The Ethics of Storytelling Part 2 (see Part 1, here)
We’ve all heard it before, the cry of the anti-critic. It seems like whenever we voice critiques of media, someone rallies the cry of “It’s just a TV show/book/film!” or “It’s just a story!” (usually followed by “Get over it!”). As if stories were irrelevant, meaningless things that exist merely to be consumed and the leftovers discarded as easily as day old McDonald’s french fries. ‘Just’ minimizes, dismisses, and derides. We’re silly to care, even sillier to pursue reasonable discussion and criticism. But there is nothing ‘just’ about stories.
As Kat Barrell pointed out in our interview, human beings have been telling stories since the beginning of time. Long before humans were driving cars or playing football or writing internet articles, they were telling each other stories. It’s in our blood and DNA. Storytellers and preservers of traditions were—and still are in other parts of the world—some of the most revered members of society. A tradition this ancient cannot be trivial.
But why do stories matter so much? For starters, stories are creative expressions both of self and culture. This is no small thing. We live in an increasingly mechanized society where people are treated as either bottomless pits of consumption or interchangeable parts in the machine of capitalism and industry. Creativity is not valued as highly anymore because aesthetics are frivolous in the world of the machine. So if nothing else, stories defy the pressure to measure life in terms of productivity and output potential. Stories are art, and therefore immanently human, but that’s not the end of the matter. They are also much more.
Stories as Mirrors of Ourselves
Stories are more than aesthetics, they’re also reflective. We see ourselves reflected in stories and understand ourselves better. No matter your race, gender, religion, or physical ability seeing yourself onscreen is a powerful experience, like the first time you see a wlw couple and think “That’s me!”. The overwhelming response to Alex Danvers’ storyline and the Sanvers ship on this season of Supergirl has been a powerful rush of self-identification and emotional attachment: “This is how it feels to have our stories told”.
Seeing ourselves in stories validates our experiences. The portrayal of characters with our skin color, sexual orientation, or religious background in different narrative roles (villain, protagonist, friend, mentor, love interest, etc), underscores our own humanity because humans themselves exist in every possible role. Humans are fat, thin, tall, short, whiney, awkward, gregarious, friendly, nefarious, and a whole host of other things. We’re all varying shades of grey with our motivations, so the more different characters we see that we can identify with, the more seen and acknowledged we feel. More human, less alone.
Seeing ourselves in a story generates new insight into our motivations, personality, and self. It can be positive, “That’s why I do the thing!” and negative, “Oh, right, that’s a problem I have too.” More, diverse characters mean more opportunities for self reflection and growth. It can also be a shorthand way to help other people understand you: “I’m 50/50 Luna and Hermione” or “I’m a Slytherin with a dash of Hufflepuff” or “I grew up with a dad like Petyr Baelish” (if you did, I’m so, so sorry).
By understanding ourselves, flaws and all, we learn to love ourselves more. It’s often easier to love someone else than ourselves, even someone with similar flaws. We’re our own worst enemies; sometimes the things we hate most about a character are personal flaws. So, the more stories we tell, the more options we have to love more characters which, if they remind us of ourselves, can help us see ourselves more kindly. I could talk about how my initial hatred of Sansa Stark was rooted in self-loathing and once I understood this, I turned into a true knight of the Sansa Defense Club. Or, I could tell you how much my absolute love for Luna Lovegood (and frustration at her sidelining) has helped me to enjoy the more scattered, random aspects of my personality. Stories can give us back ourselves.
Stories can open up new avenues for self-actualization. When diverse characters exist in varying occupational roles or exhibit alternative lifestyle choices, we start to think outside of social or familial expectation. Seeing a female scientist like Eliza Danvers encourages young girls to consider STEM fields. Boys with more feminine coded interests can take heart in Steven Universe’s love of dresses, hearts, glitter, and singing catchy pop songs in front of an entire city. Seeing trans and non-binary characters can help questioning young people understand how best to self-identify and know that exploring their gender is safe. Human beings in real life come in every flavor imaginable, so the more diversely stories represent their characters, the more it will look like real life. And the more stories look like real life, the happier, healthier, and understood people will feel. In other words, representation matters.
Stories as Windows into Other People
On the other side of this coin, stories allow us to understand other people better. Like the first time you see a black character talk about oppression or a trans character talk about transmisogyny. Suddenly, what your black or trans friend has been saying about their experiences suddenly clicks into place. The shorthand for conceptualizing ourselves to others works equally well the other direction. Although limiting, the boxes are still useful. There’s a reason why MBTI and other, similar personality tests stick around for example, or why the Harry Potter houses do. Stories offer categories into which we can sort and understand people. Just so long as we allow people to ‘break the mold’ and act other than our categories might permit, there’s no problem in using them as a touchstone for empathy.
And this isn’t just me talking either. Recent studies have proven that reading literary fiction improves children’s capacity for empathy.
“Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships…This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom.”—Julianne Chiaet, “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy”
It isn’t all that surprising when you think about it. Reading how other people think allows us to comprehend their thinking processes. We start to put ourselves in other character’s shoes, which bleeds over into ‘real’ life. Stories help us to understand people who are different from ourselves, which, again, hammers home the need for diversity in our storytelling. It doesn’t just help us understand ourselves, diverse stories and representation allow us to empathize with perspectives other than our own.
Stories as Windows into The World
“We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.”—J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
Stories give us a window into not only people but also societies. Not all stories are real in the sense of ‘having actually happened’, but many unreal stories can be true. Stories reflect our lived experience and show us the world around us as we were meant to see it, and in that sense, are true. This, in turn, allows us to see both the flaws and the beauty of the world around us. We see something familiar in a new way, renewing our sense of awe and enjoyment. Pixar movies like Cars and the Toy Story series, for example, invite us to look at the world of inanimate objects differently. Finding Nemo singlehandedly changed how I hear the cry of seagulls.
Other stories mirror back the flaws of our society. Science fiction and fantasy at their best provide a way to talk about issues like racism and sexism from a more objective standpoint that does not immediately turn off those who need to hear the messages the most. I strongly believe that A Song of Ice and Fire’s vivid, sometimes overly graphic, depictions of sexism and misogyny are meant to force us to reflect on our society (your mileage may vary on how successful Martin is). Ender’s Game depicts the tragedy of narrow-minded xenophobia and jingoism in a way that ought to shock us out of complacency. Dystopian fiction like 1984 and Brave New World portrays the flaws of governmental extremes if left unchecked. In all of these stories, a fresh perspective opens up new perspectives and conversations on societal flaws we’ve habituated ourselves to.
Stories can also give us a glimpse into minority experiences in our society or even different societies altogether. Huckleberry Finn and Their Eyes Were Watching God provide very different windows into black life in the late 19th and early 20th century America. Similarly, Luke Cage allows black persons to tell their own stories about life in Harlem not filtered through typically white produced crime serials set in New York City. A Harlem that, though modern, is more accurate in its depiction of the racial make up of the neighborhood than J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them.
Such stories remind those in positions of privilege that their version of history is not entirely accurate. That there are other versions of the stories they’ve been told and that their story is too limited to encompass the whole of life. At their best, other people’s stories allows us to realize that our story is incomplete or flawed.
Likewise, stories give voice to marginalized and hurting people, providing an avenue for them to not only tell but interpret their experiences. Victims of abuse write stories to process their trauma and help others in similar situations. Jessica Jones gives voice to women who have been raped. The upcoming Hidden Figures attacks the erasure of women of color from historical narratives. Every new Disney Princess movie featuring a woman of color allows more young girls of color to see themselves as beautiful, powerful, and worthy of being their own hero.
Thus, stories can both subvert or uphold the status quo. Too many stories from the majority perspective will minimize or silence minority voices. More stories from marginalized communities will challenge the dominant perspective. The underlying fear of increased minority representation stems from precisely this power to subvert the status quo. Because, at some level, even those who deny the meaningfulness of stories recognize that they have the power to shape reality in either edifying or destructive ways.
Stories as Windows into Alternate Realities
“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”— J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
Escaping from real, lived pains and traumas through stories is not an invention of the modern era, but rather one of the essential features of stories since their inception. There is a longing in the midst of suffering for life to be better. Visiting a world in which there is hope, light, and joy during times of crisis reminds us that there is goodness in the world even if we aren’t currently experiencing it. Like the prisoner Tolkien speaks of, there is no harm in exploring a world fundamentally better than our own when we struggle. Stories ease suffering and we often carry the hope found there back into our ‘normal’ lives. We endure because of escape. How did Cinderella cope with her abusive stepmother? She visited the prince’s ball to dance the night away and forget her suffering for a while. That’s okay. Stories are made for that.
Similarly, stories allow us to reinterpret present reality in order to change it. Supergirl’s speech to National City in the S1 finale called on everyone to choose hope in order to break them free from Myriad’s hold on their lives. In the wake of this disappointing election season, many people (myself included) used her words to encourage ourselves to hope for a better future and stay strong. Her story had the power to strengthen our resolution in the present and start planning for the future. Stories show us how we can change our world for the better.
Stories also provide a way for us to reinterpret, reclaim, or defy our past or present experiences. Many comics began as reactions to war and/or grew out of minority experiences in America. Superman began his career as a symbol of Jewish power to fight the Nazi’s during WWII, Captain America as well. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “Hamilton” reclaims American history for minorities and provides greater space to talk about the current contribution of minorities to American society. Alongside a whole host of female driven comic books, Supergirl is reclaiming comic book stories for women, especially LGBT women, and feminism.
Fanfiction most vividly encapsulates this purpose of stories. A recent study of fanfiction tropes highlights the popularity of fluff and happy endings, with major character death being one of the biggest no-nos. Fanfiction is frequently (though not always) the art of the disappointed, the hurt, the frustrated. We turn to it to change what we disliked about a story in so called ‘fix it fic’ and find solace in it when media makers kill off our favorite characters in brutal ways. We seek it out for happy endings instead of grimdark nihilism.
“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”—J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
Tolkien writes specifically about fairy (or fantasy) stories, but it applies to other genres as well. Stories grant us a glimpse of the final defeat of evil. In our society, Dark™ and Gritty™ have become a catchphrase to mean “realistic”, as if the world is essentially dark, humorless, and depressing. Literary nihilism masquerading as realism. But stories remind us that joy, hope, love, and light are as real as sorrow and pain. Happy endings allow us to picture a world where evil is ultimately defeated by good, where love triumphs over hate, and joy over existential wallowing in angst.
The Power of Stories
Ask any parent why they do not allow their child to consume certain media and the answer will be something along the lines of “Children are sponges, and we have to be careful what they consume otherwise it will warp their brains.” (It’s an oversimplification, I know, but it usually boils down to this.) At some level, human beings recognize that stories have power to shape how children think, which can lead to censorship. Yet, we fail to apply this same concept to adults much of the time. Adults are above being changed or shaped by stories. Children are impressionable, not adults.
“I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.”—J. R R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
It’s not true, as I hopefully have shown. Stories don’t just have power to shape children, though they do have that power. Stories shape how adults perceive reality and other people as well. Just look at how specific messaging (i.e., stories) shaped the election this past year. Or, look at how the overwhelming death of LGBT+ women on television was funneled into positive change and, hopefully, a change in how media portrays this vulnerable, marginalized group. Stories are not indifferent.
Stories have the power to shape perception and change reality for the better or for the worse. Seeing Sauron and Saruman defeated by the hobbits reminds us that we, too, can defeat the tyrants and manipulators in our lives. Stories can equally generate apathy, a sense of inevitability to evil. The acedia in our media merely reflects the apathy in our society toward those not in our immediate circle of concerns. The failure to change toxic structures becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. We don’t believe we can change things because our stories exude that message. Saying media is ‘just’ a story misunderstands of the power of storytelling.
We are not above stories; we are shaped by them. Rejecting the power and meaning of stories is tragically ironic in the original Greek sense. It’s rooted in hubris and denial: Oedipus not perceiving how his actions fulfilled the prophecy of the gods even as he sought to defy it; Cersei consumed with averting a story told by a woods witch and inadvertently conforming to it. Part of the irony of Martin’s repeated us of the phrase “words are wind” in A Song of Ice and Fire is that it’s a lie. Or at the very least a half-truth. Words are not wind. Words (and stories) have power.
The Responsibility of Storytellers
Stories matter because they have great power, and with power comes responsibility. How we tell stories matter as much as the stories themselves, and we need to discuss storytelling in terms of ethics. There is a healthy way and a destructive way to tell stories. We, as storytellers of all kinds, have a responsibility to tell stories that maximize the potential for stories to shape our society and ourselves in positive ways. It can involve iconoclasm or a call for revolution, as with dystopian fiction. Sometimes it means providing a vision of an alternate, better reality, as with science fiction, fantasy, or fanfic. Other times, it means shining a light onto trauma and the destructive ‘-isms’ of our society (sexism, racism, ablism, etc.). It can also mean telling your own story so that someone else can see themselves represented and know they’re not alone.
Storytellers have a responsibility to give voice and representation to the vulnerable and marginalized members of society, for that is how we understand others and ourselves better. I, as a white person, do not personally experience the systemic oppression of people of color. Stories can help me understand, empathize, and mobilize for change. Stories about LGBT+ women help me perceive myself better as well as remind me I’m not alone. In short, the more stories we tell, the more beautiful and nuanced our society will become.
Finally, we have a responsibility to tell stories in an ethical manner that does not harm our audiences or take advantage of them, especially vulnerable audiences. We have a responsibility not to exploit our readers or viewers, not to intentionally harm them for our own sadistic pleasure. Why? Because stories matter, and they can hurt as much as they can heal.
Why Stories Matter
As a category, ‘stories’ encompasses more than fictional narratives. History is story, religion is story, our own inner dialogues are stories. Ultimately, stories matter because human experience is story. It is no small thing to give someone themselves or generate empathy. It is no small thing to provide a new vision for the world to contrast the grim realities we face. Stories tell us who we are, who other people are, and our place in the world. And, how we perceive reality determines how we live our lives, what kind of people we want to be, and what kind of world we want to live in.