The Domestication Narrative

Speaking of hegemonic heterosexuality, as I have been lately, there’s a certain narrative that’s part of it. It’s one of those pervasive cultural narratives, one of the ones that’s in the subtext of so many different things that it’s hard to argue against; it’s just one of those things everything vaguely knows.

The domestication narrative is the idea that men are intrinsically wild, anarchic, uncivilized creatures, and women are intrinsically nurturing, organized, settled beings, and the nature of heterosexual relationships is for women to “civilize” men through marriage, a process that men resist but eventually surrender to, which is a sign that they’ve “grown up”.

When you state it baldly like that, it sounds a bit stupid, but there’s evidently a lot of people who don’t fear looking foolish in the public sphere. People who expect to be taken seriously will state this narrative as bald fact and look startled when you call them on it. Hell, I’ve heard academics cite this narrative as the intrinsic underlying conceptual structure of Westerns, and while, okay, it’s a decent fit on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that doesn’t make it objectively true.

That’s the thing about narratives. Our minds are hardwired to make sense of the world through stories, so the stories we tell about the world become the way we understand it. If we think we’re the hero of a story about a person who makes everyone laugh, we become funny. If we think we’re hero of a story about a person who does the right thing against widespread opposition, we become self-righteous. If we think we’re the hero of a Neil Gaiman story, we become a bit of a wanker.

Narratives like this are the stories we tell ourselves as a culture, the stories that make up and support that culture. None of them are exactly true in any literal sense, but some are more toxic than others. “The United States rebelled against an oppressive monarchy to replace it with a democracy, which is totally better” is, yeah, not actually true per se, but it’s a basically healthy narrative. “American culture used to be racist until we fixed it in the early 60s and now there’s no more racism” is another popular narrative, but one that’s a lot more harmful.

The domestication narrative is one of those ones so deeply encoded that people often don’t even see it. It’s just one of those things people take for granted. Guys are wild and troublesome and live like pigs until they get married and settle down, everyone just kind of knows that. Otherwise all those jokes and magazine articles and movie plotlines wouldn’t make any sense. Since they make sense, the domestication narrative must be true. Don’t laugh: that’s literally how human minds rationalize the world.

You can see the pervasiveness of this narrative every day; even putting aside the direct references, there’s all the concepts and advice that, like the jokes, simply don’t make sense if one doesn’t assume the validity of the domestication narrative. All the constructions about guys who “sow their wild oats” before “settling down”. All the movies about men choosing between a life of hijinks and adventures or a life of stable domesticity, with the moral being that the latter is the “mature” choice. Kay Hymowitz’s ugly, misandrist stereotypes of “rooms decorated with Star Wars posters and crushed beer cans”, these rooms belonging to unmarried men, and her explicit prescription for fixing them being marriage.

Further proof: recently there’ve been a few movies and TV shows about female characters who drink, sleep around, party, and cuss. I know there have been such things because I’ve seen half a dozen articles absolutely pissing their pants with amazement at this bold new frontier in comedy, the idea that some women might be as “immature” and raunchy as all men are assumed to be! Holy fucking shit, some gals are neither housewives nor housewives-in-training, doesn’t that blow your freakin’ mind? Seriously, Ozy’s Law has more predictive value than betting against the Washington Generals.

And yes, let’s take a moment to look at how this despicable narrative harms women. Ladies: you are apparently against fun. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules. By virtue of having a uterus, you are opposed to video games, sexual promiscuity, wild parties, and basically anything that you want to do but some old white man in a tie once said you’re not supposed to do. What you’re into is neatness, blandness, and predictability. Please disregard any observed females who like beer or random party hookups, or who have giant piles of junk all over their room. They are statistical outliers and may be safely eliminated from the dataset.

This is a manifestation of hegemonic heterosexuality, of course, because it implies, as do all such assumptions, that heterosexual relationships are necessarily antagonistic. Men all, by definition, want to wallow in lint-encrusted bacon grease, orgies, and Batman. Women all, by definition, want to force men against their will to be Ward Cleaver. Endless comedic hijinks ensue! Non-heterosexual people don’t exist!

I’m sure that there are couples out there for whom this narrative is a great fit. That’s great, and I wish them all the best. There are also couples out there whose sex life is based around DPing a plush wolf with two masturbation sleeves sewn into it, and you know what? I wish them all the best too. In fact, I kind of like the second couple better, because at least their weird-ass dynamic isn’t sold to me a hundred times a day as an ideal to which I should aspire. I’m sure if I’d had to sit through ten years of sitcom jokes about “Oh my god, you used MY end of Wolfy? It’s like I don’t even know you any more!” then I’d be equally sick of them.

What’s odd is that most people’s real lives don’t actually resemble the domestication narrative, especially if you correct for folks who are trying to live up to it because they think they’re supposed to. Men are frequently low-libido, women are frequently slobs, everyone can like video games, Star Wars, and whatever else is supposed to be immature this week. What we need to do is generalize the non-generalizability of our experiences. To remind ourselves that not only do we not fit this convenient cultural storyline, but neither does (almost) anyone else. We may be women who actively prefer internet porn to a physical boyfriend, we may be couples who fuck around with open consent, we may be single men who hope to find a woman as organized as we are, we may even, goodness gracious, not be cis het people at all. And we need to stand up and say that this is our culture too, and stop thinking it’s just us who aren’t Doing It Right.

Because seriously, men as unhappy children and women as unhappy nannies? Let me be clear here: fuck that noise.

About noahbrand

Noah Brand is a mysterious figure with a very nice hat.
This entry was posted in noseriouslywhatabouttehmenz, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to The Domestication Narrative

  1. RK448 says:

    I’ve only got one word for this awesome post: Amen.

  2. Aaron Wiegel says:

    An interesting side effect of this pervasive narrative in society is the way that some women approach relationships that end up being abusive and/or co-dependent. Dude A is a total douche. Girl B thinks she can “fix” him (because that’s what women are supposed to do according to our culture). Dude A doesn’t want to be fixed, continues being douchebag. Girl B blames herself, calls herself a failure for not being able to fix Dude A. Dude A and Girl B get married because that’s what they’re “supposed” to do (even though neither of them are happy since Girl B is naggy to Dude A and Dude A isn’t responsive to Girl B’s desires) Even better, they have a kid to “save” the relationship.

    Obviously this doesn’t describe everyone, but surely other people have seen this pattern before?

  3. BlackHumor says:

    I still don’t like the name “hegemonic heterosexuality’ but this time I have an idea to fix it!

    Anybody else like “combative heterosexuality”?

  4. Tenya says:

    Aaron, yup, unfortunately. I don’t think that as women you’re encouraged at all to date a guy who you actually get along with, regard as a friend, have similar lifestyle goals and so forth (ie, if you both thinking traveling across the country in a van for two years is awesome, or if you both want to sweat it out climbing the corporate ladder, or idealize one of you staying at home tending children) instead there is One Standard Guy, and he is a lout, and you should accept the task of socializing him (telling him to pick up his room and eat the right foods and not be into such stupid hobbies) because lol, what else are ya gonna do? Be single?? All men are alike!

    Which is nonsense, of course. Some men are slovenly and like living off beer and having “stupid hobbies” (I maintain that there are few logical, beneficial hobbies) as well as some women. The narrative of getting into a relationship to change someone really needs to end.

  5. Xauri'EL says:

    You know what, I love your writing and I totally agree, but you just about lost me when you decided to randomly take a deuce on Neil Gaiman.

  6. granbee says:

    These “narratives” could more appropriately be called fairytales, or pacifiers, or sitcoms–ya think?

  7. To be fair, the stuff I read/heard about Bridesmaids et al was less “Golly gosh, there are women like this – who knew?” or “Jokes about slobby women = REVOLUTION IN FUNNY!” than “Women like this are starting to show up in pop culture – that’s a kinda neat development.”

    @Xauri’EL – I didn’t take it as a poke at Neil so much as a characterisation of some of his lead characters. That said, I’m racking my brain trying to think of which specific lead characters are meant here…

  8. Xakudo says:

    Noah, I’m really enjoying this series of posts from you. Spot-on. Keep it up. 🙂

  9. Sonneillon says:

    I died laughing at the wolfy part. NGL.

  10. guest says:

    re Neil Gaiman: may I point everyone to the Sandman, which features wankers as lead characters aplenty. May I also suggest American Gods, which I stopped reading when one of the characters suggested, “Just call me the Man Who Was Thursday,” when nothing else in the story indicated the Gaiman had read that book — or indeed anything else by G.K.Chesterton– past the title. Gaiman drives me up a wall, and I love fantasy fiction.

    (That said, let me praise Good Omens, although I expect most of that was actually written by Terry Pratchett.)

    BTW how is the cat?

  11. Park S. says:

    Ladies: you are apparently against fun. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules. By virtue of having a uterus, you are opposed to video games, sexual promiscuity, wild parties, and basically anything that you want to do but some old white man in a tie once said you’re not supposed to do.

    One minor quibble I have is how, by including sexual promiscuity as a fun activity that women are stereotypically against, this (to my mind) frames monogamy as the not fun polar opposite.

    Monogamy may be the dominant cultural narrative, but as a heavily monogamous person I don’t feel all that well represented. For the most part, monogamy in media is either implied (e.g. The Notebook, where the actual focus of the movie is on a courtship, or Random Movie With Child Heroes, where the ostensibly happily married couples are little more than background noise) or at best shown in an ambivalent light (e.g. Generic Sitcom where the main couple has what appears to be an awful relationship, but remain in love because fucking magic). Monogamous couples hardly have a monopoly on courtship rituals, and I’d prefer to not be “represented” at all than constantly having my preferred romantic-sexual lifestyle portrayed as almost a punishment for aging, akin to having to start doing your taxes.

    The only couple I’ve ever felt even remotely represented by is Lily and Marshall from How I Met Your Mother. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other realistically, positively portrayed monogamous couplings. Admittedly though, it’s been a long while since I’ve stopped consuming media on the regular; I watch a few shows online here and there, but it’s probably been almost a year since I last turned on a television. It’s possible more well-done couples have sprung up, and I’m simply unaware of them.

    Just my two pence.

  12. noahbrand says:

    One minor quibble I have is how, by including sexual promiscuity as a fun activity that women are stereotypically against, this (to my mind) frames monogamy as the not fun polar opposite.

    You know, that’s a fair point. I’m sorry about that; the phrasing could certainly be taken that way, and it’s not what I intended to imply. No offense meant.

  13. Jared says:

    @Park
    ….. Dexter (of Dexter fame) was happily married to for a while (unfortunatly this is the only additional example I can come up with)

  14. Park S. says:

    @noahbrand

    You know, that’s a fair point. I’m sorry about that; the phrasing could certainly be taken that way, and it’s not what I intended to imply. No offense meant.

    And I didn’t mean to imply that you consciously included the implication I pointed out.

    It’s a bit ironic that in a comment where I was pointing out a most likely unintentionally implied bit of information, I did exactly the same thing by not making explicit that I did, in fact, see it as unintentional. C’est la vie, I suppose. Thank you for taking the criticism sans clarification in stride.

  15. f. says:

    This post is a shining beacon of Truth. Personally, I had a moment in life where I was 23 and slowly entering the “will we” portion of some will we / won’t we type of flirtatious friendship with a guy who was totally hot and fascinating and also kind of a troubled person. As in, major cocaine habit, intelligent but just not getting his shit together at the moment, needed someone to drag him home and tuck him in after drinking too much, kinda troubled.

    I slid very comfortably into this caretaking role where I would get his sloppy drunk ass safely home, make him breakfast in the morning, gently roll my eyes when he would show up way too wasted at my place. I’d get him to settle down with the sheer force of The Love Of A Good Woman, right?

    Then one night my roommates and I were planning a night out, and they were like, “hey what is That Guy doing tonight?” Something snapped in my brain and I realized that not only did I not know what he was doing, I didn’t care. They were like, “Why don’t you know where he is?” and I replied triumphantly, “I can’t keep track of That Guy, I have enough trouble keeping track of myself these days!”

    That has been my mantra ever since and I can definitely recommend it to any other women who find themselves trying to act as a civilizing influence all the time.

    By the way, he eventually got his life a bit more on track, though he still loves to party. Now he lives with his girlfriend, who’s an artist and has the world’s most amazing haircut.

  16. Flyingkal says:

    Well, talking about hegemonic…

    Ladies: you are apparently against fun. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules. By virtue of having a uterus, you are opposed to video games, sexual promiscuity, wild parties, and basically anything that you want to do but some old white man in a tie once said you’re not supposed to do.

    That really comes down to what your personal definition of “fun” is, doesn’t it?

    And, I’m a bit surprised that none picked up on this one yet
    If we think we’re hero of a story about a person who does the right thing against widespread opposition, we become self-righteous. Just sayin’ 😉

  17. sirgabe says:

    Thanks for misgendering your own co-mod, me and several other users, with and without wombs. Womanhood is not defined by the presence of a uterus.

  18. Flyingkal says:

    I apoligize for the snark in my last post. I guess it just goes to show that it’s almost impossible to talk about things like this without falling into the same trap.

  19. Schala says:

    “@Park
    ….. Dexter (of Dexter fame) was happily married to for a while (unfortunatly this is the only additional example I can come up with)”

    The Dexter from the TV show? Because, his wife’s over-the-top nagging about Dexter doing stuff for their infant…while she was a SAHM herself…was weird as heck. Not because I’m against Dexter doing stuff for their infant, but because she was with the infant at the very moment when she asked. And well, it caused Dexter to scrap his van, no?

    I mean Dexter was already overexerted.

    And Dexter saw marriage and “family life” as a way to prove he could be “normal”.

  20. Park, in “When Harry Met Sally”–a montage of old people are shown talking about how they fell in love. One couple in particular is very cute and they talk in tandem. (below at about 2:03–me and Mr Daisy sometimes do this, and we’ve always had a good laugh over it.)

    This is obviously what Harry and Sally want for themselves when they age, and it is presented as their goal…almost a form of riches. I still remember it, years later.

    Its rather alarming I can’t think of any other positive examples of long-term monogamy though! (One thing that is instantly noticeable about this clip is that the couples still love each other very much.)

    Best line: “I knew. I knew the way you know a good melon.”

    clip from the movie:

  21. Ginkgo says:

    “And yes, let’s take a moment to look at how this despicable narrative harms women. Ladies: you are apparently against fun.”

    That’s one way this harms women, and it’s a big one. Slander is slander and this is a buig one.

    There’s another way this domestication narrative harms women. It is gender role enforcement. it frame domesticity as normatively female and by contrast frames being wild as unfeminine. In plain terms it polices aginst tomboys and women who want to enjoy a whoel range of wild behavior, starting with hiking in the mountains and not fussing with their hair at the campsite in the morning and going on from there.

  22. L says:

    There’s really no way at all that you can win against the female hegemonic narrative. I got both contradictory messages from the same fucking person over the period of a few months of pre- and post-engagement: my own goddamn father.

    While I was still dating, we were seen as irresponsible because he hadn’t yet “made a commitment” to me, whatever the fuck that even means, and that I would be happiest when I inevitably became a housewife and mother (my dad apparently can’t relate to adults who’ve never had children even though he was a shit parent himself); the only way I got any points out of this was for not being fully sexual and thus not ever going “boy crazy”. After the engagement, I was suddenly too young and too stupid to be a wife, and that I would only ever be happy after being a single, working woman (in a conventionally successful career) until at least age 30, and dating all sorts of men (but not sleep with them, because that’d make me a dirty whore) because otherwise I’d have no idea who I was or what I wanted and needed a long list of flings under my belt in order to find out.

    The only way I’ve been able to claw myself out of this hegemonic heterosexual shithole my family built for me, wasn’t even to acknowledge the narrative, but to completely ignore it and flip the bird to anyone that even wanted to bring it up from any perspective, whether socially conservative or post-feminist or whatever.

    I literally had to say “fuck you” to so many people… basically everyone that didn’t greet the engagement news with “your happiness is all that matters”. Because that really is all that matters.

    Discussions like this used to make me feel bad for not minding the idea of staying at home all day, cooking and cleaning, and having dinner ready by the time my husband got home. For being female-bodied in a heterosexual relationship and being the sexually submissive partner. For having anxiety issues that make my husband better at navigating, negotiating, and confronting than me. For liking Martha Stewart magazine, for liking gifts on Valentine’s day, for liking going out to dinner on our anniversary, for doing most of the things that the narrative prescribes and outlines in gross detail. And guess what? I’ve learned to just say fuck it because the only way I can win. The only way it’ll even be worth my while to think about anymore is if I see someone who is being made unhappy by either the narrative or the counter-narrative (of the likes that says promiscuity, partying, having a high-libido and being extroverted are the ultimate good), then I will tell them that they should just say fuck it too and just do what makes them happy.

  23. Dan_Brodribb says:

    That sounds unpleasant, L.

    I’m really sorry you had to go through that. I would find hearing those contradictory messages especially hard coming from a family member.

  24. Ginkgo says:

    L, that double-bind bullshit is classic controlling behavior. Tara Palmatierv is a clinical psychologist who works with men in relationships with women who do that, but about a thrid of her commenters are women who have been in the same situation with men who do that and it is amazing how exactly the behaviors match – it’s like there is no gendering at all when it comes to effective controlling behaviors.

    @Daisy
    “Best line: “I knew. I knew the way you know a good melon.”

    WTF? By sniffing the smelly end?

    “I’m sure that there are couples out there for whom this narrative is a great fit. That’s great, and I wish them all the best. ”

    Noah, live and let live is the best policy, but sometimes it won’t work. Slavery imperils freedom, not in some metaphysical way, but because slaves can be turned into a threat againt free people, as tools of their masters. And dysfunction like this does not exist in little monads called couples, detached from society; it interacts and spreads as a cultural model.

  25. L says:

    @Dan, Ginkgo: Yeah, it was really hard, and yeah I’d known for years he was an emotionally abusive shit, but I still let it get to me. My mom has done similar in my formative years, but hindsight is usually 20/20, so I’ve been able to forgive her now that I better understand those situations. Though really, yes– I haven’t noticed much difference at all between them when they’ve gotten this way, except that my mom was more prone to it during violent outbursts, and my dad would let it calmly trickle out in almost every conversation.

    What I find interesting, though, is that my dad is capable of believing both sides of the coin simultaneously, and yet they are still mutually exclusive philosophies. How he can be simultaneously anti-feminist AND second-wave, or pro-hegemonic heterosexuality AND against it is something I can’t wrap my head around at all, and I wonder how he does. Or how many people there are out there that are like him. I imagine there are tons, really, and it goes back to the controlling and abusive characteristics you mentioned, Ginkgo. It probably happens a ton on an individual scale because everyone knows someone that just plain doesn’t want to see them happy and successful for some reason or another. So yippee, just one more excuse to police people about their personal choices.

    It makes me wonder, given what I went through, whether or not S had an “out” or way of “winning”… Because on the one hand, I knew folks that saw him as one step above cradle robber, but if he dumped me because I was too young, then he’d still be stuck with the stigma of being a 30-something bachelor. (Is that even a stigma anymore? I know my dad thinks so, lol.) I guess his only chance of getting through the game unimpeded would be to date a conventionally attractive and successful woman no more than 7 years younger than him or 2 years older, date for a very long time, and then get married when it was convenient for the both of them… or I guess, as the narrative is supposed to outline, until she tames, civilizes, and pressures him into a life of domesticated bondage.

    Blech.

  26. This is how the Ents lost the Entwives, actually. The Entwives were totally into orchards and organization and cultivation, and the Ent dudes like wild, natural forests. They refused to be domesticated, and the consequence was losing the ladies and thus their ability to reproduce as a species.

  27. guest says:

    “How he can be simultaneously anti-feminist AND second-wave, or pro-hegemonic heterosexuality AND against it is something I can’t wrap my head around at all, and I wonder how he does….”

    simple. He is trying to hurt you. So whatever he says, or does, is designed to hurt you. Whatever you just said, what comes to his mind is whatever “scripted narrative” serves to devalue you.

    You’re getting married? You’re too young, you’re too stupid, he’s a loser, he’ll never be a good husband, what a wrong choice you (and he!) are both making.

    You’re not getting married? Slut slut slutty slut slut. Also he’s using you! Break up with him! or get him to put a ring on it, which he probably won’t, since who pays for the cow when they get the milk for free?

    You’ve broken up? You’re going an old maid, you want too much, who could want you. Of course he was going to dump a bitch like you.

    You’re happily single? See above, except now you’re frigid and weird as well.

    You’re gay? NOW you’re actually the worse of the lot — officially damned to hell and everything else. Any guy can beat you up, or rape you, or kill you, because you’re too perverted to be human.

    “Fuck you” is the only correct response. Because there is a consistency there: this is what’s consistent — you should suffer.

    See how it works?

  28. guest, wow. Good descriptions.

    L, I learned this thing in AA:

    Ask yourself, what can I do to please this person?

    If there IS an answer to that question, are you willing to do that? If not, stop trying to please this person, since this is the only thing that will.

    If there is NO answer to that question, then you can’t please this person no matter what you do, so stop trying.

    Really helpful, esp w/my 2nd mother in law, who was simply impossible.

    I’d ordinarily say, may her soul rest in peace, but I am fairly certain it isn’t. 😉

  29. @Ginkgo:

    WTF? By sniffing the smelly end?

    It works for dogs. =p

  30. L says:

    @guest: That’s almost what the blogging world feels like, tbh. You hit the nail on the head lol. At this point, I almost want to say talking about and trying to dissect the narrative as Noah has been doing lately is pointless, and that bloggers should just start telling people to worry about being happy, not reinforcing the idea of these two narratives that are supposedly constantly butting heads with the implicit condemnation of one and praise of the other. As a monogamous, low-libido weirdsexual, I notice that support for the “type A”, I guess you could say, counter-narrative creeps into his writing, even when he publicly acknowledges his bias. I’m beginning to think that this is another one of those black box situations, and that the only thing that can be said about it that is all-inclusive for people of every stripe is “be happy”, because everything else is going to come out biased, even if its unintentional. Everyone is going to be threatened by the happiness of someone out there.

    @Daisy: That’s very good advice. I’ve got a book here from my mom called “Healing the Father Wound” that I flipped through once. It was pretty good but I just feel like my relationship is vague enough to the point where the structure of the steps can’t quite help me. It’s also heavy on the God stuff, so it takes a little mental backbending to make it relevant. I should go through it again, tho.

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