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The Responsibility of Narratives

By Mary Robinette Kowal

As mainstream culture becomes increasingly vocal about the politics of gender, it makes me aware of all of the damaging narrative that I’ve internalized and which has created internal biases in myself. Those show up in my fiction. So when I sit down to write, I now assume that I have a bias.

Why is this a problem?

Because we are made of narrative. As humans, we respond to narrative in ways that we don’t respond to facts. Cory Doctorow talks about storytelling as a survival trait, and suggests that being able to empathize with a character is a survival trait. It makes sense, because if you don’t have this trait and someone tells you, ‘I went over there on that cliff and the ground gave way and I almost died!’—if you don’t internalize that in some way, you’re going to go over to the cliff, step on the unstable ground…and DIE. Being able to internalize narrative is part of what makes us human and keeps us moving forward and growing.

But we can also internalize narrative that is damaging.

So one of the responsibilities I have is knowing that people are going to internalize what I write. I have a responsibility to be aware of and cautious about passing my own biases on. That’s something I thought about very consciously for the Lady Astronaut books.

This is an alt-history starting in 1952, in which an asteroid strikes Washington, DC. I wanted to highlight the women who worked in the early space program. Let me explain how deeply these biases are woven in from narrative and how narrative can counter them.

I wrote this before Hidden Figures came out. This is an important detail. In The Calculating Stars, I have a character Helen Liu, modeled on a real life woman working at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1940. My beta-readers had difficulty believing that a Chinese woman would be there. They had difficulty with the black women that I had working in the computer department, even though I was basing them on real women.

After Hidden Figures came out, that reaction went away. Nothing about my writing had changed, but the narrative that people had internalized had shifted.

I had internalized it as well, honestly, but because of the larger conversation, I knew that bias was there. I assumed that women were involved in the program and had been left out. My other assumption is that people of color had been involved in the space program and been erased from the narrative.

Because the thing about gender is that you can’t look at it without the intersection of race. And when you start realizing how thoroughly and heavily women were involved in the space program, and how active people of color were involved, and how they’re just…left out. Erased. My view of the space program was flat wrong because of the media I had consumed.

If I don’t examine and look for my biases, then I’m likely to compound the problem with the stories I tell. I’d rather not, thanks. I’d rather read and internalize stories that center the people who have so often been erased.

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13 thoughts on “The Responsibility of Narratives

  1. Apparently the biases only matter when they affect women. Nobody talks about an under representation on main characters on other races or due to physical attributes. How many protagonists are short, bald or ugly? Do writers have not a responsibility to write also about them?
    And this is happening in all industry, a double edged standard where we are telling women they can be whatever they want (which is great) while telling the men they are only valid as long as they accomodate to women’s standards on looks and behaviour. All of this under the argument of ‘equality’

      1. I’m not saying women haven’t been sexualized by male writers. But when male characters are written by women as equally sexualized like Christian Grey whose purpose is to fullfill the female sexual standards (Tall, rich, handsome, genius brain, big pennis…) very few people say it is sexist. And that’s hipocrisy. If the responsibility of narrative is about telling the truth and not social biases, it should be applied equally.

    1. Oh, behave yourself. Men, short and bald and ugly or otherwise, have enjoyed almost complete privilege over women for centuries. And now, when finally there is some movement towards an equality of representation, you complain that it’s unfair.

      1. I want women to have the same chances, earn the same money and have the same important jobs as men. I just dislike falsehood. If female tennis players earn less than a male one, society comes really fast to tell how that is sexist and unfair. If male models earn less than female models, that’s equality. Positive discrimination is still a form of discrimination that eliminates any equality.
        Men don’t have a wonderfull history in comparission to women as this genetic study proves:
        https://www.google.es/amp/s/psmag.com/.amp/environment/17-to-1-reproductive-success
        Most men never had descendents. In more recent times, being called to war doesn’t look as privilage to me.
        I want equality of representation but you cannot call it equality if all your focus is on the 50% of hummanity. That’s just the same old in the other half.

        1. Gosh. Male models and men from 8000 years ago. Yup, we should abandon all discussion of women’s issues until we redresss those massive, overwhelmingly more impactful issues. Because no one else matters until all men are given their equal due—and I mean *all* men. Years from now, in an age when we have dedicated years of labor to making sure all men are properly valued, and someone writes an article about women’s issues, the response will be, “Well, yeah, but Steve in Hackensack didn’t get that promotion he wanted because they chose a woman! What about Steve??!!!?”

  2. …..huh? What do you mean that short, fat, bald men are underrepresented? You must be kidding yourself, considering 90% of the sitcoms I saw on tv growing up, and currently around now, involve short, fat AND bald men who happen to be married to attractive, skinny women who would realistically be way out of their league. That you can point to some men who are being used in movies as eye candy is a sign of equality: forcing men to put up with what women have been dealong with for centuries.

  3. “Bugger off”, I strongly recommend you follow the advice contained in your chosen posting name. We don’t need anyone demonstrating their complete lack of empathy and understanding in here.

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