Social Normality

In a brief exchange I had with Lynet a few days ago, she raised the question of normality. Writing about how culturally ingrained sexism discourages women from pursuing an interest in math or science, she says,

I agree about it being kind of a stretch to think that a girl would consciously choose not to study maths because it’s not ‘feminine’. The notion of femininity is strongest these days insofar as it affects sexual relationships with men, I’d say. Part of the method of communication can sometimes involve shared assuptions about how a woman who feels attracted to a man will react.

It might perhaps be more ‘normal’-seeming for a girl to be disinterested in maths; I think ‘normality’ plays a bigger role than ‘femininity’ here. Both notions are of course gender-dependent.

The conception of normality is of course far stronger than sub-notions like femininity or masculinity or whiteness. At the risk of engaging in totalization, let me suggest that in fact these sub-notions depend on normality. Restrictive gender roles can’t live without a sense of social conformity that tells men to act like men and women to act like women.

One continual source of frustration for progressive activists is their total inability to combat conformity. Martin Luther King talked about judging people by the content of their character, but all he managed to do was remove skin color from the long list of superficial bases of judgment. In post-1960s America, people are still judged by their clothes and manner of speech and height and weight (though, to be fair, the 1960s also ushered in greater tolerance for subcultures than before).

Similarly, gay marriage is a good way to advance equal rights for gays and lesbians, but the libertarians, liberals, and radical leftists who are hoping to see the state stop enforcing its model of marriage on people are going to be disappointed. Like interracial marriage before it, single-sex marriage will not change anything about marriage, except remove one specific restriction. In 30 years, polyamorists will be rebuked, “Marriage is between only two people.”

This all-encompassing conformity is of course strongest outside these social battles. Take the standard modern Western view of gender relations, which illustrates just how complicated things are. What’s considered normal dragoons people to choose an archetype within their accepted gender role and stick to it.

Traditionally, men are expected to be strong and sporty and tough and have the same range of emotions as a clownfish; women are expected to be sexless before marriage and subservient and sexually submissive after. Nowadays, men are supposed to have a sensitive side they can switch on and off at will – Jack Bauer is not a John Wayne character – while women can choose between subservient femininity and ultra-masculinity. Naturally, subcultures and uncommon attributes like homosexuality and geekdom complicate things further.

Now, let’s apply that notion to women in math. This being 2007 rather than 1907, a 14-year-old girl with interest in math has a few rolemodels, both historical and contemporary, and knows that it’s possible for women to do math. But since math is so immersed in geek culture in the West, she may well be inclined to do something else if she doesn’t have a geeky personality.

This applies to both boys and girls, but ends up disadvantaging girls more. First, current geek culture is less gender-neutral than it would like to believe it is. If Gary Gygax had developed D&D for a female or even mixed target audience, he’d have built it with a more developed social interaction system and a less developed combat system.

Second, there’s a self-perpetuating myth that men can be mathematicians without sacrificing other interests while women can’t. In a culture that discourages women from doing math, the only women willing to overcome cultural expectations will be insanely dedicated to the point of having no other interests. That will only reinofrce the notion that math is somehow abnormal for women, perpetuating the cultural discouragement. This is essentially the intersection of social normality with the problem of rolemodels.

And third, the current construction of masculinity has a 1940s/50s Hollywood kernel with some modifications from the 60s and 70s. Since there have always been high-profile male mathematicians and scientists, there has been plenty of time to cultivate a properly masculine appreciation of science. The current model is one of the scientist or the mathematician as a conqueror or an explorer in uncharted territory. This has little to do with how math and science are actually done, but it’s romantic enough that people believe it. That way, men can be mathematicians without losing their gender-dependent normality, while women can’t.

For sure, this is a very gross simplification. I was ostracized for years for reading encyclopedias in my free time and being both good at and interested in math. But I had a support group of fellow (male) geeks, whereas the only girl in my class who was that geeky was kept out of our group even more so than the genuinely mentally disturbed male computer whiz.

Expectations of social normality affect everyone, but they always affect the marginalized the most. Women, and probably minorities and the poor as well, have to spend a large amount of the cultural equivalent of political capital to be taken seriously even if they have no special quirks, such as a love of mathematics. The best analogy here might be law school student loans, which indebt everyone but cripple people who had to take loans to pay for college.

2 Responses to Social Normality

  1. muppt says:

    Bush defied normality by revolutionize the english language in spite of the protests from grammar and spelling fascists worldwide.

  2. muppt says:

    Some people insist that the spelling of an english word has some kind of universal truth equivalent to an equation that describe gravitional interaction. But Bush showed that the spelling of words can be modified, compactified, and hacked to suit one’s personal taste.

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