A year or so ago I was working on writing a fantasy novel that featured a young female protagonist. The girl in question ended up being a witch (obvs) and had to deal with the onset of her magical powers and the difficult position these put her in. Without thinking too much about it, I initially planned on having the girl’s powers manifest for the first time when she is about to have sex with her boyfriend for the first time. Since she was a fire mage (obvs) this naturally ended pretty poorly for the guy and led to a great deal of trauma for the girl. I had settled on this opening because I wanted the story to be of the “dark YA” variety where the protagonist’s hero journey begins in a destructive way that she has to reconcile as the story goes on. What I did not think about was what this scene says about sex and female sexuality. It paints a picture of how a woman losing her virginity can be harmful to her or even others, that it is something that could be very dangerous.
For this and other reasons (like how boring and unoriginal the overall idea was, as I’m sure you can tell from my descriptions) I ended up scrapping the project. But what stuck with me was how easy it was for me to come up with a plot point that showed sex in a very negative light, and how so many stories in our culture (particularly YA related ones) have done a similar thing. I mean, can we talk for a second about how Buffy having sex with Angel turned him into a demon? And let’s not even get started on Twilight. I am certainly not someone who wants to perpetuate the idea that sex is bad or dangerous (unless maybe it’s to shine a light on how being uneducated about it can be), but if I had not taken time to think about the larger implications of my story, I might have done so anyway simply by following the examples set by storytellers before me.
This doesn’t stop at sex though; this was just an example I could give from my own work. There are a lot of ideas perpetuated by popular books, movies, and TV shows that are born from our cultural biases, some of which can be quite problematic. For instance, think about the anti-intellectual nature of Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, or the racial stereotypes of DreamWorks Animation’s Turbo. While I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the content creators (both in these examples and many others you can probably think of) and say that they were probably not trying to perpetuate negative myths, laziness or lack of reflection about their world building, character development, and/or plotting led to them sending potentially dangerous messages to their audience.
So why am I telling you this? Why is this important at all? Well, I’d like to talk about the power of mythology for a moment.
I’m guessing many of you will recognize the name Joseph Campbell. For those of you who don’t, he is the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, among many other books, which describes how every culture around the world uses essentially the same motifs and story arc in their myths. He called this arc the monomyth or hero’s journey and it can be applied to everything from the myths of old civilizations, to the parables found in modern religious texts, and nowadays to films and novels. Campbell was actually a mentor of George Lucas and was an influence on the Star Wars films. Before the dark times. Before the prequels.
The relationship between the hero’s journey and storytelling is why I became interested in Campbell’s work in the first place. The original Star Wars trilogy, Harry Potter, and similar epics that have followed this arc have resonated deeply with audiences around the world, and I believe that their adherence to this structure is a large part of their success. People can relate to the stories and the messages being delivered because they are similar to the stories we heard growing up, the ones that religious leaders and educators taught to us, or, if you grew up atheist like me, the kind we heard in fairy tales and fables. But aside from being relatable or familiar, these stories also inform our views on the world.
In his article 5 Ways You Don’t Realize Movies Are Controlling Your Brain, David Wong does an excellent job of outlining the different ways that movies and other narratives in pop culture affect the way you think (largely without you realizing it) and how the power of myths taps into all that. Stories, he says, are designed to disseminate ideas between generations and throughout cultures.
“…99 percent of the time, [a] movie’s ‘agenda’ is nothing more than a lot of creative people passing along their own psychological hang-ups, prejudices, superstitions, ignorance and fetishes, either intentionally or unintentionally. But they are still passed on to you, because that’s what stories are designed to do.”
This, in my mind, effectively summarizes the power stories and storytellers have in society. It also shows how useful stories can be for transmitting ideas, and there are a lot of great stories that pass on great ideas about how we should act as decent human beings and the sort of ideals we should strive for. However, there are also many myths and ideas that can actually be detrimental to our worldview or individuals in our culture or around the world, and given the effectiveness of how our stories can communicate these ideas and how rooted they can become in our psyche.
Now I could go on a long rant about the issues with Disney princesses, or the dearth of children’s or YA stories featuring minority characters, or in the ongoing issues of how sex is portrayed across various narratives and mediums in this country, but instead I’m going to highlight one project that is making an effort to change some of the myths out there.
Author Setsu Shigematsu decided to create a series of princess stories for her daughter that is different than the narrative Disney and others so commonly present. For one thing, the princesses in these stories are not damsels in distress; they are women who actively try to change things in the world. On top of that, they also correspond to different aspects of nature, and the adventures they go on deal with environmental issues we face today. And, finally, the guardian princesses are racially diverse, providing role model characters for young girls of multiple ethnicities.
I think it’s great that someone is trying to create an alternative narrative for young people, and, as it’s New Year’s Eve, I’d like to talk about a resolution. I think that we, as authors, aspiring authors, and content creators, can strive to do better and think more about the different myths we are perpetuating or putting out into the world with our work. As a fellow author and friend of mine, Seth Dickinson, wrote on his blog, world building matters because the messages our writing sends matters and often we can send messages to our readers through the details we omit or ideas we take for granted. So my resolution for this year and years to come is to try and be more aware of what my stories are saying and how I can use them to try and put better myths into the world. That and getting to the gym more often.
Happy New Year!