Women (Conclusions): Society, Storytelling, Technology (9)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 9 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

Back in 2001, I attended a series of seminars in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University led by Professor Lucy Suchman about how women felt excluded online as software felt masculine. At the time I was a new lecturer in the Department of Computing and I was intrigued by the idea that software could be seen as having a gender.

Now I see that my route into the field of technology was unusual. I have ‘A’ Levels in English Literature, French and History and turned up to do a computing degree with my total computing experience consisting of 10 minutes of trying to play The Hobbit on a Spectrum ZX 48k before my older brother took it off me (it was his computer). I had no expectations of what I would be doing, and for much of the time I had no idea what I was actually doing either. So, it was my humanities background rather than my gender which made me feel a bit of an outsider.

Later, doing a PhD in Switzerland, I felt that it was my nationality and the fact I couldn’t understand what anyone were saying to me for a couple of years, which made me feel like an outsider, not my gender.

And, even when I created my first webpage with a photo of myself and five minutes later got email saying You look very nice, do you want to meet for coffee? It just never occurred to me that it had anything to do with my gender, because the Internet to me was a place for sharing research, even if it was with socially awkward men. It took a male colleague in the lab to explain exactly the kind of socially awkward man with which I was dealing.

Now I think I was completely naive and lived in a little bubble of my own thoughts. Last year when a male social media acquaintance told me that he liked to look at pictures of me online, sadly, I knew what that meant (although to be honest, I like looking at pictures of me online too). It also meant that I could never have a professional working relationship with the man, which is something I am still furious about because I didn’t get a say. This man decided exactly how we were going to relate to each other, irrespective of my feelings.

I want, as a woman, to have choices, in what I do, how I relate to people and what sorts of relationships I want with people. I am so tired that a patriarchal society dictates to me how these things go down based on my gender. And I am sad that many women feel the same way about computing and software because some men wrote it completely from a male perspective and the whole field is populated by men who leave no room for women to breathe in. They are not doing it on purpose either – well not all of them. It is semi-institutionalised now, which is really sad, though I have worked with loads of lovely, kind, generous men.

I was going to finish this series with facts about how women make better software engineers than men. But, the truth is I don’t really care and it doesn’t really matter. It is not about which gender is superior. It is not a competition. It is about equal opportunity, feeling welcome and comfortable in a given domain.

The government has spent millions on encouraging women into STEM but they don’t go, and I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t have done had I got a place on an English Lit degree course. Women do not go into Computing because they cannot recognise or see themselves in it. This is because there are:

  • No role models – we are not taught them as part of the history of computing.
  • No tribes – research shows that women are more likely to show up on forums to discuss technical solutions if there are already other women present.
  • No stories which make it seem worthwhile, there are just loads of stories about women being harassed ‘cos of their gender or excluded because of male-group think.
  • No rewards – research shows that women are systematically penalised if they take time out to continue the human race.
  • No equal pay.
  • No respect for their work. Women have justify themselves over and over and over again.

I could go on. Indeed I have already for at least 10,000 words and seriously, I could go on forever about rage, about boundaries, about ageing, about sex, about love, to name but a few topics which I think about when I think about women.

We need to reevaluate the role of women in both STEM and society. For inasmuch as society is stacked in a man’s favour, it is women who raise these men, and give them legitimacy and excuses from a very early age. The boys my girls interact with on the playground are raised by women who would call themselves feminists but I have heard them say things like Oh he is such a boy. But these women were raised by women who were raised by women etc.

In order to make a change, we need to reclaim language, we need a genealogy of women and to make space for women in history whilst we learn again to respect the life of women in the home and elsewhere online and offline.

As the naive optimist I have always been and hope I always will be, I believe that change is coming, and that as more women write books (like this one with the awesome title: A Uterus is A Feature, Not a Bug), do TED talks and go on marches, I believe that change for the good is on its way. I really do.

And, one of the ways in which the Internet can help is that all our interactions are recorded and can be analysed to further understand and hopefully change the bad ways in which we have learnt to interact. It also makes it easy to share the stories about women that we don’t know. For example, Hedy Lamarr was an inventor as well as a movie star.

In a lovely Facebook post psychotherapist Matt Licata says that we all have an innate yearning for intimacy and aliveness but often between men and women this gets misconstrued as sexual and erotic rather than the honouring of one soul by another. If we could teach this honouring to the future generations, in particular, those men and women who will go into marketing and media who by their messages, form society, then perhaps we could see a change in the way the world works – a world which is more peaceful and more respectful and a lot less heterosexy. Now, that would be a world I’d like to live in, it would be just like that bubble I used to live in way back when the world felt like it was magic and new, online and off.

Women and girls on social media: Society, Storytelling, Technology (8)

© Kim Kardashian Instagram

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 8 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

At the public defence of my doctorate (ma soutenance de thèse publique), I had one of those cameras with film in which needed developing. It is hard to imagine in these days of digital immediacy, taking the film to the chemist, to get it developed and be surprised by what pictures had been taken.

I was surprised alright as some of my fellow (male) students took a few snaps of themselves naked for me to remember them by. I am just glad I wasn’t the one who had gone into Boots to pick up the photos. Being scientists, they were, of course, ahead of their time, dick pics are really all the rage online nowadays, even if us women have no idea why. Had my mates dressed theirs up a bit like this guy, I might have found it funnier and whilst googling about I did laugh a lot at this instagram page of responses to dick pics and other invitations.

It has been said that Kim Kardashian invented the naked selfie and she says that she finds it empowering and I understand what she is saying. She has control over her image and she is deciding how to represent herself, albeit it seems, she is choosing to do so as a sex object.

Men are rarely perceived as sex objects though this article in Marie Claire has tried to readdress the balance by listing full frontal male nudity in films. What is interesting about the article is what the male actors say about why and how they showed their genitalia. In contrast, gratuitous full frontal female nudity is very common.

Film theorist Professor Laura Mulvey says, female bodies are positioned as to-be-looked-at, and these bodies are viewed from a masculinised subject position/gaze. The viewer’s gaze is always assumed to be male in any given narrative and as I mentioned in Women’s bodies, it was the Greek sculptor Praxiteles, who first celebrated the naked feminine form. So since 330BC, we’ve been trained to look at women from a male point of view, which is probably why when you ask a man if they find another man sexy, they will say that they have no idea. Ask a woman if she find another woman sexy and they will say yes or no.

Online: Heterosexy or shameless ?

Given that we are bombarded everyday by messages from the media, marketing and culture about our gender and our roles, which have with them prescribed appropriate behaviour, as a woman online you can currently only go two ways:

  1. You can do the Kim Kardashian and conform to a sex object stereotype which Sociologist Amy Shields Dobson , in her excellent book Postfeminist Digital Cultures, calls heterosexy; or
  2. you can do the performative shameless approach, aka the ladette approach, as made popular in the 90s offline by Zoe Ball et al.

The ambiguity with Kim Kardashian is that she has pushed the hetrosexy boundary. Is it empowering? Or, is it porn? Sharon Osbourne called her a ‘ho saying: She has had half of Hollywood which is a perfect example of the slut-shaming which occurs when a woman goes beyond the feminine stereotype of:

A self who appears visually complicit with current standards of active, up-for it, girl-powered femininity, without overtly evidencing sexual desires or sexual activity that might render her vulnerable to slut-shaming… (Renold and Ringrose, 2011).

This quote is from a paper about teenage girls and sexualisation. But ask any woman of any age and she will recognise it. I know I do. Since about the ’60s’ I would say women have been encouraged to conform to this ridiculous idea. Girls today have to also do it online where they are bombarded by media messages and by boys.

The pressure of sexting

A male acquaintance of mine last year told me about his teenage son receiving sexually explicit pictures of girls. He seemed to be shocked. But, research performed in the UK and quoted by Shields Dobson says:

  • Girls are asked for sexts more than boys are, while boys are more likely to ask for sexts.
  • Girls receive many more sexual messages online and are asked for sexts much more than boys .
  • Girls’ sexts are shown or sent beyond the intended recipient whilst more boys than girls say they will send on a sexually explicit image of someone else (without the person’s knowledge).
  • More boys are shown or sent explicit images not meant for them.

This academic research is very different to the media reporting on Generation Sex. It is recognisably genderised, patriarchal and same old same old.

I bet it never occurred to my male pal that a) he shouldn’t have been looking at this intimate pic because he is breaking the law, and b) his son might have put considerable pressure on the girl in question to get it.

Marketing and the media captures the slowly developing sexuality of children and molds it into stereotypical forms of adult sexuality

This same acquaintance said that he had caught his son sneaking to his girlfriend’s room in the middle of the night and told him off, though he felt secretly proud. I asked how would he feel if that was his daughter, he said he would be outraged. He was sufficiently self-aware to recognise his hypocrisy.

However, it is marketing and the media which captures the slowly developing sexuality of children and moulds it into stereotypical forms of adult sexuality, forms which my male pal embodies and propagates in his role as a father.

Neoliberal or stereotype

This same old might not seem too bad but it is the relentlessness of it 24/7 which is new, for the Internet compresses time and space, so that people feel hounded, which can lead to desperate acts such as the suicide of Amanda Todd. Todd was repeatedly bullied and slut-shamed by her peers because she was pressured into sharing naked pictures of herself. The slut-shaming and bullying I guess would have been in a similar vein to Sharon Osbourne on Kim Kardashian, given that teenagers emulate what they see around them. The difference is Kim Kardashian has an entourage as she goes about her daily life so she is protected and removed from daily life and she also has enough fans to make noise to encourage her critics like Sharon Osbourne to retract her statement.

Kim Kardashian seemingly also doesn’t give a stuff what Sharon Osbourne thinks, which is how we like our girls to be online. We want the girls who are behaving shamelessly to not apologise. We want them to take pride in themselves or the neoliberals amongst us do, those of us who follow stereotypes like my male pal, fall into the Sharon Osbourne camp. Shields Dobson says that being unapologetic is a way of protection. It shuts down a discussion which, of course, would be about how girls shouldn’t behave like that and there must be something wrong with them. Funny how we never have that conversation about boys.

In contrast, the girls who use social media to seek attention, external validation, and support from others are viewed as being in crisis, because we only ever hear the terrible stories of girls who end up trusting the wrong people with their intimate pictures. In reality, we just don’t like vulnerability, we perceive it as weakness and less than and so we bully the victims and once one person starts another will follow – we are socialised to conform.

#mencallmethings and #metoo

A great demonstration of this is in this paper Real men don’t hate women: Twitter rape threats and group identity by Claire Hardaker and Mark McGlashana, who analysed in depth, how journalist Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to ongoing misogynistic abuse on Twitter, including threats of rape and death when all she wanted was to have one woman on a banknote. It started off with a small group of mainly male abusers which then quickly escalated – these people didn’t even know each other and weren’t a group at all – but other trolls saw people abusing Criado-Perez and just joined in.

And it is by trolling or by hijacking these important discussions, in which women talk about how they are treated in society, are shut down. Jessica Megarry in her paper : #mencallmethings (2014) says each time men police the ways in which women are able to conceptualise their own harassment, it appears that men actively perpetuate male social dominance online. But as the Real men don’t hate paper shows, women who don’t want to change the status quo do it too.

I am hopeful change is occurring. The #metoo hashtag has encouraged an open discussion about the harassment of women which has the potential to lead to change. Megarry says that the #mencallmethings hashtag discussion five years ago was depoliticised by shifting the conversation from an explicit focus on men’s harassment of women online to a more general conversation about online cruelty. With the #metoo I didn’t see that happen much, but to be honest I was only looking for women’s stories.

We need to create an online environment where people can speak without judgement which is hard to do because we don’t have it offline particularly. Why is that? And why do we particularly want our girls to be small and quiet? It is a patriarchal stereotype. In contrast, Shields Dobson says that girls online have much to tell us about how they navigate complex and contradictory pressures placed on them by society and it is too early to say whether it is good or bad and whether we should or shouldn’t intervene with what girls put online.

And why are girls doing this in the first place? They are encouraged by the fashion and beauty industries to do all sorts to themselves to meet narrow cultural standards of beauty – you cannot be too big in body or personality, or too thin, or too old, or too anything – to feel that they have worth in this patriarchal society where worth is measured by a girl’s sexual appeal to men. It is exhausting and ridiculous.

As mother to girls I am eager for change, but English Professor Lauren Berlant says that many people’s interests are:

…less in changing the world than in not being defeated by it, and meanwhile finding satisfaction in minor pleasures and major fantasies.

I get that I really do. But sorry Kim Kardashian, I want my girls to have access to bigger better fantasies than the heterosexy ones in which they are female objects designed for men’s gazes, especially online. The thought of the Internet being the same as the real world, well no, just no, as a female computer scientist that is a world which I defy, for it would defeat me every time.

[9) Conclusions]

Women in Tech: Society, Storytelling, Technology (7)

Ada Lovelace and her laptop

The world’s first programmer, Ada Lovelace. Source: Mashable

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 7 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

A couple of years ago, one of the dads at my girls’ school, following an initiative at his workplace, wanted help setting up an after school coding club to teach kids to program. He asked me if I would come along and help because there was a bit about Ada Lovelace and the guidelines would preferably have a woman giving that presentation.  I said I would be pleased to be a role model to guide young girls into IT. I said I would bring my girls and yep, sign me up, show me the materials.

One of my girls at the time was one year too young for the club (following his guidelines) but I said that it would be fine, she’s smart with a love of mathematics, she should come, Indeed she had to come as I look after her, but this man was insistent that she couldn’t come. He didn’t want me childminding – not that I would have been, I would have been teaching – and doing a job. His own wife who had worked in IT stayed at home and looked after his children whilst he ran the code club.

So there you have it. If there hadn’t been a mention in his materials about needing a woman to talk about their job in IT, I doubt he would have even asked me, male group think is prevalent in IT, as well as lots of parts of society. He certainly never felt the need to explain his reasons for not updating me on his plans, and he ran the club regardless with other dads and never mentioned it to me again nor did he ever show me any of the materials. The worst bit of all in this troubling tale is that this man is an IT manager.  A manager!!!

This anecdote, for me, sums up many experiences I have had in the world of IT: A socially awkward male cannot imagine what it is like to be a woman nor can he bend a tiny rule for something bigger than himself.

I am so used to this sort of nonsense in society, I just let it slide.  His individual lack of initiative and imagination can be found everywhere. There are a million stories of women being treated as unimportant in the computing industry and other domains as I discussed in the blog on Women’s Work and that is before we mention the purposeful aggression and sexism and appalling behaviour which happens towards women too.

The picture above is a mashup of Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, who worked with Charles Babbage on his computing machine so officially she is the first computer programmer.  A lot of computing pioneers were women. According to National Program Radio, who looked at the statistics for women in computing, the number of women studying computer science grew faster than the number of men until 1984, when the home computer was invented and marketed to boys, inventing the nerd stereotype and overwriting all the true stories of women in IT.

I was a final year undergraduate the first time I heard about Ada Lovelace and the only reason I learnt about her was because the programming language ADA is named after her. Sitting in a lecture hall full of men, the story of a woman was so invigorating, I taught myself ADA and wrote my final year project in ADA. It only took a few facts of her life to make me feel excited, included, inspired. What other things might I have decided to do had I known about NASA programmer Margaret Hamilton whose code put men on the moon,  she brought her daughter with her to the lab too, and Grace Hopper and her machine independent language ideas which led to COBOL? I learnt COBOL in my second year but no one ever thought she was worth a mention. I tell you COBOL and I might have gotten along much better had I known about Grace.

Female computer scientists were not mentioned during my many years of formal education. Rather like the early 19th century women scientists Caroline Herschel, Jane Marcet, and Mary Somerville, who in their lifetimes were recognised as being at the forefront of European science, but were no longer spoken about by the end of the 19th century because all women had been barred from graduating from university. Written out of history, and not given the legitimacy of belonging like men. What message does that send a woman?

Our culture sends messages whether we like or not and mass culture likes to give us what we already like because it is based on economics. So the moment the male computing geek stereotype was invented, that narrative excluded women, it overwrote those great female stories. Like sells like, and fiscal reasoning doesn’t care about telling new stories especially when it comes to women. Progress is a myth where technology is concerned. We think that any progress is an advancement but it is not. Semiotically speaking, we look for a how not a what, and we choose and reject stories based on how true they feel, which is based on familiarity i.e. the stories we know. So, if a constant narrative is that girls don’t do computing and boys do then this must be true.

It encourages a cultural devaluation of women across society and in particular in technology. Take Stuff Magazine, a magazine for men who are interested in technology. It made me so cross objectifying women that I had to write a whole blog slagging it off and I only slag things off when I am angry. A Menkind shop has just opened up near me which is a gadget shop. Why is it called Menkind? When I passed it, it had a Harry Potter cutout in the window.  Harry Potter eh? We all know that J K Rowling chose her pen name so that she would appeal to young boys. Heaven forbid that society encourages little boys to take women seriously and to listen to whatever story they might have to tell. The bottom line is like sells like, and the bottom line is hard cold cash. Progress is a myth and women’s stories are unimportant.

New Scientist news editor @PennySarchet  wrote in a tweet how she was advised during her PhD to explain everything really simply as if you were talking to a child or your mother. The original tweet she quotes and which has been deleted says grandmother. The cultural devaluation of women starts at home with the mother.

And yet there is hope. There is always hope. Recently, I read  Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo which in the link there to the Guardian has the female reviewer saying her daughter was disappointed not to find J K Rowling and the reviewer herself was disappointed to find Margaret Thatcher. J K Rowling writes books, yes successfully, whereas Thatcher was the first UK female Prime Minister, so the book has made the right choice. You can’t edit Thatcher out of history just because you don’t want to hear her story. She is, historically speaking, an incredibly important figure. Rowling, we can’t say yet, time will tell. But we can say this, she wasn’t the first woman writer in UK history. She is just one that the female reviewer’s daughter has heard of because she hasn’t heard many women’s stories. Why? Because many women have been written out of history.  Am I repeating myself?

I read the book with my daughter who was really interested in the coders and physicists because of me. She kept showing me them and having a chat about it because she is looking for stories which make sense about her world, (even though she was excluded from code club, miaow), a world in which luckily for her, her mother loves computing, and takes up space in that field. But what about those girls whose mothers don’t and only the dads do computing in after school code club?

Lillian Robinson says in Wonder Women: Feminism in stories is about the politics of stories. Each time a story about a woman doing something in a domain that society has traditionally defined as a man’s world is told, that narrative becomes part of the information we women and our girls coming after us use to process our experiences, which leads to that man’s world becoming less male and more populated by women. Hopefully an equal world of equal opportunity. And, the opposite is true, if all the sources of narrative tell the same story about women then nothing will ever change. Like sells like remember.

Let us know as truth that the narratives behind the field of computer science need to be rewritten, let’s stop dealing in stereotypes and lazy journalism, and the misogyny of female prime ministers (which is a whole other blog in itself). Let us look at the big picture, the bright one which stops telling us only men do IT.  In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed says:

Feminism helps you to make sense that something is wrong; to recognise a wrong is to realise that you are not in the wrong.

Don’t make our girls wrong about computing.

[8) Online]

Designing story (2) : Structure


Source: www.la-screenwriter.com

Some plots are moved forward by external events and crises. Others are moved forward by the characters themselves. If I go through that door, the plot continues. The story of me through the door.  If I stay here……the plot can’t move forward, the story ends. Also if I stay here, I’m late. – Prof Jules Hilbert, Stranger than Fiction (2006)

[ Part 2 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5)  Possession, the relations between minds]

In life, stories are the way we communicate, so much so that eyewitness accounts in court which conform to a story pattern are the most likely to be believed as truth.

In these uncertain times, thankfully we are questioning the news shown on TV and in the newspapers, because media companies have long used the old adage first uttered by Mark Twain: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

But, what is truth? Semiotics, the study of how meaning is created, is the only measure of truth human kind has been able to devise encapsulated in the question: Does it feels right? When the answer is yes, this is because the new data often fits with standard or known truths that we refer to already. It feels true, it is familiar, it adds to our understanding of meaning.

Meaning comes from contrast. The greek god Agon (agony) represents the struggle and wrestling we do in order to create meaning, from light and dark, good and bad, love and hate. We use polarity to organise our thinking.

It works the same way in fiction only in a tidier, yet larger than life, fashion. We have our goodies and baddies. We have our agony and ecstasy. And we, the readers, figure it out because we interpret the polarities and the story structure to derive meaning.

Narrative or story structure

The story of any individual in any narrative can be described in terms of deterioration or improvement, and the choice of which term to use depends on the point of view chosen by the narrator.

Normally we have a protagonist (our goodie) and an antagonist (our baddie) in polarity. As the goodie’s situation improves, the baddie’s will deteriorate. The narrator can invert this relationship and create a tragedy. When we are looking at the baddie as our main protagonist from that point of view, we are sympathetic to their plight, they become our goodie. If they do something morally questionable we go on an exploration with them. Often this a cathartic one. Their story helps us negotiate our own conflicts unconsciously or otherwise. Some of our most sympathetic characters are baddies, like Macbeth, nothing he does is admirable, yet we are there feeling for him until the end.

Sometimes the main protagonist gets improved by something coming in from outside the narrative. If this is near the end of a story then we can feel unsatisfied, because it does not feel true, like the Greek deux ex machina  (literally machine of the gods), the equivalent of then we all went home for tea. This rarely happens in life so it doesn’t feel true, unless it happens in comedy like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. In that story though it doesn’t really matter how our ‘hero’ gets saved as we know he would be much better off anywhere else than where he is. It is ok. Comedy aside, if we don’t get to live through the full range of emotions, we don’t get closure and we feel dissatisfied with the ending.

Closure is a psychological term first suggested in Gestalt which explains how incomplete shapes are interpreted by the brain as whole. From the 1990s the term has been used with respect to relationships. So, when a relationship is over, sometimes we need closure to find an answer especially if it ended ambiguously, so we can learn from it and manage our world or people next time, or so we like to think.

Managing expectations

This is because according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs we need certainty. We need to feel certain that our physiological and safety needs are met, this in itself feels like a reward. Consequently, in a story we are rewarded by the plot unfolding in a particular way.

But, we are complicated and only want certainty up to a point. Social media shows us that the information we share most often is surprise. For more than anything once we have a low level of certainty we need to be lifted up and inspired. So, in any given story we want it to follow a specific path (certainty) but have surprise twists in the tale. This enables us to transcend ourselves.

It doesn’t matter what story is being told, it matters if it is being told in the right way. As Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said: We don’t need a why, we just need a how. The medium is the message or form follows function, the actual content is to a certain extent, irrelevant, as long as it hits the main beats and has the right scenes with enough surprises in them to follow the story pattern we are expecting but with a freshness that transcends both the story pattern and our thoughts.

We have models to explain the world around us, ourselves and our behaviour. It is the same when we are being entertained. We construct the pattern and the meaning as we go along so that even if a certain narrative merely infers something off screen/scene, we still know how to automatically assimilate it into the rest of the narrative to make it into the complete story. So, when something inexplicable happens either in fiction or in real life, it leaves us baffled and without a way of incorporating it into our explanations.

Ups and downs

The general pattern of life is that we work up to something, we have a beginning, a middle, a climax and an end. The momentum gets going, we have highs and lows – those moments of great joy and those moments when we think we can’t stand it a minute longer, in all of our activities from sex and childbirth to prolonged hospital treatment, shopping in IKEA, and even meditation. Our emotions follow this pattern too. Think of laughter, of crying, or a wave of grief. It is the same so it seems logical that our stories would follow a similar pattern.

Thriller editor Shawn Coyne in his book Story Grid refers to Kubler-Ross and the five stages of grief as a useful tool to model change, as all stories are about change and says: Even those wonderful literary novels in which nothing happens… the characters’ moods and ideas are constantly changing.

Patterns and genres

Depending on our reading tastes, we know the stories, we know which pattern to follow and it doesn’t matter where it sits on the often debated scale of entertainment: genre or literary, all action or internal, we feel when something is emotionally true because it is meaningful to us.

Here are some random patterns to think about:

  • Hero’s quest: The hero receives a call to action, goes on an adventure, has trials and tribulations, allies and foes, nearly falls at the end, returns home to great reward.
  • Chick lit:  The girl has problem in life, there is a cute guy, the problem becomes much bigger, everything looks bleak, she pulls it together as she is smart, solves her problem and gets the guy.
  • Thriller: Personal stakes life/ family/career are high enough to make the reader sweaty, often internationally the protagonist is chased about, has a show down with the antagonist, and wins.
  • Murder mystery:  There is a closed setting, a murder weapon, a body, detectives, we then find out the motive, the villain, and tie it up. We can even model it in  a computer (model-based machine learning).
  • Bildungsroman: A sensitive soul suffers a loss or tragedy, journeys to fill that vacuum with experiences,  gains maturity gradually, struggles then accepts values of society.
  • Love story: Two people meet, hit it off, something gets in their way, they are separated, and get back together at the end. Or don’t (tragedy).

There are many others: rags to riches, revenge, forbidden love, unrequited love, sacrifice, rivalry, disaster, recovery from grief, transformation, and so on.

Sometimes these patterns are combined into bigger patterns and in a different world created on another planet or fantasy land, or supernatural events occur. However, even if the landscape and events seems totally alien or paranormal, the emotions and behaviour of the characters are always human, always meaningful, and can always resonate.

If they don’t, we stop reading.

Formula or familiarity

It may seem formulaic but Christopher Vogler says in his book The Writer’s Journey: Unconventional art does not intersect with commonly held patterns of experience.

Rather like design, a certain amount of form is necessary to reach a wider audience who will expect to enjoy it so long as it has something fresh going on within the constraints of the formula. Vogler says that film studios use story design principles to evaluate scripts because they do so many, and the stories which capture us as an audience, capture our shared experiences:

We are all looking for ourselves in a dark wood, in the mirror of others, in the stories of life...

Which is why when we pick up a book or watch a film, we want to connect to a story which has meaning for us or at least for the characters in it, and that meaning is found in structure.

Part 3: Archetypes

Semiotics: Finding meaning in storytelling

Pic showing sign saying warning this is a sign

We like patterns and signs to reduce complexity into something more manageable, and then we like to construct stories to explain how people and the world around us work because we like to feel that we know what we are doing, like we have some control over how the world works, so that we can say that everything is ok.

But in order to find meaning, we create meaning and when it feels right to us, then we say that it is so and we interpret signs, logic and symbols in that way. However, semiotics is not the study of what meaning is, but the study of how meaning is created.

In her book Semiotics and Storytelling, Bronwen Martin says that it is not just signs which help us make meaning, but also the approach of the Paris School of Semiotics led by A J Greimas which is a complete way of understanding a text, and everything it has to offer us.

The four principles

Meaning comes from the universe. So, there is no meaning without difference. There is no light without darkness, and the world only takes on shape with contrast. There are four principles which facilitate our understanding in any given text:

  1. Meaning is constructed by the reader. In the same way as the no function in structure principle. When someone comes across an artefact without instructions, then they will find a completely new purpose for it, depending on what they need it to do.
  2. Text is complete within itself and meaning comes from its structure and language rather than the ideas it contains.
  3. Story structure underlies all human communication. It seems that archetypal story patterns are hard wired in our psyche so that eyewitness accounts in court which conform to these patterns are the most likely to be believed as truth – they resonate. In order to be human, we must have a goal or quest, and from there, we have our experiences which we try and understand and make sense of (as the study of phenomenology: the study of the structure of experience, does).
  4. There are three levels of meaning in a text: the narrative level which contains the story-structure; the figurative level, which looks at time place and character; and the deep level or thematic level which links to our inner mental world with its concepts of good and evil.

The narrative level

Any narrative is a change of state or movement from one opposite to another: From life to death, or from conflict to harmony. It can be sudden or progressive where the hesitation has us on tenderhooks and we feel that it may still be possible not to complete the transformation, and that there could be an alternative ending. If a story is long, then it may have multiple transformations which are known as episodes.

Folklorist Vladimir Propp defined 31 story functions and seven character functions which A J Greimas reduced to six actantial roles: sender- object-receiver, helper-subject-opponent which he then put onto three axes of human action: desire, power and communication:

  1. The axis of desire: Any quest is motivated by a lack – of love, knowledge, truth – which leads to doing, transformation.
  2. The axis of power: A story may contain two subjects who quests are in opposition, they could be pursuing the same goal, or one subject takes the other as its object like a stalker.
  3. The axis of communication: The sender is the motivator for the quest and when the receiver receives the information, they are ready for the quest to begin and the action begins too.

Then, there is the canonical narrative schema (or global narrative programme of the quest) which has the sender and receiver negotiate (a) the initial contract to set up the quest which is then followed by (b) the competence stage when the subject (receiver) has the ability to carry out the quest, and (c) the performance stage when the actual event happens. Finally (d) sanction is where the outcome of the event is revealed and interpreted.

The story of any individual in a narrative can be described in terms of deterioration or improvement, and the choice of which term to use depends on the point of view chosen by the narrator. Often the confrontation of subjects results in the transfer of an object of value from one subject to another by test or conflict, or by a gift, or exchange.

Sometimes the narrative is interrupted by an active force or persuasion which causes a new quest and narrative to begin and leads us into a new direction.

The figurative level

The figurative level describes and creates our sense of time, place, and character, with descriptions which use our five senses. This level is important in storytelling and is also used in news stories to quickly set the scene and anchor it in our reality.

At this level we are looking for lexical fields or figurative isotopies. So, house, shop, car, factory belong to the isotopy of the city, whereas wind, rain, sun belong to the isotopy of the cosmic. We look for those relating to time and space and those which repeat themselves.

Then we look for differences: high and low, light and dark, to gain sense and meaning, and which link us to the thematic or deep level.

The deep level

The deep level concerns our inner world, our thoughts, and once we know where transformations occur and what is at stake then we can figure out what that means to us.

Then, it is time to ask: Where do the values come from? Martha Beck says that she was surprised when collecting folktales in China as they were never about falling in love, they were always about getting rich. So, in any story, we need to ask: What tradition are the values linked to? And does a story strengthen or challenge the status quo? Does it echo dominant cultural beliefs?

There are so many myths, so much resonance of stars as souls, a desire to return to an original unity, songs as a yearning for beauty and the sacred, we often don’t recognise them explicitly.

But, then if there are gaps or ambiguities in a text, does this allows us to fill them with our cultural heritage and assumptions? Does this render a text more universal? Or more truthful?

After all what is truth? Is the narrator truthful? Is the point of view true? Semiotics is concerned with the feeling of truth because it is the only measure of truth which human kind has been able to devise, no matter how far we think we have come.