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Project X: Narratives, or The stories we tell each other, and ourselves.

January 26, 2012

“…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.

In our last post, we said we’d talk about Narrative – the big “N” – so here it is.  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.

For Project X, 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 more… 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, exactly, 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 & 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… never 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, its 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 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 & clichés) help us work through & 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. Our narratives also explain who is acceptable in society, and who is not. Who is like us, and therefore ok, and who is The Other. 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. 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, & 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 & 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 Project X, 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.

Thank you for reading and please leave your thoughts and feedback!


Nikki & Simone

Suggested Reading

The Order of Things ~ Michel Foucault (Intro available here)

14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2012 11:08 am

    Funny you should bring up narrative. My work partner Jeff and I were discussing the whole Whoopy Goldberg & Ted Danson relationship and it’s ugly Black Faced ending.

    Both of them at the time were getting dumped on for being interracial. I suspect Whoopy more because of her outspoken support of ‘black’ causes.

    That was really a case in point where the principals lost total control of the narrative.

    • January 26, 2012 12:44 pm

      Hmmm… well, I’ll admit first off that I don’t remember exactly how that all went down. It’s very vague in my brain, so I won’t hazard to think too far (will probably get Simone over here).

  2. January 26, 2012 11:26 am

    Talking about what a Narrative (big N) is and how they affect our lives is a Huge Topic. I salute you for tackling it. I’m enjoying this series of yours.

    One example I thought of while reading this post is of advertising images, and how they rely on us to interpret them through those narratives. If I see a woman mopping the floor, I know I’m supposed to assume she is the mother in a family, that she sees keeping the house clean and taking care of her husband and children as primarily her responsibility, and that her personal pride is linked to the cleanliness of that floor. There’s a corresponding image used of men in media: instead of the floors or the meals, they take pride in the lawn or the car.

    Depending on where you live, culturally speaking, this image might seem so relevant that you don’t even notice all of the assumptions. OTOH, if it seems antiquated, if you are a woman or a man who does not fit the narrative implied, then the ad misses its target, and you may find yourself on the outside, critically examining the culture that made you. Eventually we come up with more narratives. Even transgender people have stories of the “classic transgender experience” that tend to shame, silence, and subvert the trans people whose lives don’t fit that narrative.

    • January 26, 2012 12:53 pm

      We know it’s massive. We wanted to give a really basic intro as we start moving forward… and there are SO many places you can go with it.

      The image of a woman or man doing something is a great example of how narratives work in our lives and influence how we see the world. The idea that ads, popular culture, media, etc play on narratives is also really important and a critical way in which they perpetuate and operate in our lives.

      The additional point that we continue to make new ones is also big. The key point there, one I almost went wandering off on, was the fact that marginalized people often attempt to create new narratives to move themselves from “the Other” to the norm. The “normalization” of gay couples into what heteronormativity will accept (e.g. the couple on “Modern Family”) is one way – but I also find it to be huge in the way gays will marginalize trans and bi and pan peeps. They re-create The Other to be those groups, allowing their inclusion within the “norm”. The “classic trans experience” is another example. Also with people who are technically members of a marginalized group, but see themselves/act the part of one within – e.g. black people or women who might *also* say that racism or sexism is dead. Or that some feminists think that being a mother via birthing a child is key to knowing what womenhood is all about.

      The point, of course, is not to consistently re-create narratives that just marginalize anew, but to see the narratives, break them down, and find new ways to talk about our culture that is INclusive.

      Thanks for reading! We love the feedback, and that’s really the only way we’ll get somewhere – when other people tell us what they think!

    • January 27, 2012 9:09 am

      Hi Justin! Thanks for your comments. I completely agree with you; this is a massive topic & you gave a great example.

      I like what Nikki said as well, Others othering…a whole “other” underbelly we didn’t get into. I’d really like to get a post in on Othering at some point as it is so complementary to Narrative. Futhermore, both you and Nikki hint at, and I think there is, a lot of neuroses that goes into Narrative & Othering that we didn’t even begin to touch on in our post. We don’t *just* create these structures so we don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” everyday. There are much deeper, psychological forces at work.

      • Alex Horn permalink
        February 10, 2012 3:16 pm

        Hi Simone,

        “We don’t *just* create these structures…”

        Speak for yourself 😉 Just kidding, nice post Simone and Nikki!

  3. February 3, 2012 7:37 pm

    Hey Nikki and Simone,

    This is a great topic, and one we’ve obviously been seeking clarity on Good Men Project as well. It seems like what happens is the people try to understand how their own personal narrative (what they experience as the truth) fits into the narrative that society is telling them is the “right” one. And comparing and contrasting. Some people WANT to be outside the norm — they are not marginalized, they are rebels. So it’s interesting to me to understand the dynamics of when people feel they are being marginalized because they don’t fit the cultural narrative and when people are consciously breaking out of it and seeing that as a positive.

    thanks for this!

    • February 7, 2012 10:06 pm

      Yes, good points, Lisa. Glad you enjoyed.

      Of course, most narratives are not clear to us, so we can’t really rebel. In addition, sometimes they don’t necessarily tell us who *we* are, but how we interact with others. This can be ok, as we point out – it helps us navigate life – but it can also be detrimental. We marginalize OTHER people.

      The key is to be able to see narratives that seem blatant, and the ones we are accepting as cultural truths. To make the *choice* that they are real for us, to understand how they affect our behavior and our views, and to make change as necessary.


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