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Why Do Stories Matter?

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Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.
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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.

For good or ill.

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.


I love Allie Brosh.

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.

Images and Gifs courtesy of The CW, Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks, Cartoon Network, Hyperbole and a Half, CBS, and Bravo.

Voted Thanks!
  • Bo

    Great stuff. It’s one of the more frustrating defenses used for controversial storytelling when people say it’s “just a story.” If the people making these stories believed that, they wouldn’t be telling those stories in the first place. The vast majority of people who set out to make a living in television, novels, theater, or any media do so because they know the power of storytelling. So for those of us consuming the story to pretend they have no impact or should just be “gotten over,” well, that’s a very weak defense.

    You have to maintain a certain degree of responsibility in your storytelling. There are so many way that stories impact the people who consume them, and you listed just about everything.

    • Gretchen Ellis

      Right? If people didn’t think that stories matter, why would they tell them? I suppose there is a business side to it, but at some level, there’s an understanding of audience impact and why certain stories are received better. Though I do believe there is a frustrating trend of treating television as if it were merely a commodity with no impact on how people think or behave. But media is not like drinking water. It changes you.

      • Bo

        While there’s always a business side, there can’t be more than a handful of creators out there in novels, TV, movies, etc. that got into it for the money. It’s too hard, too unpredictable, and for the most part you don’t make a huge living off of it. There are very few Steven Spielbergs or George Martin’s out there. Most have to grind out and grind out on a consistent basis to make a living. The only reason they would do that is because they love to tell stories and have something to say. And you’ll find they tend to be the most successful creators, as well.

  • Priscilla

    Well said. I wrote about this a while ago and I feel I’m constantly repeating what we always say here at The Fandomentals. It’s very obvious to us that stories matter, that they shape individuals and society, but I still see A LOT of people claiming “it’s just a tv shows/book/movie/etc”. Yes, it is, but this means more than people think.

    Considering how often the “it’s just a story” comes as a way to undermine relevant discussions, I’m inclined to think a lot of people know that stories are important, but they’re comfortable with the current narratives.

    When I decided I wanted to be a writer, I wondered if I was actually doing something “useful” to other people. But as I realised the power of stories, the effects of lack of representation, and the influence many stories had in my life… I know my abilities are where they’re most needed.

    • Gretchen Ellis

      I loved your essay on why fiction matters. I tried not to overlap too much with what you have to say, because you said it so well and touched on many things better than I did.

      So many people act as if ‘stories’ are meaningless or try to dismiss their significance. I’m inclined to agree with you that the context in which it comes up seems to signify a desire not to question a narrative that person feels comfortable with. It’s a way to shut down discussion and dismiss the feelings of the person attempting to challenge or critique whatever the narrative is.

      There’s nothing ‘just’ about being a writer or storyteller. We need people like you and I telling stories. If for no other reason than that these are the stories we needed to hear and now, we get the chance to help other people have the stories we lacked. I’m so glad you’re pursuing your writing and representation.

      • Priscilla

        Well, I think you touched on many things better than I did, so our essays complement each other! Understanding the importance of stories is crucial for what we do here, so I feel this point can’t be stressed enough. People may say they “don’t care” or that they’re consuming a certain story “just for fun”, but the truth is that stories affect us whether we want it or not. Admiting they do is the first step to understand what exactly we are absorbing.

        I always think that if I had certain stories when I was younger – stories with more bi characters, stories with positive female interactions, stories where all sorts of people do all sorts of stuff, and so on – I would have understood certain things that took me years to grasp about myself and other people. So when I create stories, I can’t help but think about the stories I needed and that other people may need as well. Stories belong to everybody and, as much as I can, I wanna give them to everybody.

        • Gretchen Ellis

          You’re absolutely right about stories affecting us whether we want them to, or are aware of it, or not. Once we can identify the messaging, we can either accept it or challenge it, and the only way we can do that is if we admit stories have power.

          As to your second paragraph, all I can say is AMEN. YES. That’s the goal!

  • TrickyNicky

    Something that’s interesting with Ender’s Game, a fair bit of its themes are surprisingly progressive considering who the author is.

    It’s also interesting how often it’s those that are positions of power that want to exclaim “It’a just a story!” And by interesting I mean utterly predictable.

    • Bo

      I was shocked to hear about Orson Scott Card considering that book.

      • Gretchen Ellis

        Me too. Ender’s Game was my first experience with him, so when he started professing problematic opinions, I was utterly flabbergasted.

    • Gretchen Ellis

      Ender’s Game will always be one of my favorite Sci Fi stories, even if Card has lost all credibility in my opinion.

      Yes, “interesting” 🙂

  • Fyodor

    An interesting piece, and you’re obviously writing from a positive and constructive perspective, but I disagree vehemently with your conclusion. I think it more than wrong; it’s objectionable.

    Storytellers have NO obligation or responsibility to, “…tell stories that maximize the potential for stories to shape our society and ourselves in positive ways.”

    A writer’s ONLY obligation as an artist is to his creation, to make that a perfect expression of his creative vision. I reject utterly the idea that an artist should compromise on her vision because of what her society expects of her or – perhaps even MORE importantly – what she expects of herself. I think Chekhov put it best in his letter to his publisher A.S. Suvorin when discussing the “obligation” of the artist to his audience, to the public:

    “In demanding from an artist a conscious attitude towards his work you are right, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct posing of a question. Only the second is obligatory for an artist. Not a single problem is solved in Anna Karenina and Eugene Onegin, but you find these works quite satisfactory because all of the questions in them are correctly posed.”

    It is not for the artist to solve problems. It’s the role of the writer to represent – to be truthful, if only to his own perspective. Questions, not answers. You ask far too much of a writer to hold her accountable for the society around her. It’s a sad reality that most writers are mediocre and most stories are disposable pap. It’s hard enough to write stories of quality without requiring them to change the world. You ask too much.

    You also misuse Tolkien’s comment on children and fairy stories. Your quotation follows a comment on the sponginess of children’s minds and thus the implied necessity of protecting them from dangerous ideas. You then quote Tolkien noting that children are like adults and conclude that adults are similarly impressionable. But of course Tolkien was not talking about impressionability. Tolkien was simply explaining why fairy stories are not JUST for children, i.e. they are also for adults. In quoting from the relevant paragraph, you left out the beginning sentence:

    “Among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy-stories pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connexion between the minds of children and fairy-stories, of the same order as the connexion between children’s bodies and milk. I think this is an error…”

    What I find particularly objectionable about this implication, i.e. that adults need to be protected from dangerous ideas, is that it ignores all of the struggle to date to enable freedom of expression. And it deprives adults possessed of critical reasoning the ability to judge stories for themselves. It’s not the writer’s role or responsibility to second-guess her audience. It’s not a two-way conversation. The writer creates and the reader can choose to read or not. Give your audience enough credit to judge for themselves if your story is meaningful or not, to them.

    Ironically, much of the censorship that took place in American media (the Hays Code/MPCC, the Comics Code Authority) in the past century was self-imposed by industry bodies that did so precisely for the reasons you give: to protect people from negativity, to encourage the positive. It just happens that during the 1930s and 1940s this meant that movie studios thought it was in the public interest to prevent people from seeing “sexual perversion” like homosexuality or miscegenation. It was only when genuine artists with courage stood up to tell stories that THEY thought was important that this stultifying censorship was broken down. Some Like it Hot is a charming comedy to modern audiences but people don’t appreciate how much risk Billy Wilder took in even hinting at homosexuality and transgenderism in 1959. He had to release the movie without the Production Code seal of approval and that was commercially risky for his studio.

    The CCA is another great example of self-censorship in the cause of protecting people from “bad” stories. Comics were associated with children and children had to be protected from bad stories, as argued by Wertham in his book Seduction of the Innocent. The result was stultifying self-censorship (i.e. the CCA) that set American comics back decades in representing many of the same issues that you want to see represented in media today. The TV series Supergirl doesn’t exist today because Ali Adler and Greg Berlanti decided one day to “shape society in positive ways”. They were able to get this show off the ground because decades of struggle for free artistic expression had opened the window for this kind of story.

    If you want the best stories you must tolerate bad stories.

    • RH

      What if the story is endorsing things like xenophobia, racism or homophobia? What then? Im just curious how nowadays we have to accept the people who create things like that. Its one thing to create something that isnt sunshine and rainbows, its quite another to fuel hatred of the “other” because “its just a story”. Fact is “its just a story” is just a tool to shutdown criticism.

      I disagree that we have to tolerate bad stories when all that happens then is that same bad story continues on a loop, if we want the best stories the one thing we should do is not tolerate the bad.

      • Fyodor

        “What then?”

        You seem to imply that those stories don’t exist already, that we don’t have bigots around us all the time. The small-minded have always been with us and always will be. Accepting that other people can hold views that you consider repulsive is part of being an adult in a liberal society.

        The history of civilisation is littered with the detritus of evil people, bad stories, awful ideas and terrible memes. They weren’t discarded because of censorship or coercion. They were ditched because they contested the agora of ideas and were defeated by their betters as society evolved. They’re now on the rubbish heap of intellectual history.

        Good ideas prevail because good people – which is most people – know them to be superior and support them over the bad, not because evil ideas are silenced.

        • RH

          Where did I imply those stories dont exist? The only thing thats really changed is that those stories arent as overt about condoning bigotry because they hide behind the “progressive” buzzword. Creators use that word as a shield to shut down criticism of their work and to protect whatever construct theyve created for themselves. I think evil ideas have a rite to exist but that doesnt mean its a vacuum where they can do repulsive things but because theyre “progressive” or its their “artistic expression” that Im not allowed to have a POV on it or allowed to tell them so.

          • Fyodor

            “What then?” implies conditionality, contingency, uncertainty. It’s inherent in the “if…then” structure that you used. Apologies if I misunderstood you.

            Of course you’re allowed to have a POV and to be critical. Entailed in the freedom of expression is the freedom to criticise and be criticised. Regardless of whatever buzzwords the hateful hide behind we have as much right to call them out for it as they do in expressing their bigotry.

        • Gretchen Ellis

          And yet, the continued of xenophobia, racism, and other harmful ideologies relies in part on the willingness to continue telling these stories and the failure to hold people who tell these stories accountable for their effect in shaping the minds of subsequent generations of people and society.

          Good stories do not always prevail; bad stories do not always die out. People support ‘bad ideas’ because sometimes, it is all they know. To someone raised with the idea that LGBT persons deserve to suffer, media that continues to kill off LGBT characters are telling ‘good’ stories. But these stories are harmful and toxic stories, regardless of those people who think they might be ‘good.’ Continuing to let people tell them does real, actual harm to living human beings and not holding storytellers accountable to not actively damaging their audience can only do harm to people. Art is not neutral. Art exists in a context.

          I also disagree that bad stories die out only because good people know them to be superior. I’m curious as to how people are expected to know which stories are good or bad unless someone stands up and says “Stop telling that story, it’s harmful and damaging.” If there is another way for societies to know this—other than positing some inherent, neutral moral compass that is not touched by social or cultural influence by which every single person will judge the same media—I’m intrigued to hear it.

          • Fyodor

            Ideas are constantly contested and no idea can truly “die out”, it can only be discarded or deprecated in favour of better ideas. Toxic stories will continue to exist so long as people are imperfect, ignorant or small-minded enough to create and consume them. And you overstate the causality. People don’t think bad thoughts and do terrible things because they read dodgy stories. The dodgy stories exist because people, for whatever reason, are fuelled by bad ideas in writing and/or enjoying them. Stories reflect the culture from which they spring as much as a culture reflects the stories it consumes. Some might believe that if only people would stop telling toxic stories, toxic ideas and behaviour would disappear. Obviously, they wouldn’t.

            And if you were to believe something so naïve you could try to censor those people, those stories, but on what moral authority, and at what cost to art in general? As I noted before, there are plenty of examples of censorship, even self-censorship, with “good” intentions that were nevertheless “toxic” in their impact. Hell, good intentions, etc.

            How are people to know which stories are good or bad? Well, in the absence of the Media Messiah and her benevolent dictatorship, we do what we’ve done for millennia: work it out for ourselves, using our intellectual and aesthetic resources, however imperfect, to sort the wheat from the chaff. As I implied to RH, we call out & criticise what is crap and toxic and valourise what is good. It’s worked pretty well so far. You may be dissatisfied with the media landscape around you but you don’t need much knowledge of intellectual history to be staggered by the improvements achieved in just the past few decades.

          • Gretchen Ellis

            Where do these dodgy stories come from in people, if not the messaging they’ve received from their families, societies, and their interactions with stories from the time they were young? Human beings are not blank slates. The fields of psychology and neuroscience tell us that the structures of human brain are influenced as early on as in the womb, and from the moment we start beginning to understand language and concepts, we are being shaped as to what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’.

            In other words, people who write toxic stories do not get them from nowhere. There’s a push and pull between what stories we integrate into our being as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ which then shape how we, in turn, tell stories.

            If the ‘cost to art’ means that people don’t produce works that marginalize, oppress, and otherwise contribute to toxic social structures, then I’m ALL for weeding those out. Maybe you aren’t; you seem far more committed to the production of art than in it’s content or how that content might actively harm already marginalized people groups. I believe that the fewer works that punch down or otherwise contribute to oppressive systems the better. As an artist and storyteller myself, I think that my role is to help make society better, by giving voice to the marginalized and speaking truth to power. Making art just to make art is too mechanistic and individualized a perception of art for me to be entirely comfortable with it. If that is your preference, however, we can agree to disagree.

          • Fyodor

            That’s right, I’m not in favour of “weeding out” anybody’s stories. I wouldn’t presume to decide for other people what they should write or read. This is primarily because I don’t have enough confidence in the omniscience and moral purity of my judgement to make those decisions for other people. Second, I know from historical experience that I can be reasonably confident in my fellow adults to sort the good from the bad for themselves without my intervention. Third, that same historical experience tells me that censorship is unambiguously corruptive and destructive to art. This doesn’t mean that I’m panglossian happy with the best of all media in the best of all possible worlds. I’m constantly baffled, sometimes disgusted, by the popularity of many stories, ideas, memes and tropes but, in the main and over time, good does win out over bad and that leaves me optimistic. YMMV.

          • Gretchen Ellis

            See, and that’s where you and I diverge. I do not see that “good wins out over bad” all the time. I see many instances where, because no one is willing to hold media makers and storytellers accountable, problematic stories are perpetuated over and over again. And criticism after the fact doesn’t always work. Sometimes we need foresight as well as hindsight to challenge problematic storytelling.

            Ultimately, we seem to differ in regard to when criticism can and ought to take place. From what I see, you think criticism can only be made once a piece of art has been produced. I, on the other hand, believe it perfectly valid to criticize prior to the production of art, to prevent the production of oppressive, toxic, and harmful art in the first place. We agree that problematic media exists and will continue to do so, but I advocate for preventative medicine as well as curative.

          • Fyodor

            I didn’t say that good wins out over bad all the time. I noted that the “bad” will always be with us. Problematic ideas persist because humans are problematic. It’d be nice if that could be wished away but in reality it’s not possible. In the meantime, there is an ongoing contest of ideas and, as I pointed out, in the main good/better ideas HAVE won out over bad.

            Of course criticism can only be made once a piece of art is produced. I don’t know about you, but I can’t criticise something I’ve never read, seen or experienced. What you’re really talking about is this:

            “…to prevent the production of oppressive, toxic, and harmful art in the first place.”

            I don’t see how that’s anything other than censorship, which you claim not to be advocating.

      • Gretchen Ellis

        Exactly. We are not obligated to tolerate problematic, damaging stories. Holding storytellers accountable is a must if we are to counteract the hurtful aspects of the bad ones.

    • Gretchen Ellis

      I think we shall have to agree to disagree on this issue. I do not happen to think that a commitment to ethics in storytelling results in censorship, though I understand your perspective. Bad stories are not just neutral pieces of bad art; they can be harmful, toxic, and destructive both to people and to society. None of these things is equivalent to your argument about ‘dangerous ideas’.

      You seem to have misinterpreted my call for ethical storytelling as advocating censorship, which is not at all what I meant. Quoting the first sentence of Tolkien’s paragraph at me (which I am very well aware of) does not, in fact undermine anything I said. I’m not advocating censorship or the idea that adults need to be protected. In fact, just the opposite. My argument is that people tend to think that only children are affected by the power of stories, but, in fact, adults are shaped by it as well. Everyone is affected by stories and therefore self-reflection is required on the part of storytellers to ask how their stories will impact their audience and adjust accordingly if the story is toxic. This isn’t censorship, in my view, though perhaps you feel that storytellers have the right to hurt people with their stories for the sake of ‘pure art’ and ‘commitment to their work’. I vehemently disagree.

      I do not think I implied that stories solve problems or must solve problems in society. Recognizing that stories shape society (and ought to do so in positive rather than negative ways) and arguing they MUST solve society’s problems are two different things. Only requiring an artist to focus on their “[making] a perfect expression of his creative vision” is a very modern, Romantic, and individualistic understanding of artists and stories. That isn’t to say it is wrong at all, only that I see artists and stories differently than you do, which is why I do not think we can agree on this issue.

      • Fyodor

        What is “ethical storytelling”? Ethical to whom? By whose standards? You wade into deep and murky waters when you assume that such a complicated and subjective concept can be agreed upon in an artistic context.

        What you may consider an ethical story told in an ethical way may be unethical to another person. You require of storytellers to adjust their story if it is “toxic” – toxic to whom? This is the core of the problem with this position: you require of writers/artists that they self-censor to protect their audience, but that is not their responsibility. Their readers have agency and responsibility of their own to engage or not with a story. As I said before, storytelling is not a two-way conversation. Should a storyteller “adjust” their story because his audience might be offended? A century ago you could have written a story in which homosexuality is presented as normal and healthy. And many, many people would have dubbed this story “toxic”, hurtful or dangerous. Hell, people STILL say this. In this hypothetical what is the “ethical” thing for you, the writer, to do? To self-censor (or “adjust”) so as to protect those people from being hurt by your “toxic” ideas, or to tell your truth?

        Do storytellers have the right to hurt people with their stories? Absolutely. You said it yourself, and I agree unreservedly: art is not neutral. You can never be assured that some reader, somewhere, will not be “hurt” by your story. It’s not within your power to control how others interpret your words. All that you can do as an artist is produce the best story that you can, for you. The moment that you start self-censoring (or “adjusting”) your story to avoid hurting others you hurt yourself as an artist. I don’t consider that “ethical” storytelling; it’s pandering.

        You call my understanding of artists and stories “modern”, “Romantic” and “individualistic”. That’s a fair description in many ways, because so much of the artistic freedom that we all enjoy – and many take for granted – springs from the modern, post-Romantic and individualist era. I’m curious as to what you’d prefer in its stead. I suggest that you’d consider pre-modern and collectivist approaches to storytelling far more “toxic”.

        • Gretchen Ellis

          The idea of toxic and harm, for me, has to do with oppressive structures of the status quo. I thought I made that clear in the discussion on how stories can give us windows into alternate realities but perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. The point I’m making is the same as when comedians discuss punching up vs punching down. As artists, we ought never to punch down, to contribute to oppression of minorities and marginalized voices that are already being harmed by oppressive structures. Racism, sexism, the patriarchy, the systematic marginalization of LGBT persons, islamophobia, ablism—these are things I feel artists have an obligation NOT to uphold.

          Perhaps it differs for narrative works, which are typically the product of a single mind, but with media like film and television, these are not abstract decisions made by a single person to uphold their vision of ‘art’ or ‘truth’. There are scores of people invested in television and film productions, most of whom are in it to make money. Frequently, the bottom line results in stories that uphold the status quo and social norms (which may be toxic) for the sake of capitalism. Art made in a capitalistic framework (primarily with the intent to make money) does not fall under your purview of “art for art’s sake” the product of a lone artistic genius who makes a work to reflect her own version of truth. And these are the stories that more likely than not are contributing to harmful structures like the denigration of sex workers or the toxic ideas like Muslims being predominantly terrorists. Because these works make money for shareholders, they are less likely to be rejected in the free marketplace of ideas.

          People have a vested interest in perpetuating these stories anyway. Ethics matter in storytelling because without it, those with the loudest voices will forever be drowning out those on the margins. Artists are not beings separate from their environments either. Our society is proof that there are hundreds of artists who are willing to tell the same or similar stories to uphold the status quo (just look at how few fiction stories feature women of color or how hard it is for women and minorities to break into science fiction). Without some kind of discussion of ethics, oppressive cultural values can and do win out.

          If you truly believe that artists ought to be able to create their truth, no matter what, then how is it even possible to “call out & criticise what is crap and toxic and valourise what is good”? This entire idea ought to be rejected in your system as it applies value judgements that ought not to be applied to an artist, unless I am missing something. Telling an artists to “tell their truth” and then judge them for it, seem paradoxical to me. What is calling out an artist for toxic stories if not saying “don’t write these stories” or “don’t tell stories this way”? And if you agree with that, how is that any different from a discussion of the ethics of storytelling?

          And since you are so frustrated with my concept of ethics and how one ought to judge this or apply it, being able to call out an artist ought not to be something you can do either. Who gets to decide what is ‘good art’ or ‘bad art’? The people? Society? But what if society’s perception of what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is catering to a toxic structure?

          As you say, a hundred years ago society thought that writing a homosexual romance was wrong. And because of it, decades passed where LGBT persons were killed and maimed and suffered to be properly ‘punished’ for their behavior. Telling storytellers they ought not to contribute to the oppression of LGBT persons because it is unethical to do so is not censorship or pandering, it’s just being a decent human being.

          History might show us that some harmful stories get jettisoned, but it also shows us that for over a hundred of years people thought it acceptable to talk about African Americans as if they were not people. You can look at that and say that ‘society decided’ it was wrong to speak that way, but do you know how that happened? Because African Americans stood up and said, “it is wrong to talk about us this way.” I, for one, am ready for there to be a way to prevent toxic stories that contribute to the oppression of marginalized peoples from the front end rather than having to spend hundreds of years rooting out the weeds of harmful storytelling that have shaped people’s minds in problematic ways.

          • Fyodor

            I think we’re back at the central issue: what is the obligation of the artist? You feel that you have an obligation not to uphold oppressive structures of the status quo in your art, but that is YOUR ethical stance. And that’s fine – your art is yours, to be whatever you wish. My position is that it’s not my place to tell you what you are ethically obligated to have or not have in your art. Similarly it is not possible – or desirable, in my view – for you or anyone else to dictate what is or is not ethical for other artists to produce. When you start that discussion you are limiting the capacity of artists to express themselves in their art by imposing your own ethical constraints.

            Just to be really clear this is NOT to argue that artists should be free or protected from criticism. Criticising a story for being bad is not the same as demanding, “don’t write these stories” or “don’t tell stories this way”. Of course I can apply my value judgements to a work of art. Why not? I will defend to my last breath your freedom to write your story but I will similarly defend my own right to tell you it’s crap. There’s no contradiction there. “Who gets to decide what is ‘good art’ or ‘bad art’?” You do. I do. Everyone gets an opinion and people will pay to watch what they want to watch.

            I’m not frustrated with your concept of ethics; I simply disagree with your unwillingness to accept that artists can have different perspectives, different approaches to ethics and politics and need the intellectual and ethical space to fail to meet your standards, amongst others. I’ve referred to historical experience and context because it teaches us that it’s ONLY when artists have been given that space to take chances with their art that stories that challenge the status quo have been allowed to emerge. The irony is that you think the society that progressed through freedom of expression is now best served by curtailing that same artistic freedom.

          • Gretchen Ellis

            My ethics could be summarized as “don’t be an asshole to marginalized people” and “create narrative space for challenging oppressive structures and letting marginalized voices be heard/seen.”I do not see how this curtails artistic freedom in a problematic way, nor is it “my own ethical constraints” if by that you mean personal. I did not make this up as a preferred ethic for storytellers. This comes from a place of experience, empathy, listening to others, and yes, reading a lot of history. I do not see that “not being a dick” and “not supporting oppressive structures” is an onerous burden to lay on artists, as you seem to.

            And I disagree about history. Artists have always created works that challenge the status quo, whether there is space for them or not. Women were writing novels long before society deemed it acceptable and by doing so, challenged the idea that only men could write works worthy of the public interest. People of color have been writing books and creating media for themselves long before it became socially acceptable for them to be protagonists on TV and the creation of such works challenges the social structures just in their production. Sure, they may still be marginalized, but they frequently emerge in the face of social pressure for them not to exist, not merely when the social pressure is alleviated.

            You argue that a free society creates the space for artists to generate social change. I agree, that happens. But not ONLY. Throughout much of history, it is actually the creation of art that challenges social structures (in the face of such works being banned or censored or otherwise not permitted) that leads to social change, which in turn allows for more freedom. They go hand in hand. Again, I just don’t see that asking artists not to contribute to oppressive and harmful structures ‘curtails’ their freedom in any overly burdensome or problematic way.

          • Fyodor

            How are you “disagreeing” about history? I made the point earlier that artists challenge the status quo.

            If you’re arguing that they were successful without having the artistic freedom to be heard, I’m curious to hear of these influential novels and other stories by women and POC that were never published or disseminated.

            “Onerous burden”. That’s a curious phrase. You accept that you would be restricting artistic freedom, but argue that such restrictions wouldn’t be burdensome or problematic. When, exactly, does censorship become onerous, and for which problematic artist? What you might consider an acceptable restriction might be intolerable to a given artist. Artists are often dicks and arseholes, and have as much right as anyone else to be so. In fact, many great works of art were created by problematic people. Similarly, those same great works of art can contain problematic elements. Should they be excised? By whom, on what moral authority?

            The supreme court justice, Potter Stewart, once argued that, “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.” And that’s the core of the problem here. You don’t have confidence in the strength of good ideas, and the trust in people to let them decide for themselves whether to accept the good over the bad. You prefer to silence rather than persuade.

  • The Oncoming Hurricane

    Pretty good article here Gretchen, but can I just say that it makes me a little uncomfortable when LGBT is used as a synonym for sapphic or when none of the incidences of it apply to trans women at all?

    • Gretchen Ellis

      I hear that. I will try to be more specific with my use of terms in the future; thanks for telling me!

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