Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Telling Stories Like Mine

So, after my last blog post here, “Teaching Teenagers to Sing the Heteropatriarchy”, a friend of mine said that she’d never felt the need to hear stories that centered her experience of non-heteronormative sexuality.

“Like you I have noted how much heterosexual boy-meets-girl stories don't generally apply to me. I've never really considered this an issue though, I've never felt a burning desire to see someone of my sexuality take centre stage or to tell my story. [...] I'm clearly missing something fundamental here. [...] Can you help?”

So, that got me thinking. Why do I care so much about broad representation in Opera and other stories? And why don’t some people? Why are some people interested in seeing themselves centre stage, and why are some people not interested in seeing people not like themselves centre stage?

Firstly, I think there’s something to be said for our expectations from the stories we hear being a gendered thing. See, little girls get very used to reading stories where boys are the hero; and learn to enjoy reading stories about people not like them. On the other hand, little boys get very used to reading stories about boys like them, and learn to turn their noses up and stories about anyone who might be different to them. This is certainly a well noted phenomenon across the publishing industry. Just last week I was linked to Max Barry noting the phenomenon.

Similarly, black children learn to identify with white heroes, while white children learn to expect heroes with skin colour the same as theirs. Again, last week I was linked to this on the subject.

This reinforces a cultural phenomenon, a set of power dynamics, which shows people whose experiences are close to the mainstream of a culture that their experience is normal and worth talking about. Conversely, people who’s experiences don’t reflect the mainstream of their culture, and even more so people who’s experiences contradict those of the mainstream in their culture, quickly learn that their experiences are not recognised, not seen as worthwhile - but that they should recognise and appreciate the experiences of the mainstream.

Don’t get me wrong. This is population trend stuff, not personal feelings. I seriously doubt anyone sits down and think to themselves 'I don't want to hear stories about people like me because I think straight nondisabled neurotypical white men are more interesting and important'.

But to me, this goes some way towards explaining why some people don’t find issues of representation important; perhaps even particularly people who are under-represented in a particular medium or genre. People who are under-represented don’t expect to see themselves; don’t see the need to see themselves, because they learn to identify with and value the heterosexual nondisabled white man who is standing centre stage.

It also goes some way to explaining why representation is so important. Where people are under-represented, they become invisible, even to themselves.

I think it's really important for people to hear stories about people like me - and people who are nothing like me - because I know that stories influence thinking. If people don't hear stories, they don't learn to recognise possibilities. Or perhaps those possibilities simply don’t have the same strength of emotional resonance.

For example, lots of parents are unhappy when their children come out as gay not because they're homophobic themselves but because they don't want a future for their child where that child faces homophobia and can't have a family. They are unhappy because they only have one idea about what gay people can be like - and that unhappiness turns the coming out experience into something negative for both parent and child.

Similarly, for someone like you who does not experience strong desires for romantic or sexual relationships at all, there are strong social and cultural expectations about your behaviour - that you will eventually learn some sort of life lesson or meet the right man, and then you will find that romantic relationship central to your life. People believe that in part because that's what all the stories say, from fairytales to operas to soap-operas to sci-fi and beyond. There's an expectation of heterosexual romance, a narrative framework for life, which becomes ingrained, and influence what people believe is possible and normal.

There's a self esteem issue as well. Research suggests that queer people have low self esteem partly connected to the fact that they rarely see positive images of people like them in the media. This article on LGBT suicide mentions that “society influences suicidal behavior by gay and lesbian youth [...] [by] the portrayal of homosexuals as being self-destructive.” Conversely, this article suggests that inclusive media may well be an important factor in lowering youth suicide rates amongst the gay community. Part of my day job currently is helping young LGBT people with precisely that: positive self image. My employers and their funders all recognise that a lack of positive images, positive role-models and narratives, can lead to low self esteem, negative behaviours, lack of aspirations.

In my ideal world, people would get to see stories that both reflected and challenged their experiences.

I love hearing stories about people who are different to me (I’m very used to it, after all!) But when I'm telling stories, creating stories, they will fundamentally come out of my experiences, which do not fit into the narrow confines of the kinds of stories its normal to tell anywhere in mainstream story-telling, but especially in opera.

Hence, this project. I want to create the spaces, the places and the performances which will allow people to tell all sorts of different stories, through the medium I love - the beautiful music of opera. To paraphrase Shakespeare: I do desire that we become Better Strangers....

Don't forget that our art competition is still running! Got a creative streak? Come and see what you can do with out words...


  1. I missed your previous post, so I've got a lot to think about now!

  2. Food for thought - thank you.