What Makes a Story "Big" or "Small"?

There are few ways to see the fundamental sexism of American culture as clearly as by observing what stories many people consider “big” and “small.”

This week my historical novel, Lilli de Jong, comes out in paperback. The novel brings forward the history of girls and women forced by prejudice to give up their “bastard” babies. Being forcibly separated from one's offspring is a fundamental human tragedy. We see this lately through immigrants whose children have been ripped away and parents whose children have been killed by murderers bearing guns. Do children have to be caged and murdered in order for the powers at large to consider the bonds between parents and children a big story?

In 1883 Philadelphia, Lilli, a Quaker schoolteacher, realizes she’s pregnant after her lover has left for Pittsburgh. Expelled from home, she gives birth at an institution, planning to return home without her baby. Most unwed girls and women gave up their newborns then — many still do — due to the consequences, which could include permanent expulsion from home, rejection from most forms of employment, and exploitation due to their desperation. But Lilli decides to keep her helpless newborn. Motherhood can be a radicalizing experience, especially if society pits itself against your ability to provide for your child and arrays its forces against your child’s well-being and yours. Lilli de Jong is transformed by motherhood into a more powerful voice and presence.

Recently I spoke with an expert on Hollywood — a very nice one whom I hold in high regard — who talks all day with a wide range of Hollywood producers. This conversation allowed me invaluable access to the way those producers think. This person told me that I needed to understand that Lilli’s is “a small story.” Hollywood, I was told, is looking for “big stories."

"So what's a big story?” I asked. “One with bombs and war?"

I was partly joking, since this is such a cliché. The answer was yes. Politics, too, are big, and whatever occurs in arenas that have long been hostile to women. In other words, welcome to the same mentality that keeps women out of most accounts of history, the same mentality that decides what stories go in the front sections of major newspapers most of the time, and the same mentality that determines our government’s long-standing priorities, which rarely include addressing the common needs of women.

I wasn’t truly surprised to learn that some Hollywood producers think this way; I’ve been alive a while. But in recent years I’ve seen some extraordinary and, to my eyes, successful movies that didn’t match those criteria, including “Philomena” (2013), “Room” (2015), “Hidden Figures” (2016), and “Lady Bird” (2017). I’ve watched episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Call the Midwife.” I’ve heard that Hollywood is opening up to women’s stories.

Apparently, not so much.

The reason these “big” stories are so sought after, I was told by my messenger for the current situation, is that they often earn many times more than the money it costs to make them.

This explanation points at the self-perpetuating logic of the big-small paradigm. In every business, expectations drive resource allocation. If the same money and time go into promoting "small" stories as “big,” “small” stories will be far more likely to earn scads of money. Then again, I’ve read claims that some foreign-market buyers balk at movies directed by or starring women. If this is true, it might change if those movies are primed to succeed here. Is bowing to overseas prejudice partly a convenient reason for avoiding change here?

I didn’t say this. I did try to explain why I don't consider Lilli’s story small; I consider it small within big. All stories are, really — even a war movie typically features a small number of characters against a big backdrop. But some stories are big because they have a backdrop of adversity that affects vast numbers of people, such as prejudice or persecution. At book events, in interviews and reviews, in correspondence and conversation, I said, I’ve been told over and over that readers had known mothers and infants were forced apart in the past, but they hadn’t known the extreme costs before there were safe substitutes for a mother’s milk.

For much of U. S. history, these infants usually died due to being separated from their mothers.

Whether left at foundling hospitals or orphanages or on the street, they died of malnutrition, disease, dehydration, and/or neglect. This occurred in America at least a great many thousands of times, and untold numbers of times worldwide. The recent unveiling of underground recesses containing the bones of nearly 800 children at a single institution where unwed mothers were forcibly confined in Tuam, Ireland is a fresh reminder of the little value placed on the lives of “bastards.”

But it seemed my words were coated in the aural equivalent of invisible ink.

"That’s all really sad,” the person said kindly. “But why should we care about it now?"

[Please cut the first line altogether. I see that the sentence was clumsy, so I’ve edited. Paragraph starts with “We should care” now. JB] We should care about the effects of widespread prejudice against any group, including mothers and infants. Or perhaps everything connected to motherhood, in this culture, is considered private and small. Perhaps stories without lots of big machinery moving around will just never be big enough.

Yet I continued swimming against the tide. Readers and reviewers have brought up the story’s relevance today, I said. Single mothers still suffer prejudice, unequal wages, and many other barriers to providing food, clothing, shelter, and care for themselves and their children. Women’s access to birth control and abortion is increasingly threatened again. Most American mothers and fathers get no paid leave when they have a newborn, and those who do get barely any. Working full time and having even a perfectly healthy baby is a very hard combination. If that baby becomes ill or has greater needs than average, it can be excruciating. As journalist and book author Kathryn Joyce has powerfully revealed, women are still being coerced into giving up their newborns, sometimes at federally-supported crisis pregnancy centers, with their infants adopted out to couples who pay a massive fee. So many mothers have told me that Lilli’s story validates their own work in deeply moving ways.

Our conversation ended amicably. It fueled further thoughts.

I’ve been indoctrinated as much as the next person into a particular way of thinking about who and what matters. I know that “small” stories are domestic, interior, affecting a small number of characters, focused on intimate relationships, usually involving women, while “big” stories are exterior, focused on what we call action, often involving arenas of power outside the home, with more characters overall, predominantly male.

I know this mentality well not only from a lifetime’s cultural exposure, but also from working as the only woman on a team writing history. The absence of women’s stories was largely excused by the idea that the spheres of life in which women have usually been the primary actors are not important. If history focuses on political and other arenas that purposely excluded most women, and is unwilling to explain and explore this exclusion, women will be largely left out. Even when women were active and effective in the political sphere, there was room for only one. Tokenism is alive and well.

If you want power, decide what people learn as history. History grants power to those whose effective leaders are lauded and concerns explained.

There’s so much that must be rendered invisible to make sure our past stories support men’s unequal advantages today. Largely excluded are those spheres that take up all humans’ time yet are identified chiefly with women: the spheres of children, marriage, family relationships, reproduction, friendships, food, clothing, and shelter. [Please don’t make this upper case because it isn’t a full sentence. After a colon, a full sentence can be capped.]No doubt there are others. When most of human life is left out of stories of past and present, we perpetuate the unfair advantages of those whose stories are legion. The consequences of this bias are dire. They dictate how our society accords power and resources. They perpetuate the idea that what women do and have done is insignificant.

Maureen Dowd’s “The Women of Hollywood Speak Out” (New York Times Magazine, Nov. 20, 2015) is essential reading. Dowd shares testimony and numerical evidence showing women’s exclusion from access to top storytelling resources in our most influential story-making industry. “Hollywood’s toxic brew of fear and sexism,” Dowd notes, renders women even more under-represented than we are in two other notoriously anti-woman bastions, Silicon Valley and the federal government.

“Excluding their art-house divisions, the six major studios released only three movies last year [2014] with a female director.” “[I]n 2014, 95 percent of cinematographers, 89 percent of screenwriters, 82 percent of editors, 81 percent of executive producers, and 77 percent of producers were men.” In the years 2007 to 2014, only 30.2 percent of “speaking or named” roles were female in the 100 top-grossing fictional films. In her May 2018 Atlantic article, Ruth Franklin writes pithily, “In the end, the question of who gets to speak comes down to who has power and what must be done to maintain it . . .”

In case you think there’s been a major upswing since Dowd’s piece brought wide attention to inequities, here are some 2018 data from TheWrap: “only 3.3 percent of the films scheduled for release this year by the six major Hollywood studios have a female director—the lowest percentage in at least five years. Worse yet, fully half of the majors—Paramount, Sony and Warner Bros.—have only men directing all of their 2018 releases.” At least one studio said 2019 will look better.

Dowd quotes successful women who are quite aware they’re swimming in polluted water. Said Jessica Elbaum, head of production at Gloria Sanchez Productions, “I think there’s a fear that females can only tell female stories, like if they’re given free rein they’ll just write stories where everyone’s braiding each other’s hair and crying.” Said director Shira Piven, “I feel that there is something going on underneath all of this, which is the idea that women aren’t quite as interesting as men. That men have heroic lives, do heroic things . . . and that women have a certain set of rooms that they have to operate in.”

Why this need to conceive of women as confined in certain rooms, leading unheroic lives? Clearly, that’s how some feel safest thinking of women. Yet this home-bound insignificance was never true, though our forebears’ achievements outside the home and the importance of our work within it are largely left out of history — and of our current news. Perhaps some women are double burdened in our homes — by taking care of people and stuff and by a fear of violence and intimidation by men. Though statistics on violent crime and murder show that a woman’s greatest danger is her intimate partner, we are also at risk in the outside world.

How interesting that only stories of the world outside the home are “big.”

I’d love to see more movies as nuanced and rich as women’s close relationships. What truths and experiences would those hair-braiding, crying women reveal? And who might have reason to want those truths and experiences to remain unknown? I’d take a decade dominated by hair-braiding movies to balance out the years dominated by “big” stories that devolve into simplistic, adrenaline-pumping, us-versus-them battles with lots of gore, a clear winner (the “good guys”), and no lasting trauma. Having watched and read more humanistic art than militaristic propaganda, I understand that war has no winners. No one and no faction leaves free of harm. These are not the stories we need today.

Women love and belong in “big,” “action” movies. But let’s not stick women into situations and roles created for men, with superficial modifications. (I haven’t seen anyone skewer these more directly than Michele Wolf.) And “Wonder Woman,” gratifying as it was for some women to watch, didn’t even pass the Bechdel test, named after Alison Bechdel, who suggested that we observe whether a movie gives female characters the chance to talk with one another about a topic other than the male characters. Surprisingly few do.

Equal access to storytelling resources, promotion, even dialogue seems like a pipe dream. Writes Dowd, “Female writers in Hollywood told me they are used to hearing things like, ‘Can you insert a rape scene here?’ or ‘Can they go to a strip club here?’”

If a fiction writer created a situation like that, she’d be accused of making those commenters into caricatures.

Lest you think the book industry is without its gender problems, consider an analysis of more than a hundred thousand bestselling novels, reported in “Women Were Better Represented in Victorian Novels Than Modern Ones.” Between about 1800 and the 1970s, the researchers saw a “steady decline” in women authors—from about 50 percent to under 25 percent. The number of named women characters also declined. Fortunately, the numbers began moving up slowly a few decades later.

Then there are the facts gathered by VIDA, most recently for 2016. VIDA studies gender representation in the “top-tier journals, publications, and press outlets by which the literary community defines and rewards its most valued arts workers.” The data reveal significant and ongoing inequality — what many describe as implicit bias.

Surveys of reading habits are popular lately, and they reveal a few salient things. One: American women read more fiction than men. Small wonder! In fictional worlds, particularly in fiction by women, we are more likely to find our lives given sufficient weight and depth. Historical fiction can answer the need for this experience nicely; by nature, it promises to bring the overlooked to light. A woman’s point of view on familiar aspects of history can change a story greatly. In such books, women have a place in the historical record, if only in our imaginations. Two: The majority of men don’t read books by women. Perhaps it would be too disorienting to discover how much women mean to ourselves, and to find out you’re not the main characters of every plot.

I’m not saying there’s no meaning to the concept of big and small stories. It’s arguable that some stories are bigger in scope, in numbers of people affected, in scale of relevance beyond their particular characters. But this concept is difficult to apply, as any powerful situation facing humans echoes widely. The issue is whether those affected are considered “important” — and this implicit bias, like much of what I’ve written here, applies to most groups of people in this country. The values that inform notions of big and small are clearly discriminatory and make the terms into a code for “those people don’t matter.” Women, too, may not recognize their bias when they decide whether a story is marketable. Evidence to the contrary is dismissed. As TV producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes told Dowd, “[E]veryone has amnesia all the time. Every time a female-driven project is made and succeeds, somehow it’s a fluke.”

Is The Diary of Anne Frank a big story? A small one? I consider Anne’s diary very small within very big. What about The Color Purple by Alice Walker? Intimate and huge. This doubleness is one reason for the heartbreaking, mind-altering, long-lasting power of these works. Arguably, all of our culture’s most transformative art has this quality.

My novel Lilli de Jong begins with a woman who has a baby inside her. This is where every human life begins. With the bond or lack of a bond that begins at birth, an infant's life is set on its path. And in forging that bond, a mother opens her life to take on the life of another, not knowing what may come, what joy and tragedy and struggle, what sacrifice and reward. This happens to individuals millions of times a year, around the globe. And these are among the kinds of stories we discount at our peril, because making them “small” enables the abuses we see today at a scale many can no longer consider insignificant.

For instance, consider this testimony by Angelica Rebecca Gonzalez-Garcia, who was apprehended by Border Patrol agents in May with her seven-year-old daughter. She reported that officers told her she’d never see her daughter again. “I cannot express the pain and fear I felt at that point,” she wrote. “One of the officers asked me, ‘In Guatemala do they celebrate Mother’s Day?’ When I answered yes he said, ‘Then Happy Mother’s Day’ because the next Sunday was Mother’s Day. I lowered my head so that my daughter would not see the tears forming in my eyes. That particular act of cruelty astonished me then as it does now. I could not understand why they hated me so much, or wanted to hurt me so much.”

Stories like this describe a world that rips mothers and children apart, whether by prejudicial decree, police with guns, disturbed men with guns, worker exploitation that creates insurmountable poverty, “safety-net” work requirements, or another result of our vulnerability and convenience as targets and our bottom-of-the-priority-list status.

Stories define us. They tell us who we are. Those with women — including mothers — at their centers have always been at least as enormous as any others, and they need to be recognized as such.

Janet BentonComment