The power of stories: from houswives to firefighters
Once upon a time, a princess was cursed by an evil angel. The princess was sentenced to fall into a deep sleep on her 16th birthday for 100 years, only to be awoken by a true love’s kiss. She would eventually be saved by a brave and noble prince, laying her lips with a (non-consensual) kiss and bringing her back to life.
As children, we are particularly impressionable to these stories. Studies show that children develop their perspectives on aspects of identity such as gender and race before the age of five.
“Stories do not just develop children’s literacy,” says Peggy Albers, Professor of Language and Literacy Education, “they convey values, beliefs, attitudes and social norms which, in turn, shape children’s perceptions of reality.”
What will it mean then to a child, that despite featuring in the film titles, women are significantly more silent than their male counterparts? As reported by the BBC, women speak just 32% of the time in The Little Mermaid, they have just 24% of lines in Pocahontas and only 10% in Aladdin.
Stories provide narratives that we live by – individuals that we can identify with, journeys which we aspire to take. If we are repeatedly fed the same narrative, our sense of our own potential future shrinks.
“We have to interrupt the cycle that starts very young,” says writer and activist Melissa Silverstein. “It’s the power dynamic, that girls have to be saved. We want girls to be the heroes of the stories […]. They can’t only be striving for romance.”
Gender representation in family films is improving. In a study conducted by the Geena Davis institute this year, it was revealed that for the first time in history, lead female characters have reached parity in the top-100 grossing family films. As well as this, female characters’ speaking time has improved, increasing from 31.3% in 2014 to just under 40% in 2019.
Over the last decade, Disney has made conscious effort to overturn decades of stories of damsels in distress. Brave (2012) tells the story of a Viking princess who is determined to fight her own battles. Frozen (2013) emphasises the strength and power of sisterhood rather than romantic partnership. Moana (2016) sets off on an epic journey in order to save her island. These narratives show children that women are courageous, empathetic and bold.
In a TED talk, ‘The danger of a single story’, Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, explains that stories are “defined by the principle of nkali” – a noun loosely translating as to “to be greater than another”. “How [stories] are told, who tells them, [… and] how many stories are told are really dependent on power,” she states. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
Changing the stories that are publicly available to us changes the way we tell stories to ourselves. This was the case with the #MeToo movement. As women in the media reclaimed their stories, women all over the world were encouraged to reflect on the way they have narrativised their own experience. What was once regarded as women’s own faults and shortcoming, is now understood as being systemic problems with other players in the story.
“Power is the ability not just the ability to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
The #MeToo movement led Disney to reflect on the stories they had been telling. Earlier this week, Disney announced that they would be dropping the character Li Shang from the live-action remake of Mulan, since producers now felt “uncomfortable” with his narrative.
“I think particularly in the time of the #MeToo movement, having a commanding officer that is also the sexual love interest was very uncomfortable and we didn’t think it was appropriate,” says Disney producer, Jason Reed.
Narratives trickle down into every aspect of our lives. Brands sell us things by telling us stories. As Jennifer Esmail argues, “a lamentable number of bra and lingerie companies continue to create products and lines that foster women’s insecurities about their bodies and self-images”.
Last year, Dove teamed with leading experts in the fields of psychology, health and body image to help investigate why women’s self-esteem has dropped over the last decade. Learning that 70% of women still didn’t feel represented in media and advertising, Dove partnered with Girlgaze and Getty Images to launch Project #ShowUs, creating 5,000 stock images of female-identifying individuals, shot by 100 percent female and non-binary photographers in over 39 countries.
The idea of the campaign was to create an image-bank so that other brands are encouraged to include a more diverse range of women in their campaigns. Women and girls should be able to see people who look like them in adverts – female-identifying individuals being happy, falling in love and achieving success.
“Suddenly you wake up and realise you are the person that has the power to make the change,” reports Dr. Rebecca Swift, senior director of Creative Insights at Getty Images. “You can use your power to maintain the status quo or you can use it to change the status quo.”
In the last decade, toy-manufacturing company Mattel has set out to remake the Barbie doll to reflect a more diverse range of individuals. Barbies are now designed with a range of body shapes and features and encourage the playing out of a range of stories. You can now buy barbies who are astrophysicists, firefighters and basketball players.
“You can use your power to maintain the status quo or you can use it to change the status quo.”
In celebration of their 60th anniversary and International Women’s Day, Barbie has launched a campaign, #MoreRoleModels, creating several dolls modelled off inspiring women from activist and supermodel Abwoa Aboah to world champion Olympic and the fastest British woman in history, Dina Asher-Smith.
“Growing up, sportswomen were less visible in the media”, Asher-Smith recounts. “I hope little girls will see my doll and be inspired to take up and continue to enjoy sports!”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is right – a single story is dangerous. We do not have to accept the stories ingrained in our culture that tell us who we are and who we can be. To embrace our individuality – as individuals, women, as humans – we can create new ones.