On scripts, social performance, and knowing your place in the world

We are all born naked. The rest is drag.” Rupaul*

We have these dual drives within, for Society and Self. Acceptance and Agency. We hear the messages: Strive… but not too high, or you will become vain. Succeed… within these boundaries. Find your tribe, and then stick with them. They know the ropes.

But we all secretly know: I am not my tribe. I am not even the sum of my tribes. There are things I want that fall outside these narrowly prescribed rules.

Within, and below, and beneath the striving to belong is a longing to be. To use the gifts, the talents, the knowledge and ways of seeing that are unique to you. To express the deepest yearnings of the heart, for beauty, for adventure, for authenticity.

How do you respond when the deepest yearnings of your heart don’t match the script that has been carefully developed for you over millennia of social conditioning? What if you were born in a body that doesn’t match your heart, if you don’t meet the expectations of masculinity, or femininity, or the standing or tradition you arrived in? How do you reconcile this longing to be with this desire to belong?

This is one of the hardest things I have to confront when raising children. My belonging, my be-longing, and those of each other member of my family sometimes come into conflict. How much am I willing to compromise to fit in? How much more am I willing to compromise to help my children fit in? How do I help my children negotiate the same problems?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece for the Natural Parents Network on how to respond when other parents say, in essence, “You’d better teach them how the real world works before somebody else does.” This translates, in my experience, to, “Why aren’t you making that kid act like all the other kids???” and particularly, like all the other boys. In that piece, I said, ”

If we are going to undermine the assumption that power-over is the only way to live, and that self-repression for the comfort of others is the correct choice, we need to make different choices. If we really believe in our children and their right to autonomy, we need to support them and provide them with the resilience to stand up in the face of domination. [Edit: even our own] Which means that we need to help them think in extremely sophisticated manners, far before the age that they would normally be expected to.

Making my kids act like all the other kids is fairly far down my list of priorities, (even though I did promise my sister that I would camouflage them.)

Because I like to reason from the general to the specific and back again, let me give you an example. For several years, my eldest son had long hair – not Justin Bieber-like, shaggy, 1970’s Brady bunch hair. Long. Ponytail down his back, would be the envy of the girls in high school and beyond. And he regularly got flack over it at school, but he held onto it, insistently. “That’s their problem. I like it this way.” And he did that for years, but one day, it all became too much. He got tired of resisting the pressure, tired of being called a girl (another problem entirely), tired of having people link his hair length with his lack of athletic ability… and he came home and asked to have it cut short. He chose to conform, but he did so quite intentionally. He’s willing to concede on the hair issue, but he still insists on dressing his own way. His own way is relatively conservative, and tends to involve striped polo shirts and jeans. He has been quite explicit that he dresses this way because he doesn’t want anybody to think he might be cool. He isn’t interested in doing the ‘dumb’ things that make you cool. His words, not mine. He has figured out (some of) The Unwritten Rules.

***

There are things we know intuitively about fitting in. Dress a certain way, talk a certain way. Even our gestures are regulated by our gender, class, and social status. All is in aid of making it simpler for others to categorize us so that they know how to treat us. We don’t want to interact with human beings; it’s too much work. We want to interact with roles. I say this, you say that… we all follow our scripts, and the interaction goes smoothly. This is the tacit agreement of our culture. You must act appropriately so that people know how or whether to bother with you or not.

Which is where transgression comes into all of this. Answer the question, “How are you?” honestly and the script breaks down. It becomes an actor’s nightmare: Nobody knows their next line. The social lubrication of chit-chat is eroded as the set falls away. So we lie. Because we know that we aren’t really having a human interaction. We are playing our part in an elegantly designed scene.

I used to experience this daily as I went to my professional job in the city from a one-bedroom house that had bare studs and my (thrift store) suits hung on a dowel against an unfinished wall. My job costume didn’t match my ‘real’ life.

“How are you?”

I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown because my commute plus childcare costs over 80% of my monthly income but Social Services thinks I should be able to get to and from Toronto for $100 a month so they won’t give me any subsidy, and I don’t know how I’m going to make my next mortgage payment, let alone buy groceries this week.

“Fine, thanks.”

“Spare change?”

Don’t make eye contact, because the last time you did you burst into tears and the panhandler was even more uncomfortable than you were.

Head shake, averted eyes.

“How was your birthday?”

Please don’t look at me. My suit only cost $7, and I’m a complete fraud, and the computer in the laptop case belongs to somebody else, and I’m $50,000 in debt even though I stopped eating meat 4 years ago and haven’t had a glass of wine since my last anniversary.

“Fine, thanks. How was your weekend?”

This was the role I was trained for. Educated professional women do not have financial crises, and when they do, they keep it secret. They certainly don’t break down in public. They wear nice conservative suits in nice conservative colours, and show up for work every day no matter how bad things are at home. They play their script out as assigned.

***

What if I told you that I don’t know my lines any more? Here I am, “being” a soccer (taekwondo) mom, but I lack the motivation. I can dress the part, but I can’t even pretend to hold up my end of the social contract. I understand the drama, I’ve even read the script, but I see so many bigger problems that I just can’t take my role seriously. “How are you?” “Fine thanks.” Avert your eyes. End the conversation.

Frequently I wonder, what if I did this differently? “How are you?” “Oh. I’m concerned about global warming and the situation in the middle east. I’m a little worried about the fact that we only have three days worth of food on the island. I’m absolutely convinced that our use of technology has outstripped our wisdom as a species. And I think that the social contracts we have made with the corporate elite are breaking down in such a way that the long term sustainability of our entire economic system is in question. But I have a roof overhead and food on my plate, so I’m going along with things for now because I don’t really see another way out.” Actually, I suspect a lot of the other “soccer moms” think that, but it is considered rude to speak it aloud. Especially at a birthday party at McDonald’s.

So I fall back on, “Pretty good. Car broke down three times in the last month, though.” Murmurs of sympathy all ’round. Discussion ensues about mileage and the shocking (shocking, I tell you) price of gas. And thus is the status quo maintained, even by me. Yet I find myself more comfortable in transgressive spaces. I would rather have human interactions, and make things up as I go than keep playing these parts. I am less and less able to maintain superficial conventions, even if I am still appropriately attired. In an observation of extreme irony, I find that I primarily do it for the perceived benefit to my children in an immediate social situation. Even though by doing so I’m tacitly perpetuating the very systems of oppression that I wish to see broken down for their benefit.

In the end, I find I have no solutions. Not tonight. Not when the snow is coming down, and dinner hasn’t been made, and I still have banking to do, and the kids need some time with Mummy. But one of the things my partner and I have found very beneficial in making a more honest relationship is calling a weasel a weasel. And here I spy a weasel.

___

*Interestingly enough, I got this quote from the same English professor with whom I had the conversation about obviousness in intellectual exercises.

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7 thoughts on “On scripts, social performance, and knowing your place in the world

  1. I just want you to know that I enjoy your posts. I frequently answer the question, “how are you” honestly, and then I go home and realize that everyone probably thinks I’m weird.

  2. 1/ I’m not sure all of us know those things about fitting in intuitively.
    2/ For me, being able to say “great”, or “fine”, or “pretty good, actually”, is largely a matter of adjusting my expectations so that I can honestly say it. I don’t think I learned how to do that until my late forties. Of course, I have had a ridiculously easy life.
    3/ You are, by and large, free to leave the tribes where you cannot be yourself. It comes at the price of separating yourself from the tribe, though. In my experience, it can be the right thing to do. It’s more complicated when you have children, of course. (Isn’t everything?)

    • 1. Yes, 2. Yes, and 3. Yes.

      #3 is most challenging, though, not because you can’t leave, but because *every* tribe has its expectations and, like the “perfect” relationship, the “perfect” fit tribe just doesn’t exist. Everything is a compromise between that fitting in and ‘doing your thing.’ There will be disagreements, arguments, pressures to conform, gossip, and nastiness even in the most open of tribes. Because you’re not radical enough, or because you wear the wrong clothes, or continue to hang out in some other tribe that isn’t quite compatible.

      • Yes and no. I put forth that, through addition and attrition, we can construct tribes of people that care about most of the things we do, and, perhaps as importantly, don’t care that much about the things we don’t care that much about.

        We can leave the tribes that irk us more often than not. Where the (by now near-proverbial) cost-to-pleasure ratio is too high.

        We may end up belonging to a small number of small tribes.

        That’s alright, too – unless, of course, we want to have great influence over a great number of people. Then we might have a problem.

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