As old as mankind itself is the nature and art of storytelling. Throughout history, human beings have used stories to tell tales of courage, triumph, tragedy, fantasy, love, history, and heritage. And with each tale of heroic conquest or tragic downfall comes a lesson, a lesson often used to teach our children about safety, morality, and right from wrong. Yet amidst the throng of fairy tale-like stories which comprise the tapestries of our lives, we have to ask ourselves the question: are our stories reflections of the human experience, or is the human experience shaped and molded by our stories?
How many young girls whose hearts are filled with tales of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel go on later in life wanting and waiting to be rescued themselves? Snow White escapes an evil stepmother and lives a life of servitude waiting for a noble prince to come rescue her. Cinderella’s only escape from a life of emotional abuse and in-house slavery lies in the hands of a prince matching a glass slipper to her foot. Sleeping Beauty lies in a coma for one hundred years, only to be rescued from her vegetable-like state by the kiss of a handsome prince. And Rapunzel suffers imprisonment in a tower, throwing her hair down to the ground in the hope that one day, a gallant prince will climb up her long braid and free her from captivity. With young girls growing up on such tales of helplessness and dependency, it is no wonder that women make up the vast majority of society’s abuse victims and enablers. Michele Toomey, Ph.D., psychologist and developer of the concept of Liberation Psychology, calls this problem “The ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’ Complex.” She argues that this complex is at the root of much of woman’s denigration of the self in the home, the workplace, and in society, often leading to women victimizing themselves in the form of enabling domestic violence at home or in holding themselves back from their utmost capabilities in the workplace.
All children grow up hearing the story of “Little Red Riding Hood,” a tale meant to teach children not to talk to strangers. But to what extent has this tale taught us to be safe, and to what extent has it taught us to be intolerant? The very nature of a story which cautions children to be wary of someone who “looks” dangerous could easily be read as a form of teaching prejudice. How often have we looked for the “big bad wolf” in our own lives? Is the “big bad wolf” the black man who steps into the elevator with us, causing us to clutch our purses just slightly closer to our bodies? Or the man or woman who enters the airport with a mysterious cloth on his or head that makes us question his or her every move and intention? Or the person who speaks a different language or worships a different god? Are these the “big bad wolves” we have been taught to look out for?
“Eat your dinner! There are starving people in China!” This catch phrase has been heard by millions of Americans from the time they were old enough to sit up at the table. The phrase was heard on the television shows of the 1950’s by our most popular television moms. Not finishing one’s meal is considered, in many American homes, to be wasteful, and to waste is, more often than not, considered a sin. While most medical studies show that children should stop eating before “feeling full,” American housewives have, for years, used the tale of misfortunate children in other countries in order to guilt their children into cleaning their plates. Not only does this guilt-inducing command encourage childhood obesity, but it also formulates in the child’s mind often inaccurate ideals of life in other countries.
Many tales from childhood seem to focus so much on the supposedly “moral” message being projected that they fail to recognize the other problems therein. Take the story of “The Three Little Pigs,” for example. One brother builds his house of straw, the second builds his house of sticks, and the third builds his house of brick. Under attack by the big bad wolf (who pervades so many of our classic fairy tales), the brick pig knowingly allows his brethren pigs to be eaten by the enemy while he, the brick pig, resides safely inside his brick fortress. Knowing that neither the straw nor the sticks could withstand the huffing and puffing of the big bad wolf, the brick pig still offers no protection to his kinsman, but rather allows them to be devoured while he remains snug and safe. A similar moral exists in the tale of “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” where the ant spends his entire summer building a home and storing and saving food for the winter and the grasshopper spends his summer playing and relaxing. When winter comes, the ant is safe and warm and well-fed in his cozy home. When the freezing, starving grasshopper comes to the ant’s home begging for aid, the ant refuses to help him, citing that he did no work and therefore deserves no food or shelter, and hence, the grasshopper dies of cold and starvation. Of course, the moral of the story is to teach children the value of hard work and sensibility. But rarely do we question the concept of morality in either of these stories. Is idleness really a crime that warrants death as its punishment? This question is rarely, if ever, raised. “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” The person who works hard deserves to reap the benefits, and to hell with the rest!
The Bible is another source of a great many tales whose morals permeate our society. Eve’s taking the first bite of the apple led to woman’s classification as a temptress. The story of the descendants of Ham was used to justify hundreds of years of slavery in the United States. The tale of Sodom and Gomorrah is still used as a justification for intolerance toward homosexuals in many Judeo/Christian societies. The story of Onan spilling his seed, a crime punishable by death, is still used by the Catholic Church in order to illustrate the sinful offense of masturbation, condom use, and birth control. Even the very concept of body image, sexuality, and shame has been shaped by the nature of our Biblical upbringings, for Adam and Eve’s first punishment after their great sin of taking the bite of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was knowledge of and shame toward their own nudity. Similar concepts of nudity and shame are accepted by many other religions throughout the world. Hence, while many indigenous communities all over the world enjoy the freedom of wholesome nudity without perversion, other nations whose morals are drawn from such scriptures view human nudity as a source of shame and guilt; our bodies are something “dirty” and should be hidden.
The power of storytelling is evident throughout every culture in the world. Stories have been told through oral tradition, through cave painting, through writing and drama and spoken word. Today, stories are told through music, the media, and through pop culture. Yet the roots and origins of our beliefs system can be traced back to somewhat primary texts which comprise the morals and values widely accepted by mainstream society. The ways our stories are told and the ways in which our stories are used undoubtedly contribute to the human experience and the beliefs systems within our culture. But who decides? Who decided that shame of one’s body is a moral and just way to feel? Who decided that the spilling of Onan’s seed was a sin, or that slaves should remain complicit with their servitude in order to taste eternal life in heaven? Are these really part of a human experience that we have collectively accepted, or is there something more controlling, such as the church, the education system, or the government, responsible for manufacturing the morals upon which we raise our children? It raises a very interesting question; are we the story makers, or are the stories the makers of us? And if so, who created the stories and who is making the decision to keep using them as our moral yardstick? But then, we’re back to the chicken and the egg. And another debate for another day.
1st September 2006