Payal Dhar examines if there is a right and a wrong way to understand stories, and if so, who decides? Does fiction have to be accountable to its readers (or viewers and listeners)? Or is the creator’s intent paramount?
A couple of developments in the past few months have had me thinking about the power of stories and the different ways we experience them. As creators, we have no control over how a reader, viewer or listener may interpret our work, whether they will see it through the same lens we used to create it. On the other hand, as the recipient of that content, we can only experience it within our particular context, irrespective of the creator’s intent.
In early February 2019, a personal essay of mine was published in Open magazine, where I was finally able to articulate how the stories of Enid Blyton, on which I was reared, were spaces of significant discomfort and trauma for the child in me, resulting in issues of identity and self-esteem as a teen and adult. While most people received the piece well, there were a few who pointed out that children are not capable of drawing the sort of nuance I was alluding to, so the reactions I was reporting could not be true, and/or I was over-analysing the matter and snatching the joy out of children’s entertainment.
This incident came on the heels of the Berena break-up in Holby City about which much has been said and written (including this piece of mine). Once a symbol of hope and positivity, the story turned toxic in distasteful ways. But significant players in that particular game insisted that it was the fandom, instead, that had got it wrong, that it was in fact a mature and considered ending that we were unable to ‘get’.
Both examples lead to a flurry of questions. Is there a right and a wrong way to understand stories? And if so, who decides? Does fiction have to be accountable to its readers (or viewers and listeners)? Or is the creator’s intent paramount? Does fiction exist in a vacuum, independent of a frame of reference? Does where, when and why a story is being told matter?
Ever since it all kicked off with the BBC’s ham-handed attempt to show us a ‘mature’ break-up on Holby City there’s been a lot of discussion and exchange of ideas, both in public on social media and the BerenaDeservedBetter website, as well as in closed groups, about the storyteller’s responsibility. (An excellent piece on the difference between visibility and representation, and another one about context, both written with Holby City in mind.)
In the Berena break-up telecast in December 2018—go here for a timeline—three messages stood out. To recap, these were:
- lesbian and bisexual women are not capable of monogamy (let us, for the moment, imagine that monogamy is the only measure of a proper relationship) and therefore cannot have committed unions;
- women, and especially older women, must sacrifice their own happiness for ‘higher’ causes; and
- a lesbian relationship is more dispensable compared to heterosexual and male homosexual ones.
When viewers contacted the BBC about this content, their responses in the three-round complaint process were (I paraphrase):
- It’s not real, it’s only fiction, so get over it.’
- ‘We treat the gays just as we treat the straights, and they all have “drama”, so get over it.’
- ‘Fine, we agree offence might have been caused, but there was context. So get over it.’
What had happened was, the lens through which the break-up story was written was not the same through which hundreds of les/bi women around the world would eventually experience it. This was the story the show’s producers had promised was going to care about the generations of queer women reared on seeing their stories ending in tragedies; it was going to ‘get it right’. When it didn’t, it was the ultimate slap in the face, a reminder that women-loving women don’t deserve anything else. To the creators, though, this idea was unpalatable—it was a ‘mature’ story, exactly as it would have been for a heterosexual couple. And that was the problem.
Similarly, the dismissive responses to my Blyton piece have ranged from outright denial of the fact that the stories were harmful to me (and to those few others who chimed in in the comments or in personal messages), to trying to contextualise why regressive gender norms were present in Blyton’s writing and why she was justified in her value system. These responses sidestepped the matter of where the reader was placed. I made no comment about Blyton’s content at all—it was about how the content was experienced by me that was the crux of my piece. It was not about the intent of the storyteller—it was about the interpretation of the reader/viewer. Just as in the case of Holby City, Enid Blyton’s reality was completely disconnected from mine, and not just in matters of time. She represented a world that was strictly patriarchal and heterosexual, where ambiguities existed either to be corrected or derided. There was no way a non-conventional child like me could feel comfortable in it.
So, yes, harm was done—in one case by creators who had promised not to and in the other inadvertently. But in both cases, the harm was a direct result of assuming that there is only one ‘correct’ way of viewing a story. I believe it’s called the arrogance of the mainstream.
Opinions. Everyone is allowed to have them, but drawing conclusions from our own perceptions and from how we assume someone else experiences the same are two different things. And this compounds when one is judging the lived experience of the marginalised through a privileged pair of glasses.
When Catherine Russell tweets about the Holby City storyline being ‘grown-up’, when the BBC repeatedly responds that there is nothing objectionable about the story, or when upper-class, gender-norms-conforming people dismiss a child’s ability to see sexism, there is an underlying judgement that those who don’t view the matter like them are somehow in the wrong. Because these opinion-holders account for most people in society, this opinion is widely regarded as correct.
The reason the mainstream can assume the right to validate or invalidate the experience of others is heterosexism. It is the gold standard of social acceptance in our world; the definition of ‘normal’, to put it simply. It is really an umbrella term that includes the whole gamut of what we identify as ‘normality’—patriarchy, heterosexuality, the gender binary, ableism and so on. Heterosexism is what comes into play when the ‘majority’ argument is used—when decisions are made because ‘most people’ want things a certain way. What this does is, it pushes the already disadvantaged minority further on the back foot while reinforcing the needs and opinions of the mainstream. To put it bluntly, it is an excuse to shut out the voices of the marginalised and erase their experiences.
But ‘heterosexism is not an argument’, as a blogger on the BerenaDeservedBetter website says. ‘It is a prejudice, and like all prejudices, it is reductive and circular—it needs itself to justify itself.’ (For a more detailed and nuanced understanding of how heterosexism twists the context to neutralise the perspectives that don’t suit them, read the full post.)
Heterosexism is a complex, insidious and well-entrenched system, one that we are conditioned from birth to accept as default. Even those of us who are not cis-gender or heterosexual are primed to see our lives through that lens. Being told repeatedly—in words and deeds—that this is the true way of the world means taking up space in that world often comes after a hard-won battle. This is where stories come in—to remind us that the battle scars are worth it.
Does this mean storytellers have a responsibility? Or does creative freedom translate into a free-for-all? We could argue about one or the other till the cows—or even the gau rakshaks—come home, or we could consider that responsible storytelling and creative freedom don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Offence is contextual. ‘Offending’ the mainstream results in challenging entrenched beliefs (some of which could be discriminatory against others). On the other hand deriding marginalised communities plays into negative (and usually exaggerated or untrue) stereotypes that that these communities are already fighting in their real lives.
No creative work exists in a vacuum—where, when and why a story is told depends on where, when and how a creator was placed, a creator who has no control over where, when and how their story will be read, seen or heard. And to those raised eyebrows asking whether one needs to pander to every reader or viewer who may take offence, I say this: Get over yourself. All one needs is the humility to discern where one’s perception deviates from another’s, and rest will take care of itself.
It’s really that simple.
(Also published here.)