When we communicate, our stories at the surface look like they are perfect. But we are seldom aware of the underlying narratives that these stories also propagate and which can be harmful.
One campaign video in the US featuring a Trans woman telling a perfectly uplifting story was not producing the desired effect in the audience. More research found out that the fact that the woman was featured alone was reinforcing the stereotype that Trans people are isolated and lonely. The set-up of the video contradicted the message, and visuals always win over words. The video was shot again showing the woman surrounded by friends and at last the message hit the spot.
Identifying the underlying negative frames is not easy. The Radcomms network has issues an interesting brief on this. Here are some excerpts :
As storytellers, we may reinforce tropes that perpetuate harmful pervasive ideas even when we don’t intend to. As you craft your story, or work with someone else to share theirs, avoid contributing to the proliferation of harmful, damaging stereotypes and stories. Stories that oversimplify people’s lives are almost always harmful because they lean into these established narratives. They may include:
Deservingness: These are stories that describe an individual’s moral merit. They might focus on factors like hard work or military service to show that they “deserve” success; support; and forms of public assistance like tuition aid, housing, or food assistance. The individual may be presented as an outlier who may easily be described through harmful stereotypes, but is one of the “good ones.”
Hero stories: These stories are about a single individual who, through extraordinary commitment, generosity, and skill, is able to “save” or “fix” people who are suffering the consequences of poverty. Often, this person’s success is presented without acknowledgment of others who participated in collective action.
White saviorism: In such stories, white people provide the help that they believe BIPOC need. These kinds of stories are doubly harmful because they exacerbate privilege and deprive people of agency. They also reinforce narratives that people rather than systems require fixing, and deny the power and importance of collective action.
Fixed-pie or zero-sum: These stories are written from a perspective that there is a fixed pie of resources, and that one person or group’s gain is a loss for someone else. Language that reinforces this narrative might include phrases like “getting ahead” or “left behind”.
Success stories, including “against-all-odds”and bootstrap stories : Success stories are tempting to tell for a range of reasons. Organizations often use them to demonstrate their effectiveness (in which case, they become savior stories) or to gain support from donors. These stories can be harmful because they can create an impression that if anyone can succeed against impossible barriers, everyone should.
Photo credit: Guilia Forsythe – Creative Commons