What is a Dominant Narrative?

What is a dominant narrative?

Throughout our lives, all of us have been exposed to dominant narratives that have shaped the way we interact with the world, others and ourselves.

Here’s a definition from wikipedia -

“Dominant narrative can be used to describe the lens in which history is told by the perspective of the dominant culture. This term has been described as an "invisible hand" that guides reality and perceived reality.  (source)”

Creeped out by the idea of an invisible hand guiding your reality? I certainly am. (also, that invisible hand was supposed to make capitalism work…)

The idea of ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ is an example of a dominant narrative. Most likely it’s something that we’ve heard and accepted on some level, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s a key element to the ‘American Dream’ - if you work hard enough, you can succeed.

Before we dig in to all the ways this is messed up, let’s take a look at what the “invisible hand” is guiding us toward. If we believe that if we work hard enough we can succeed, then we’d have to believe in

Meritocracy  - the assumption that people rise and fall in society based on their merit.

So from there, we would strive to do our best on our own which is essentially

Individualism - the idea that the individual works best on their own, and should focus on individual achievement.

Let’s look at that wikipedia definition again

“Dominant narrative can be used to describe the lens in which history is told by the perspective of the dominant culture. This term has been described as an "invisible hand" that guides reality and perceived reality.  (source)”

I want to point out that bit about dominant narratives being created from the perspective of the dominant culture - essentially the most privileged (and therefore powerful) in a situation. From the perspective of the powerful and privileged, America is a place where if you work hard, you can succeed. (for the privileged that working part can be replaced by ‘inheriting wealth’).

But for those of us who don’t inherit wealth and do need to work hard, our chances of succeeding get smaller and smaller the less privilege we have due to inequality in America regarding race, gender, economic status, ability, etc.

The incredible power of a dominant narrative is that it is widely accepted, which means it’s constantly being repeated and amplified - by other people, our parents, our friends, the media. It becomes the water we swim in, we don’t even recognize it. Instead we struggle, on our own, to survive. When we accept that we alone are responsible for our success or failure, our sense of self worth is tied to the work we do and whether or not we succeed. When both our survival and our sense of self worth are tied to our success, we don’t have time to stop and say “Wait. This system is messed up. I deserve more.” Meritocracy tells us that if we deserved more, we’d have it so we should work harder. When we are holding ourselves to that idea, we don’t look for help from others or reach out to help them. We get trapped in individualism and don’t work with others who are also struggling so we can all succeed together.

Narratives around gender roles, body types, power, family, immigration, age, ability are all around us. They repeat to us who is dangerous, who is a hard worker, who is lazy, who is attractive, who deserves power. Even if we become aware of them and resist them, the world around us is still playing them on loop and holding us to those narratives. And ultimately all of these narratives define who has worth - who is valuable. Which is why we will be bringing dominant narratives to light in our upcoming blogs and podcast episodes. If we are fighting for a world where everyone is valued we need to see how dominant narratives have conditioned us to believe we have to fit into a role or escape a role to be valued, which perpetuates our individual oppression and everyone else’s.

Personally, I’ve struggled to let go of the dominant narrative that says women should support others and focus on others’ needs, at the expense of their own. There’s also an expectation that women should take on large amounts of emotional labor in relationships and collectives. Because these narratives about women are so entrenched in our culture and reinforced subtly and overtly by society, it can be really difficult to admit that I need support or that I want to make a boundary and limit the amount of support I’m giving. My worth gets tied up in it on a subconscious level and I don’t even realize I’m playing out the role given to me by that ‘invisible hand’ of the dominant culture until i’m burned out or fed up.

What are the dominant narratives that you had accepted that you are trying to let go of?

Check out our first podcast episode to listen to stories from Philadelphians about how structural oppression and dominant narratives have affected them.