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Whose Story Is It?

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

I have been in love with storytelling for many many years. I grew up in the household of an artist who told stories with his music, composing operas, musicals, symphonies and more. He also was, later in his life, a media arts professor training graduate students in storytelling using the very latest technologies.

I became an actor, dancer, and writer (after a brief stint as a musician) and have felt the keen pull of narrative during most of my life. Whether by journaling my most secret thoughts, writing essays, performing or producing live shows or documentary, I’ve had a connection to and with storytelling for five decades.

It would be easy to settle into the storytelling forms I grew up with; the narrative models I’ve heard since childhood, watched through my teen and adult years that of the “classic” protagonist and their Hero’s Journey, and the stories I read to my own children. This model is embedded in our western nation, and there has been MUCH written about it from the positive to negative. Over the past few years though, I’ve been focusing on what else is out there and where the Hero’s Journey falls very short.

There is a good Wiki on The Hero’s Journey, and it is the ubiquitous form in most mainstream American story narratives.

The Wiki lays out the overview of the Hero’s Journey and also provides ample links such as this one on the peril’s of the American Monomyth and critique of the form.

Robert Jewett has gone on to write or advise on a few other books deconstructing the American Monomyth and it’s limits. “In their 2002 book The Myth of the American Superhero (with Lawrence as first author) and their 2003 book Captain America And The Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma Of Zealous Nationalism (with Jewett as first author), the authors extend the thesis by using examples from both American popular culture and the American religious tradition.”

I’ve ordered all of the books and likely will do some little book reviews after reading them, because I think they likely will have been prescient to where we are today and many of the troubles we see.

In pop culture, just as a side note, I often wonder what our view on the world might be if we had created/adopted a more spherical and holistic view of characters in a story. We follow protagonists, root for them against their antagonists, and while there are side characters that are instrumental to the hero/s in their quest, we never learn about them or their lives. We create conditions where “helpers” are never centered, just support for the savior-figure. Take for example the character “Atta Girl” from the film “9 to 5”

We see her a few times, sitting at her desk, mournfully or cynically quipping “Atta Girl” at the hero of the film. We can sense a lot about her in a very short amount of time, and I wonder what it might be like to hear HER story. Why she drinks. What she does after work. How she copes. She is comic relief and comic commentary, of course, and it’s efficient and effective. But she’s a whole person. Or she could be.

Speaking of comic relief, Galaxy Quest does a wonderful job of playing with the role of the “hero” and who gets to be one. There is much in that film which subverts tropes-think about Jason losing his shirt heroically, even though he wasn’t the one to kill his mortal enemy, in the Gorignak scene. Each of the cast (the crew) plays a vital role in the survival of the team even if it means just repeating the computer’s words.

And survive they do, and with new friends from other worlds, and earthlings none the wiser. They all are heroes, though no one besides them knows about it.

Generally, though, in the stories we see, the (generally and stereotypically) white, fit, male hero is rewarded greatly for their efforts and supported (centered) by women, BIPOC characters. They are often is “healed” by them as well. Which is bullshit. Things are changing, some. Not enough, because the structure of this narrative is DEEP and we’ve grown up reading/watching/hearing these stories and absorbing these structures. Who gets to tell their story, whose story is it? Who belongs in the leading and supporting roles, all are things we should be examining more fully.

What brought all this on?

Lots of things, but today? The situation in Texas regarding Trans youth and their families and the government messing about with their rights, fomenting all kinds of evil, and basically stepping SO far out of bounds in such callous display of culture-warring, I don’t know what to think. Well, I do know what to think. That’s a monologue for another time.

For a primer on what’s happening in Texas-

To be completely honest, I am not surprised that current Texas leadership would pull something so soulless. This is a tactical plan to set up a court battle while fully engaging in a cultural war. It’s heartless, sociopathic, and countless people will be harmed, hurt, families are even now feeling the trauma from the betrayal. This is how the GOP in Texas operates and the game plan is being replicated in other states both conservative and not. There is a concerted effort against CRT, equity work, saying the word “gay” (see Florida) and the work starts on school boards and works outwards.

Thinking about all of this today, and the general overwhelm it causes, I saw a Tweet.

And Sigrid goes on to say, “If this were a story and you were a protagonist, you would drive to Texas and smuggle trans youth out of the state to new homes elsewhere. If you were a protagonist you would learn lessons about common humanity, you would grow as a person. This isn’t a story. Trans folks are not part of your narrative. You are not a protagonist. The things you can, and MUST, do to support trans people in the face of this Texas shitshow will not solve the problem, will not end transphobia, will not remove the governor.”

It’s an amazing thread and there are also some amazing and brilliant comments such as:

This de-centering of ourselves as the hero in a story is discombobulating for many. “But I want to be a protagonist!” can lead either to “It’s just too big!” or “If I can’t save it, I won’t even try.” We don’t train ourselves (at least I’ve not seen white middle class cis straight abled culture trained) into thinking…I am happy to be a stagehand and this little bit will make the whole show happen! It takes the pressure off if we ALL know that we ALL are participating!

Historically, we have rewarded, as DoctorNovakaine says above, the hero. The CEO. The Maverick. The Warrior. Captain America. Anyone who is a helper is just…invisible really. We see this in terms of profit margins too btw. Why a CEO makes 100 times more than the folks in a factory is a mess. Perhaps if we practiced spreading out the reward as well, we’d all adjust to a different way of story-experience.

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago, I heard Chris Begley on my local NPR channel and he was speaking primarily about Apocalypses but he noted that Covid19, the pandemic, is a slow-ish moving sustained stress. The actions we were all told to take were to…hide. Not go out in public. Not show our faces. Get a jab.

And those pieces of heroism, for that is what the were and still are, don’t feel heroic in the grand narrative. Hiding? Not what Captain America would do! Thinking of community instead of individualism? That’s literally not the story we’ve been told. And not being the center? Lord! I’ve been thinking about idea of “what if we are not the protagonist” for a while, and spoke about it on The Changed Podcast.

As someone who has hosted storytelling shows, I’ve also thought about and struggled with the balance of who gets to tell a story, if your part of a mutual story (you and your partner/child/colleague) is up for grabs or how much consent is needed to share, the ethics of how we tell stories in fundraising and non-profit work (this is a big one), and I’m very lucky that there are more and more people thinking, speaking, and posting about these very topics. I’m certainly not an original here and would love your comments on those already doing this work so that I can share their ideas!!

Looking at our stories from a non-western, non-white/straight/abled and more perspective means more community is centered and more voices are heard. I plan on sharing the voices I’m learning from because there are far more learned and practiced voices than mine forging mutual community paths ahead.

I want all of us to begin to unpack these ideas around stories. Around who is, and who is not, centered. To be curious about those other voices and lift them up. Our entire culture as asked us to center ourselves, and the idea that we may not be the hero? It’s disconcerting. Its dis-centering.

When we lose our center we often feel like we will fall. But if we do this in community, there are many hands to help catch us. They’ve always been there, we just have to relax into that change, and start listening.

If we all run around madcap trying to LEAD and HERO and generally ignore those WHOSE story it actually is? Nothing will get done. The Texas story is not about me, so what I need to do is support backstage. With my hands, with my dollars, with focusing on THEM.

These little actions (though no action is truly little) are important. Your role? Vital. The community needs you in the entirety of their story of justice and equity and compassion and care. You do not know how many people and their stories you might touch and affect along the way, but know this. It matters.

Please follow Equality Texas transadvocate @transtexas TransgenderLawCenter Texas Civil Rights Project for more ways to help in Texas. You can volunteer many places in Texas, and if you are out of state, you can give money, volunteer at local groups that support and affirm LGBTQ care, you can call your representatives (and of course those in Texas), and you can write posts, share thoughts, and speak up in countless ways.

Photo by Elias Ruiz Monserrat

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You can also find me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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