Reality Bites

I’ve been pondering the nature of reality recently, as is one’s wont. Not perhaps to the depths of Descartes or Wittgenstein, but pondering none the less. In fact it’s truer to say I’ve been musing on the linguistic concept of reality or “real”. “Real” is a synonym for “true” in common parlance. So when we are told we can read about “the real Katie Price”, we are being sold, notionally at least, the objective truth about erstwhile model Jordan. But consider how this expression is given an entirely contrary meaning in two parallel phrases.

A “real woman” is media shorthand for an everyday woman – flawed but confident. Imperfect but all the more honest and therefore relatable because of it. It’s a standard counter to the unrealistically perfect images of high-profile women (who are, bizarrely, put on a pedestal by the same incongruent commentators). “Ah, but she’s a real woman, just like you and me. Not like Kate, or Sienna, who we worship / sneer at from afar.” says someone deeply confused in the Daily Mail features department.

Consider then the “real man”. The real man is a kind of macho-sensitive ideal: Milk Tray meets David Beckham via someone suitably strong and silent yet still able to share his feelings. In contrast to their female counterparts, I’m pretty sure real men don’t have weight problems that can be patronisingly transmuted into joie de vivre.

So “real” in the context of women and men has developed bizarrely conflicting meanings. It’s a very telling example of how cultural context and usage loads words with meaning. It’s probably best to leave the exploration of reality to the philosophers, but for writers, understanding the meaning of words is at least as important as knowing the definition. Really.

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