Caring about Stories in a World Hemorrhaging Empathy


So yes, giant nerd that I am, I am on a Facebook group for Supergirl fans, who have been celebrating the relationship between Alex Danvers and Maggie Sawyer (Sanvers), and one of the members wrote:

“Have you ever been (or are) in relationship where your partner isn’t into TV shows, fandoms, ships and all this stuff? My girlfriend isn’t in fandoms. In fact, she doesn’t get being a fan at all. And the whole concept of being interested in for example an actor and having emotions towards them (like being sad when an actor dies) is something she doesn’t get at all. I’m the exact opposite. I mean I wrote my last school paper in 12th grade about Star Trek and just yesterday I cried again when I thought about John Hurt.
“I don’t need my partner to watch my shows with me but sometimes I get very excited about things like when Alex did came out to Maggie. That was so wonderful and important and I told my girlfriend about it but she actually got kinda angry that I considered it important to tell her that some fictional characters are getting together or coming out. Later I tried to explain to her why I think Sanvers is so important but she wasn’t open to this. She thinks it’s ‘just’ a TV show so one shouldn’t be too invested even if it has a good message. So now I pretty much avoid mentioning this kind of topic or getting into fangirl mode when I’m around her. Although she did watch the pilot of Supergirl a while ago and she did like it a bit (until it became to much superhero stuff lol).”

So I replied, “Have you tried a representation matters argument, like the example of Whoopi Goldberg seeing Lt. Uhura for the first time? Or Martin Luther King Jr. calling up Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) to tell her that she couldn’t quite the show because of fans’ negativity because black people needed to see her representing? And don’t forget the Bury Your Gays trope. Sanvers matters.”

She said, “Yes I brought a few of these things up but she just doesn’t like the fact that something like TV show does have such an impact on people. She thinks people should concentrate and be influenced by ‘real’ people and the ‘real life’. I don’t like it in general if people start talking about living in the ‘real world’. My world is as real as theirs it’s just different. I’m rather be influenced by the ‘fictional’ messages of Star Trek or Supergirl than the narrow-minded opinions of my real neighbors or relatives. If a positive message comes in form of a book by a Pulitzer prize winner people accept it but comes the same message in the context of a TV show some people declare it as trivial or non existent.”

I agreed and pointed out that people always disrespect popular culture, but once Shakespeare was popular culture, and the messages of Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, etc. are valid. The stories we tell ourselves in today’s world are just as valid. Art of the people helps us process that real world that everyone is so fond of talking about.

Other people pointed out that part of the problem was her girlfriend’s seeming lack of respect, and I let them handle that part of the argument. My expertise is on the writing and story side. As I have written about feminism, post-modernism, fan (relation)shipping and other topics, including my list of Badass Women In Combat Gear™, a lot of these shows and the relationships on them give us strength for the hard times.

Another person pointed out: “I can relate to this, I really can. These shows, or ships, they’re more than just that. They’re an escape from our reality for a little while. We form an emotional bond with these characters because we relate to them on an emotional level. They become important to us and we become invested in them. Not many people outside of the fandom may get this but we’re lucky that the Internet exists so we can meet people anywhere in the world who can relate to us.”

Interestingly, JRR Tolkien wrote an essay on the importance of fantasy as escape, referring to the soldier POW’s responsibility to escape. He says, “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

And recently, Owen Gleiberman in Variety had this to say about Meryl Streep’s Oscars speech16388352_257861987968285_2005729941804739843_n: “Roger Ebert, in one of my favorite quotes about movies, called the cinema ‘a machine that generates empathy,’ and surely that’s the essence of it. To watch a good movie is to feel connected to the souls of the characters it’s about. That’s why a movie doesn’t need to be ‘political’ to be a moral experience. That act of connection — of empathy — realigns how we feel about the world. The people who work in Hollywood may be wealthy and lucky, but to suggest that they’re simply a colony of ‘narcissists’ is to radically bypass what they do. Empathy is their art, their business, their mission. That’s why, at their best, the movies they make show us a higher way of being.”


So this is just a mess of not entirely unconnected thoughts, but what do you all think? How do stories help us?

9 comments on “Caring about Stories in a World Hemorrhaging Empathy

  1. That’s a good question. I typically look at stories from the creative end–that is–I love to create stories.

    I also love to read. Stories do peak my curiosity, and stir my imagination a lot. They also fuel my own desires to write and create. Reading can be fun, relaxing, and engaging. –Or watching for that matter, as I love film and TV shows.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. pastpeter says:

    Marilynne Robinson has an essay in When I Was A Child I Read Books on the vital role fiction has in teaching us empathy. Same can be said of drama, film…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Alice says:

    To borrow some language from Laverne Cox (who, when lauded for being a trans “role model,” clarified that she thought of herself rather as a “possibility model”): stories and movies and TV shows give us back a sense of our possibilities, and those of other people as well. Who gets to have love stories? Who struggles with complicated challenges or overwhelming emotions? What is it to become a hero (or not) despite your flaws, and what makes a villain hateful or compelling (or both)?

    I understand the girlfriend’s belief that people *should* respond differently to characters and stories, if it all. But all the prescriptive preferences in the world won’t change that we simply *are* social, emotional, creative storytellers/story-engagers. That’s just the way we work.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Widdershins says:

    I’m thinking that’s a relationship that won’t last. Unfortunately.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mark Turner is one of many cognitive scientists who have recognized the crucial role “fiction” (in the form of storytelling) has on the human consciousness, the evolution of the brain/mind, and thus on culture, society, history, everything.

    We absolutely need stories. It’s part of what makes us human. So he posits.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I have tended to see the whole “I hate fiction/I read only non-fiction” etc. sort of mentality as a narcissistic means of expressing one’s self…

    I believe that we are all walking talking living breathing stories…I work in a learning center that is from infants up thru preschool…and the most fascinating thing is to see the children TELL THEIR STORIES. They do this over and over and over and over and over…

    Fiction and fictional stories are a way to process our lives and more importantly to learn how to connect to OTHER people’s stories (which makes them fully human as we recognize and process those stories and that in turn elevates US into a fuller humanity)…they are a way to place our OWN stories into a larger, broader, more common context.

    I have not met EVERY person who despises non-fiction and lives the way they do…but so far every one of those sorts that I HAVE met has some wound, some experience that shut them down and put them into this path as a means to survive and make sense of the world…so I tend to view this mindset as a damage-control mindset and not as the optimum.

    Back to the preschool…I have NEVER met a preschooler who did not DIVE into story like a fish into water…so I am biased towards believing that one has to learn to dislike story…and why and how that happens is something I feel compassion for, sadness about…

    My two cents…worth less than that, likely.

    Liked by 1 person

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