As a storyteller, I like to share myths, folktales, family stories and stories that I made up ‘in my own mad head’ (as my friend Darryl once put it). One common theme in my stories, though, is that the women in my stories are their own people. They aren’t just plot devices, they have their own plans, their own motivations and their own ideas.
When I first started in storytelling, I was a little annoyed by how hard it was to find stories with real women in them instead of placeholders whose only purpose was to motivate the hero or give them information for their quest. Even stories of goddesses seemed to be mostly about the gods they were opposing. It was frustrating, to say the least.
Gradually though, as I learned more about how stories worked, I learned how to find the stories of women AND I learned that if you find one version of a tale that doesn’t quite show the story that you want to tell, you can keep looking because there may be other versions of the same one. I am so determined to portray women as heroines – as people who have their own stories- that I never just accept the first version I hear.*
For example, a few years ago, I was the sacrificial lamb for a story slam** and the theme was ‘Skeletons in the Closet.’ I opted to tell the story of Bluebeard since he had literal skeletons in a literal closet. The story bugged me though because there were two female characters in the crucial moment when Bluebeard discovers that his latest wife has disobeyed his orders not to look in the closet and instead of ganging up on him together, one of the women runs upstairs to look out the window and wish for her brothers to arrive to save her and her sister (the hapless wife).
It didn’t ring true for me. I have two sisters. Trust me, if you cross one of us you are bringing the righteous anger of all three of us down on yourself. I had to use the hapless women version for the slam because it was short notice but when I came home, I immediately looked for other versions of the same story. I found one quickly (Count Silvernose) and that’s the one I tell – and most of the time, I preface it with the story of WHY I chose that version.
There are lots of great stories of heroes, the world is full of those, but I am most interested in telling the stories of heroines (and of female villains, too). The stories of goddesses, witches, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and female friends are just as important and often have different ideas and wisdom to share than the ones we are most used to hearing. It’s not that I NEVER tell stories with men in them, I tell those too, especially when I am telling family stories, it’s just that stories of women and their adventures are my specialty.
I think it’s really important for everyone to hear those stories, to be reminded that women and girls are agents in their own lives and that they are forces to be reckoned with in the lives of others. Women aren’t prizes for bravery. We aren’t plot devices. We are people with our own stories.
It does the world good to be reminded of that.
*It’s funny, you know,I just realized where that tendency to search for the women actually originated. I studied gender archaeology in university and I was always annoyed by the fact that women were rarely mentioned in the ‘story’ of human social evolution. Men were always the agents of change while women seemly just carried the babies around. I was having none of it – just from a logical point of view, it doesn’t make sense to waste half a work force based on the fact that for part of their lives they have babies – and I began studying the work of feminist scholars. The women were there all along, of course, and feminist scholars had developed the tools to look for them. My MA thesis ended up being about gendered household space amongst the Thule in Labrador.
**Translation: I was the first teller in a five minute storytelling contest and my role was to warm up the judges by getting them to practice their judging skills on me. My totals didn’t count for the contest.