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Posts Tagged ‘narrative’

We all say careless things. Things we mean, but only in the moment. Or things we haven’t thought through a great deal. If we’re lucky nobodies, we probably feel an instant of annoyance at having blurted out a less than well-turned phrase. For celebrities, I’ve always imagined that they must hear a tiny, distant siren in those moments, right as they realize their words will be plastered all over the place. I wonder if that’s how Caitlyn Jenner felt after her interview with Buzzfeed.

Maybe she didn’t even know what was getting ready to happen as the words left her mouth: “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear.”

Jenner_hijabNo sooner had she spoken than the internet rose up with a furious vengeance to correct her. How dare she? fumed the outraged women (and men) of the internet. (The worst of them said, How dare he?) And then, as we do now, they whipped up a bunch of memes, pointing out all the things about being a woman that are harder than sartorial decisions: being raped, being beaten, giving birth, raising children, breast cancer, being underpaid, having your opinion dismissed, having your feelings belittled, having your existence diminished, revoked, erased.

Often when we’re speaking, we forget to use qualifiers, or we assume that the hearer will insert the necessary qualifiers, so when Caitlyn said, “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear,” I seriously doubt she meant that as a sweeping statement on all women everywhere. Is she coming to where she is now from a place of privilege? Of course. She’s a wealthy white woman with platform and security. There’s privilege there. Does she honestly believe that the hardest part of being any woman is picking out clothes? For herself, maybe she does.

The qualifier she didn’t say is the one we should all remember to insert when we listen to people.

“(for me) The hardest part about being (the woman I am) is choosing what to wear.”

We are each free to choose our own narrative, and the least we can do for everyone is to accept their narrative as valid, for them. We don’t have to accept anyone else’s narrative as valid for ourselves, but we also don’t get to force someone to accept our narrative as the only one.
So before you get angry and say, “She doesn’t know anything about being a woman,” remember that there are lots of things about being a woman that you don’t know anything about. I’m a writer, so I understand that everyone has their own perspective on the world. I know it’s useful to spend some time considering other people’s perspectives. As a writer, I specialize in using my imagination, but even non-writers are free to use theirs.

Imagine how hard it must be for women who are subjected to genital mutilation, or who live in countries where they’re prohibited from driving or voting or owning property. Imagine how hard it must be for women in war zones in danger of being kidnapped, raped, and impregnated by soldiers, or who are sold by their own families to become child brides or prostitutes. Imagine how hard it is for women who have spent decades in bodies that don’t represent who they feel they are. Imagine how hard it must be for women who risk dying every time they become pregnant. Imagine how hard it must be for women whose children die due to lack of food, water, or medicine. Imagine how hard it must be for women who are murdered just for being women.

For me, deciding what to wear isn’t the hardest part of being the woman I am, but I know that there are many hard things I’ve never experienced. So I’m not angry at Caitlyn Jenner. I’m not angry at any of the women whose narratives don’t match mine. I am a little angry at a culture that still seeks to divide and conquer women. What we need is more concern and compassion for each other.

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It didn’t take long for the initial reports out of Miami to turn into a roar of “Zombie Apocalypse!” People didn’t even wait to hear the details. Give us a man eating another man’s face and we will run with it, even if it requires us to make a joke out of what looks like a tragedy in the cold light of day. Why?

Because we need stories. As zombies love brains, as meat loves salt, people love narrative. We thrive on narrative, because it holds back chaos. It introduces order and meaning and structure. Narrative is at the heart of religion, for example. Humans invented religion to explain things they didn’t understand. Not sure what lightning is? Make a story about a god who uses it to punish people. Voila! Order out of chaos. Not sure what happens after we die? Frightened by the uncertainty? A good story explains away the uncertainty. Don’t worry, you’ll come to a river, where you’ll have to pay a boatmen to ferry you across. If you’ve been good, you’ll go to a beautiful meadow. If you’ve been bad, you’ll go to terrible place of torment.

Without narrative, we have to stare down the chaos of life. Instead of zombie apocalypse and its offer of freedom and survival of the cleverest, we end up with some unfortunate man with a patchy history of bad and desperate behavior who took a drug and did terrible thing, and it means nothing. That’s one of the scariest phrases in the English language–it means nothing. That’s why as crazy as it sounds, we like the idea of “zombie apocalypse” better than we like the sound of “random act of gruesome violence.”

Fear of meaninglessness is why people start charities. To honor a loved one who died of cancer. To protect people from the fate of a loved one killed in a drunk driving accident or a kidnapping or some other horrible, random act. The stunned and wounded people the dead leave behind want death to mean something. They don’t want it to be brutish and random and meaningless.

And so narrative becomes the savior. Random horrible death becomes a story. The cancer victim becomes a valiant hero whose death will encourage others to walk for a cure! (Until bad PR causes problems with that narrative.) The guy with his face eaten off, he’s the start of the long-awaited zombie apocalypse!

This is why I laugh at people who bemoan the encroachments of reality television. As though it were reality.  Other people complain that reality television is scripted. The outrage! You mean the producers are manipulating the show to produce more drama? They’re–dare I say it–crafting a narrative? Kim & Kris weren’t really in love? They were just acting?

Our love of narrative is the reason we will never tire of telling stories. Books aren’t dead. Cinema isn’t dying. Yes, it’s probably going to change, but not so much we won’t be able to recognize it. Sleep for a thousand years and return to civilization and there will still be stories you recognize. In fact, they’re likely to be the same stories told a thousand years ago, even if we use new technologies to tell them. Stories will never end, because we need them to understand our own chaotic lives.

You mean it’s not real?!?! NOOOOOOOO!!!!!

To my mind, one of the more interesting things about “reality tv” is that it’s all about the self-narrative. The characters create themselves as the show goes on. Like deeply imbedded improvisation. I know that as a culture we like to dismiss reality tv stars as narcissists, but imagine what it would be like to have a TV crew filming your life. Think of the ways that your life could be manipulated to tell a cohesive narrative arc. Think of how you would want to create and reveal your own character. For extra credit, consider what kinds of freedom to do and say what you want might be born out that scripted narrative. Show your work.

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