) emotions outside the "normal" range of emotional experience. Mental illness is also an explicit theme in emo music. See, for example, Jimmy Eat World's proclamation in "Bleed American" that "I'm not crazy cause I take the right pills every day" and Panic at the Disco's "Camisado," about suicide: "the I.V. and your hospital bed/ this was no accident/ this was a therapeutic chain of events." There is also Green Day's "Basket Case," which discusses lead singer Billy Joe's anxiety disorder, the video for which is set in a psychiatric institution. There's also a strong perception that self-injury behavior such as cutting is intrinsically associated with emo. This significant overlap between characteristics of "emo" and of mood disorders means that reactions to "emo" likely draw from and reflect attitudes towards people with mood disorders.

Critiques of Emotional Response and Emotional Presentation.
One of the primary connotations of "emo" when used pejoratively is a judgment of whether the emotional display is appropriate. Synonyms for "emo" include "whiny," "overreacting," "oversensitive," and "over dramatic," all of which indicate a judgment that the emotion is disproportionate ("over") to the situation or cause. Other synonyms included "fabricated," "forced," and "disingenuous emotion," indicating a judgment that the emotion being expressed is inauthentic or feigned. The key is the assumption that an observer can legitimately judge the appropriateness of another's emotional reaction.

Another connotation I discovered is the sense that the person expressing emotion is doing so inappropriately. Emo people are seen as "reveling" or "wallowing" in their emotions, of elevating the importance of their own emotions over those of others in a narcissistic way. This critique ties in with the stylistic components of "emo," as people visibly mark their membership in the emo group and thus their extreme and dramatic emotions, through their clothes and hair. The theme here is the feeling that people who genuinely feel extreme emotions should try to hide them, stifle them, or move past them, and certainly should not share them with the world and demand attention for them.

As someone with a mood disorder, I have encountered identical critiques and judgments of my emotions when I was depressed or manic. Some of my emotional responses seemed disproportional because they were based more on my underlying brain chemistry than whatever was happening - like the day I stayed in bed for 36 hours because the thought of picking out clothes to put on was too overwhelming and intimidating. I was told that nobody could be that sad (i.e. my emotions were inauthentic), that I must be exaggerating things (i.e. my emotions were disproportionate), and that I should just get over it (as inauthentic and disproportionate emotions should be ignored, and even genuinely strong emotions shouldn't be flaunted.)

There are certainly emo singers, bands, and scene members who do not have mood disorders and who may be guilty of exaggerating or prioritizing their non-disordered emotions. But engaging in this policing of emotional expression, rather than deferring to an individual's own emotional reactions and expression of those emotions, can have seriously negative consequences for those people who do have mood disorders. This is especially true given the existing stigmas about male expressions of emotion and the predominantly male composition of emo bands and scenes - this reinforces messages to those men that they should ignore and repress their emotions rather than seeking help or treatment.

by abby jean
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15 Comments Have Been Posted

The problem with Emo

For me, emo has become trendy. Sadness has become 'cool', whether you really feel it or not. Anyone can fake angst. And all teenagers and 20-somethings have angst. Maybe mental illness is present. But depression has become a word we throw around in emo. Depression has become equated with general sadness. I once heard a kid say, I was depressed the other day. And then I wrote a poem about it and I was fine. Depression doesn't go away. Sadness does. To me, emo seems like a giant pity-fest in the desperate attempt to be noncomformist. It seems like a competition of who is the saddest, who has the worst life story. And then we cry about it and sit in the dark. It's an image, a persona, of sadness, to be cool and not like everyone else. At least that's what it seems to me. It's not that crying is inappropriate. Nor is sitting in the dark. Lord knows I've done it. But it's become cool to be sad, and emo's get made fun of for cutting. Cutting is never funny, but the way it's portrayed it seems like the sad emo kids are trying to prove they're not pussies by cutting, rather than a very valid cry for help. And this throwing depression around invalidates those of us who do suffer from it. If I cry and can't muster the strength to move around the house and hate life, my husband calls me emo. Like poor little emo kid, get over it. This is a valid illness and making it cool and trendy invalidates it.


That's one of the things that really makes my blood boil about emo—how mental illness is fetishized, and how many if not most of emo singers don't have the faintest idea of how hellish a mood disorder actually feels. (I have been battling anxiety disorder and intrusive thoughts for most of this year now.) The other thing is the inherent misogyny in emo, how so many singers blame supposedly heartless ex-girlfriends dumping them for their "depression." See also, <a href= Where The Girls Aren't</a> and <a href=>this wonderful Mitch Clem comic.</a>

Gender issues galore!

Cat- there are certainly a seemingly endless array of gender issues with emo - thanks for raising some of the ones I wanted to discuss but couldn't fit in my word limit. :) I listened to emo music and stations for days while working on this piece, and at the end it felt like they were all yelling at me for leaving or cheating or breaking their hearts or ruining their lives. It definitely felt like women existed in the emo world only to be blamed for all the problems the male singers had. Much like the Mitch Clem comic you linked points out!


This, this, a thousand times this. I hate how it's become cool to have a mental illness/disorder. Bipolar isn't some badge of honor and <i>~*~meaningfulness~*~</i>, it's terrifying and depression? Angst over your relationship issues (though it can trigger depression) is not the same as refusing to leave your room because just the idea is exhausting.

And oh god, the misogyny. A lot of emo guys strike me as being very much <a href="">Nice Guys</a>. Clue by four here: not being a jerk to a woman or even being friendly to her does not mean she is, somehow, obligated to sleep with you.

Isn't cutting to "prove

Isn't cutting to "prove they're not pussies" kind of a cry for help in it's own way? I don't know why it isn't because they belong to a particular subculture. Anyone who would go so far to do that for validation, "emo" or not, more than likely needs help, and I don't think it's fair for anyone to minimize their feelings or to claim that what is happening to them is less valid.

Cutting is always a problem

I agree, Michelle, that engaging in self-harm behavior, whether it be cutting or another variety, is a warning/danger sign that should not be ignored or minimized as subculture behavior. There may be people who are self-harming in order to better fit in to the subculture - but, like you, I find that equally concerning as someone self-harming without any subculture involvement.

"Depression has become

"Depression has become equated with general sadness. I once heard a kid say, I was depressed the other day. And then I wrote a poem about it and I was fine. Depression doesn't go away. Sadness does."

I won't argue with your first point that depression is used as a synonym for sadness. (And why shouldn't it be? If you mean the disorder, say "major depression" or "clinical depression" if there's any ambiguity.)

However, you promote something that bothers me: The belief that someone has to be severely depressed <em>all the time</em> to "really" have the illness. I've frequently been debilitated by depression and anxiety but generally happy and optimistic during the same periods of my life. I might well write a poem and feel well enough to crawl into bed with my laptop and read blogs for the rest of the day, just after a couple hours of weeping, or I'll vent my feelings in a last outpouring of the emotion that's had me on the verge of hallucinating for the last few days and then feel better in the sense because I reach an absolutely drained emotionally neutral place. Other people may reliably feel better at a certain time of day despite clinical depression, or maybe that "felt better after writing a poem" was one of the three bright periods of the person's life for the past four months. Or maybe the speaker was lying through his/her teeth to someone s/he'd been expressing severe emotional disturbance to the other day, but was now better enough to smile while feeling like dying inside and to tell someone that s/he was feeling better just so they don't worry or because it takes less mental effort.

The point is that you often can't tell, and the reader certainly can't from the observations you posted, whether or not the speaker really experiences clinical depression. The kid was obviously <em>using</em> depression to refer to a temporary mood, but that doesn't mean s/he isn't really sick. And by assuming that you know what is and isn't an expression of depression, you invalidate the experience of those of us who have communicated our depression in a way that you'd label as confusing depression with ordinary sadness.

Importantly, the presence of happiness in a person does not negate the possibility of depression. I've <em>had</em> depressive episodes where I don't feel pleasure or like life's worth living for weeks or months, but more commonly I alternate between moods and beliefs, or I can hold onto some memory of good while buckling down under the despair. Neither is normal, healthy, functional, or subclinical.

A misunderstanding

I too have periods where I function just fine, and others where I don't. But the illness never really goes away. I don't mean someone has to show signs of depression all the time to 'really' have it. Lord knows I don't. But that feeling, that nagging feeling that everything is always falling apart, every minor setback is the end of the world, all those little nagging feelings stay with you even on your good days. I can't say that kid doesn't have depression. But people I've talked to throw around the word like 'love', where it doesn't mean anything. Brief sadness is equated with full-on diagnosed depression, and it's not the same thing. This kid, the way he said it, was I'm cool, I'm depressed, I wrote a poem about it cuz I'm so cool. Let's listen to how cool I am while we talk about my angst. I too have been diagnosed with depression. Many, many people have. But it's become so 'trendy' and 'cool' in emo music that any expression I show of my sadness becomes trivial and Oh she's just being emo. It's hard to say what I mean. I think the whole emo scene invalidates those of us who are suffering, whether or not those artists really are dealing with mental issues. It's become cool and not to be taken seriously because of this whole scene, and therefore the rest of us who really need help are blown off. I wish I could articulate better. Sigh, this is what my english major got me :)

Thank you for this post.

Thank you for this post.

A strange trend

I've always found the emo trend to be extremely weird. It trivializes the emotions that these people feel. Also, I think the fact that the guys in the emo 'scene' wear tight pants and have longer hair are supposed to look makes me wonder if that's why they say they're so 'emo' or emotional. Like- since they're guys they can't be emotional unless they pick up some feminine attributes or something. I think the wierdest thing about it is that the music where guys sing about how they're upset has to have it's own genre of music.


This is the best analysis of emo I've ever read. Brava!

I enjoyed this post. Thank

I enjoyed this post. Thank you.

And it's certainly true about many emo singers having mental illnesses. I've ready many an article on favorite bands where the lead singer has confessed to depression, anxiety, panic attacks or the like. Max Bemis of Say Anything comes to mind. He is bipolar and has anxiety issues.

Great piece!

It has always kind of bothered me when people call someone "emo," but I've never been able to articulate exactly why. At this point, even its usefulness as a musical term is limited, because -- perhaps since the term has become so negative -- the arguments over whether or not any given band is emo are endless. If it just means "emotional" like some say, let's be real: how much music is NOT all about emotion?
On another note, I haven't been able to forget a particularly frustrating conversation I had years ago with a self-professed emo fan. At that point, most of the artists we knew of who self-identified as emo did slow folkie-type music, and I mentioned that I don't tend to be a fan of it. She declared me a self-loathing gay woman, because according to her the only reason people don't like emo-folk is because the (male) singers are seen as too effeminate. While I'm sure some people say these things about emo artists, I was stunned, since of course my dislike was all about the sound rather than the lyrics or image.
Honestly, I think emo might be a new binary: you're either an unstable drama monarch (probable, since people DO have feelings) or a soulless hater. Discussion of this is overdue.

The key is the assumption

<I>The key is the assumption that an observer can legitimately judge the appropriateness of another's emotional reaction.</i>

You know, when that emotional reaction involves some dude singer fantasizing about murdering the girlfriend who dumped him, in front of an audience that includes a lot of young women singing along to every word, then yeah, I do feel pretty entitled to judge that as inappropriate. Or, to be more accurate, fucking gross and misogynist. Maybe dude does genuinely feel that his ex-girlfriend needs to die, but when he chooses to share that emotion with the world, should he not be subject to critique? What about the way this plays into the idea that women should be the caretakers of emotionally unstable men, that they can "fix" them if they just use their magical love powers?

I have had depression for some years, and personally, I find it helps when people point out that the thing I call the Evil Brain is talking - it helps me get a better handle on my surroundings and ignore my self-destructive impulses. I don't think the solution is to hold off on criticizing emotional expression, but to criticize it in a more thoughtful way. I too am sick of "EMO IS GHEY LOLZ," but I want to be able to take it to task for its misogyny and its fetishization of suffering from mental illness (which I see someone pointed out above me here). I don't think those things should be off-limits because the individual expressing them might be struggling with mental health issues. (And honestly, given the cartoonish, romanticized portrait of mental illness seen in many of those songs, I have my doubts.)



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