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?

In Which Our Hero Learns Nifty New Pop Culture Slang

I dedicate this post to my sister, Michelle Spilecki, whose birthday it is today.


So over the weekend I learned a catchy new abbreviation and the idea that goes with it: OTP, One True Pairing. Think about some of the TV pairs from the last twenty years. These are just the shows I watch. I am sure you could come up with plenty more yourself, especially if you are more of a Zombie Apocalypse kind of individual.

Scully and Mulder

Buffy and Angel

Booth and Bones

Castle and Beckett

Phil and Melinda

Carter and Martinelli (or Sousa, if you prefer)

Xena and Gabrielle

These are all pairings in which the chemistry between the actors almost immediately got conveyed to people who were prepared to see it. When I think about The X Files, Buffy, and Castle, in addition to Xena: Warrior Princess, I would argue that in the pilot of each series you see the kind of chemistry before the end of the episode.


I think one of the things that makes these shows so effective is that most of the pairs develop their relationship–their knowledge of each other, their professional and personal respect for each other, how they work together and when they give the other person space or slap them upside the head (usually metaphorically)–on the job, working to make the world a better place.


I have often observed that some of the solidest seeming marriages were between two people engaged in one or more complex, long term projects together: leading a church choir, producing community theater, things like that. Raising children together is not the ideal project for marriage building, simply because at some point your project learns to, for example, talk, and then express her/himself, and often what s/he might be projecting is disagreement with one or more of the aforesaid partners in the marriage. In comparison, plays and concerts don’t talk back (although to be fair, actors, singers and the like often do, although as they are not part of the marriage, even if they are part of the family, it does not matter as much). Anyhow, that is what it seems like to me.

So a friend was writing about OTP on her blog an I saw it and thought, as one does, Huh? So I asked her and she said:

One true pairing.  As in, “Xena and Gabrielle are my OTP,” or, “Gabrielle and Xena are OTP more than any OTP in the history of fiction, and if you don’t see it, you’re crazy.”

Which makes sense. One of the big problems I see with all my favorite pairs is that they are never completely equal. One person, usually the man, is a little better, smarter, stronger, more… Part of that is how the star billing goes. Part of that is our culture. Part of that is our culture running how star billing goes.

But even on something like Buffy, whose two main squeezes were superpowerful vampires, well, Angel couldn’t be around her without problems, so their equality was made out to be impossible. And Spike was morally her inferior (that whole century of killing sprees thing not followed by a quest for redemption as Angel managed). So they were only equal at fighting not at being in the world and making decisions about good and evil, until really close to the end. And when Spike finally did something to redeem himself, he blew up hell and died with it. Whoops. One more sorta equal relationship bites the dust.

I think what they are doing on Castle is hopeful, with Stana Katic as Detective Beckett matching wits with Nathan Fillion and frequently taking on the more physical roles, but we will have to see how that goes. Hell, the fact that they are so much more often casting women who are five foot nine, and then putting them in four inch heels so they are as tall as the men, goes a long way toward changing how we see women as possibly strong and still lovable. But there is still a sense of women’s sphere and men’s sphere as different and probably not equal. Once Bones had her baby, she stopped going out into the field.


In comparison, what we see with Xena and Gabrielle is two people who start with a very uneven friendship, and end up, six years later with one of the most equal, solid friendships/ partnerships I think I have ever seen on television. I think we would all like a relationship like that. And to some extent I think one reason we often watch these shows is to try out what we think we want and see whether it works. Some writers serve their characters better than others, and we love best the ones that not only show the chemistry and respect between the pairings, but also resist the inorganic cultural forces that try to bend the relationship into an old familiar pattern at the risk of the relationship.

Because, you know, mystery babies are NEVER a good idea. And I would love to see more of Philinda…