Prescribed Narratives

This post is about a topic that has been weighing on me a lot lately. I realize it’s a longer post than normal for me, and more controversial than normal, but I would really love it if you guys read it and shared your feelings with me.

-Thanks in advance, Charlotte xo

Vignette One

Once, when I was in graduate school getting my masters at Oxford, a male acquaintance of mine (who was English), went on a rant about misuse of the words ‘complex’ and ‘complicated.’ It wasn’t a serious rant in the way that ranting about Brexit or Trump is serious, but his passion on the matter was certainly palpable.

As he rattled on, the other females around me and I just rolled our eyes playfully and smiled. It was cute. It was funny. It was kinda sexy.

But intellectual cockiness in moderation is seen as a cute, funny, sexy trait for well educated white British men.

(If you’re curious as to the rant’s subject, it was that ‘complex’ refers only to numbers that have imaginary components, while ‘complicated’ refers to a situation in life.)

Vignette Two

A few years ago, in a job in which I am infinitely grateful no longer to be, I sent an email to some coworkers stating some things I needed from them for a model my team was building. The folks on this other team were having a hard time understanding what we needed from them, so in my email I spelled it out as explicitly as possible. My language was formal, and I spoke in very logical terms. By no means did I say, “Hey you dummies! Why can’t you understand?!” It was just logical and to the point.

To say that I was given hell for it is an understatement. The manager of that other team came to me a publicly berated me for being, in her eyes, arrogant. I needed to be kinder, softer, sweet, bubblier, less arrogant, less cocky, less intellectually harsh, she said.

I called in my manager to the situation, hoping for some backup. Instead, she said the same things. In fact, I was even told that I should dumb myself down when I spoke, so that I wouldn’t come across as intellectually cocky.


Yes, you read that correctly. I was literally told to dumb myself down at work.

So, what is a prescribed narrative?

Well, it is a term I made up to encapsulate the feeling that society encourages and discourages the same behavior for different people. It is distinct from a stereotype and more complicated (not complex ;-)) than a gender role.

In my mind, a stereotype is what society assumes to be true about you until proven otherwise.

A prescribed narrative, on the other hand, is what society says you should or should not do depending on your demographic and cultural profile. I added cultural profile in there because I think it really gets down to specific geographic and economic areas. In Vignette Two above, I honestly don’t think that same conversation would have occurred if I had landed a job in New York or London, which are both places I have lived and never felt pressured to be “dumb and sweet.”

That conversation took place in Alabama, where women are supposed to be as sweet as the tea we drink.

We are to be demure.

We are to be sweetly self-deprecating.

We are to end sentences with a smile and a few words to hedge our certainty.

“I believe the word complex refers only to numbers, but I could be mistaken.” *smile*

A prescribe narrative, in my mind, is when the exact same behavior is encouraged in some people and discouraged in others.

You shouldn’t cry in public, because you’re a straight man living in the South, and that’s viewed as being weak.

It’s OK for you to cry in public, because you’re a soft spoken woman living in the South, and that’s a testament to your tender heart.

Last week, I posted this review of Codecademy‘s Python module. As soon as I published it, I fretted about how my review would be received. Would I sound too arrogant in saying that Codecademy’s lessons were too easy and too slow paced?

I’m not exaggerating, you guys. I legitimately started panicking after I posted that review, because I have seriously been so scarred by experiences like Vignette Two.

Here’s where you come in. For whoever is comfortable, I want to hear your stories about prescribed narratives you’ve encountered in your life. What behaviors have you seen other people do and were encouraged, but when you do them, you’re chastised?

Or perhaps instances you’ve encountered the other way around, where you were encouraged but someone else was discouraged? (My biggest example of this is as a child having my creative writing passions encouraged, and overhearing the dad of a little boy in my class yelling at his son saying that writing was for sissies).

I look forward to whatever lived experiences you guys have to share.

Until next time,

xoxo Charlotte




  1. I always recommend to people that their children should try dance! Even if you aren’t coordinated, most kids like continual movement and music, it helps develop coordinator, motor skills, and social skills, and an excellent “learning” time for them. Almost without fail, anyone with a son will fiercely declare that their son will play soccer, thankyouverymuch. Like being a male that might enjoy dance and even be good at it is a bad thing…
    I also get a lot of flack for being a member of a sorority- I *should* go out more, I *should* be bubblier, I *should* take more risks. Well, I joined for the tradition, the academic encouragement, and lasting friendships, NOT parties and drunkenness, so perhaps stop telling me to party more, people.
    Your weird expectations can’t dictate how someone else should behave!!! FANTASTIC post 😍

    Liked by 2 people

    • I totally agree on the dance piece! Someone else also commented about boys being discouraged from dance, and it makes me so sad that this is such a common feeling for boys to be pushed away from dance and really the arts in general. I often wonder how many amazing would-have-been dancers there are out there who never got the chance to find their talent because they were born male in a culture that tells them not to dance.

      The sorority example you gave is fantastic. That is exactly the sort of prescribed narrative I had in mind when I wrote this blog piece. Larger gender roles are of course very worthy of discussion, but I came at it on a more nuanced, granular level. This example is exactly that, because I think another layer to it is that the expectations might vary based on the specific Greek organization, the culture of the chapter’s university, etc. I am curious, did you receive these expectations from fellow sorority members, or from outsiders of the organization who had preconceived notions of how sorority members ought to behave? Good on you, though, for sticking to your guns and living your sorority life in the way that you wanted to.


      • And the fact of the matter is that it’s easier to make it as a male ballet dancer. I mean, you still have to have the work ethic and talent, but a lot of studios do reduced rates, people are more willing to work with you, and there is less competition for company spots. All because someone thinks that “boys shouldn’t dance”!

        My fellow sisters just accepted that I am not a party person, sometimes it came up but nothing ever crazy. (We are really big in our chapter about reminding members that everyone joins their org for a different reason, so that helps internally!) It’s mostly external, and the odd thing is, the chapters here in Winnipeg don’t party that much anyways. We don’t have houses, we are all less than 30 members, it’s just not a huge thing. But people think that because they saw it on tv it MUST be true, and I MUST love getting hammered. Nevermind that our founds likely never touched alcohol…
        People are so convinced that they know how you should (or should not) be doing something, I wonder what gives them that authority in their head?

        Liked by 1 person

      • What gives them that authority, indeed! I totally agree with you. And that is very good to hear that your chapter was for the most part accepting of people joining for different reasons. That said, it is quite frustrating when people can’t seem to wrap their heads around someone not behaving in a way that they expect based on some preconceived notions.


  2. Someone I know was talking to me about her son who likes doing his acting classes and wants to do dancing too. She asked me whether it was all a bit too girly so I simply reminded her that without boys learning to act and dance we wouldn’t have male actors in shows. I can’t understand why people think this way still that little boys should do football and girls do dancing!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes! I totally agree with you. With any children we have, I want to expose them to everything and let them choose for themselves. Of course, there will likely come a time when they hear from other children that sports are for boys and dance is for girls, and I’ll discuss it with them then.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have run into the same type of conversation as you in your vignette 2… No. I don’t want to dumb down, I want them to smarten up! Also, in the south I had many run ins with men who treated me like a pretty little girl with a silly little head and then my husband would come and make the same argument and they’d totally respect his opinion and his status as a man. Makes you just want to punch something, hey?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes!!! It does make me quite angry. I 100% know what you mean. I feel like so many times if I’ve tried to present a solution to a problem that’s even remotely related to math or logic or business, I’ll essentially be told, “don’t worry your pretty little head, darling.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Arrrrrgggghhhhh! And/or saying they’ll just wait for my husband to be home or even fucking telemarketers that ask if my husband is home first and if not they’ll call back when the head of the house is back… grrrrrrr

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m sorry those things happened to you. Especially Vignette Two. I think that particular instance may have stemmed out of society’s lack of being able to communicate (not your lack, by the way). I think communicating through email has SO MANY drawbacks. For instances, what I did there with the all caps – was I shouting or just emphasizing? It’s just left to so much interpretation and nine times out of ten, the interpretation is wrong. But it was wrong for the manager to berate you without any real reason or clarification. (I was emphasizing, by the way…not yelling. LOL)
    I get yelled at on a daily basis because I am in sales/communications and often get lumped in with telemarketers. I don’t want to bother you, I’m a nice person, very polite and, believe me, would rather leave a message than bother anyone. But it’s part of my job, and before I even say “hello” most people have already made up their mind about the kind of person I am. It’s a hard job, and some days I hate what people think of me, or what they perceive me to be. Again, it’s the narrative they’ve assumed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Lisa, for this thoughtful and insightful comment. You’ve reminded me of a topic I’ve been meaning to tackle for a while now — electronic text communication. I 100% agree that it is sooooooo easy to be misinterpreted!! Add in workplace politics and the typical ‘isms, and you’ve got a recipe for miscommunication. I don’t have time to reply fully now, but I wanted to say a quick thank you for this insightful comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, Charlotte! That just plain sucks! Unfortunately, I totally get it. I started to say that I don’t have a specific incident in mind but one came to mind. I have always been the headstrong, no nonsense, go after what you want girl. Even in high school (a long time ago). I was the girl who said “why should I wait for a boy to ask me out? He’s probably just as scared as I am.” Well, that was frowned upon. I was ‘too forward’. So my junior year, everyone wanted to go to the prom. I didn’t care about going. But I decided that I was going to wear pants if I did. Like a feminine tuxedo. (I looked damn good, too!) I asked 6 guys to go with me. 6! Not one said yes because I was going to wear pants. Really!?! Meanwhile there was a guy who roamed the halls wearing a long skirt all the time because it was comfortable. So, I don’t get to be comfortable but you guys do? I don’t think so! (I finally had a guy say yes but he said only if he got to wear a dress. He didn’t but it was a great line!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is such a great example, Teressina!! And I am so sorry that people in your school were so judgmental about your desire to dress how you wanted to, especially if there was a double standard and it was different for guys. I think feminine suits are a really good look!!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’d like to offer the narrative of being a man as prescribed by many women:

    “Be ready to calmly accept me, regardless of my attitude, behavior, or treatment of you.”
    “I want children, so you will accept being placed after them in my priority list, forever.”
    “I am the wanted gender, so you will you pay for my companionship.”
    “If I choose not to respect you, you have to accept it, but can never disrespect me.”
    “At any moment, I can disappear, but I expect the choice to only be mine.”

    And the market is such that many men will outwardly accept these terms..

    As a man resistive to such concepts, I want this imbalance, this prescribed narrative of emasculation acceptance, to stop. I want to be treated as an equal, not just a fungible biped.

    Just once, I would like a first date to tell me: “You made the first step and asked me out, arranged a place near my home instead of yours, and probably have a fun follow-up activity planned should this go well. Let me be the one to buy you a coffee.”

    I want a girl to tell me “Yes, I want children, but I know this will cause you stress. You will have to change diapers, wake up for midnight feedings, and spend so much money raising them that it will prevent you from buying your dream car – several times over. My attention will go to them as their mother, which means I’ll have less to spend on you. I understand this drive of mine, and this decision will cost you, and I want you to know I’ll try my best to minimize that cost if you do this with me.”

    Yes, I even want a girl to tell me: “You don’t always have to be the calm one, the one responsible for self-control, and you don’t have to let me behave any way I want. I have just as much duty to be the same for you.”

    Prescribed narratives seem to exist in both micro and macro scales. Some cost dignity, some cost everything.

    Liked by 1 person

    • These are fantastic examples, David. I totally agree that some prescribed narratives are on micro scales, while others are on macro scales. I really appreciate you offering your perspective on your prescribed narratives as a man. I absolutely agree that, unfortunately, many people approach dating and relationships with totally different expectations for men versus women. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts!


  7. Prescribed narratives. I am definitely going to make use of that term. It’s brilliant!

    First off, a quick glance at the dictionary definition of complex does in fact refer to it as being a word used primarily in science and mathematics. I think it’s one of those words that has been taken by popular culture (perhaps in an attempt to sound more intelligent) and the meaning twisted in the same way as the meaning of “literally” has been changed by dictionary definition thanks to its overuse in the public forum. Though now I’m aware of the true meaning of complex, I shall ensure not to use it in the incorrect sense again such is my anal nature in situations like this (I only use literally where appropriate too nowadays).

    Secondly, I have been given conflicting advice on a variety of occasions. On the one hand, I’ve always been taught that I should dream big and work hard to achieve my ambitions while on the other I’ve been told to keep my ambitions realistic. Sometimes I’ve been told both things by the same person. I know there are some who think my dream of becoming published is unrealistic and I really should just be concentrating on getting a safe job somewhere and earning enough to get by because that’s what “normal” people do.

    I know, for example, that my dad doesn’t agree with my pursuing a career as a writer. He hasn’t said it, but I just know. He’s a working man and always has been. He’s gotten what he has in life by grafting his fingers to the bone (metaphorically of course; not literally) and giving his all to his chosen path. He’s an electrician by trade and a damned good one. He’s now in a position of authority and deservedly so. My dad got himself a job at sixteen and worked hard in that one job to become as averagely successful as he is today.

    My dad is an advocate for hard work and graft. He thinks that’s what people need to do to get by. He thinks that’s what I should be doing. He doesn’t buy into this creativity crap. I daresay he’s never read a single blog post of mine because it’s probably a complete waste of his time. He thinks it’s a waste of mine. In his eyes I should be doing what he has done.

    In my opinion, what I think he has done is sold himself to the system. He’s diligently followed the rules like a good working class citizen should. He’s earned a moderate amount of money throughout his life and accepted that. That’s not wrong at all.

    What is wrong is his belief that I should have done the same. As though doing what he has is a benchmark and I should have followed that example. I could be wrong and he could very well be supportive of my writing, but the facts suggest otherwise. He’s never passed comment on my work either verbally or literately. If I’ve spoken about it he’s only ever responded with silence. If I know my dad then that means he’s disappointed that I’m chasing fairytales and not living in the “real world”.

    What it also means though is that he knows my ideals are different to his. The reason he stays quiet is that even though he feels I should be living life a certain way he knows and respects that I am not him. That I see the world in a different light to him. So though he may not agree with how I do things from his viewpoint, he doesn’t enforce that viewpoint on me. He isn’t supportive of what I think and believe, but he doesn’t demean it either.

    I feel I perhaps haven’t stuck to the point of your post here, but I think it touches on it slightly in that my dad and I have different ideas on how people should be. He thinks we should be industrious, hardworking and provide for those around us. I think you should have big ambitions, never be content with being an everyman and chase your dreams until they’re physically impossible to achieve. Neither of us is wrong. Those with social standards that differ from place to place aren’t necessarily wrong either, but like my dad, I think people should stay quiet about what they think is socially right and wrong because everybody is different. Have the respect not to force your ideals on others.

    Enjoy my essay 🙂


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