Friday, November 9, 2018

The Stories We Tell Matter

I never see people who have historically been kept from voting say voting doesn’t matter, and I never see people from under or misrepresented groups saying the stories we tell and who we include don’t matter.

It’s easy to be apathetic when things don’t touch you. But the stories we tell as writers can challenge the larger narratives in society or feed them. We can write stories where the queer person turns violent after not getting to be with the straight person they’ve been pining for, or the woman is beaten and humiliated in a way that lingers more on punishment than story. We can write about angry black men, vets that don’t know how to do anything but kill, and forget entire populations like the disabled.

But we don’t have to.

Literature, art, and entertainment tend to move forward sooner than the rest of the world. It’s not a coincidence or even a mystery. If you control the characters and situations people feel empathy for, you have the power to soften their hearts and yes, even change their minds. People like to pretend that our entertainment and popular culture doesn’t matter at this level, but think about how you feel about Mr. Rogers (or, if you don’t have any strong feelings, think about how your friends feel). I was recently in a long discussion about the TV’s first interracial kiss, vs. it’s first interracial kiss featuring a black person - they’re different milestones and very far apart. Why does anyone remember these things? Because it happened in the living rooms of people who would have spat on it in public.

People take our stories to their beds, in their living rooms, on their vacations. What are we putting in them?

Don’t take this as me wagging a finger about violence or subject matter. We live in a violent world. We live in a world where terrible shit happens and we barely have time to breathe between tragedies. Crime fiction doesn’t have to be escapist (and in my opinion is better when it’s not). I’m concerned about playing into the narratives that play into the violence and tragedy in our world, though. That starts with how we view people, and how we view people is directly influenced by movies, TV, books, and art. The reason people ask for varied representation is because that’s how a minority group, defined by stereotypes, gets society to wake up and view them as human. I can’t personally go meet every person who has issues with women, or think all veterans are dangerous, or thinks mental illness is a sign of weakness. If I could, it would be unlikely I’d be able to level with all of them. But if we keep telling stories that push back against harmful narratives, those people get reached.

If you still think it doesn’t matter, look at the Amazon reviews of any book that challenges the bigot’s view of a minority group. No one lashes out and froths at the mouth like that because what they witnessed didn’t have any power.

No comments: