The stories we tell, as well as the stories we are told, shape the way in which we experience the world. From the deeply unconscious way that our world view is built, in part, on the stories of our childhoods, to the stories that awaken in us a new perspective or a renewed passion for some area in our lives.
The power of story is so pervasive that we rarely consider how deeply we are influenced by those stories. It’s like the air we breathe - we know it’s there when we think about it, yet we move through our daily lives rarely giving it any real consideration. With air, that’s fine. But with story, the extent to which we acknowledge its impact on our lives correlates with the amount of freedom we have.
Yes, that’s a big statement, but worth considering for a moment. Story is like nutrition for the mind, heart and soul. When done right, it makes you feel alive - and even more importantly, opens us up to ideas and experiences we otherwise wouldn’t have had. But there is another side to story that builds and reinforces our assumptions and world views. So much of our every day lives are at best deeply influenced, and at worst controlled by, “programming” from the stories we see and hear. Sure, we also get our family, cultural and social patterning, but those too are informed by stories. They are the building blocks of our thinking.
Lera Boroditsky, associate professor at UCSD points out from her research in how language affects how we think, that in German the word for Bridge (die Brücke) is feminine, yet in Spanish, it’s masculine (El Puente). So, German speakers will use words that westerners generally apply to the feminine, such as elegant or beautiful whereas Spanish speakers are more likely to use a word like strong. This language we use to tell our stories influences our thinking at its most basic levels.
This lives in the stories we hear. Storytellers and filmmakers have this amazing opportunity to create new worlds out of nothing, and yet, we are stuck replaying the worlds we know and we perpetuate old stereotypes and images that continue us living in unfreedoms.
A friend of mine is a big fan of Frank Herbert. In a conversation about gender roles and stereotypes in stories, he commented on the progressiveness of how he wrote his female characters. To which I call bullshit.
First, yes, in his seminal work, “Dune”, he has three very strong female characters, but in this world he created, we know about these women BECAUSE they are “strong” in a way that men can relate to as strong. And the amazing woman who is his mother, was a concubine, never a wife and therefore held in lower status. Sounds awfully reminiscent of our own past. One of the evil characters had rooms full of young women to satisfy his sexual desires as a device to show his depravity and ultimately the powerlessness of women in this fictitious world.
“Dune” is a fully-fantastical world and because of that, anything was possible. Yet Herbert regurgitated much of our social structures that we’ve seen in almost every story looking backwards.
Frank Herbert was an amazing author and created a world so vivid and so detailed, it truly was its own universe. It’s clear to see why this book is so special in the annals of literature and why David Lynch helmed the film adaptation of the book: Herbert created a world out of his own imagination. He could have made anything, yet in building with the building blocks of the thoughts he’d inherited, he made the main female character a concubine, a world where men are strong, defined by the stereotypical traits of modern human manhood, and where gender roles fall as they have for centuries on earth.
Good stories should lead us to future possibilities. The stories we’re told from our childhood and beyond influence us far beyond what is “natural.” There is not inherent “natural” in our stories. It’s what’s given and we accept it.
In the 1990’s, being gay could get you dragged to death behind a truck. Transgendered could easily get you killed by fists of angry mobs. In fact, we as a country so feared and hated homosexuality that most states amended their constitutions to discriminate against LGBTQ people! It’s still pretty tough in many parts of this country, and downright backwards in most of the world, but today, same sex couples can marry all across the United States. How did that shift come so fast? People just all of a sudden woke up and decided that discrimination, prejudice and arbitrary persecution was wrong? Or maybe it’s how LGBTQ were presented in stories? Maybe people all over the country were inviting Will & Grace into their living rooms and even bedrooms (via TV) every week. America loved Ellen, then had to hate her…all of a sudden? Even though she was the same person? Even though she was still lovely and causing no harm to anyone? And then five queer guys from New York started helping straight guys with their appearance and confidence - and people went crazy for them.
It took a few years, but the stories we were telling began to change. Gay was no longer a caricature in our pop culture. It didn’t happen over night, and it’s still a battle, but what was once considered “unnatural” is now widely understood as a beautiful part of life. People were telling stories about what it meant to be gay, and then those stories changed. And when the stories changed, our thinking changed. As old stereotypes fell, we became more free in our understanding of who we are as human beings.
Many years ago, a good friend of mine pointed out that I assumed love stories where between a man and a woman. She was right. She longed to see movies that depicted what to her was romantic - same sex couples in love. She didn’t have many of those stories; I had more than I could watch.
I used to think that that was too bad for her. But I’ve come to see how that was also too bad for me. My world view was limited by something I didn’t know that I didn’t know - namely, what that experience must be like. That this was even a question. And it kept me enough in the dark that, like most of the world, the LGBTQ community was strange and unknown.
Great storytelling lives into that future and can bring something back from there, something new, something that we don’t know. Maybe something we won’t even recognize. That doesn’t mean a utopia where nothing happens because there is no conflict and everything is love and peace, but it means looking at all the assumptions, questioning them, re-working them, and then delivering us a world that breaks down the old so we can live into new possibilities.