Posted by: mfelter | September 15, 2016

Why Stories Matter

Throughout the Marie C. Wilson reading, I kept circling back to ideas of representation, narratives, and how those interact with culture. Although I can’t entirely answer Wilson’s question “does culture simply reflect society or does it change the society it serves?” (2004). I think culture can do a little bit of both. It is both a reflection and an influence on society. However, I really want to focus on how narratives effect change in culture and why representation matters particularly when it comes to young girls and leadership.

When we think about our influences in life…think about what “made us who we are” oftentimes we don’t immediately cite books, movies, plays, etc. as having big impacts. However, the narratives we consume have a much larger influence on who we become than many of us would think. There is a book written by Jungian psychologist, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, called Women Who Run with the Wolves (it’s an incredibly interesting book and definitely recommend giving it a read!) in which she uses stories to teach lessons about female empowerment, mental health, and how to navigate the world. Estes states “stories are medicine […] stories are embedded with instructions which guide us about the complexities of life” (1992). With statements such as “information through storytelling can having a sweeping effect” I think Wilson would agree and I certainly do as well (2004). Specifically, Wilson focuses on the importance of stories on TV and film.

Although Wilson centers on narratives that show women leading in high (or the highest) levels of politics and business, the influence of stories on young women starts much younger than the age range of audiences for shows such as Commander and Chief. One of the biggest juggernauts in storytelling is Disney. When it comes to young girls and the stories that shape their view of the world the Disney Princesses are serious influences. Disney has recently taken note of the public desire for Princesses with more leadership qualities which is apparent in their recent movies Brave, Frozen and the upcoming Moana. Merida is positioned to become a Scottish Clan leader while Elsa is already the monarch of an entire country. These role models for young girls have a similar effect as the President Barbie that Wilson mentions. They show young girls that it is possible to achieve the highest positions of leadership available and this representation is vital because when young girls see women in these positions it means they can see themselves in those positions. It no longer becomes outlandish to dream of becoming president or leading large groups of individuals. 

Another amazing source that has cropped up in recent years is A Mighty Girl (I’ll try to attach a link to the website below). It is an online resource for parents to find narratives that help them raise “smart, confident, and courageous girls” (amightygirl.com). The website finds books, movies, and toys that represent and celebrate the diverse capabilities of girls. A Mighty Girl goes a step further by using social media to showcase stories of women who are doing or have done incredible feats. They feature narratives about women computer programmers and pilots and current event stories like that of Malala Yousafzai. While I think both the positive strides Disney is making and websites such A Mighty Girl are incredible, I wonder if they are influencing culture or are reflections of our society’s growing demand for female representation. Regardless, seeing such positive narratives permeate the mainstream media gives me hope for the young girls growing up in this generation. Furthermore, I hope the leader expectations for young boys are challenged as well and they are offered the autonomy that their female counterparts are slowly gaining (But that’s an entirely different blog post to be written).

Estés, C. P. (1992). Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books.

Wilson, M. (2004). Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World. New York: Viking.

http://www.amightygirl.com

http://www.facebook.com/amightygirl/

 


Responses

  1. I like how you bring up the topic of Disney movies and especially Disney princesses. I think that in recent years we have definitely seen a large change in the original Disney princesses and its a positive change. Starting with Merida in Brave. Since these movies are some of the first things little girls watch, having a woman who does not care about her looks or what she wears, or having to look weak compared to the men, is a wonderful and can be a positive impact on little girls, rather than focusing on how they look and how they act so that they will be able to find a man and find security.

    I also wonder if the TV shows and movies for infants and toddlers may also have an impact. Thinking on shows like Little Einsteins, Blue’s Clues, Veggie Tales, etc. (these may be outdated haha) but these are here to teach little kids the basics like 1,2,3’s and ABCs as well as basic social structure such as sharing and dealing with being shy, I wonder if these can also have an impact on children at a young age, if they show girls in boys in stereotypical roles, or if they remain as gender neutral as possible. Since it said that they start with behaviors young as to how girls and boys act around each other, I wonder if they have an impact in the long run on how boys and girls will understand leadership and if it matters that a girl is a leader….just an interesting thought in child development and stereotypes/behaviors at this age and if media affects gender roles.

    • I hadn’t thought about it for kids that young but that’s absolutely a marvelous point. Gendering starts at birth (sometimes even before haha) so I think toddlers and other youngsters would certainly be influenced if their media was saturated with girls in leadership roles. Great point!

  2. This post really resonated with me. In class on Thursday when we watched Missrepresented, I left class feeling really discouraged. It was nice to think about movies like the recent Disney princess movies that are positive, strong, role models for girls.
    Thinking about movies, and children’s television (from the comment above) I started thinking about books with girl characters. These influenced me a lot as a kid and for girls who do read a lot, female characters can be very formative. Some characters that came to mind are the American Girls, Annie from The Magic Tree House, and Ruth Rose from the A to Z Mysteries. A lot of these girls show leadership skills, strong principles and intelligence. I really like the popularity of these sources that exist to expose girls to characters with more substance and strength than some of the characters we saw in the documentary.

    • It is really easy to get discouraged when it feel like you have no control how women (so essentially yourself) is/are being represented. BUT as you mentioned those female influences matter more than we realize. I loved Annie from Magic Treehouse! Tamora Pierce has a lot of strong female characters as well if you’re looking for YA literature (heck I still read her books).

  3. I also think the recent wave of positive Disney movies is inspiring and I like to look at the differences from the old classics like Snow White to the new ones like Merida; seeing how the ideas of what women can be have changed. But in my cynical view I often question if this is enough, yes they’re great but what are they showing us. In the recent movies, there is still always a component of a woman’s reliance on a man or some focus on it. In Brave Merida fights against this but her not getting married is the main premise of the movie and I think it’s sad that we see a resistance to marriage as revolutionary. And in Frozen while sisterly love is championed there is still a big focus on marriage. In these movies there is an idea that womens live still revolve around love and marriage and whether they fit into this mold or not is empahsized as the main point. This is a day where many people choose to stay single. The main plot Frozen wouldn’t have existed if Anna had not wanted to get married. But it does accurately show how women with power are limited and feared by others. I think Elsa as a villain would have been great, it would have been a female protagonist and antagonist that for once aren’t fighting because of looks or love or some combination of the two.

    In these movies men are still portrayed as an integral part of a woman’s success: Anna had Olaf and Kristoff for support/ as sid kicks, Merida had her supportive dad, Tiana had Naveen to push her dream forward, Rapunzel needed Eugene to set her free. I cannot think of a movie where it was a female lead and a female sidekick or a supportive female mother who lead her daughter to succeed or a combination of these. These movies still tell women that they need a man to be successful, but meanwhile, Men most often have male sidekicks and sometimes female. But normally these women are in a supportive role or a love interest and they don’t contribute much. Sometimes they are on their own quest but cannot complete it without the man’s help. Looking at this it just seems like they are still showing traditional expectations that are just dressed up to look more progressive.

    Also, I love the mighty girl website and I think that many girl positive programs could use it for materials in thier programs.

    • You bring up a very interesting point here. Though I do agree that Disney movies have a fair representation of women and their influential tactics, there are some underlying themes that are sometimes overlooked.The story lines are often focused on a particular woman finding love and wanting to get married and it shows that men are still in the picture. To be honest, I don’t think we can ever escape that. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. In most Disney movies that are about Princesses or women who are considered a heroes, there is often a balance of independence and finding love. It is not always focused on finding the perfect guy and often when doing so, these characters have other obstacles to go through in order to get what they want. I think this is a good way to show young girls that they are capable of doing anything that their hearts are set on.

  4. I love the fact you mentioned Disney. My entire childhood has been around Disney, whether they be the movies or the TV Shows. Myself along with many others have always noticed that there has been a lack of female empowerment from Disney (this does not mean I love them any less). But I’m so happy to see this change as an adult. These new princesses are the one’s my little sister looks up to. I think more than ever our generation is so incredibly pleased with what Disney is doing and has done. These new princesses, or queens, show what was lacking before. That you need to be strong and love yourself first, before you can love another. Or that by believing in yourself you can accomplish anything. I do believe these themes were underlying in past films, I feel like they are more present now. And the world better watch out for these young girls later, because they will be a force to reckon with.

    • I’m on the same page with you. Disney has always been something really important to me and I love getting to observe the shift in the messages that have become more prominent recently. It’s encouraging to see that Disney is actually taking the feedback and hiring people who want to tell stories with more strong, influential women. This shift is so important because children, especially girls, watch Disney movies at all ages, especially during the early, formative years of their life.

      In response to Michaela’s original post, I think Disney at the very least is more of a reflection of of society’s demand for stronger female roles. More so than a reflection, its a response. Like I said before, it’s taking the feedback its been given and actually doing something about it in their narrations. In turn, they’re influencing more people who maybe weren’t necessarily demanding more female leader roles. Its basically causing a ripple effect, I think.

  5. You bring up an interesting point when you say that culture can both influence and reflect society. I agree and disagree to an extent because I believe that lately our media has really influenced our society. In looking at history, we do see a pattern of violence and war, and that is reflected in the mediums of that age, such as poems, books, writings, and even hieroglyphics. However, in this day and age we are experiencing so much violence in the media and it has influenced many events and social movements in the past couple decades. With that being said, if we aren’t seeing women in higher level leadership positions in the media, I believe that is a reflection of our society. If it had influence in our society, things would have certainly been different before. However, this type of discrepancy is a direct reflection of our society and the social norms. If we can break the ideas that the media and entertainment portray, then we may able to see a shift in the coverage and the promotion of women in leadership positions.


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