Perceived as Normal

By Jean Halley and Amy Eshleman

To be perceived as normal means to have power and privilege. Queer and feminist movements help us to see that all of us fail at passing for normal in some way. Heterosexual, cisgender, and queer individuals can benefit from challenges to normative assumptions that limit self-expression and social interaction.

 

At the age of three, Isaiah sat on his mother’s lap, gazed lovingly at her, and said sweetly and in all seriousness, “Mommy, you have a beautiful mustache.” At age four, Isaiah’s sister Lena expressed vocal admiration for her mother’s “great, big hiney”.

These children meant to give their mother sincere compliments on admired aspects of her appearance. They did not yet know that women in our mainstream culture are not meant to have facial hair or great, big hineys and that indeed, the compliments were actually insults in the normative culture. Children have to learn these cultural norms. They are not born knowing them. These examples help us to see that our contemporary mainstream ideals for beauty in women are not “natural” but social and constructed.

To be perceived as normal means to have power and privilege. Yet ultimately none of us fully fit – or forever fit – in the binary frame of normal, good, and correct. Queer and feminist movements help us to see that in the end all of us fail at passing for normal in some way.

Idealised females in our mainstream society are small, thin, even frail. They have no body hair, wrinkles, or flab. They hold themselves in a controlled manner that folds the body inward, legs pressed together or crossed, instead of spreading their limbs and taking more space. Girls and women learn to pick at their food and, especially in public, eat tiny amounts. Sex educator and body image activist Melissa A. Fabello identifies ways that thin women experience privilege, such as fashionable stores stocking clothing in their size and being able to enjoy a high-calorie treat without fear of open scoffing from bystanders. Inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s seminal work that identified unfair privileges awarded without merit to people socially understood to be white, Fabello similarly lists advantages afforded to thin women that are denied to fat women.

While women are expected to be thin, men are pressured to be muscular. It is okay in the mainstream, and even cute, for girls and women to cry, to not know how to throw a ball or land a punch. To achieve hegemonic masculinity, boys and men are encouraged to internalise expectations to act in ways opposite to female caretakers and girl peers. Indeed, many people refer to male and female as “opposite sexes”, thereby promoting binary thinking. In contrast, social constructionists reveal that male and female sexes as well as masculine and feminine genders are not actually opposite, rather, social expectations work to produce seemingly opposing behaviour. Young children learn social assumptions as they grow up and interact across their life-span within social contexts that expect everyone to conform to these norms. Girls and boys, men and women who do not learn these rules or who choose to deviate from them often suffer consequences, and those can be severe.

Social constructionists reveal that male and female sexes as well as masculine and feminine genders are not actually opposite, rather, social expectations work to produce seemingly opposing behaviour.

The perspective of intersectionality focusses on how different parts of a person’s identity interact, such as gender, sexuality, wealth, education, and race, in other words, how aspects of identity intersect. Sociologists Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins identify that a matrix of domination occurs when an individual is stigmatised on multiple levels. Similarly, Barbara Smith’s definition of feminism acknowledges the intersections of race, socioeconomic class, disability, and sexual identity.

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As the editors of This Bridge Called My Back, Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa present critical pieces written by queer women of colour about oppression and resistance. Lesbian feminist scholars of colour, such as Anzaldúa and Audre Lorde, explore embodying multiple stigmatised aspects of identity that form a matrix that may be used to dominate, to oppress.

Being a man does not always mean (or only mean) having privilege. Intersectionality helps us to understand that each person has multiple identities, some of which might carry privilege while others might bear the historical weight of oppression. As we explore in our recent book on heterosexual privilege and gender normativity, Seeing Straight: An Introduction to Gender and Sexual Privilege, men with gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, or intersex identities are often excluded from privilege.

Heterosexual men who are African American experience racism, including profoundly racist stereotypes about their sexuality. A racist stereotype in normative United States culture is the idea that Black men are sexual predators of white women. Linked to this ugly idea is the ungrounded belief that Black men cannot control themselves and that they are dangerous and likely to sexually assault white women. Cultural materialists identify that the system of slavery in the United States produced and reproduced beliefs by whites that people of African descent were more animalistic and therefore better at physical than intellectual activities. In this racist way of thinking, whites thought Black people were stronger at physical labour, better dancers, and excessively sexual in comparison with those understood to be white. Racist whites believed Black men to be out of control sexually, particularly around the normative white symbol of purity, white womanhood.

This racist thinking culminated in white justification for violence, including lynching many African American men in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States. Whites were invested in the exploited labour of African Americans. Racism justified the exploitation. The racism was rationalised by whites through stereotypes, including portrayals of Black men as sexual predators of white women. Violence by whites, including lynching as a white terrorist practice, was used to scare African Americans into accepting oppression.

W. Griffith’s 1915 feature-length film, Birth of a Nation, is often cited as being transformative in terms of advancing the field of filmmaking. The film is a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan’s potential for saving the United States from the menace of African American men’s debauchery, based on Thomas Dixon’s popular novel The Clansman. Scenes are meant to horrify white viewers of the terrors that would occur if Black men had power.

In one set of scenes, Griffith portrays an idealised white girl. She happily focusses on housework and caring for her family. The implication is that she is innocent of sexuality, pure, virginal. Her downfall is that she does not heed warnings of dangerous Black men in the nearby woods. Instead, she traipses out of the house to fetch a pail of water. A European American actor in blackface follows her into the woods. In a brief encounter, the man indicates that he wants to marry the girl. She is shown running away with a look of abject terror. The man runs after her. Griffith implies that the man is intent on committing stranger rape. In the novel, the girl is raped, but in the film, she jumps from a cliff to her death rather than be defiled.

Africana studies scholar Tricia Rose traces this “long and entrenched history of associating Black culture and Black people with violence, lawlessness, and deviant sexuality” from early film to contemporary hip-hop videos. She notes, “These associations have been fabricated to justify and maintain various forms of racialised and gendered oppression and inequality of Black people throughout US history.” White male executives at record companies have been the most recent group to profit from media images of predatory Black male sexuality.

Some feminists lead campaigns against pornography based on prevalent portrayals of women as sexual objects for consumption rather than sexual agents. Some of these antipornography feminists argue that all forms of female sex work exploit the sex workers and objectify and abuse all women.

Rich diversity among feminist thinkers often leads to differing perspectives on how to promote the status of women. Challenging rigid ideas of the normal must be central to feminism. Evaluation of pornography is an issue where branches of feminism have heated debates, and where all sides question what should and should not be normalised. Some feminists lead campaigns against pornography based on prevalent portrayals of women as sexual objects for consumption rather than sexual agents. Some of these antipornography feminists argue that all forms of female sex work exploit the sex workers and objectify and abuse all women. For example, feminists involved with the National Organization for Women (NOW) – cofounded in part by the author of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan – have historically argued that sex work harms women. In sharp contrast to the anti–sex work position, sex workers, many of whom identify as feminist, argue that sex work can be liberating for women. Sex as work includes the potential of allowing and celebrating women’s sexuality – including the celebration of women as beings who can, do, and deserve to enjoy their sexuality on their own terms.

Some pro-pornography feminists promote forms of pornography that portray women as consenting sexual agents. Pornography, like other products of sex work, offers the possibility of greater enjoyment of sexuality and therefore can be a form of enacting a politics of celebrating sexuality. Artists have playfully created sexually explicit images to challenge viewers to see women as powerful and valuable. Feminist reviews of pornographic films and other materials are widely available.

In some ways, outside perspectives about sex workers have paralleled assumptions about queer people. Historically, queer sexuality was first treated as a sin, next as a crime, and then as an illness. In the United States, prostitution is illegal in most states. Sex workers are frequently portrayed as sinful and criminal. A common stereotype in our society is to think about prostitution or other forms of sex work as the actions of sad, down-and-out women who were abused as children or have a drug addiction. Like queerness decades ago, sex work today is often perceived as an illness.

We acknowledge the reality that some sex workers are forced into this role, some are children, and that some resort to sex work based on financial crisis. Yet many sex workers do not fit any of the stereotypes and have not fallen victim to human trafficking. Among these sex workers, many claim to enjoy their work, to find it fulfilling, interesting, and a good source of income.

In Wendy Chapkis’s interviews with sex workers, Susanne claims about herself and her business partner, “There is no limit to what we can do. We’re businesswomen and we have a plan. I am not a sad story. I’ve succeeded.” Susanne’s work as a prostitute challenges heteronormative assumptions about the roles of women and men in sexual encounters. Another sex worker, Vision, also discusses her work positively:

I really think that if everyone had skin-to-skin and breath-to-breath contact with another human being once a day, the planet would be a very different place. And I am very happy to provide that space in the world.

In its status as wage work, sex work is similar to other jobs. In that it is work that involves a kind of intimacy, it is like other jobs involving emotional labor. These occupations include psychotherapy, being a minister, being a flight attendant, serving at a restaurant, and care work, for example, with children or the elderly. Emotional labor is often unrecognised labour. Flight attendants ostensibly are paid for showing people what to do in case of an emergency landing, serving food, and taking care of a limited array of physical needs. Yet flight attendants also work to keep passengers feeling emotionally comfortable, happy, and calm. This work takes a conscious effort in the form of friendly performance.

In sex work, sexual acts are sold to consumers in exchange for a wage, including direct sexual contact through prostitution, suggestive sexual interaction as in erotic dancing, or symbolic sexual availability such as pornography. Sex workers do not merely go through the physical motions of having sexual encounters; they also perform emotional states such as desire, happiness, and fulfilment. Interestingly, this kind of work has traditionally been understood as low status and morally problematic. Like much of traditionally female labour in our culture – child care, elder care, cleaning, and doing laundry – sex work is low status. Yet while all of these forms of female work are considered labours of love in our society, only sex work carries the weight of being understood as morally corrupt.

Feminist and queer movements challenge everyone across sexes, genders, and sexualities to critically explore assumptions about gender, sexuality, normativity, and morality. Heterosexual, cisgender, and queer individuals can benefit from conscious challenges to normative assumptions that limit self-expression and social interaction.

Most of the article’s material came from our/their book, Seeing Straight: An Introduction to Gender and Sexual Privilege (Rowman and Littlefield 2017).

Featured Image courtesy: Devon Buchanan / Flickr 

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Jean Halley is Associate Professor of sociology at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. She has taught extensively in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. She is the author of several books, including Boundaries of Touch: Parenting and Adult-Child Intimacy and The Parallel Lives of Women and Cows: Meat Markets.

Amy Eshleman is Professor of psychology at Wagner College, where she regularly teaches courses on gender, sexuality, race, social class, and prejudice. Together, Halley and Eshleman have authored two books: Seeing Straight: An Introduction to Gender and Sexual Privilege (2017) and Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race (2011).

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