GUEST BLOG: What Stories Are Worth Telling? by Sarah Butler
Watching the Oscars on Sunday night, you might almost start to think that we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of the cultural acknowledgement of violence against women and children, and that at some point in the last 40 years, we activists have made a sizeable dent in the wall of denial and silence. Could it be? Here’s my evidence. You can sort out the reality, or my wishful thinking, yourself.
Watching the Oscars on Sunday night, you might almost start to think that we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of the cultural acknowledgement of violence against women and children, and that at some point in the last 40 years, we activists have made a sizeable dent in the wall of denial and silence. Could it be?
Here’s my evidence. You can sort out the reality, or my wishful thinking, yourself.
- Lady Gaga, surrounded by 50 survivors of sexual assault, gave a drop-the-mic performance of “Till it Happens to You” an anthem written for the documentary The Hunting Ground, about campus sexual assault. And yeah, that was the Vice President of the United States introducing Gaga. As Amy Ziering, producer of The Hunting Ground, said, “For an amazing moment the world actually had to focus on the reality and horror of rape in our society,” she says. “That’s not something we want to think about very long. For survivors to feel supported, believed and part of the community, validated – that’s huge.”
- Spotlight, which was an early favorite for Best Picture, had fallen far behind the mountain-man revenge fantasy of The Revanant. Despite the decades of silence, and the thousands of victims whose stories were minimized and denied, there it was—Best Picture! As if these were truly important stories that deserve to be told. Perhaps courage can be defined as more than wrestling a bear? Huh.
- Room, a desperately haunting story about a boy and his mother who are held captive by a sexual predator, was nominated for Best Picture, and won Best Actress for Brie Larson. While this sounds like a typical “woman in danger” story, it is anything but. Neither Ma nor Jack are paper-thin cutouts whose suffering is presented to serve the more “interesting” story that is so often portrayed in movies—a voyeuristic fascination with the mind of a depraved human. In Room, Jack and Ma and their delicately created world are the story.
- A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness won for Documentary Short. A film about the horrific reality of honor killing in Pakistan from a survivor’s perspective, which already seems to be changing public policy.
- Mad Max: Fury Road won big, in lots of categories! An action movie that is the story of a Moses-like character crossing the desert, leading slaves to freedom. When the longed-for land of safety and peace is found to be just as ravaged by climate change, they turn around and go back home… Where they overturn the warlord, free the water for all, and lift up the oppressed—enslaved men and women. And this Moses-like figure is not the eponymous Max. No, this hero is the well-named Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. She’s assisted in her mission by Max, as well as the Vulvani, a women’s biker gang who literally carry the future of the world—a box of seeds. (An interesting aside: Some of the actors were trained on-set by Eve Ensler).
Let me be clear, highlighting these specific moments is not to deny the rampant racism, sexism, and heterosexism of our culture, which are reflected in the Academy Awards and the film industry. This was far from a happy-shiny perfect night. The growing recognition of institutional racism and the demand for change is part of the call for more diverse and truth-filled stories to be part of our lives. Our truth, our imaginations, and our realities are stifled when we only experience one narrative, or one lens through which we view the world. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her TED talk:
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
On Sunday night, the stories of some survivors were recognized and their dignity was publicly affirmed. Perhaps in this journey we’ve reached a point where the trip is less lonely, where there are more companions along the way, and fewer bears.
March 8 is International Women’s Day, a holiday established to recognize the significance of women’s labor and women’s struggle for equality. It’s a holiday that represents a long story filled with horrors, victories, thuggery, heroes and villains, and countless people who have been lost to our collective history/herstory. It’s a good day to see how far we’ve come and to look forward into the future. While we have a chance, let’s take this moment to share the truth and the stories that are important to each of us. Let’s create an absolute tumult of stories for the future.
Sarah Butler is a Program Manager at FaithTrust Institute. She has worked with nonprofit organizations for more than fifteen years.
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