The stories we tell: using narrative to make sense of our lives and surroundings.


The stories we tell: using narrative to make sense of our lives and surroundings.


Last week, I pub­lished an essay exam­in­ing how the musi­cal Okla­homa! per­fect­ly illus­trates the cul­pa­bil­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ties in pro­tect­ing preda­tors. This isn’t the first time I’ve writ­ten about how media can be used to sup­port harm­ful cul­tur­al nar­ra­tives, and it’s some­thing I infor­mal­ly talk a lot about as well.

As could be expect­ed, when I shared my post across my var­i­ous social media, I got (thank­ful­ly min­i­mal) push-back that basi­cal­ly said, “It’s just enter­tain­ment. It’s not like it’s real life. You’re tak­ing this way too seri­ous­ly.”

This is a sen­ti­ment I see a lot. It’s a go-to response when some­one who is not white, male, and/or straight cri­tiques harm­ful pat­terns and mes­sages in media and/or express­es a desire to see their sto­ry addressed real­is­ti­cal­ly. Not only is it con­de­scend­ing and dis­mis­sive, it also com­plete­ly fails to grasp the cul­tur­al and per­son­al impor­tance of sto­ry.

Sto­ries are impor­tant. The sto­ries we tell each oth­er and our­selves form the nar­ra­tives of our lives and enable us to empathize with one anoth­er, form com­mu­ni­ties and gov­ern­ments and friend­ships and loves. They affect how we view the world, our­selves, and each oth­er on an indi­vid­ual and orga­ni­za­tion­al lev­el, and thus they also affect how we under­stand­ing and inter­act with all of those things. As Teri Schwartz says in her Forbes arti­cle, “Sto­ry, Social Respon­si­bil­i­ty and the Case for a New Mod­el for Enter­tain­ment and Per­form­ing Arts Edu­ca­tion:

Sto­ry has the infi­nite pow­er to con­nect us across time and space, and frame the human nar­ra­tive by tran­scend­ing bor­ders, cul­tures, bound­aries, and bar­ri­ers. It gives voice and mean­ing espe­cial­ly to those who may have been silenced or where no voice exist­ed before.

This is why rep­re­sen­ta­tion — of expe­ri­ences and ide­olo­gies and peo­ple,  in media and in gov­ern­ment and in our every day lives — is so impor­tant. Being unable to find your­self in art, music, media, gov­ern­ment, or any­where in your soci­ety at large, is noth­ing if not iso­lat­ing. We are social crea­tures, and iso­la­tion is uni­ver­sal­ly con­sid­ered a form of pun­ish­ment or sub­ju­ga­tion (PDF).

Fic­tion­al sto­ries aren’t the only form of sto­ry-telling, how­ev­er. Cap­tain Awk­ward puts it quite nice­ly here:

You know how lit­tle kids love to hear the same sto­ry over and over again?  They take com­fort in rep­e­ti­tion, and in know­ing that if the char­ac­ters fol­low cer­tain steps that they will achieve the same out­comes every time.  They will wear a sto­ry into the ground to make sure that it ends the same way, and if you devi­ate even one word they will know and jump all over you.

Adults are the same way.  We live and die by sto­ries we tell our­selves, and we want des­per­ate­ly for them to unfold in a pre­dictable fash­ion.  We do it on the macro-lev­el, as a soci­ety. For exam­ple, one sto­ry that we like to tell over and over again is that “Amer­i­ca is the land of oppor­tu­ni­ty and if you just work hard you’ll be suc­cess­ful!”  And we do it on a micro-lev­el, with­in our­selves and with­in our rela­tion­ships.  Our rela­tion­ships are shared sto­ries that we tell each oth­er, like “Let’s get mar­ried, because I will nev­er ever leave you.”  “We are good par­ents, and you show us that we are good par­ents by being so great at things and suc­cess­ful all the time!

The sto­ries aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly un-true!  It’s this weird thing where we make them true by believ­ing in them so hard. We act as if they are true, so they become true. And it is more help­ful than unhelp­ful to believe that your own hard work and tal­ent can win a suc­cess­ful and com­fort­able life for your­self and that you are the cap­tain of your fate and the mas­ter of your soul. Just, some­times, shit hap­pens, and some­times the flip side of the Amer­i­can! Dream! Suc­cess! nar­ra­tive is that if you aren’t suc­cess­ful or things don’t go your way, it’s all your fault, and that can be a very unhelp­ful mes­sage for peo­ple who are strug­gling.

The sto­ries we tell each oth­er, the sto­ries we tell our­selves, the sto­ries we accept as truth define us.

Racism is the sto­ry of how white peo­ple are the default race, and are bet­ter than oth­er races and thus deserve their land, their wealth, their knowl­edge, their cul­ture, and their bod­ies. Sex­ism is the sto­ry of how men are the default human and deserve more mon­ey, pow­er, and con­trol than women, who exist to make men hap­py. Homo­pho­bia is the sto­ry of how there can only be two gen­ders, deter­mined by gen­i­tals, and those gen­ders are only sup­posed to be roman­tic with the oppo­site gen­der. All of these sto­ries are part of the larg­er sto­ry of kyr­i­archy, which assumes that white, straight, able-bod­ied neu­ro-typ­i­cal mid­dle-aged men are the Default, and every­one else is an Oth­er. So any sto­ry that depicts The Oth­er as any­thing more than a resource, prop, or back­drop threat­ens the cul­tur­al nar­ra­tive, whether it’s some­one talk­ing about their lived expe­ri­ence, gain­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion in gov­ern­ment, or even “just” enter­tain­ment depict­ing an Oth­er as ful­ly human.

Of course, there’s a lot of nuance to this. We often accept parts of sto­ries only to reject the parts that make us uncom­fort­able. It’s not some­thing we often real­ly think about. But that’s the thing: we need to think about it. We need to exam­ine cul­tur­al nar­ra­tives and cri­tique them and fig­ure out what’s true and what’s not. And our cul­tur­al nar­ra­tives and fic­tion­al sto­ries ought to reflect as much diver­si­ty as exists in the world.

The sto­ry I was fight­ing against with both Okla­homa! and Louie is the sto­ry of rape cul­ture (which is a small­er sub­set of the sto­ry of sex­ism). It’s a mul­ti-faceted sto­ry: it says that men are nat­ur­al preda­tors of women, and that’s okay. It’s a sto­ry of how there’s a lev­el of aggres­sion and vio­lence that women are to expect and accept from men, because their sense of enti­tle­ment is more impor­tant than our men­tal and phys­i­cal safe­ty. It’s also a sto­ry of how men know bet­ter than women what we want and what vio­lence actu­al­ly is, and that vio­lence against women only mat­ters if that woman belongs to anoth­er man. (Jud’s threats and attacks against Lau­rey only mat­ter when she is mar­ried, and Pamela is seen to have no excuse for not being with Louie since she’s sin­gle and has expressed inter­est in the past.) Rape cul­ture is a sto­ry of how the only opin­ions and desires that mat­ter are the opin­ions and desires of men, and that’s a dan­ger­ous and irre­spon­si­ble sto­ry to tell.

Exam­in­ing and cri­tiquing cul­tur­al nar­ra­tives as they appear in “real life” and enter­tain­ment is impor­tant work. It’s life-chang­ing and empow­er­ing work.

It’s impor­tant for women to know that they aren’t crazy when a man is stalk­ing them and demand­ing atten­tion and affec­tion.

It’s impor­tant for women to know that if a man — even a man they love — attacks them, it’s not okay.

It’s impor­tant for black girls to know that they can grow up and go into space.

It’s impor­tant for trans peo­ple to see them­selves accept­ed in soci­ety.

It’s impor­tant for peo­ple to know that they are more than a car­i­ca­ture, that the sto­ries of their lives mat­ter.

So I’m going to keep writ­ing about sil­ly musi­cals and car­toons and video games and pop cul­ture. It is part of “real life,” and it’s impor­tant.

Posted in Fat Girl,