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.