Friday, October 08, 2010
Narratives of Discontent
The word “narrative” has sure caught fire these days, hasn’t it? For English majors like me, who began typing “narrative” into college papers with actual typewriters, it’s a plot twist worthy of “Revenge of the Nerds” to have other folks realize that stories matter. Right now, competing national narratives are twisting in the autumn wind, like scarlet-tipped leaves, like discarded plastic bags, like, well, like the devices they are, helping us shape and name who we are.
I want to disentangle some current narratives, starting with the blockbuster movie, “The Social Network,” the fictionalized creation story of the men who gave birth to Facebook – a monster, like Dr. Frankenstein’s, stitched together with mathematics and hubris.
While it was a pleasure to be back in the world of Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire repartee, my teenage daughter’s first response was illuminating: “’The Social Network?” she huffed: “They should have called it ‘The Sexist Network!’”
Now, there’s plenty of debate about the factual accuracy of the film, but we can still analyze the significance of the text before us, as English majors say. It’s significant that millions of folks are eating up a zeitgeist story that mostly reduces women to partying sex toys. Without stooping to spoilers, I’ll say that with three exceptions, female characters are shown to be little more than disposable eye-candy, whether they’re being limo-ed in for Harvard parties, or giggling through bong-hits while the boys work out computer coding that will change the world. As in politics, it doesn’t matter if the story is true; the story has traction. Gazillions of people will see it, the film will win awards and make rich people richer, and every person leaving the movie theater will have bathed in two hours of storytelling that reinforces ugly stereotypes about women as objects to be used, and men as users.
Is this really the story of a generation? Whose stories count? On feminist media blogs, female programmers and some critics are starting to speak back to Sorkin’s film and to the real culture of programming, and I hope those voices reach a wider audience.
Last week, I heard a galvanizing talk by Spelman College President Dr. Beverly Tatum, who argued that every college class—and every conversation about a public issue – should ask three critical questions: What? So what? and Now what?
Here are some top entries in my “What?” category for national narratives: What does it mean that we heard more about Hillary Rodham Clinton during Chelsea’s wedding than when she was negotiating the Middle-East peace talks? What does it mean that standup comic Sara Sliverman is the only person I’ve heard connecting the homophobic national “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to the personal tragedies of gay teen suicides? What does it tell us that in the movie “The Social Network,” the using men aren’t any happier than the women who are used?
The “So, what?” question asks who benefits from stories that rationalize the status quo. When workplace revolutionary Ellen Bravo spoke in South Bend this week, she pointed out that these stories serve those in power, by trying to normalize practices that hurt most of us in some way—like the popular story about the wage gap that says many women are simply “opting out” of better-paying jobs because they don’t want to share the joys and challenges of parenting and housekeeping with another human being. Uh, right.
But let’s get to that final question that both Beverly Tatum and Ellen Bravo ask: “Now, what?” – because responding is crucial. Who offers alternative narratives? Here’s my short list of winners you can Google right up:
There’s: The Trevor Project, which is countering the tragedies of gay teen suicides with encouraging videos of GLBT celebrities and allies from Dan Savage to Ke$ha telling alternative stories of life beyond adolescence under the title: “It Gets Better.”
There’s also the SPARK project – S*P*A*R*K, all capital letters – which offers ways to critique and counter the media sexualization of girls and young women, starting with Halloween costumes. Their site has terrific links and videos for tweens and adults.
Finally, there’s Ellen Bravo’s website, EllenBravo.com, featuring her new book about workplace reform with its telling title: Taking on the Big Boys: Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business, and the Nation. She challenged the crowd this week: “What kind of nation do you want to be?” She has ideas and numbers that show a different story is possible – a story in which workplaces value family life and flexibility, in a culture that supports the full human potential of all of us.
What story do you want to tell about who we are? If you are appalled by the narratives out there, it’s up to you to write new ones. I’m lifting a hopeful glass to you, listeners: Author, author!