Being normal isn’t all that its cracked up to be. In 1963, Betty Friedan exposed the dark underside of “normal” femininity in a book that helped launched the women’s movement, The Feminine Mystique. Michael Warner’s 1999 polemic, The Trouble with Normal, made an impassioned case for how queer people, unencumbered by marriage, subvert gender and sexual norms.
The collapse of normal gender and sexuality has rapidly progressed, according to some observers. As the argument goes, rising divorce rates, the growing affirmation of queer relationships, and the proliferation of singles, among other developments, are changing the way we live. The expectation that we’ll fall in love and spend our lives with one person, that heterosexuality is normal and natural, and even that there are two, and only two sexes, is fading.
Recent Hollywood rom-coms like The Break-Up, Wedding Crashers, and Knocked Up, filled with nebbishy guys and relationships gone awry, offer further proof, according to J. Jack Halberstam in her latest book, Gaga Feminism–as does kids’ culture. Children are playful, they elude categorization, they embrace nonsense, and they’re organic gender warriors, according to Halberstam. While the adult world tries furiously to place the author in gender boxes, the children in her life, she says, happily describe her as a “boygirl.” As Freud suggested, children are polymorphously pleasure seeking. It’s their parents who screw them up, forcing them to conform to old, tired prescriptions of what they should be like.
Sociologists who’ve studied children and adolescents– such as Barrie Thorne, C. J. Pascoe, and Karin Martin — agree in theory that gender is infinitely malleable. Society produces “the natural”– yet there’s relatively little about gender that’s cast in stone. But these empirical researchers see norms as fairly resilient. Schools, in particular, teach kids how to be “themselves”–how to be girls and boys. Children pick these lessons up from their teachers, as well as from other kids, who bring all of their exposure to media, parental prejudices, and so forth with them each day, along with their lunch and sharpened pencils.
Bless those feminists and gay liberationists who in the heady 1970s believed that we could slice and dice it all, and make a world where categories would have less sway. And praise be to the gender-queers and sex radicals who continue to struggle to create a different order of things, or a happy disorder. Collectively, they’re brave– even visionary. But sometimes even the best-laid plans go awry. If left to their own devices, perhaps kids would create a world of polymorphous gender and sexuality, where girls can be boygirls and boys can be girlboys–a world without fairy princesses, or muscled soldiers toting bayonets. But to a great extent kids live in a world of their elders’ making. Even as Freud described the enormous flexibility inherent in little humans, he believed that as they matured most people develop along a fairly predictable trajectory, and end up as either male or female, and generally as heterosexual.
Card-carrying feminist and queer parents (and I’m among them) often speak of how the experience of raising children tempers their radical constructionist commitments. Gazing upon their little daughters who insist upon wearing pink, some parents pronounce the triumph of biology: girls will be girls; boys will be boys. There’s a tendency to enlist explanations of innate gender differences to account for why radical change hasn’t happened. Missing from this account is just how dominant the dominant culture remains.
So, as much as I’d like to believe we’re seeing the unraveling of the normal, I’m not so convinced. That doesn’t mean that we should stop struggling against the categories which confine us, but that we need to see the struggle as a very, very long one.