Sunday Reflection – The Context of Stories

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately. For one, I want to get back to writing fiction (which I haven’t done since I was a teenager), and two, as I get older and consume more media, it’s hard to avoid noticing certain tropes, and the impact they can have.

Recently, I started watching the third season of one of my favorite currently airing shows. I enjoyed it because it had a strong female presence both behind the camera and on screen. It told women’s stories without feeling exploitative, and combined a realistic feel of drama with moments of empowerment for the characters.

And then in the most recent episode, the writers once again fell into the trope of “bury your gays”.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Bury Your Gays trope refers to the tendency for homosexual or bisexual characters to be killed off for the sake of “drama”. Although a character dying is not always inherently a problem, there is an issue when the majority of LGBTQ representation results in tragedy or death for members of that community. For a great many shows, there are very few gay characters, so when one is killed, it greatly diminishes representation. And in a real world where people are still killed for being gay, that kind of storytelling has an impact.

I’ve also seen multiple examples this year where women, particularly childfree single women, are killed in the service of men’s stories. They may be interesting and dynamic characters in their own right, but we don’t get to see how their story might continue, because a man needs to be reunited with his family, and that makes her expendable.

I think things like this are a good reminder that we often get so caught up in telling a story for its own sake, that we forget about the importance of context.

I saw an interesting talk by media critic Lindsay Ellis this weekend, where she discussed how language cannot be removed from the context of the culture from which it came. Just this week, people on Twitter had a fascinating conversation about the word “quite”, and how for Americans it means “very much so”, and for Brits it means “not so much”. The same word, different cultures, different contexts.

Stories are the same way. It would be lovely to think that you can just write whatever you want, and that it doesn’t matter. But it does. How you portray people matters. Who dies matters. Context matters.

Part of why I wanted to write this today is a reminder for myself. I have a lot of privilege. It would be easy for me to overlook that in wanting to tell an compelling story. But I think I’d rather give myself a much more creative challenge. To tell a story where I do think about context, I do think about impact, and I still manage to say something interesting.

Has a story ever lost you by relying on a trope? Do you think about context in the media you consume?

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