When cultural expectations don’t fit


I was at the gym the other day, and as all the machines were pointed toward the TVs, I watched for a little while. Yes, I know this was my first mistake.

Actually, the show was quite compelling. It was the commercials that made me feel out of place. They appeared to be selling to who they thought I was, not who I actually am. This is not uncommon.

Everything other than the product

I’ve talked before about how if something is being advertised, you probably don’t need it. So it seems obvious that a commercial for a cleaning product would be the height of irrelevancy. Yes, you can put a cleaning pad on the end of the stick, and it saves you time, energy, and your back. Great.

What was more interesting was the character and the scene. The lead character was a smiling, beatific woman in her 30s or 40s. (Well, she was smiling only when she wasn’t pulling her hair out at those “other” cleaning products.) She was dressed in the standard conservative Mom clothing: a purple untucked button-down shirt and light colored pants, all presumably for the purpose of showing that she was prosperous but demure.

The purpose of the character in a commercial is to say “I am like you. Not exactly, of course, but similar to you in some way, via class, age, or circumstance.

And the place where she was: a home, spacious and well-kept. Dark wood floors, all gleaming (did they really require cleaning?). A capacious gray sofa sat on the edge of the frame. A staircase led upstairs to points unknown. If that was the size of the living room, then the house must have been gigantic.

All this was calculated to appeal to the viewer, of course, but instead of to say “I am like you“, it seemed to say, “this is what you want.

What if you don’t want that?

What you’re supposed to want

Cultural imperatives are very sneaky. There are certain life milestones that everyone talks about: Go to college, get a good job, get married, etc. The ones that are vocalized are more easily discussed and debated. “Does it make sense to go to college?” is a valid question when tuition is crazy and so much of higher education feels like a holding pen for post-adolescents. “Get a good job“? Why not make your own good job?

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But what about the other cultural expectations that aren’t talked about so much?

  • Buying a house (a large one, most likely in the suburbs)
  • Having a single permanent residence
  • Being partnered at all (or being partnered to only one person)
  • etc.

Sometimes when you look around for role models, they can be hard to find.

For me, the traditional suburban experience has always felt like something that I have been culturally pressured to do, and not something I ever wanted. Because of this, I’m always sensitive to assumptions that this is what everyone wants.

For example, while rereading The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson for the hundredth time, I came across this passage I had never noticed about living in an apartment complex in New York City:

“I couldn’t understand why in such a big, open country as America people would choose to live like that. It wasn’t as if this was something temporary, a place to spend a few months while waiting for their ranch house in the suburbs to be built. This was home. This was it. Thousands and thousands of people would live out their lives never having their own backyard, never having a barbecue, never stepping out the back door at midnight to have a pee in the bushes and check out the stars.”

Granted, I admit that up until that point I’d never contemplated the benefits of domestic outdoor excretion, but I’m still not convinced.

Where are your role models?

I don’t disparage your desire for the life pictured in the cleaning commercial, much like I can’t disparage anyone’s desire for the life found in the beer commercial. Different messages are targeted toward different people in different stages of life.

But I’ve always had some views on how I wanted to design my life that were not in sync. And looking for mirrors of these ideas are often hard to come by, and in fact tend to come from unconventional places.

For example, take this full-page image from the Doris Antidepression Guide zine:

"...and people to help you out when you all grow old"
“…and people to help you out when you all grow old”

I’ve stared at this page for a long time, wistfully, wishing that my life would always be like this. Surrounded by friends and loved ones all working together on projects, learning, and having fun together. Not the isolated atomic existence that so often happens to us.

It might be more difficult to find an instance of the life you want to build for yourself, but that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist. If there’s a way of living that you want, there will be others who want that too. You probably won’t find it in a cleaning commercial. Keep looking.

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But enough about me. How are your life goals out of sync with standard cultural expectations?

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