"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.
"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.