Caring about Stories in a World Hemorrhaging Empathy

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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?

Recognizing the Paradigm

 

I have been spending my summer vacation so far rereading the Harry Potter series. In Harry Potter: Goblet of Fire, the three European wizarding schools are set in a competition against each other. The individual champions must face dangerous tasks to prove how good they are at magic, strategic thinking and sheer bravery, all in the interest of fostering international and inter-school cooperation. Our Olympics are very similar, using a competition to foster cooperation.

This seems odd. Aren’t the skills that are inherent to competition kind of opposite those that are inherent to cooperation? I have been thinking about this in relation to my teaching these last two or three years. After teaching Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” two to five times a year for the last twenty-plus years, I have seen how he manages to avoid the language of combativeness and argument and replace it with a more nonviolent language of persuasion. He always treats his readers not as opponents who have to be put down or put right, but rather as people who don’t realize they are imminent allies or possibly already allies. This is a very different way of presenting one’s ideas and, if the American political discourse going on these days is a marker, possibly an alien one.

But it is not just politics that seem inherently combative. The news is full of this kind of language, from politics, to sports, to weather. So where do we go for alternate ways of speaking? I wonder if there are texts out there about artistic collaboration, people describing how they work together to create a shared vision. We need more of that and we need it yesterday everywhere. You can’t change the world’s paradigm if you can’t even talk outside the paradigm.