Monday, June 13, 2011

What is Normal: From A Guy's Viewpoint vs My Viewpoint

Former Conservative recently posted a dissection of... Okay, let me back up.

There is a young woman who calls herself Miss Raquel. Miss Raquel writes a blog called God's Daughter, which focuses on issues of interest/importance to young people in her particular Christian subculture. Among her regular features is an item called "From a Guy's Viewpoint," in which she sends a questionnaire out to young men, to get their feedback on important issues like love, marriage, and appropriate behavior; and then publishes their responses on her blog.

Former Conservative spent some time talking about why he finds a lot of the responses disturbing, and my reactions are very much in line with his. So rather than looking at the responses, I'd like to talk about the questions themselves.

This is not because I find them terribly disturbing. Miss Raquel comes across as bright, active, and very earnest about her Christianity; the material on her blog (what I've read of it) is not malicious, harmful, or even particularly offensive. At worst, she needs to get out more.

...All of which brings me, roundabout, to the same point I was trying to make with the post about Shakespeare in the Bush. Normality is a social construct, and it's a particularly tenuous and contextual one. It's not that people have trouble understanding the concept of "normal". We seem to be wired for that. It's that everybody has their own idea of what is normal.

I'm sure that most (probably all) of these questions seem, to Miss Raquel, like perfectly reasonable, sensible things to ask. They're normal concerns, in other words. But to someone with a different background... well, to illustrate, let me bring in my sixteen-year-old self as a guest. At sixteen I was still attending church and youth group at an Episcopal church on the north edge of Dallas; I was solitary, but not as isolated as I would be later; and I hadn't been exposed to a lot of the views and ideas that I'd run into in college and the working world.

Also, I was a nerd. Or maybe more of a proto-goth. Either way, not a typical teenager, if there is or ever was such a thing.

So, without further ado, let me introduce Michael at Age Sixteen (MAS).

MAS: Um.

Now, let's set the scene. Michael at Age Sixteen is, I don't know, eating in a fast-food restaurant when he's approached by a Christian Young Woman (CYW) of about his own age.

CYW: Hi there. Mind if I join you?

MAS: {nods warily}
MAS: {looks at seat across from him, looks at CYW}

CYW: Do you mind if I ask you some questions? I'm trying to find out what guys think about, well, a bunch of different things.

MAS: ...Sure. Go ahead. {sets book down}

CYW: Well, let's see. Um, first, what are your thoughts on modesty?

MAS: It's a virtue?

CYW: That's all?

MAS: Pretty much.

CYW: Okay... Some of us feel that we either give too much effort, or not enough, in worrying about the way we dress. What is your suggestion to how you wish girls would dress? What do you like to see girls wearing?

MAS: Um. Whatever works for them, I guess.

CYW: So you don't care?

MAS: Well, I mean, I guess I'd think better of someone who was wearing something practical. And comfortable. Like, if there's an opposite of high heels...

CYW: Oh. How do you feel about girls wearing makeup?

MAS: {shrugs} Seems like kind of a waste of time to me.

CYW: But you wouldn't have a problem with it?

MAS: Are there people who do?

CYW: Some people think it's immodest. Next question: a lot of girls worry about looking chic around guys… but what do you consider pretty?

MAS: Chic? If you're looking for fashion advice, you are asking the wrong guy.

CYW: Yeah, I noticed.

MAS: My fashion sense stops at comfortable and practical. I know people dress in uncomfortable, impractical ways because they think it looks pretty... but I don't see it, and I don't get it.

CYW: How about this: do guys ever notice changes in girls? Hair styles, clothes, etc.?

MAS: Depends.

CYW: "Depends." That's your whole answer?

MAS: Depends on the guy. Depends on the change. Depends on the circumstances. I'm pretty oblivious, but I noticed when one of my classmates showed up with a big strip of her hair shaved, and the rest going six different directions in eight different colors.

CYW: Okay, it depends. Well... What is something that you want/look for, the most, in your future wife?

MAS: {chokes, splutters} What?

CYW: What quality would you look for in your future wife?

MAS: Willingness to marry me?

CYW: Besides that?

MAS: Whaddaya mean, "besides that?" If she isn't... Oh, never mind.

CYW: Maybe we should move to another topic. Do you often feel peer pressure from your friends? In any way, but mostly in the standards that you have set for your life.

MAS: No.

CYW: Never?

MAS: I'll ask you the same thing I asked the guy who tried to lecture me about peer pressure and drugs. {leans forward} What makes you think these people are my peers?

CYW: Okay. Next up... What do you consider flirting and what do you think of a girl when she flirts with you?

MAS: Doesn't happen.

CYW: What?

MAS: It. Doesn't. Happen. Look at me. Look at the way I dress. Girls don't flirt with me. They generally cross to the other side of the street and do their best to avoid eye contact. If a girl ever did, I'd probably think I'd misunderstood what she was doing.[1]

CYW: How do you feel about dating?

MAS: Puzzled.

CYW: ...?

MAS: Too many rituals, too many expectations. I don't... Look, it's not that I wouldn't like to, it's that I have no idea how to go about it.

CYW: So you don't think there's anything wrong with it, except that it's too complicated for you?

MAS: Pretty much. Are we looking for a moral issue, here? 'Cause barring a few things that could happen on dates - but aren't, in themselves, dating - I just don't see one.

CYW: When you’re interested in a girl, do you focus on her family too? Do you make it a point to get to know them as much as you want to get to know her?

MAS: ...

MAS: ...If that ever happens, I'll let you know.

CYW: What is your view on college for girls?

MAS: You mean, like women-only colleges?

CYW: No, I mean women going to college at all.

MAS: I don't think I understand. Is there some reason to think that they shouldn't? Assuming that they want to, and they have passable grades?

CYW: Uh... okay, skip that. How about this: what is your dream job? And why?

MAS: I don't know. Writer, maybe? Or maybe I'll just try a bunch of different things until something feels right.

CYW: What do you think the man’s role is in the home – compared to the woman’s?

MAS: Well, in my family the usual gender roles are kind of reversed. My mom's the reliable breadwinner, and the one who sets the rules. Dad is more touchy-feely and optimistic. And less organized. So... Whatever works?
MAS: As long as it's fair, anyway.

CYW: Fair is good. How many kids would you like to have?

MAS: I honestly can't picture myself being old enough to have kids.[2] But if I did, probably two. Zero population growth, and all that.

CYW: A lot of guys like using sarcasm around girls…do you know why that is?

MAS: Yes. Because they're sarcastic.
MAS: Do you mean sarcasm, or sarcasm?

CYW: What's the difference?

MAS: Whether... It's the difference between clever irony, and being mean. They're both called "sarcasm," but they're very different things. I'm... not comfortable with people being mean, even when it's supposed to be funny.

CYW: Do guys like it when girls are tomboyish or more girlie?

MAS: Tomboyish. Nothing against being girlie, but for me... well, I get interested in people who can keep up with me. Or move ahead of me. But, well, be yourself, you know?

CYW: Is there anything that you would appreciate girls doing differently in order to help you maintain your purity?

MAS: Maintain my what? Oh, you're talking about... Okay, look: purity isn't always the best thing. Laboratory-pure water is nothing you'd want to drink. It's the impurities that give it flavor. Pure iron is strong, but when you add some carbon you get steel - much stronger.
MAS: So what I want, basically, is for girls to be clear about what they want and what they're doing. Guys, too, for that matter. Like I said, I'm kind of oblivious.

CYW: Um, okay, right. Where did you learn about... no, skip that, too. What do you think about guys and girls hugging?

MAS: I'm all in favor of it.

CYW: I... yeah. When do you plan to have your first kiss?

MAS: ...Last year? Sorry, are there people who actually... plan that?

CYW: Okay, we're almost done. How will you respond if God's plan is out of sync with your own?

MAS: Unless God wants to actually, um, drop by and explain His plan, I'm pretty much just planning to muddle through as best I can. I don't think I'd actually know if my plans were out of sync with God's plan for me. And, actually, I get the feeling that he really wants me to work that out on my own. He wants followers, not puppets, you know?

CYW: What do you think of girls posting pictures of guys on their blog?

MAS: ...
MAS: I have no opinion about that.

CYW: Do you guys sometimes get weirded out by being friends with girls?

MAS: You know what's weirding me out? You keep asking questions about what boys-in-general think about this or that regarding girls-in-general. There's no answer for that. Which boy? Which girl? Under what circumstances?
MAS: No, I think guys being friends with girls is pretty normal. A lot of my friends are girls. The boys tend to talk about sports, cars, television... I don't care. The girls have more interesting things to say. At least, the ones I hang out with do.
MAS: {considers}
MAS: Actually, that's true of the guys I hang out with, too.

CYW: Just two more. What is one thing that girls do that you hate?

MAS: {Deadpan:} Arg.
MAS: There's no one thing that girls do. There are specific people who do specific things that I specifically hate, but there's no one thing that girls do. At all, let alone that I hate. Different girls do different things.
MAS: Look, be yourself. Be fair to other people. Be clear about what you want and what you're doing. Is that so hard? And I'm not saying that it's girls who need to do that. It's boys, too. Maybe more so.

CYW: Last question: to what degree should a guy and girl just "be friends"?

MAS: As much as they're both comfortable with. Other than that, as much as they want. I mean, okay, I realize this is focused on gender roles and gender relations, but as Pressing Moral Issues Of Our Times, shouldn't we be more worried about, say, feeding the poor than about who might be boffing whom before marriage?

CYW: Thanks for answering. {leaves the table, goes back to her friends}

MAS: Well, that was odd. {Picks up book and starts reading again.}

CYW: {to her friends} That was weird.

So there's normal for you. I have a better understanding now - at least, I dearly hope so - but back then I would have had no context for the questions. And without that context, I can't really answer them; most of the questions make no sense to me, and the ones that do I would answer incorrectly, because I didn't understand what sort of answers those questions were looking for.

Normal itself may be a universal concept, but what is considered normal... well, that's extremely relative, contextual, personally and socially determined - and as a result, tenuous. And I'm prepared to argue, as I get the time, that anyone who believes that there's a universal standard for "normal" really, really needs to get out more.

'Cause the more you look around, the more you see that it just ain't so.

[1] True story, by the way.

[2] I really couldn't.


  1. I have nothing productive to add. Just wanted to say that was awesome.

  2. Exactly. There is such a thing as normal but it's different for different people. My normal may not be yours and vice versa.

    As for being a clueless teenager, I think most of us were. Unless you are exceptionally driven as a teenager or part of one of these fundamentalist type religions where that's your life's plan, most of us weren't really thinking about marriage and what would make a "good life partner".

    Furthermore I agree with you wholeheartedly that you really can't generalize these questions. They're on a case by case, person by person basis. Should it really be any other way?

  3. I don't know, MAS seems pretty smart to me.

  4. ... a lot of those responses are what I'd say, even as a girl....

  5. @ formerconservative - Glad you liked it.

    @ D'MA - Yep. This is all building up to that "monotheism is atypical" post, I'm just getting there slowly.

    @ Jarred - To be fair, MAS has the advantage of being written by Michael at Thirty-Mumble-mutter-growl. The views portrayed are pretty accurate, but he sounds a lot more coherent than I probably would have at the time.

    @ Manda - See? Normal!

  6. Odd, that looks like my experience as well. Nerd. Late bloomer. Clueless, perhaps. Parroting what I've heard most of the time.

  7. Seeing as I was a comfortable, tomboyish-ish kind of girl growing up, it was pretty nifty to read this. The hyper-femmy "Christian Womanhood" blogs creep me right the heck out.


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