Enter any discussion on fandom, or a critical discourse on media, whether IRL or online, and eventually someone will say some variant of the following:
Why are we getting so worked up? It’s just a story!
Saying something is ‘just a story’ sounds strange when one considers the role of stories in human society. We tell stories continuously. So continuously, in fact, we’re barely aware of it. Think of the latest political speech you cringed at, the last advertisement that made you laugh, the last time you explained why you were late to work, the last teacher who illuminated a difficult concept for you.
In many ways, stories are the primary mode of human communication. We fit the chaotic facts of life into neat narrative structures, and from that make decisions, form moral beliefs, and compile the assumptions that underpin our daily lives. When we tell a story, we are transmitting our views to someone else (sometimes to a lot of someones).
As information vectors, stories stick. Just look at the so-called ‘CSI effect’ in criminal justice, or the rise in support for gay rights being quantifiably linked to fictional portrayals of gay characters. Thanks in part to a quirk of memory storage known as source amnesia, we quickly file the facts, lessons, and opinions from stories– even the peripheral ones– into the ‘I knew that all along’ bin in our memory, so tidily that we don’t even know there’s something to question. And that’s setting aside the consumer trends generated by fiction.
Stories are both a window into our current collective consciousness and potential drivers of our future. They shape our very sense of self. We need to examine the stories we tell today as we think about what stories we want to tell tomorrow.