When I was a kid, I was bullied a lot in school. It’s the downside of being a nerd in American culture: bullies homed in on me like book-seeking missiles. Not having the social skills to deflect them, I stuck my head down and endured.
The stories I gleaned from TV and movies at the time didn’t help me much; aside from Lisa Simpson, girl nerds were largely absent from popular media. The 1980s and 1990s saw a spate of movies where the awkward, ill-fitting girl is “fixed” with a makeover. Even if her Pygmalion learns a valuable lesson by the end, respect for her and her choices is never even an option until it’s revealed she can clean up nicely. Having that nerd girl already be a part of the group, already accepted—even appreciated—for her particular skills and interests, with nobody trying to change her, wasn’t even an option I saw on the table for me.
Books, however, were another matter. Fantasy in particular had a rich gallery of heroines who managed to escape confining upbringings and pursue their dreams among like-minded folk. Heroines who picked up swords and fought. Bookish and/or clever heroines who thought their way out of problems. Heroines who rode frikkin’ dragons!
Fantasy did (and still does) catch a lot of flak for being escapist. But I’ve always preferred to take a somewhat Campbellian approach to it: we go to these fantastic worlds, we grow and change, and we come back better, bearing the fruits of our adventures with us. And all of these girl-heroes who were like me gave me strength. They gave me hope. Because they showed me I was not alone.
There are two points I want to make about this:
- There’s a lot that can be said here about the value of representation in a broader sense (it matters!). Seeing ourselves in stories tells us we’re not alone, that our beings are not some aberration of the concept of humans. We have stories and our stories have value. Knowing even that much can be a lifeline, a rope of light thrown to us in a dark and stormy sea.
It was tough for me being a girl, and a nerd girl in particular. But imagine what it must be like for those even more invisible in our stories: to be gay, or a POC, or trans, or disabled, and to not only rarely (or never) see yourself presented as the hero of a story but to be vilified or victimized most of the time. No matter how abstract or fantastical, stories are models for how we can be. If there are no stories that show a happy ending for us, then what hope can we find?
- This is just one way that stories are capable of giving us strength and hope. They show us how to carry on. They are, after all, models for how to be. I don’t necessarily have to be using magical powers to fight demons from the netherhells or delivering a McGuffin of pure Evil™ to a volcano or bonding with a magical animal (preferably a dragon) in order to get something out of a story. But stories can teach me how to honor my promises, how to treat the unknown with respect, how to use power wisely and with compassion, how not to judge by appearances. Stories can show the value of determination, or how to think critically and ask the right questions (a valuable and tragically undervalued skill!).
One of my favorite quotes rather touches on this: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” (The quote is Neil Gaiman paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton.) I think this is true not just of fantasy, but of fiction in general and even some non-fiction stories. You learn to pick yourself up and face the monster in your life because stories have shown you how. Stories have shown you that it can be done.