Thursday, 13 August 2015

Rant about the Power of Stories

I must have been about 12 years old when my mum told me about the nightmare that my brother K, who was 8 at the time, had had the previous night.
I was surprised by this. Not because of the content of the dream, or how it had affected K or mum, but by the FACT that my brother HAD DREAMS. He was a PERSON, not just a little kid who could be a nuisance to me.
Let’s just say I was not the most socially or emotionally precocious child …
I was reminded of this incident some months ago when reading about a grassroots awareness campaign that an NGO was running in some rural Indian village aimed at improving the rights of women.* The program was simple: organising workshops for men, during which they were taught how and why to treat women better. But the level was startling to someone living in my comfortable western, urban, educated bubble. One man, interviewed after completing the workshop, was proudly explaining how he had learnt that he should treat his wife and mother better, because they were people too and had their own thoughts and feelings.
While I’m hoping that all of you (men) reading will know that your wives and mothers have their own thoughts and feelings, why is it still that men have stories and experiences and women have women’s stories and experiences? And men are only interested in the stories and experiences of the default kind?
This was bothering me, so I did a test with one of the most casually comfortable male feminists I know, my partner F.** (This means that everything I say from now on has been scientifically proven.) I asked F to name his 5 favourite movies and 5 favourite authors. He named Lord of the Rings, Pride, The Jungle Book, Matrix and Dinner for One (movies) and Daniel Kehlmann, Herman Melville, Erich Maria Remarque, Ronald Dworkin and Karl May (authors).***
This tallies with statistics. Men read books written by men. Women read more books written by women, but because women read more than men in general, in the end this still means that 50% of male authors’ readership is female (while only 20% of female authors’ readership is male).**** I had a quick look at my own reading journal (yes, I keep a reading journal, shut up) and it appears that since the start of 2014 I’ve read 15 books written by men (42%) and 21 books written by women (58%). Granted, a book written by a man is not necessarily about men and a book written by a woman is not necessarily about women, but I am willing to state that the gender of the author (just like other attributes, such as race, nationality, class) does mean something in considering what the stories are that these authors write.
Same goes for movies. Women go to see more movies than men do (source). Here my facts are admittedly more vague and impressionistic, but let’s see if you agree. Women go to see all kinds of movies, including ones that focus on the stories of men (this follows from the stats – as there are many more women who go to the movies than there are movies about women, they must be also watching the stories of men). But I find it hard to even imagine a man going with his bros to see movies about women. This applies across the spectrum, from rom-coms to buddy road trips (Thelma & Louise) to serious drama (think last year’s Still Alice) and even war movies (which are almost by definition about men, but one exception comes to mind, the 2008 Les Femmes de l’Ombre, which is about four French (women) commandoes sent to rescue a captured geologist). If men go to see such movies, it is because their wives/girlfriends drag them there.
Why is that? Why do men not even consider women’s stories interesting enough to watch on screen (or read)? I get it that the most popular movie genre is a white hetero dude saving the world, but why ONLY this story, over and over again? And I don’t only mean douchebags who complain that the role given to Charlize Theron in the latest Mad Max ruins the whole action movie genre (really), but men in general?
I can only pose the question, I think, inviting everyone to provide their thoughts, and to consciously examine their own entertainment consumption habits. I will also continue to drag F to see movies that do not star white hetero dudes and suggest he read good books written by women. If any of you other smart dudes out there want to broaden your horizons and find awesome authors that happen to be women, I am happy to give tips and recommendations!
Because this stuff matters. Media and culture are key to better understanding which is key to better empathizing which is key to better accepting.
Love and peace.

*I read this in a paper article which I can no longer locate, which means that I can neither give the source nor even the name of the NGO. Bad me.
**He recently ran a ½ marathon wearing a “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt, without even mentioning it to me. It was a campaign tee for a Palestinian LGBT organisation. I was so proud of him.
***F told me that apparently info on favourite movies and authors is very personal, so for the sake of fairness, my favourite authors are Terry Pratchett, Margaret Atwood, Sofi Oksanen, Mika Waltari and Chimamanda Ngoci Adichie. I've mentioned my favourite movies in another rant.
****Admittedly this is only one study, but done by GoodReads based on the data their members reported, so quite a comprehensive look at avid readers. The Guardian did some good simple analysis on the numbers.

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