Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Narrative

This country, man. This country.

For most of this year, I was worried all systems were failing: the economy, the fight for social progress, women's rights, the education system.

Sometimes though I'm pleasantly surprised.


When it comes to the human condition, it is my personal belief that it all comes down to "narrative."

What is the "narrative?"

What's the story we tell ourselves, our children, our peers? How many times do we tell it? Which stories are the most common? Which are the most compelling? What do we get when we take all of them and combine them into one giant thread? Which elements are the most apparent?

An easy example here is the recent "narrative battle" between Democrats and Republicans. Each party has a prevailing narrative, one that they tell through the media. In each, there are heroes, and there are villains.

While perhaps the more knowledge-oriented voters would hope that most people vote based on facts, voting histories, bills, and proposed initiatives, I'm almost certain most people pick candidates based on which story they find stronger and more reflective of "reality."

Do I believe my story is that of the common working man who has dedicated his life to his family and religion? Do I see myself as a woman devoted to her kids and husband? Or perhaps what appeals to me is the narrative that the country's resources are being nabbed by illegal immigrants, sexually loose women, and atheists (i.e. people I don't care about or actively dislike).

On the other side, maybe I am one of those minorities whose narrative is rarely displayed in mainstream media. Perhaps I feel my story is that of the oppressed, battling for personal civil rights as well as that of my friends and family. The narrative I see and experience is that the system favors the rich and abuses the poor; there's a privileged class, and they work tirelessly to keep me underfoot.

There are many more narratives inside each political party, but those are some general ones.

Which narrative is more "correct?" 

Dude, no. That's the wrong question. That's entirely the wrong question. Narratives aren't correct or incorrect. Instead it's more like they're measured by two things: power and frequency. There are narratives with a lot of punch; they move us emotionally and make us feel more alive and strangely connected with the world around us. I imagine it's what Link feels like when he finds out he's destined for great things.There are narratives that are told repeatedly, not only reaching more people but ingraining into our heads. Sometimes stories are kept alive for very long periods of time, pulsating throughout history (religion, fairy tales, actual historical events).

We, as humans, define ourselves around the stories we tell, not facts. If we did look at ourselves primarily using facts, things would be a lot different.


Fact: Women make up 50% of the world's population.

Yet the number of stories we tell about women and girls are drastically fewer than those we tell about men and boys.

We see female speaking roles about 30-40% of the time compared to male speaking roles, and the number of shows that feature equal numbers dwindle below 20%. More disturbing to me is that these imbalances are exaggerated on children's programming. Not only in numbers but in the kinds of stories told. Boys are superheroes, adventurers, science types. Girls are princesses, things to be rescued, domestic types.

The divergence is evident when looking at word clouds used in children's advertising.

Honestly, there should be more mixing between them. It's as kids when people are the most similar, and as we grow older we diverge from one another. Yet somehow the message shown to children is that boys and girls are fundamentally different.

Compouding this problem is that, again, more boys' stories are told than girls' stories. This means male characters have a wider range because there are more opportunities for them to diverge from whatever the "norm" is. They're seen doing more things, being more people, showing more emotions, and developing more tropes.

For girls, often you'll see either the stereotype or some slight divergence from the stereotype. For instance, she's still a princess but she's spunky / badass / smart / funny / etc. Or she's cute and loves pink but also has evil motives. Maybe the male hero is about to rescue her, but then she ends up rescuing herself. So the boy can still feel like a hero, but the girl can respond, "I don't need boys!" -- which still defines the girl by her relationship/response to the boy /rolleyes. One of my least favorite twists in storytelling.

Because there are fewer girls' stories being told, that enhances the power of the ones that do exist in media today. The entire scope of what girls' stories are like is limited to what we see. And if you flip nine cards over and find basic Swamps each time, you're probably going to assume the tenth one is also a Swamp.

That's the power of narrative. It can create assumptions inside your head about things you have never really seen before. It is a kind of substitute for a real experience, usually compressed and simplified. But it can feel just as real or even more real.


What is slowly happening is that women are realizing that the female characters on screen don't reflect who they are. They've seen these same tropes and stereotypes hundreds of times since they were little girls. They've been told that story, and that story rings false.

Who controls these stories? 

Well it should come as no surprise: men. There are almost five men for every one woman working as directors, writers, and producers. And the men are getting out of touch with their feminine side, it would seem.

Ladies, it's time to take center stage.