Messages in the Web

There are very few things: there’s love and work and family. And this movie is so special to us because it was all three of those things. And I’d like to thank all of my families, the tribes that I come from. —Jodie Foster [1]

At the Golden Globes earlier this year, actor Jodie Foster sparked conversation about self-revelation, privacy, and how public figures shape their inner and outer circles. A recent post on fundraising and family imprinting pointed out that many of us grew up in families or subcultures where the most common undertones were notes of scarcity rather than abundance. And a powerful personal essay by inaugural poet Richard Blanco on family, abuse, and [not] belonging made the rounds during Inauguration Week. In it, Blanco describes absorbing, resisting, accepting, and transforming the incredibly negative messaging he received from Cuban-American relatives as he grew up.

These stories made me reflect on how much our early and adult networks influence the kinds of messages we receive, and what responsibilities fall to those with power to shape both messages and networks.

Sticky Messaging

Spider web glistening in the sun

We all receive several kinds of messaging through deliberate and implicit instruction as we grow. This isn’t a nefarious process: it’s how we’re socialized, how our families and communities acculturate us to the wider world.

Adults teach us by affirmation or approval whether our successes mean that we’re intrinsically “smart” or have earned achievement through hard work; from them we learn whether and how much self-confidence, persistence, and resilience are worth developing. Girls taught that their success is due to hardwired intelligence seem to deduce that if they can’t crack a new problem or skill quickly, their failure comes from not being “bright” enough to handle it. Deductions like these can have lifelong impacts.

Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the Bright Girls — and your belief that you are “stuck” being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined. This would be fine, if your abilities were innate and unchangeable. Only they’re not. —Heidi Grant Halvorson

Because of structural inequity, teacher neglect, and deliberate discouragement from the gatekeepers around them, minority children also learn that some disciplines aren’t for people like them. First-generation, female, ethnic minority, and working class students build up additional barriers to progress rooted in messages about their native competence or inadequacy. The so-called Imposter Syndrome is named for these internal barriers and is surprisingly common across demographic categories. Young black men respond to cultural assumptions about their supposedly inherent violence or delinquency, either by playing down to the type or by overcompensating so as to appear as non-threatening as possible. A message like this seeps into the interpretative background even for a man who becomes POTUS, President of the United States.

Add to this mesh a multiplicity of messages about religious or non-religious identity. Layer on rules about trust and vulnerability, boundaries and intimacy, friendships and sexuality. Weave in messages about the right sort of personality, how much sociability is too much (or not enough), and how service-minded or others-centered one should be. Unwind these strands during puberty and complete the web in early adulthood. No, no… don’t struggle too much in the middle of the web. It’s supposed to be that sticky.

Quality in the Social Web

I see no single factor with more power to advance or hinder a person than their social web: their relatives, relationships, and network of acquaintances, and the quality of interactions and assumptions among them.

There’ve been a handful of pivot points in my life when I’ve reviewed my own social web. Who surrounds me when I’m learning about myself and how I fit into the world? What do they undermine or affirm about me?

And how about your web? What do your connections encourage or criticize? How do they support your efforts to learn and grow? How do they resist your next steps? What do they add to you? What do they undermine? How do they nurture you? Do they nurture you?

At forty-one I realize I’ve been sad all my life and have always written from that psychological point of view. I am inspired by the melancholy I see mirrored in others, in the world, and the ways we survive it. I strive to capture sadness and transform it through language into something meaningful, beautiful. —Richard Blanco

Blanco’s story struck me when I read it: even as gender and sexual diversity becomes more mainstream in some ways, it remains marginal in others; even as people become more visible, their standing doesn’t always rise. Marginal status shows up in the language some people use to dismiss or diminish certain classes of people (the euphemism of “lifestyle” for sexual orientation or relationship status is a common example). But marginalization also appears in the gendered frameworks that otherwise progressive writers use to discuss expectations of professional clothing and how a woman might be “fabulous.”

It’s well worth exploring how modern professional women are often evaluated based on how “feminine” others judge them to be; how “feminine,” even today, is too easily linked to “less competent”; and how “feminism” should mean that competence and perceived femininity are no longer correlated in the popular imagination. These are questions I discuss with my sisters and in our groups; I find people happy to engage this conversation when it is framed soundly.

Influence and Responsibility

But pernicious tropes just under the surface hamper the discussion: binary norms that categorize heels and sleek dresses as “feminine” clothes while treating suits and flat shoes as “not feminine” or “repressions of femininity”; the idea that a woman’s tastes and energies may be either “feminine” or “masculine” (not neither, not both); the persistent invisibility of “fabulous” gender non-conforming women, not only in the mainstream but also in left-leaning feminism.

I had a brief exchange with one author about this a few months ago and don’t believe she deployed the tropes above fully understanding what they implied about femininity or women whose femininity didn’t mirror hers. But even if she personally holds a much more complex model of individual and social gender, one that includes all women and not just some, that broadness didn’t translate in this piece. We’re both individual women, two out of millions; neither of us is single-handedly responsible for the pervasive messages I’ve identified in this article.

But whoever holds a mic gains with their platform the power to amplify the status quo or to challenge and adapt it. Those traditional constructs are not the only lectern to speak or teach from, nor the only viable sources of credibility in our time. Rightly or wrongly, my generation has a reputation for being one of the most inclusive in recent history. If that’s more truth than hype, what does it take for all of us with platforms to embed our inclusive spirit into how we define, imagine, and engage this world and its full range of people? What does it take for us to improve the quality of the messages in our web and, thereby, the quality of the web itself?


[1] Via Marnie Dresser’s “Dear Jodie Foster: I Got It (and it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t)” a lovely reflective analysis of Foster’s speech.

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