(Re)Constructing Narratives

Yes, this is sort of a follow up to to last week’s post, but in my defense I’ve been reading an anthropological book on inclusion/exclusion stuff. So bear with me.

We need more narratives, that’s a given. Meaning we need there to be more versions of what can happen to people, and what people can be. Because when there’s only one accepted narrative, the outsiders become othered. Having more narratives encompassing more people, more takes on people, let us see them as people and not just as stereotypes or what not. Frequently, changing the narratives means having to build new ones.

Narratives exist about people, whether we acknowledge them or not. In the years since 9/11, the prominent American narrative about Muslims has been that they’re violent extremists stuck in an old fashioned mindset. Which, y’know, isn’t true; but since it’s the only one most folks in the States hear it’s the one that’s accepted. Which is why these different narratives are so crucial. When a character like Kamala Khan — the new Ms. Marvel in the comics — comes along, who presents a different view of Muslim life; suddenly, bam, they become human, ordinary.

Kamala Khan is, for the most part, a normal teenager (minus, y’know, superpowers). She goes to school, she struggles with crushes, she fights with her family. Kamala is instantly relatable; we’ve all been there, right? Then we see how what her faith expects of her; how she and her brother deal differently with their identities as immigrant children. Through Ms. Marvel, writer G. Willow Wilson is able to reconstruct the narrative of a muslim family into one that’s relatable, even if it’s not the one we’re most familiar with. Kamala and her family stop being the unknowable other and become friends, neighbors. G. Willow Wilson — herself a Muslim — thus takes the established Muslim narrative and gives us a new one. This is particularly important because the central narrative surrounding Muslims is so toxic. Ms. Marvel provides an alternative to the vitriol so prevalent, something vital not just for people at large, but for a young woman like Kamala trying to find her own place in the world.

Fiction has the great ability to affect the way we see people. It lets us into others’ heads, yeah, but it also shapes how we see them. When Star Trek came out in the Sixties, the crew had Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov; a Japanese man, Black woman, and Russian man. The US had been in a fierce war with the first, was embroiled in a Civil Rights debate regarding the second, and had just taken the third as the primary enemy of the time. Not only was Sulu different from the anti-Japanese propaganda that permeated the US barely two decades earlier, but he also ran counter to the general consensus that Asian men were effeminate and hapless; Sulu was capable, masculine, and heroic. Uhura was intelligent and an officer, at the same time African Americans were still fighting for the right to be treated as equal citizens. What made Star Trek so revolutionary was how it changed the narratives of ‘enemy’ and ‘other,’ however it’s still an issue that we’re grappling with today. Here was a story about ‘those people’ where they weren’t mysterious and scary, but rather fellow shipmates.

So are narratives stereotypes? Sort of. Stereotypes are informed by narratives, especially when there’s too much of just one. Changing them up is also a way of undoing stereotypes. Look at Terry in Brooklyn Nine-Nine; by all accounts he should be another big, stern, scary, black police sergeant. Instead, he’s the epitome of a family man who loves his wife and daughters even more than his muscle mass.

These sorts of issues can’t be solved by any one comic or tv show; it will take a bunch of time to build the new narratives and show a large shift in public opinion . But hey, it’s all one step to seeing people as people, no matter who they are.

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