Take a look around you. Chances are, you will find multiple invisible acts of heteronormativity. Watch a movie and ask yourself why the protagonists are usually heterosexual white people. Look at boy and girl children and ask yourself why they play with the toys they play with. Take a look at the front cover of a Cosmopolitan or Mens Health magazine and ask yourself what these covers say about masculinity and femininity. The answer: heteronormativity.
Our lives are socially constructed along gender lines, in which we are assigned to fixed identities. Society has an obsession with labels. We feel the need to classify people, so much so that those who do not fit into these definitions are often marginalized and isolated. Heteronormativity is the normalizing of particular societal manners of being, defining strict definitions of how people may and may not act. The ideal is projected as white, attractive, thin, heterosexual, and able-bodied. This process occurs at the very beginning of people’s lives. The minute the sex of a child is announced, decades of gendered norms come into place, shaping that child’s life.
It is reinforced through the toys children play with. The girls’ section has make-up kits, toy kitchens and ironing boards, and costumes for princesses. These toys send the message that women must be beautiful, domestic and “feminine”. They encourage girls to think about their roles in life as the caretakers of others, centering the importance of becoming a mother. For boys, their toys include cars, guns and action figures. These toys require an element of construction. Therefore boys are taught to be creators, to build things and take an interest in machines. These toys often have an element of violence to them, suggesting that aggressiveness is a natural masculine trait. These subconscious messages about masculinity and femininity are sent through these various channels and thus normalized. This gives rise to the belief that boys are naturally rough and girls are naturally soft and gentle.
Heteronormativity is present in every single institution. The media, religion, education, the State, the family unit: they all send out specific messages of how people are meant to act. It aims to present particular lives as natural. Therefore white, heterosexual, conventionally attractive couples that present the ideal masculinity and femininity are made to seem normal. A recent paper by Michael Saraceno and Rachel Tambling (2013) analysing representations of gender in Cosmopolitan magazine concluded that traditional notions of femininity and masculinity, as well as heterosexual intimacy were highly prevalent and thus presented as the norm. In an interview with Dr Nadia Sanger, lecturer of Gender Studies at the University of Cape Town,she told me that the power of heteronormativity is in its invisibility. It has been normalized to the extent that people see these particular actions are normal, inherent.
Heteronormativity is why people often react differently towards homosexuals, transgender people, interracial couples or couples who decide not to have children. It is because society is told that those lives are not considered normative. The very idea of those who identify as homosexual needing to come out to their families and friends constructs heterosexuality as the norm. Homosexuality is othered, divergent, wrong. The consequences of heteronormativity are damaging. It makes those that do not meet the standard feel that they are not accepted by society, and encourages them to hide who they are in order to fit in. It also fosters discrimination against those who are different. Think of transgender youth Leelah Alcorn, who, in her suicide note, wrote “Fix Society”. Think about how young black girls are taught that their hair is not as beautiful as young white girls hair. Think of the numerous cases of violence against black lesbians in South Africa. Endless cases of discrimination against those that are different are often motivated and sustained through the power of heteronormativity.
Luckily, today there is a movement to change that. Television shows are becoming more representative, with black, gay, and transgender characters receiving starring roles. Gender norms are subverted through having strong women in positions of authority. People are campaigning for interviewers to ask women about more than their appearance. The recent legitimization of gay rights in some American states and Ireland is part of the fight to challenge heteronormativity. As Dr Sanger says, once we are aware of our surroundings, we are empowered to make different choices. Finally, I’ll leave you with some great advice I once read. Your first thought is what society has told you to think, your second thought defines you.