Towards the end of last year, we (“we” being Simone of Will Somebody Read A Book, Please? and Nikki B. of Women Are from Mars) were motivated, mainly by events at the GMP, to initiate a little joint project.
Fundamentally, we felt that the arguments happening, especially in the comments, at GMP during this time, and reflected across the blogosphere on similar topics in similar circles, were not actually helpful to constructive conversation. They occurred at the surface, involved much misunderstanding, and failed to address the root of the problem(s) or move anyone forward. Most damagingly, they seemed to be between people who might otherwise be in agreement.
We want to initiate a discussion to move beyond this superficial level. And, no, we aren’t out to edjumakate y’all; we think we can learn something, too. Other people, even those whose comments made us an angry, have valid experiences and views. We can learn something from how they see the world.
However, we need to learn how to have these conversations in a more constructive way. To do that, we decided to start at the beginning.
From there, we posted what follows.
“…the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”
– From The Order of Things, An Archaeology of the Human Sciences
By Michel Foucault, Preface pg xv.
We all know what narrative means in a literary sense; it’s a story; it’s telling a story; it’s “a series of connecting events” (says the Apple dictionary app). We best associate it with novels and fiction.
Here, we don’t mean that kind of narrative. Well, sort of. But not exactly. When narrative jumps off the page and into life, when we start to talk about narratives as they exist in our lives and our culture, it gets a little bit… tricky.
One significant reason is, in life, narratives have more than one author, they expand and spread, no longer told by one person to another, but perpetuated by and existing within social fabrics and cultural constructions. They become creatures we may have created but no longer control.
It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. You may be choosing which page to turn to, but the choices available have already been limited for you by the narrative of the Adventure. There are only certain options at each fork in the road.
What, more specifically, are these narratives as we mean them here? What do they look like? To flesh them out, we decided it’s easiest to start with examples.
Most of us have a family. Whether it’s a Mom, a Dad, and some siblings, two Moms, two Dads, divorced, separated, single parents, adopted or step-siblings, the friends who are there for us more than “blood-relations” – we’ve got it. Yet, we also all know what the “perfect family” is supposed to be like it. A Mom, a Dad, a white picket fence, vacations, and a station wagon. Two-point-five kids.
But that perfect family does not typically exist. We all know that, too. Even families that appear perfect from the outside… rarely are on the inside. The point is, our culture tells us a story about what a family is supposed to look like, regardless of how rooted in reality that is. In spite of that, it also provides a bar with which to measure the family you’ve got.
Another way we tell narratives is around relationships. Ask any single person over a certain age if a committed relationship or marriage is critical to feeling like their life has been successful. The flip side, of course, is that prior to “that age,” the narrative is “have fun! you’re young!” and “it’s only puppy love!”
It’s not just finding a committed relationship, it’s also about keeping it. Because true love lasts forever, right? And while we’re at it…marriage is only between a man and a woman. Which means, duh, that anyone outside that heteronormativity* is, well, SOL.
Now, one of these things, or all of these things, probably feels and sounds wrong to you – and you’d be right. These things are not necessarily reality, but they are narratives in our culture. Do they apply to everyone? Hell nah. But – we all feel their presence, and their pressure.
We’re not saying that narratives don’t play an important part in society – they do. Just like you don’t have to philosophize about whether or not you should brush your teeth every morning, narratives (much like stereotypes and clichés) help us work through and manage our daily lives by knowing what the “norm” is. BUT we need to see them for what they are: stories we tell ourselves about how we act, what we say, how we treat and view others. It’s in the story that the best family is Mom, Dad, and kids, and that a good relationship is a till-death-didya-part marriage. The narrative that the gender binary is essential to the human experience. Our narratives also explain who is acceptable in society, and who is not. Who is like us, and therefore the “norm” and ok, and who is The Other. It’s in the homophobia of straights, and the transphobia and biphobia of gays and lesbians. All of these marginalize anyone who doesn’t quite fit, who is outside the norm.
See, narratives are supposedly about the general human experience of all people in a culture. They pretend to be cultural nonfiction. But they aren’t. Narratives are cultural half-truths, fictions, structures, and characters that are made up and very often perpetuate beyond our control or our vision. They may have roots in stories or characters told by people to other people, but then, the characters and stories…they took over for themselves. And, because we often accept them as a cultural nonfiction, our narratives are doing the talking; suddenly they’re directing our behaviors.
We’re Michael Scott of “The Office” – bumbling around saying racist and sexist things, behaving in ways we would absolutely not condone, if we realized we were doing it.
When someone rolls their eyes at “playing the race card” – they may not be racist, but they are living within the narrative that race isn’t important.
When men’s rights activists get angry about feminism, they may not be sexist, but they’re living within the narrative that sexism doesn’t exist or even that men have it worse than women now.
When a woman is called slutty for her number of partners, and a man is called a stud for his, this isn’t necessarily misogyny, but it is the narrative that good girls don’t and manhood is about having a lot of sex.
When a women tells a friend who was the victim of a sexual assault that, really, she shouldn’t have worn that, she isn’t condoning rape, but she is living within the narrative that trivializes rape and blames the victim.
The key is to see narratives as the stories they are not blindly accept them as reality.
As the quote that opened this post points out, it’s easy to do this with other cultures – you can see how narratives are confining when you are outside them. You can see the story for what it is. When you read the Choose Your Own Adventure, you realize you only have a few choices, and you can easily think of the many other things you could do.
Why do we never turn that reflection on our selves? On our own culture?
Part of it is our narratives masquerade as nonfiction about our culture. Part of it is that narratives work to uphold current constructs of power and privilege (something we’ll talk about next time!). Part of it is the really difficult work that goes into being self-aware and admitting to being wrong.
But we should all be better at doing these things. The really easy place to begin is to listen to people outside our own narratives who, like standing outside another person’s culture, can provide us with insight we may currently be incapable of.
For future Project X posts, we’re going to be talking about some of the narratives that exist within discussions of feminism – not to make the case for feminism and against men’s rights activists, for example, but encourage awareness of the stories at work in those arguments. The narratives that are not helpful to constructive dialogue, and that derail conversation.
It is only in exposing the narratives and deconstructing them that we truly hear one another, find common ground and self-awareness, and move us forward towards a more true humanism. We hope you’ll join the discussion.
Nikki & Simone
As Project X continues, we’re going to explore more specific narratives in the discussion around feminism. The point is to bring the long history of feminist theory and academic study to bear on the conversations in the blogosphere. See, one of the massive problems we’ve both noticed in blogged conversations is a lack of background. In some ways it feels like the blogosphere is reinventing the wheel…and we all know that’s wasted effort!
This could be because academia hasn’t done its job and distributed its ideas and discussions to the mainstream…so our hope is to help that along, provide better understanding, to educate, and to open hearts and minds. Also to stimulate discussion on other perspectives and experiences.
Finally, we will wrap up with discussion on how to move forward from common understanding to engage conversations in a constructive way, one that allows for people outside marginalized groups to talk about how ‘isms, and anti-‘ism movements, affect them. We hope that by starting with everyone on the same page in terms of vocabulary, providing a background in theory and research, and then engaging how to move forward, we might really get somewhere.
Please join us. We look forward to hearing from you.
—Photo Lin Pernille Photography/Flickr