How Stories Teach Us to Live Our Lives
Human beings learn by example. The stories that we’re told as children, through the media, and from our friends and family shape our perspectives on the world. From the earliest ages the characters and relationships we see have the power to profoundly influence our lives because they shape our ideas of what is possible. Stories are like the menu to life, suggesting what we can or can’t have. Those messages can hold us back or push us to fulfill our dreams but many of us never explicitly think about their impacts. We need to.
For Esther Gieringer, one the founding members of local women’s group HER Grey Bruce, it has taken decades to unravel the biases of childhood narratives. She came of age in the 60’s and 70’s when popular culture was clearly depicting rigid gender norms and the idea of men’s and women’s work was well respected and hyper visible.
“When I was growing up I loved watching Perry Mason with my dad but the only woman on the show was the secretary. As a little girl I didn’t want to be the secretary, the person I wanted to be was Perry Mason. When I was younger it never even crossed my mind that I could be a lawyer”, Esther said.
As a girl looking at the world around her, Esther saw clearly that the menu of possible employment was different for men and women. Men worked in the trades and high power business, they did manual labour and were the stars of the show. Women were secretaries, waitresses, nurses, and teachers.
“If I as a girl had realized that I could aspire to be a plumber, or an electrician, who knows what I would have done? I went into nursing in the end because my mom wanted to be a nurse. Interestingly, it’s only now at 60 that I’m asking myself what I really want to do”.
It’s rare for a single influence to shape a person’s life. Just like a single grain of sand doesn’t have much impact. When our influences add up, however, they etch themselves into our culture, communities, and lives.
Even from a few days old children are wrapped in certain colours and their rooms are decorated in specific themes. You don’t need to watch many toy commercials to see the patterns clearly. Boys are taught to play with guns, vehicles, and construction toys in dark colours. Girls are taught to play with babies, kitchens, and clothing in shiny shades of pink. Fairy tales and movies teach us that princesses must be saved and that princes must do the saving.
These stories aren’t inherently bad but a media diet needs variety to be healthy. Children and people of all ages need to see clear examples of people breaking gender stereotypes in fiction and in real life. We need to see examples of women working in construction and of men taking care of children. We need to see men showing their feelings and asking for help. We need to see women following their dreams and finding success in ways that don’t focus on their appearances.
Identifying a problem is easy but whose job is it to show more diverse and realistic examples of gender norms? We can’t leave this work up to the massive machines of pop-culture. It’s up to all of us to question the stories we’re told and to examine our personal biases. It’s also up to those of us with children and young people in our lives to make sure that we expose them to different stories so they know that their sex or gender shouldn’t dictate their potential.
It is possible. Narrow stereotypes can be overcome. Earlier this year Esther enrolled in a law clerk program to explore her longstanding interest in law. As we mark the 16 days of activism, consider the ways that you can challenge gender stereotypes in your own life. Imagine the possibilities that people can explore when it doesn’t take decades to learn that they’re allowed to follow their dreams.