What is ‘Normal’?

By Jessie Brookes

If you type ‘romance’ into Google Images, you have to browse through over a thousand photos before reaching one that does not contain some reference to a heterosexual relationship. Preconceptions of what is deemed to be ‘normal’ social behaviour are constantly challenged in the world that we live in and yet if we listen carefully to the background noise, it appears that the pressure to be ‘normal’ has an unfaltering presence in everything we do.

In this post-modern world, the need to be different has become paramount. We aspire to stand out from the crowd, to escape stereotypes, to be individuals in our own rights. And yet stereotypes still exist, everyone still fits into categories — and these categories are either normative, or they are not.

Even within social scientific research — where the goal is surely to gain access to objective truths (or the closest equivalent) — categories are predefined. Studies will occur on homosexual behaviour; or females between the ages of 18-25; or British Asians — as though by narrowing down the field of research to a category smaller than ‘human’, one will be able to understand that category more fully.

Heterosexuality is rarely studied in its own right, but is instead used as a comparison within the study of activities that may be considered less common. Is this because the majority of people are heterosexual, and therefore feel no need to research what are considered to be the obvious and accepted activities involved? Or do ‘normal’ people have an acute lack of awareness of the presence of normativity — a subconscious sense of entitlement not to be marginalised? Is it possible that heterosexual behaviour is the norm purely by chance? Clearly, in terms of survival, there is a biological need for a certain amount of heterosexuality within a species, but why has the conclusion been drawn that it is normal and natural for people to have singularly exclusive heterosexual relationships?

It terrifies me to think about how much of my behaviour could be purely attributed to social constructions. If I had been born in a different age, with different parents, or in a different country, would social constructions have molded me to be of a different sexual orientation? Would it be possible for someone to be marginalised because of their heterosexuality in a different reality? I don’t know. I simply find it hard to grasp the extent to which I am defined by social norms. I am a woman, and therefore subordinate. But not through the fault of any one man; not through the fault of any one person. I am subordinate because hundreds upon hundreds of years of socially accepted inequality have occurred. I wonder whether this gives me any right to complain (or I wonder: does this give me any right to complain?). Should we assume that things become social norms because they are the best of all possible options? Should we accept that things have become ingrained within society because they work? I hope not, but it worries me sometimes.

More importantly, assuming we will not sit back and allow social constructions to define our standing in society, how can we begin to instigate change? It has been done, to a certain extent, in many situations. Our prejudices against others change according to what we feel we are able to accept, and what we feel will fit in with how we perceive a functional society. But I sometimes get the impression that ‘accepting’ is often enacted in a way akin to ‘humouring’ rather than it being based on genuine inclusivity and celebration of difference. How can this change? Should it? I think so, but I am often at a loss as to how.

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