Ideals and Norms Probably Aren’t Bad Bad Bad

By Graham Peterson

A theme comes up in gender literature often that I think is common elsewhere.  On small reflection, gender roles and ideals seem silly — because shockingly few people actually fit them.  Thinking about a category of behavior (like pretty white girl skinniness) or any outcome, in terms of its distributional tails seems thusly ridiculous.     1-barbie-vs-real-women-Nickolay-Lamm

Most Gender advocates don’t use the language of means and modes of distributions — and certainly not many of the 1970s and 1980s gender theorists who were smashing positive social science for its reification of gender stories.*  But a statistical mode is precisely what R.W. Connel is talking about, for instance, when she says, “normative definitions of masculinity . . . face the problem that not many men actually meet the normative standards.”

The Barbie critics, the critics of hegemonic masculinity, and so forth are absolutely correct.  Vanishingly few people meet the norms of gender performance and interaction that have been lain out.  But that is true of all norms.  Gender scholars claim that gender norms function primarily to reenforce dominance.  But certainly that can’t be true of all norms (unless you’re a particularly dedicated cynic).  So I think we need to think, before declaring that the system of establishing and communicating behavioral norms is everywhere oppressing with impossible-to-meet standards, a lot harder about why people establish norms.

Before we do, let’s not forget what an important contribution the social scientific politics of the late 20th century was.  It is everywhere colloquial by now that “not all black people _______.”  It is not difficult to teach undergraduates that one dramatic anecdote does not represent a social average.  They already know to take categorical representatives, especially dramatic ones on the tails of a distribution, with a grain of salt.

But it does not follow that because we have been able to assemble a mighty list of harmful stereotypes, that the entire enterprise of establishing stereotypes is hegemonic.

How about the stereotype of the loyal boyfriend, or the honest taxpayer?  Shockingly few people actually meet the standards these norms have set up, but there is a curious lack of literature discussing how they hence acculturate shame in people, or paradoxically work to ensure their subordination.  Nor does the statistical literature claim it is lunatic to think about boyfriend fidelity in terms of tail behavior — in terms of inspiring romantic comedies.

We all accept that myriad statistically fallacious normative roles are unproblematic.

And that’s, I think, because we are neither dumber for our tendency to think in terms of exemplars of categories, nor are we ethically or politically weaker.  It seems to me that these archetypes, stereotypes, ideal types, exemplars — whatever you want to call them — are part of a (dare I say) a natural and absolutely functional and necessary negotiation of the virtues that we strive towards as a culture, and the vices that we tear away from.

I don’t think that recognizing these broader mechanics of ideals — and arguing for different ideals — is at all at odds with discouraging young girls from developing eating disorders, or encouraging people to relax about the sexual and fashion preferences of others.

*Notable exceptions are Irving Goffman and Nancy Chodorow talking about the overlap of the normal distributions of height in men and women, and how random pairing would defy the regularity of taller man shorter women dimorphism in American couples. 

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