Stories have many different impacts on our lives, but for the purposes of this blog post, there are two aspects I particularly want to consider. Stories have the potential to show us ourselves and the kinds of problems, challenges and potential we have. Characters who we empathise with and who catch our life stage, feelings and so forth can be really enabling, and also cheering. The other not unrelated aspect, is characters who appear to be nothing like us, but who we learn to empathise with and whose perspective we come to understand.
Either way, this aspect of story gives us a wider perspective. It gives us tools for getting on with life, ideas about how to deal with stuff, a sense of where we fit. It reduces feelings of being alone with our challenges. Our scope for empathy with people who are not like us is increased. Our ability to see our similarities with people we might have assumed would be very different, is increased.
Key to this, is having diversity in stories. Authors with different backgrounds and life experiences writing what they know and what they imagine give us all a chance of finding ourselves reflected and finding the unfamiliar as well.
UK publishing has always been a white, male, middle class, straight, Christian and most likely Oxbridge educated creature. Not only in terms of what gets published, but what gets hailed as great by reviewers and critics (who likely have the exact same background). The more aligned a writer has been with that background, the better their chances. It has got better in recent years, but this is in no small part because internet shopping offers wider choices than bookshops used to, and there are more small publishers now who aren’t affluent Oxbridge men.
There are similar trends in films – how many action films can you think of with a female lead? How many films can you think of with only male leads? Hollywood thinks that a middle aged white man can be anyone from anywhere (I recently watched Troy, in which Sean Bean is Odysseus) but keeps people of colour in roles that are about being people of colour. How many famous disabled actors can you name? How many films are there with autistic characters where the plot isn’t basically about how challenging it is for the ‘normal’ people dealing with them, but how the ‘normal’ people grow as a consequence?
If mostly what we see are stories by and about straight, middle aged, middle class, Christian, white, educated, able bodied men, we get a very narrow sense of the world. The majority of us never see a world in which we even exist. Add up female people, LGBT people, non-Christians, the working class, and the disabled and you have a good deal more than half of the population, and yet we’re still talked about as a minority. People who read books and see films in which only a certain kind of white guy is an active and powerful character are more likely, I suspect, to believe that no one else can do anything worth mentioning.
A small percentage of the population sees a lot of stories that appear to be all about them and very little about anyone else. Most of us see stories that are not about us and do not reflect us. I for one am very tired of seeing women written and designed by men and for men. Women who exist in stories to be prizes, to create motivation by dying, or to applaud and reflect the man’s glory. Women who cry over broken fingernails, occupy very little space and are mostly passive and there to be eye candy.
As individuals, we can’t do much about the gatekeepers, but we can vote with our wallets. There are many people telling other kinds of stories, and we can support them. One of the things upholding the narrow story is that it appears to sell, and bean counters tend to assume that if they haven’t seen it sell, it won’t sell. Ignoring a long history of skewing the market by investing in some stories and not others.