Meditations on the Power of the Single Narrative

Resonance Frequency exists because of the power of media, but it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve begun to realize that the power of media is narrative. Everything I’ve examined, from BDSM theory and the psychology behind it, to why ensemble casts are so prevalent, is connected by the common thread of narrative. In the past few days, I’ve stumbled on a TED talk about the danger of the single story, and seen the response to Vanity Fair’s cover with Caitlyn Jenner. I’ve also finished a novel, which was not intended to, but ended up drawing on so many stories I’ve experienced within the past decade. But it wasn’t until I was asked to read a part of my novel, and asked why, that I was told the person asking me values it as a counter-narrative. It wasn’t until then that I realized the true power of narrative.

In direct response to something from that video: Anyone would be disappointed if they asked to hear any kind of music, and you produced a CD of Mariah Carey. (*rimshot*) I could also write volumes on the woman who not only felt Adichie should write a sequel to one of her novels, but knew exactly what should happen in one. To that woman:

Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk spoke to me in a couple ways. When she spoke about being unaware that fiction could have people like her in it, I was reminded of how I didn’t know trans people existed until I was seventeen. She also inspired me to meditate on what politics really was, what activism really is. For me activism is a counter-narrative, and its value is its ability to introduce nuances to our common narrative. Because it’s not until people’s narrative changes, that any chance happens. It’s not until then, that people view marriage as between two people instead of the two sexes, it’s not until then that we view Islamic people as people, and not terrorists who wish to harm us. When I was sixteen, trans people were not part of my narrative, and therefore what I felt had no name, had no basis in reality. At seventeen, when trans people entered my world, suddenly I could see myself as a trans person, and that gave me a basis of what to do moving forward.

Power is the ability to define reality, both for yourself and others. To define is to describe, to describe is to articulate, to tell it ‘how it is’, because that’s how you see it.

What does Vanity Fair and The Witcher III, and Ancient Greece have in common? The answer might surprise you, blow your mind, and be the best part of your day.

The social media response to Vanity Fair’s feature on transsexual Caitlyn Jenner followed a curious pattern. From sitting at my desk with my eye on Facebook and Twitter, my friends’ response went like this: First, everyone was linking directly to news sources with the announcement, and saying how awesome it was that trans people are getting more exposure. About half a day later, some people warned that Jenner’s story shouldn’t be seen as typical for trans people. The next day, there were numerous articles talking about trans women of colour, of trans women living in poverty, of other marginalized trans people. My friends’ tone went from congratulatory, to trepidatious, to activist.

Effectively, the narrative around Caitlyn Jenner went from being about her, to being about trans people; this is the moment I realized what activism is. Caitlyn Jenner’s appearance in Vanity Fair is a net positive, that much is clear. And I certainly can relate to her narrative, while I’m not as well off or famous as she is, I was fortunate to be well-off enough to be post-op at 21. I can afford to work out, to have had some minor cosmetic surgery. I am female, I’m not outside the binary, and if you’ve seen my writing you’ll know I think the gender binary has value in society still. However what was so interesting, was how that narrative is mainstream now. Jenner blends in well as a woman, she’s no longer challenging enough to be rejected by the mainstream narrative.

Which I think should be celebrated. While we can decry Vanity Fair for featuring a trans woman who’s what people expect a trans woman to be; she’s what people expect a trans woman to be in 2015. That is not the same cultural narrative of 2004, that didn’t have trans women anywhere.

The response since then however, has been people like Laverne Cox taking that narrative, and using it to remind people that there’s many trans people not like Caitlyn Jenner out there. That we should have media representations of all kinds of trans people, because they are (I guess we are) so varied, and because anyone challenging to the mainstream is still often ignored. That has been the rallying cry of so many of my friends, as they link to articles on violence that Black trans women experience, and use Jenner’s narrative to promote related narratives.

Recently The Witcher 3 came out, and I saw something similar. Polygon went and insisted on being Polygon, and in its 8/10 review, said that the game had trouble representations of women. Then Feminist Frequency went and insisted on being Feminist Frequency, tweeting that: “Rage and anger are two of the only emotions men are really allowed to express in patriarchy”. At which point Forbes’ expert and competent games journalism (just look at my control over the narrative around them right there) went and posted a response to that. Which includes the quote:

“I don’t mean to suggest that art ought to be devoid of politics. But when art’s purpose is merely to peddle a certain political agenda, I think it loses much of what makes it art to begin with. It seems to me that people like Sarkeesian would like to gloss over all the horrible things that have happened to women in the past, and so in a piece of fantasy fiction like The Witcher 3, we should have a Utopian world of gender equality and politically correct bandits. That would present the world according to Sarkeesian’s political preferences, and rob the art of much of its power.” – Erik Kain, Forbes

And suddenly it made sense to me. For the record if it wasn’t bleedingly obvious, I’m with Kain on this one by and large. However, so much of the fervour of his piece, stems from something more than what Feminist Frequency said about The Witcher 3. Many people worry that Feminist Frequency’s influence is dangerous, not simply because of its Radical Feminist ideology, but because Sarkeesian and company have started to influence games writing. The concern is that characters and situations are effectively being changed to ignore gender differences, that any violence against women is being curtailed. People are concerned that writers increasingly believe (by choice or not) that there’s only one right way to write female characters. People now criticize Feminist Frequency’s influence for the lack of depth of characters in recent titles.

What inspires me to write this is that Feminist Frequency’s narrative is now becoming canon, and that gives them power over the gaming medium. Their narrative of what makes a ‘strong female character’ is swiftly becoming the dominant one, and that’s blocking out many other (more interesting) ones.

However, just look at the volume that’s been written on the response surrounding The Witcher 3 and Feminist Frequency alone. Even the much maligned “What about the men” argument (which I feel isn’t used particularly well and isn’t all that strong) is the attempt to inject another narrative into the discourse. We write to be heard, we need to be heard because our narratives are vital.

Caitlyn Jenner’s feature in Vanity Fair is amazing, because she’s another trans woman being portrayed within mainstream media. Caitlyn Jenner’s feature in Vanity Fair is dangerous, because its narrative about trans women isn’t the narrative of most trans women. The Witcher 3 is misogynistic or has some brilliant female characters, and whichever narrative you believe is going to impact your enjoyment of a game (from a 10/10 all the way to a 8/10 apparently). Yet, Feminist Frequency’s radical feminist narrative views it as something that needs to change, and that’s dangerous, because Feminist Frequency’s radical feminist narrative holds a disproportionate amount of weight.

Ultimately, people’s concern is to have their narrative heard within the public forum. In meditating on these narratives, I can’t help but think back to Ancient Greece. When the Greeks asked the Oracle of Delphi what the most important thing to know was, the Oracle breathed in sulphuric gas, likely convulsed, and told them: Know thy self. Both establishing a precedent of landmark Human discoveries being made while high as shit, but also giving the Greeks a narrative so foundational, that it continues to be the basis of our society. To ‘know thy self’, is to champion the individual, to express how important it is that every man and woman meditate on what makes them such. This came at a time when the Persian Empire was still bent on dominating Ancient Greece. The Persians championed obedience, and sought to bring the fewer and less organized Greeks under heel. What ‘know thy self’ gave the Greeks was the message loud and clear, to champion individuality and by extension liberty, above all else. The Greeks resisted the Persians in part because of their fervent belief in this. The Greek city states were not united, but the narrative they were given was one that inspired cooperation and resistance. In essence, to study ‘know thy self’ as narrative, is to study how a story was created, one just as powerful as Homer’s The Iliad and Odyssey, which helped save civilization as we know it.

That is the power of the narrative, and a lesson of how ambivalent we must be towards the notion of the single narrative.

– Jaydra

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