Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What to do when you're not the hero any more

From Star Wars to Mad Max, a new, more diverse kind of storytelling went mainstream this year - and the backlash shows how much it matters.

I saw Star Wars this week like everyone else, and yes, it was madly entertaining, and no, it wasn't perfect, and if I want to see a film that's deeply iconoclastic and challenges all my cultural preconceptions I will see something that isn't Star Wars. The part that had my heart in my teeth, though, wasn’t the part I’m not supposed to tell you about. It came a little bit later. It was when Rey, the techie scavenger girl, picks up the lightsaber to fight the bad guy as an equal.

And the music swells. The same old theme and a new kind of hero on a new kind of journey. The same old story made stunning in its sudden familiarity for every girl who ever dreamed of being more than a princess.

Rey picks up her weapon, and everything changes.

In a box-office-pulverising film whose gorgeous effects and point-perfect pacing leave their fingerprints on the back of your eyeballs for days, it says something that the most dazzling feature of all is the female protagonist and her love interest (possibly). Stories about outliers and unexpected heroes have always been around - the difference is that being a woman, a person of colour, a queer person, or some shocking combination of the three does not make you an outlier in quite the same way any more.

We’re allowed stories now that aren’t just "look what she did, despite what she is". Our heroism is no longer quite so unexpected. And that’s as thrilling as it is threatening to those who are used to a single story about white boys winning the day.

The way we tell stories is changing. The change is creeping slow and political as hell. Just look at the diverse stories we’ve had this year, none of them perfect, all of them groundbreaking in the simplest and most shocking of ways. It’s Jessica Jones and Kimmy Schmidt. It's Steven Universe. It’s Orange Is The New Black and How To Get Away With Murder. It’s Black Hermione and female Ghostbusters. It’s Transparent and Welcome To Night Vale. It’s Gamergate and the Hugo Awards. It’s Mad Max. It’s Star Wars. Diversity shouldn't be exciting by now, but it is.

And of course, the backlash is on.

People who are quite happy to suspend disbelief in superpowers, summoning spells, dragons, aliens, planet-destroying starbases and Mark Hamill's acting abilities somehow find the idea of, for example, a black Hermione a bit too much and react with death threats and hate-mobs. This week, when the internet learned that a black woman had been cast in a new play billed as the ‘next instalment’ in the Harry Potter series, author J K Rowling reacted perfectly, reminding fans: "Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione".

Was Rowling imagining a black girl when she sat down to write that book in the mid-1990s? Probably not. But she knows, like the best storytellers, that books are hands held out to lonely children of every age, and not all those lonely children are white boys, and those stories change lives in ways even their authors cannot guess. So it matters. It matters that the "brightest witch of her generation", the bookish heroine of a generation’s definitive fairytale, doesn’t have to be white every time.

Let's not get carried away here. These stories and retellings are still exceptions. Women are still paid less, respected less and promoted less at almost every level of every creative industry. For every Jessica Jones there's a Daredevil, whose female characters exist solely to get rescued, provide the protagonists with some pneumatic exposition, or both. For every Orphan Black there's Mr Robot and Narcos and you know, sometimes I wonder if perhaps I watch too much television. The point is that what we have right now isn't equality yet. It's nothing like equality. But it's still enough to enrage the old guard because when you've been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice.

The rage that white men have been expressing, loudly, violently, over the very idea that they might find themselves identifying with characters who are not white men, the very idea that heroism might not be particular to one race or one gender, the basic idea that the human story is vast and various and we all get to contribute a page - that rage is petty. It is aware of its own pettiness. Like a screaming toddler denied a sweet, it becomes more righteous the more it reminds itself that after all, it’s only a story.

Only a story. Only the things we tell to keep out the darkness. Only the myths and fables that save us from despair, to establish power and destroy it, to teach each other how to be good, to describe the limits of desire, to keep us breathing and fighting and yearning and striving when it'd be so much easier to give in. Only the constitutive ingredients of every human society since the Stone age.

Only a story. Only the most important thing in the whole world.

The people who are upset that the faces of fiction are changing are right to worry. It's a fundamental challenge to a worldview that's been too comfortable for too long. The part of our cultural imagination that places white Western men at the centre of every story is the same part that legitimises racism and sexism. The part of our collective mythos that encourages every girl and brown boy to identify and empathise with white male heroes is the same part that reacts with rage when white boys are asked to imagine themselves in anyone else’s shoes.

The problem - as River Song puts it - is that 'men will believe any story they're hero of,' and until recently that's all they've been asked to do. The Original Star Wars was famously based on Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey", the "monomyth" that was supposed to run through every important legend from the beginning of time. But it turned out that women had no place in that monomyth, which has formed the basis of lazy storytelling for two or three generations: Campbell reportedly told his students that "women don't need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realise that she's the place that people are trying to get to".

Which is narratologist for "get back to the kitchen" and arrant bullshit besides. It's not enough to be a destination, a prop in someone else's story. Now women and other cultural outsiders are kicking back and demanding a multiplicity of myths. Stories in which there are new heroes making new journeys. This isn't just good news for steely-eyed social justice warriors like me. It also means that the easily bored among us might not have to sit through the same dull story structure as imagined by some dude in the 1970s until we die.

What does it mean to be a white cis boy reading these books and watching these new shows? The same thing it has meant for everyone else to watch every other show that’s ever been made. It means identifying with people who don’t look like you, talk like you or fuck like you. It’s a challenge, and it’s as radical and useful for white cis boys as it is for the rest of us - because stories are mirrors, but they are also windows. They let you see yourself transfigured, but they also let you live lives you haven’t had the chance to imagine, as many other lives as there are stories yet to be told, without once leaving your chair.

This isn’t just about "role models". Readers who are female, queer or of colour have been allowed role models before. What we haven’t been allowed is to see our experience reflected, to see our lives mirrored and magnified and made magical by culture. We haven’t been allowed to see ourselves as anything other than the exception. If we made it into the story, we were standing alone, and we were constantly reminded how miraculous it was that we had saved the day even though we were just a woman. Or just a black kid. Or just - or just,whatever it was that made us less than those boys who were just born to be heroes.

The people who get angry that Hermione is black, that Rey is a woman, that Furiosa is more of a hero than Mad Max, I understand their anger. Anyone who has ever felt shut out of a story by virtue of their sex or skin colour has felt that anger. Imagine that anger multiplied a hundredfold, imagine feeling it every time you read or watched or heard or played through a story. Imagine how over time that rage would harden into bewilderment, and finally mute acceptance that people like you were never going to get to be the hero, not really.

Then imagine that suddenly starting to change. Imagine letting out a breath you’d held between your teeth so long you’d forgotten the taste of air.

Capitalism is just a story. Religion is just a story. Patriarchy and white supremacy are just stories. They are the great organising myths that define our societies and determine our futures, and I believe - I hope - that a great rewriting is slowly, surely underway. We can only become what we can imagine, and right now our imagination is being stretched in new ways. We're learning, as a culture, that heroes aren't always white guys, that life and love and villainy and victory might look a little different depending on who's telling it. That's a good thing. It's not easy - but nobody ever said that changing the world was going to be easy.

I learned that from Harry Potter.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge