Media and Cultural Stories

(This was topical when I started writing it; it’s less so now that I’ve finally finished it. However, since the debate seems cyclical, it will unfortunately probably be topical again in the future.)

The Importance of Storytelling

I’ve always been a fan of stories, and I’m not too picky about how they’re told to me. I read, of course, voraciously and widely, though speculative fiction is my home (more on that in a bit). When I play video games, I play for the story; combat is something that happens in between story bits. When I listen to music, clever lyrics or a good ballad will light up my face. Movies, comics, anime, fanfiction … it all comes back to loving and emotionally investing in the story the creator is trying to tell.

Emotional investment is the value of stories. They make us think, but mostly they make us care. There’s a reason the Eight Deadly Words are “I don’t care what happens to these people,” not “I am not intellectually curious about the plot.” In the first level of caring about something, we care because it speaks to us: because something in the story resonates with our own lived stories.

At another level, stories speak to more than just our personal stories. I can read and appreciate stories about redheaded super-intelligent people in a futuristic setting (hi, Heinlein!), but I can also read and appreciate stories about a reluctant revolutionary out to change a horrible, dystopian future (hi, Katniss!). So our media does more than tell personal stories; it tells us stories about our communities and our cultures. But you knew that, because not every piece of media you consume is about people just like you.

Or it shouldn’t be.

We tend to think of these stories as “universal.” Rags-to-riches stories are popular because people are always yearning for more. Campbell’s monomyth speaks to us (hold that thought) because it’s a representation of a common story that can play out in innumerable ways. The meta-story of a revolutionary teen going against regimes that are far older and more powerful is everywhere in Western YA literature for a reason: teens often feel disenfranchised and powerless.

However, far from being universal, our media reflects the stories we tell at a cultural level. My “rags-to-riches” template stories are Cinderella and Pretty Woman. These reflect my age, my race, my gender identity, and the realities of domestic work and sex work in my culture. My revolutionary template stories are, frankly, innumerable, because Western science fiction and fantasy really, really love that trope. Likewise with the Hero’s Journey: I grew up reading David Eddings and Terry Brooks, after all.


I’ve proposed that we can understand stories from the point of view of what they tell us about our own cultures. In Western media, individualism is good. We see Cinderella breaking free of family to be her own person, the spotlight shines on our Young Unknown Heir as he undergoes his Hero’s Journey, and we see bloody revolutions led by one charismatic person.

However, when you step outside of your own cultures stories, things change. Suddenly, you don’t know the metaphorical language. For example, Becca really enjoys classical music; it speaks to her and makes her care. I have a hard time relating to classical music unless it’s been written in the last few decades*. I didn’t grow up listening to it, nor was I particularly musically inclined in my youth. But Country music (in all its problematic glory), does speak to me – in a way it will never speak to Becca, because while Cincinnati is hardly “the South,” it’s certainly close enough to it for Minnesotans. Likewise, while I really enjoy anime, I know that I’m missing about 80% of the cultural references, particularly the humor.**

The difference between classical and country, however, is a narrow stream. The difference between, say, Country and Hip Hop is closer to a forbidding chasm. I am made uncomfortable listening to Hip Hop and Rap in ways that I am not while listening to Classical. It’s like listening to a conversation happening in the next room: I know something important is being said, but I can’t hear enough to decode it.

There’s a line that we cross when we are exposed to media that tells stories that do not reflect our cultures. The language can seem disjointed (literally, in some cases). The background assumptions seem off. The story beats don’t seem like they’re in the right place. We’re uncomfortable, because these stories aren’t following the “rules” that we expect stories to follow: Individualism good. Collectivism bad. Wealth good. Poverty bad. Health good. Disability bad. These stories become less about “I don’t care what happens to these people,” but about “I don’t know how to care what happens to these people.”

White magic is good. Black Magic is bad. Thin people are virtuous. Fat people are lazy and evil. People who look like us are the good guys. People who don’t are the aliens, the interlopers, the outsiders. We normalize our cultural stories, and stories that don’t ascribe to those normalizations are deeply uncomfortable.

The Appropriation of Someone Else’s Stories

One way in which we try to make these stories more comfortable is to bring in what we think are the most important parts, in an attempt to reconcile them with our own cultural stories. The problem with this is that we’re frequently really, really wrong about what the important bits are. What’s the important bit about Cinderella? Is it that her mother is dead? Is it that she’s poor? Is it that she’s in a blended family? Is it that she’s abused?

Or is it the mice and the dress and the ball?

Does that sound a little far-fetched? Consider this: what’s the important part about Country music? Is it rugged individualism? Is it the rebellion? Is it the feeling of wide open spaces*** and dust and grit?

Or is it the wife who ran off with the truck and ran over the dog on her way out?

So when we (and I’m speaking here as the culture I belong to: white, middle-aged, middle-class, middle-of-the-road) encounter stories that don’t come from our culture, what do we think the important parts are? The human themes of suffering, redemption, loss, and hope? Or headdresses and dreadlocks?

When we bring in the trappings of another culture in order to tell our own stories we selectively take the bits that appeal to us and slap them on top of completely unrelated stories. This is how you end up with “hipster headdresses” – trappings with no story. If your defense that you are using these cultural markers in order to tell your own stories is “but I’m respecting them!” you need to look at if you’re valuing the vehicle over the story.


If stories are culturally-centered, and we are really terribly bad at figuring out the important bits of other culture’s stories, what can we do about that? The only way to understand stories to read (be exposed to) a lot of them. I did not spring fully formed from my mother with the understanding that I would grow to love Magnificent Bastards or why Data’s drive toward becoming more human is both heartbreaking and exulting.

In reading Dangerous Women, I found I don’t have the language to interpret whether or not a crime fiction story is “good.” What are its tropes? What meanings are being presented/subverted/inverted/deconstructed? What makes a good crime story, and does this story have it? I haven’t the slightest. And, in the case of crime fiction, it doesn’t really matter. My life is no better or worse because of my ignorance of the genre.

That’s not always the case. During Wiscon, I went to a reading by Nisi Shawl, N.K. Jemisin, and Mikki Kendall. As they read, I realized I didn’t have the words – I didn’t have language or the background – to truly comprehend what I was hearing. I closed my eyes and mentally struggled with the works. Not because I doubted they contained universal truth – they did, sharply and painfully so – but I didn’t know how to interpret them. Even with my ignorance of the culture and lived stories these woman brought to their works, though, I cared. I cared about the worlds they showed me and the people in them. I recognized the shared humanity between their characters and my own experiences.

And, having cared, I couldn’t just stop caring. Fiction created a world for me where it was right and good and undeniably human to care about people that don’t look like me, that don’t have lives like mine, that don’t have the same values, traditions, or stories.

This is why the various “We Need Diverse (media)” movements are so very important. When same-sex marriage was being debated, several prominent politicians found it in themselves to support it, even though their previous political record would have indicated the opposite. Frequently, it was because a loved one had revealed that they were not heterosexual. A key piece of securing the right to marry was to be out and visible, showing people that they know far more queer**** people than they thought they did. Telling our stories.

If we expose ourselves to diverse stories, we learn about new cultures, new values, and new ways of being human. Stories can be the gateway to empathy.

*This bugs me. “Classical” should mean something! “Modern instrumental?” “Modern Orchestral?”

**It’s probably not inconsequential that my preferred genre of anime tends to be Magical Girl, because that frequently speaks most closely to the Individualism=Good metaphor of Western Culture.

***I see what you did, there, brain.

*****The fact that bisexuals were expected to be just a little less out – so as not to “confuse” people – is a different matter.