Some people are just too much, as the story goes. Or too “extra,” in the parlance of today’s youth. That is, they are more than the status quo can take. They challenge the norms, they are unapologetic, and instead of rejecting it, as is often expected, they remain fiercely committed to their difference. Instead of embracing this attitude, we ridicule and we reject people who are too much. But isn’t it precisely those over-the-top people, those creative innovators, those “unruly” people, people, that are most needed in our world today? Instead, we minimize, dismiss, and marginalize those who don’t fit nicely into our binary definitions of whatever the issue may be. Not skinny? You’re too fat. Too thin? You’re anorexic. Too optimistic? You’re naïve. Too somber? You must be clinically depressed. Ask for what you want? Too pushy. Don’t ask? Not assertive enough.
While this binary-thinking problem afflicts the U.S. as a whole, it is perhaps most acutely on display when we talk about gender. Women who embrace their sexuality are too slutty. Women who refuse to succumb to prescribed notions for post-40s dress are too old. Women who lead are bossy. During the 2016 presidential campaign (and through all of her previous campaigns), Hillary Clinton was repeatedly described as “shrill” whenever she got animated about a topic. Yet male candidates often talk loudly (and, as Donald Trump demonstrated during the debates) and over female candidates, this pejorative is not used to describe them.
And before I am accused of some radical man-hating agenda, I completely acknowledge that women are part of the problem. Writing in Forbes in April 2012, Jenna Goudreau notes how women also find others who are too much to be intimidating. Women who happen to be attractive and also have a successful career and personal life are often persona non grata with other women. Popular culture contributes to this notion that if women with children happen to be successful in any realm outside of motherhood, they are instantly less likeable unless they are that rare breed of super-palatable celebrity moms, like Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Alba. The message is clear: Tone it down, don’t push too much, don’t achieve too much…don’t be too much.
The problem goes beyond a simple narrowness of identity. Rather, this view that anyone who is more than me is too be disregarded or reviled limits much-needed social change. As Anne Helen Peterson wrote in her book Too fat, too slutty, too loud, these unruly people are the ones who help chip away at antiquated notions of femininity and masculinity. They challenge stereotypes and shatter glass ceilings. It is not people who play it safe who will be our leaders but those who take risks and persevere through pushbacks.
So, what if instead of making fun of the unruly people who are too-this or too-that, we asked what it is about our culture that bothers us so much about someone who smashes the either/or categorizations? What if we taught our kids that not only are people different from one another in terms of looks, interests, and abilities, but that success looks different for everyone? In fact, what if we encouraged (no, really, not just in half-hearted, “be all you can be” mantras) all people to go for it? To pursue with passion what excites them? To wear what pleases them? To use their bodies as they desire?
That’s the kind of world I’m up for.