Who's Your Normie?
Who’s Your Normie?
by Cher Tan
"Who has not asked herself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”
—Clarice Lispector, The Hour of The Star
“Being normal is a nervous place, because you can never finish performing your relation to it.”
—Lauren Berlant, in an interview with Cabinet Magazine
“when you look into the mirror / do you see yourself / do you see yourself / on the t.v. screen / do you see yourself in the magazine / when you see yourself / does it make you scream”
—X-Ray Spex, Identity, from Germ Free Adolescents (1978)
It is easy to find weirdness everywhere we look, but never normality. Normality is a rare and exulted state of being that’s so normal it hardly begets attention. It’s the paragon of virtue, the form to strive towards, the ideal condition that, once achieved, exists without fanfare, completely invisible. Normal slips between the cracks.
Like a ghost, normal silently inhabits spaces. No one cares to do a double-take. Normal bodies just are. Normal dispositions pass through walls like wisps in the night, a prevailing presence that’s unquestionably all around us. Perhaps someone will question a slight chill, but the passing doubt gets shrugged off as soon as it’s uttered.
It goes without saying: people know normal exists. But it’s baked so indelibly into the fabric of life that to question it seems absurd. Like money, we’re not so stupid to believe that it’s meaningful, yet we hold on to its value for dear life.
We herald “the new normal”: X inches out Y to win each unprecedented prize, each iteration more normal than the next. With every announcement, a new standard is found—it hints at a sliding scale that’s consistently on the look-out for the next big thing that’s just unusual enough to satisfy normal desires. Normal is smugly satisfied with itself, yet it’s always glancing over its shoulder to confirm its normalcy.
If weirdness is omnipresent, then it only takes an excess of normal to point it out. “That’s so weird!” someone exclaims, eager to define their normal. “I’m feeling weird” as a recognition of off-kilterness, because normal is the default setting. Cursed images are weird, because we can’t put our finger on it, explain away the weirdness. Talking aloud to yourself in public is weird. Not wearing shoes outside the house is weird. Brushing your teeth until after breakfast is weird. Taking pictures of your food was weird, but now it’s normal. Video rental stores used to be normal, but now they’re weird. What’s normal where you live and weird in the rest of the world?
It depends on who you ask.
Five years old. The same old story. Deviating from the status quo and made to feel like shit. Except I was living in a Chinese-majority country where I was luckily, also Chinese. But there were always going to be other deviations, that spot on the pristine carpet many want to be the first to discover even if it isn’t really there. Too hairy arms (“for a girl”). A clumsy demeanour. A kid whose parents couldn’t help her with her homework past primary school. A little devil who would single-handedly destroy all her classmates’ paintings, only to be locked in a broom closet afterwards as punishment. A smart-ass who would answer questions too quickly in class but didn’t (know how to) socialise otherwise. A child who didn’t understand their own mental illnesses because it didn’t seem abnormal to them in their brain. A girl who found it easier to make friends with boys because she wasn’t attracted to them, only to be called a slut. A queer, in more ways than one.
Theft and delinquency, a vow to drop out of school because “no one understands”; a dysfunctional relationship with blood family who were too overworked and too miserable to deeply care. A gnawing dissatisfaction with life that would lead to dead-end jobs, each reckless venture a new chapter in a disjointed narrative that wouldn’t stick. Subcultures that would later save me, even if I slowly grew disillusioned with their dynamics, but by then it was too late to rewrite my pathetic history. Later—(recently)—I read: “I was born to be innocent, in some way, because my parents loved me,” and feel a chill shoot up and down my veins like a fresh opioid. No matter, I’d dug my own grave.
It’s funny how weirdness is defined in group settings: transgressions committed with a group is fine, sometimes even immortalised or heralded (as in Jonestown, or the Lisbon girls in The Virgin Suicides). Alone, deviation reeks of abjectness (as in Lovecraft’s Outsider, Mao Sugiyama, Divine in Pink Flamingos), as if to ask, “How are you like this… without overt guidance?” We are herd animals. It seems insane. But few people think to ask about the whys that came before. Some people might call it “destiny”, but they’re all single chapters in an irrational whole, shrewd in its rationality.
When it comes to conversations around deviation and normality, the question always stands: what came first, the weird kid or the kid who chose to be weird? Except no one is born weird; that gets determined by how lucky one is to move around within spaces where you don’t stand out. Trip up, and one small deviation leads to another and then yet another, and before you even understand what they mean each one welds itself closely to the last one to form your personal normal, and then that’s it, the game is up. Deleuze and Guattari were referring to love and sex in A Thousand Plateaus, but I don’t see how that can’t be applied to the occurrences that pulse through our lives, the non-loving circumstances and non-sexual coincidences that, at its core, are also loving and sexual: “We each go through so many bodies in each other.”
Weirdness is a spiral that’s like the eye that only sees itself, painfully obvious to normalcy, but is completely normal all on its own. How did I know I did “weird shit”? Only when other people would point it out. And then I’d hang out with a bunch of fellow 30-something misfits and we’d be the most normal thing in the world.
Talk about weirdness, and it’s almost always immediately relegated to felons, angsty teenagers, miscreants, the criminally insane—basically, those who try to fight normalcy, whether on purpose, by accident or chance, be it for reasons attributed to desperation, mental disorder, childish rebellion, something unnameable. The jury is out when it comes to deciding how many people consider themselves weird; instead, most think they’re above average. Which is to say, a bit more normal than normal. No one wants to scream weirdness from the rooftops. That’s something only children and lunatics do.
For years I desperately wanted to be normal. I still do. The effortless gait some people use to waltz around the world, the ease in which they relate to others, the syrupy way language tumbles out of their mouths like molten lava, the respect they naturally gain from others just by being themselves. The normal things they say that go unquestioned, the weird things they utter that get irrepressibly accepted as normal. “All the world’s a stage”, of course, but some actors are better than others.
Alcoholism and drug abuse sometimes begin in this way. No one starts off explicitly thinking that they want to be dependent on meth or grog in order to feel more alive; it’s always an accidental escape, an unthinking convenience that becomes habitual. It helps with keeping up. A price to pay to feel a fleeting normal, only to feel less normal once their effects subside. Scholars write and speak about “passing”—if you pass it means you’ve managed to successfully fly under the radar. No one is aware that you’re even supposed to be an aberration. They’ll be disappointed and betrayed once they find out. Passing takes work, it’s an art form. For some, passing can be a vice.
As capitalism advances its grip, normal keeps changing its face. In 2013, trend-casting group K-HOLE coined the term normcore, “to understand that there is no such thing is normal”. Normcore, according to its adherents, allows people to become indistinguishably weird. And once you start to see normcore, normcore is everywhere. Barack Obama in normcore at golf. Karl Lagerfeld brings normcore to the Chanel catwalk. Prince William dressing as the everyman. Normal freaks doing normal things.
When the idea of normal gets eaten up into normcore, there’s no such thing as weird—we’re all weird, until it’s too weird. It seems reassuring to dress in camouflage: a nondescript pullover over some baggy slacks, finish it off with a fanny pack and you’re good to go. Normcore takes passing as normal to new heights, yet turns it on its head: everyone is just trying to pass.
Next to normal, normcore looks like its anxious cousin. It’s both a mask and a sign-off: normcore conceals weirdness, but it’s also an opportunity to scream I’M NORMAL!!! at the world. It’s hard to tell the difference.
Being a weirdo lends a form of cultural cachet now. Saying things like, “I’m pretty random.” Or, “I’m such a nerd!” Other things like, “I hate people.” “These people are such normies lol.” Or to quote an actual caricature (Frances in Normal People), “things matter more to me than they do normal people.” In certain circles, weirdness holds an inordinate amount of social currency—to be a normie means you’ve failed. How can I be weirder than someone else? The internet gives us clues:
Do the unexpected;
Get distracted by ordinary things;
Dance like a maniac with no music in an ordinary place and then walk away like nothing happened;
Don’t go out of your way to be too different!
The cult of individuality acts as a guidebook to weirdness. If you’re strange enough you’ll be warranted interest, which allows your self to be quantified. Weird is wonderful (and bankable). When spectacle generates profit, “interesting” holds court, but the irony is that interestingness becomes prescribed. Like a Pinterest mood-board, weirdness is a pastiche of what ostensibly doesn’t gel. It’s a projection that desires value.
But weirdness occupies a hierarchy. If being white is normal then a white weirdo is trendy. If an able body is normal, then weirdness occupied by a disabled body ends up being even more contemptible. Throw in class, standards of beauty, sexuality, gender. Nabokov: “The colour of one's creed, neckties, eyes, thoughts, manners, speech, is sure to meet somewhere in time of space with a fatal objection from a mob that hates that particular tone.” The rooms that exist on the spectrum live in a big house with no windows.
In late-stage capitalism, being weird means you’re an individual, but remember, don’t go out of your way to be too different! We’ll keep consuming until we become the weirdo we want to see in the world: Lady Gaga as crust-punk is to Avril Lavigne on being the “Sid Vicious of the new generation” is to Alien Kulture is to Diane Arbus writing “Last Supper” in her diary before killing herself is to Yayoi Kusama voluntarily choosing to live in a psychiatric asylum is to the denizens of Mortville in Desperate Living. Et cetera, until it gets too weird to bear. Dustinland’s Theory of Hipster Relativity on acid until it’s pressure cooked: “If you’re 5 feet tall, someone 6 feet is tall, but if you’re 6 feet, someone 6 feet 6 inches is tall.” Weirdness is a race to the top, but god forbid it’s too out there.
There are times where I’ll articulate certain thoughts and apologise for “being weird”, only to have the listener assure me: “no, this is very common!” How much of weirdness is unspoken normality? That’s what therapists are for.
Like depression, deviation can be incredibly average when brought to light, yet it always feels so singular: no one is a freak like me. It’s a solipsistic sentiment that nudges out others in favour of the self, a me-me that threatens to sever community before it’s even found.
How did it get to be this way? I scour the halls of culture and history to find kinship, a sense of being able to #relate. Poe in the poem Alone: “From childhood’s hour I have not been / As others were—I have not seen / As others saw—I could not bring / My passions from a common spring”; Yoko Ono; Matilda Wormwood; when Mona loses her mind in the French countryside in Vagabond; when punk icon Poly Styrene says, “I’ve always been an observer, not a suffering artist writing from tortured experiences. I was playing with words and ideas. Having a laugh about everything, sending it up.” Shared weirdness recast as normal.
Normal is a spectre that haunts and dominates, yet some will want to shake it off like a second skin. And weirdness is, naturally (or weirdly) its mirror image. Belonging and
unbelonging as a multi-pronged mask, its spikes squaring off one another. ◯
Cher Tan is an essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, Westerly, Swampland and Overland, among others. Cher is the Kill Your Darlings 2019 New Critic and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow. Read our interview with Cher here.