In the past two weeks three different people have mentioned Suzy in Nebraska to me in the course of conversation. Two were in business-like settings; one was a conversation with a friend who owns a shop. As a long-time believer that things of importance happen in threes I started thinking about this mythical Suzy and the role she plays here in the quilting industry. Suzy seems to be a central marketing tenet around here; it is vital that nothing we do offends or is disagreeable to Suzy in Nebraska. She doesn’t have to like everything, but nothing can be unpalatable to her. She is the average person, the norm. It is assumed that she is the typical quilter, somehow emblematic of us all. But I keep wondering who she is.
It seems impossible to not link our Suzy to that Suzy Homemaker who entered this world in response to the countercultural revolutions of the late Sixties. Suzy Homemaker was born as an exemplar of what girls should want to be: “She doesn’t wear love beads. She wears shoes. She even washes regularly. And she’s right by your side to help when you clean house.” She was what all girls should want to be, a paragon of virtue, a heroic “square” resisting the dangerous lasciviousness of the world, of those who fly their freak flags. In a word, she was normal. But the thing about normativity is that it is never simply descriptive; it is also prescriptive. While it may speak about us in the aggregate (or at least attempt to), it always serves to tell us how we ought to be.
Suzy in Nebraska worries me not because of who she is, but because she does not in fact exist. She is an idea, but we so often treat her as if she is real. We market to her, or more importantly we market precisely in order to not lose her. But in order to do so we really need to know what she in fact believes. Since she is simply a concept we cannot just ask her; instead we have to make assumptions, imagine just what she might believe. So, what is that???
From my conversations with marketers there seems to be an ideal notion out there that Suzy is fundamentally apolitical, or even anti-political, but that seems a truly impractical ideal. No one is perfectly apolitical; we all do, in fact, have beliefs that shape our worldviews. But let’s put that aside and accept for the moment that Suzy in Nebraska is somehow beyond the political: not neutral, but outside. This Suzy seems to prefer the absence of substance, a position that would then exclude so much of the vibrant history of quilting and crafting. While it might be helpful for marketing purposes to envision such an utopian environment, one unfettered by the complications of history, beliefs, politics, the Suzy that would populate that world has not, can not, and will not exist. No, Suzy in Nebraska isn’t that abstract ideal, she believes something, but what?
Let me reiterate, I do not think Suzy exists. I call her the most dangerous person in quilting precisely because she does not exist. Suzy is used to hypothesize us, to flesh out the bounds of the practice, or at least the industry. But her unreality is precisely what makes her so dangerous. Her normative position delimits the allowable spaces in which we are expected to work, but that is not the most dangerous part of Suzy. In validating the idea of Suzy we accept a certain type of engagement, a kind of homogenized perspective on the practice of quilting.
The thing about Suzy is that she doesn’t have to do anything, doesn’t have to exist. In the concern about Suzy the industry affects a certain self-censorship in advance. In embracing Suzy we shy away from diversity, not because we want to, but because we are worried about how Suzy will react. We imagine what she wants, or doesn’t want, and work toward those ideals. Suzy becomes the entirety of our audience because we fear the repercussions of Suzy’s reprisals.
Here’s the thing, if we accept the idea of Suzy we assume that the middle third of the world is our audience, but that then ignores the other two thirds, those outside of the norm. And this is a self-reinforcing process; it not only describes who is currently in that middle third, but also predicts, or at predicates who will then join. While the hope for the model of Suzy is that it will speak to the broadest possible audience, it more likely progressively narrows the community. The shrinking of the quilting community around the turn of the millennium ought to have served as a cautionary tale.
In accepting the notion of Suzy in Nebraska we begin to internalize that disapproval of difference. We anticipate what Suzy wants and compare ourselves to that standard; deviation becomes deviant, a transgression rather than an expression. I was stunned yesterday when my darling quilt-wife Lisa (not my real wife) posted this message to FB:
Okay. “How do you really expect people to accept you when you go out and do these demos and classes with that hair and all the jewelry?”
Please discuss because I’m not sure if I’m supposed to cry or punch her or both.
While Lisa received support from her community, reading this saddened me deeply; actually what really made me sad was the responses. The responses bespoke a resignedness to such things, the recognition that while what was said to Lisa was unkind, it kind of had to be expected; that is the price of difference. It was the absolute normalcy, regularity of this kind of statement that struck me. This was not an extreme view; it was a ramification of Suzy in Nebraska. I am sure Lisa knows that she is going to encounter this again and again, unless of course she were to change herself, hide herself, to make it stop.
Suzy isn’t real, and she doesn’t live in Nebraska. She isn’t real, unless we let her be. She is an insult to actual women, and to Nebraska, or wherever we locate her. She is less than a cardboard cutout, but her impact is very real. The thing is that Suzy, or the idea of her, is not apolitical. She is just like Suzy Homemaker, a set of attributes that reflect a particular reality. If our Suzy is the average of all quilters she starts to come into shape, and we can probably all begin to picture her: she is white, she is straight, she is fifty or so (maybe a bit older). While all the white, straight, women out there might glide right over that reality, everyone else will likely recognize themselves as different, as an outsider. That is the nature of normativity; it seems perfectly normal to those who fit in. If what we make, what gets produced and published, is aimed at Suzy very little gets made for those others. While we might like to think of quilting, along with so many other things, as universal, that perspective is almost always a privilege of cultural centrality.
This isn’t about any one person’s views; we all have different beliefs. While I have definite problems with what was said to Lisa, that person obviously has a different perspective. My concern is the underlying structure that seems to reinforce the expression of that attitude, the pervasive impulse to make everyone fit in. Within that statement to Lisa was an attempt at giving business advice, a concern for Lisa’s options; it was an expression of wisdom with regard to the world. It was a reminder that Suzy wouldn’t approve, which after all is what really matters. It is the voice that tells us we have to chose between art and expression and business, that we can’t afford to be too different. The thing is that none of us need to hear that voice because it is already deeply ingrained in our brains. We have capitulated to Suzy simply by accepting the idea of her.
That is the damage the normative process causes, whether it be upon an individual or a community. I do worry about the effect of Suzy from Nebraska on the quilting community, about the voices that are excluded or feel excluded, about all of the quilters out there who are making remarkable things but just don’t share their voices with us. I do worry about the effect of this unreal standard, the idea of Suzy, on so many actual practices. We are all far more complicated than we appear to be, and though the community may conceptually recognize that, it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t embrace that on some very practical levels. Yes, it is important to share our commonalities, but how much is that really worth if we don’t support, encourage, and promote those differences as well?
I feel a little awkward doing this here, but as I was going through the final edits of my book I ran across a paragraph that I feel compelled to paraphrase here as it speaks to this as well as anything I’ve ever written:
In embracing differences we frequently find relationships—aesthetic, conceptual and personal—that we might never have expected. Such a community speaks to the contrasts between and within us all. It resists homogenization and reduction in favor of a space in which our commonalities are seen through our differences, not despite them. Instead of viewing different styles and approaches as opposite sides of the same coin, it points toward the many coins that may commingle in the same change purse—toward a multiplicity of perspectives whose differences don’t have to be oppositional.