This comes out of a brief and interesting text argument/discussion
I had with a friend regarding race, myth, meme, fairytale creation…
minor topics like that.
Yesterday morning, I saw a link on Twitter to a news article about a 12-year-old girl saved by three lions from a pack of men who were trying to beat and abduct her into marriage. According to the story, the lions surrounded her, chased the men off, and guarded the girl, possibly because they heard her crying and mistook her for a cub. Regardless of the lions’ rationale, the girl was saved, and the story – phoned in by a man from Addis Ababa – was reported internationally.
The article originated on NBC.com in 2005, but has resurfaced at least twice, first in 2012 and again today, being reposted around the internet as having just occurred. It’s a tempting story, click-and-repost-wise. Clearly, the article’s contents are meme-worthy in several categories: Real-Life-Fairy-Tale, Heroic Photogenic Beasts, Bad Men But Happy Ending, and Little Girl Saved From Villains By Sympathetic Animals.
So, a mytheme, as my friend called it, and a mythmeme, as I just did. It also falls into another queasy-making category – the Black African Quirkified Bad News Worthy of Benevolent White Attention Due To Magical Elements category. Which is less comfortable. Well, hell, none of those categories are comfortable, from a vigilant story-creation-absorption perspective.
So, the story is set in Ethiopia. The lions are Ethiopian, as are the girl, and the men.
My friend was troubled – not in terms of the (ostensibly factual) story itself, necessarily, of the veracity of which both of us were highly skeptical but in meme-terms – by the race of the men involved.
Did it meme because it’s a story about black men in Africa brutalizing little girls? Does its meme-status have to do with the creation of a news-myth that embeds comfortable citations for prejudice our dominant culture is already looking to justify? I have no dispute with this. Yeah, some of its meme-ness? That’s why. And that is fucked up.
He felt that the narrative also contained tempting metaphoric colonial prejudice – the heroic lion, after all, is a symbol for Britain. (Also a symbol for Ethiopian monarchy, though. The zoo-dwelling descendents of Haile Selassie’s pack of personal lions, have lately been discovered to be genetically distinct from the rest of Ethiopia’s lions.) My friend is British. This angle wouldn’t have occurred to me, being American, though the heroic lion is clearly a thing the world over, and the dominant culture clearly pushes the things it likes. White people like the symbolism of lions. True.
When I said that the girl in the story was black too – he said that her child-status made her race permissible – as in, her child-ness outweighs her race – (plenty of examples of this dynamic in America too, notably the 4 little girls whose murder made white America finally take notice of Birmingham) and that therefore, innocent child attacked by black men was still an ideological throughline in terms of how a story like this spreads throughout the world, causing clicks and retweets.
Okay. He’s a smart guy, and all this is worth thinking about. I find myself examining my stuff a lot lately – in terms of making stories up. I am, after all, a white girl from America. Not many of my characters are 35-year-old Caucasian women like me, actually – that’s not the kind of thing I usually write about, but that might make my perspective even more dangerous – or at least, it means I need to think about these things in depth when they cross my path.
Relevant to this, somewhat, is the fact that I wrote a science fiction/ horror-y story last year (GAME) that was set in 1950’s India and had tigers in it. That one actually was a riff on a Great White Hunter narrative, so yes, about race, and about the history of colonialism in the context of hunting and commodifying another country’s resources. In mine, the white hunter isn’t a hero (at all) because Great White Hunter stories have always pissed me off, but one of the other main characters – an Indian shikari – went through multiple iterations of me trying to keep him from trip-troping into a magical native. He ends up badass and brilliant, but also flawed. I think it ended up okay – though not everyone felt that way. At least a couple of people were troubled by the structure of the white man as narrator, seeing it as a continuation of predjucial narratives in which a village population needs saving. That didn’t bother me so much, given that the events of the story itself contradict that – the Indian shikari is ultimately the twisted savior here. It’s a riff. In order to riff, some of the original components need to be in place. The story is a shifted version of the Great White Hunter trope. But it’s a fraught area. There’s no one like me in the story. I was imagining myself into the mind of a seventy-year-old white hunter raised in colonial India, but also into a village, and within that village, into the actions of an Indian hunter. So, yeah, I caught some shit, and some of it may well have been deserved. I thought it was worth the shit-catching, but I don’t think it is if I don’t commit myself to really thinking about these depictions. Even so, I spent a lot of time biting my fingers as I tried to write him.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about exoticized narratives, about the way they tempt. I think that’s a responsibility. To blithely tell everything from my narrow world view is questionable (and boring). And yes, I think my world view is narrow, though it’s wider in class terms than most people would imagine, looking at me these days.
In news items, (I have occasion to personally know this, having written a non-fiction book that got a lot of press) complicated narratives are frequently simplified into soundbites, even by terrific writers. That’s how it’s done. As well, less honorably, shit often gets cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia, and a lot of things simply get made up. There are some factual narratives which are more factual than others, obviously, but there’s not much out there that can truly be unbiased, if only in that the stories chosen to be reported to a wide audience are very frequently stories of interest to middle-class white people. Everything, even in a news story, is written from an angle. Stories are written by people, not by unbiased fact-sorting robots. We all come from somewhere, and our interests and passions – even for facts – come from who we are.
The stories we write, whether fiction or nonfiction, are inherently biased in terms of what we find interesting. Which may mean we end up with snarls of racial bias, no matter what kind of personalities we are. Earth is racist, and we were all raised on Earth. I don’t mean that to sound like a permanence. I mean that it is fundamentally my job to fight against the wrongs that seem permanent. I mean that it is fundamentally my job to analyze this shit, and to push myself away from comfort when it comes to bias.
And, man, it’s our job as writers, especially, to fight with our urges. To analyze them. To try to get it right. Right is usually complicated, not simple.
So frequently, stories (whether news or fiction or combo) that depict members of other classes and races than the ones we came from tend toward either easy heroic narratives, or (easy) reductive ones which serve to confirm future racist and classist suspicions by creating citations for them. Neither thing is good, obviously. In fact, that shit is all fucked up.
So, here, in my case, because I’m a fiction writer, and it’s my job to take apart what’s interesting in a story, and try to figure it out: Is the fact that the story was set in Ethiopia what made me interested in it? No, not really. Actually, I think it was the lions. Lions + teenage girl. It was both things.
The other element of the story, men of any color being depicted as predatory, is not news to me, and this is to my sorrow.
The spin in this news story – and I think part of what makes it mythmeme tempting – is that lions, like men (in the most reductive but also relatively truthful world-history terms) have a history of being predators, and of being depicted as same.
I think I’d still have retweeted the link had the piece been set in white Texas, and involved a teenage girl saved from gang rape by the intervention of a pack of feral dogs, (or llamas, or horses, or), but story-wise, for me anyway, lions pushed it over the edge. Lions are supposed to eat you. It’s a reversal.
For me as a reader, the story was only peripherally about the tropes that would create a narrative of Black African Men Are Rapists. Nevertheless, though, those things are inherent within the narrative. They are part of the story. The piece ends with statistics on marriage by abduction in Ethiopia. Hence: they need to be considered.
So, deeper. I’m troubled by it still, by my own reaction to it, as well as by the stuff I’m carrying that I don’t usually think about carrying, in regard to race and culture. Because if I don’t think about it? I’m going to end up pushing it out into the world, unanalyzed. That’s not okay. I’m troubled by all the things noted above, and by the things I’m about to write about now, the other things that tempt me toward a story like this one. My own cultural baggage, as it were. Yours too. We live here together, on Earth.
The narrative of the news article falls into the lines of things that would entice someone like me. I used to be a young girl. I have needed lions.
I’m lucky, statistically. I’ve never been attacked, but I did, first in Idaho, and later in NYC, spend a lot of my teenage and collegiate years with men following my pedestrian self, leaning out of trucks and barking like dogs, telling me they’d rape me and then laughing because I was too ugly to rape. In NYC, men have jerked off on me in the subway, followed me home, broken into my apartment while I slept…I could go on. I wish I couldn’t.
This shit bums me out.
I know full well that young girls get more than their share of abuse, that they are victimized in every culture, and that the victimizers are often male. I grew up in a town that had about 500 people. When I was in elementary school, I personally knew four girls who were being molested by their fathers. Four. There were about sixty kids in my grade. Those were the four girls I knew about. It seems likely to me that there were more. It seems likely to me – tragically likely – that we have no idea how many women are being abused in America. And that the numbers are a lot higher than we imagine.
And it seems likely to me, following that anecdotal logic, that worldwide, the numbers of women who have been raped, abused, and in this way treated as less than equal to men are incredibly high. It sucks, because I love men. I’m someone surrounded by amazing men, ferociously feminist men, men who stand beside women, and push women up in the world.
And yet, the world is not fair to women.
I say this as a woman who fucking loves the world. I say this from my position as what our culture would call a “strong woman.” (Don’t get me started on that, and its implication that some of us are weak.) This shit has happened to me, looking like I look, talking like I talk. Variants on it have happened to nearly all of us.
I am a lucky woman. I know that my guys – my friends, my family, my loved ones? I know they’d die for me. I would die for them too. I know they love me. I know that if they saw anyone coming at me, they would be furious, and they would intervene. They have. Not everyone is as lucky as I am. For many women, the most dangerous people in their lives are exactly the ones I mention as my trusted allies.
But the disconnect, in terms of community responsibility, seems to be pretty extreme. When I have been harassed in public, verbally and physically, my space invaded, my body touched, pinched, grabbed? The strangers who have stepped in have been other women. I’ve actually never had a male stranger come between me and someone harassing me. I’m 5’3.” Most guys are taller and bigger than I am. I’ve had screaming arguments on the street with men who have touched me against my will, and seen other men watching, bemused.
Male strangers – I’ve asked them, after the fact, in trains, and on the street – tend to assume that I’ve signed on for whatever they just saw. They assume I’m choosing it. This is a cultural default. This is not blame. This is blindness. (The friend I note earlier, who inspired this deconstruction, informs me that “Fuck it, we can have some blame too.” Yeah, okay. I agree.)
In contrast: women I do not know have helped me in all kinds of situations. Sometimes they’ve been women fifty years older than me, chewing out harassers. Sometimes they’ve been other women who’ve seen me trying to get loose of a creepy dude, and come in with flaming tongues to make it happen. I’ve helped other women too. I’m the woman who trails you to the bathroom to ask you if you’re okay. I’m the woman who calls 911 when I see some guy shoving you on the street outside my apartment. This is my default. If I see you in a situation like any of the above? I don’t assume you’re choosing it. I assume someone else is trying to choose for you.
Women are used to being each other’s lions.
Many of the people I saw retweeting this story were other women. We have a craving for a certain kind of narrative. I get it. I get why this story calls to me, and to a lot of other people.
Personally, I have a desire – both as a writer, and as a consumer of writing – for narratives in which the things which have never been fair get motherfucking rectified.
There’s currently a big revisionist fairy tale moment happening. (Again.) When thinking about this news story, I thought about some of the fairy tales that shaped us as consumers, (and by us, I mean me, growing up female in America) – the things that are part of our cultural mythology.
This has obviously been analyzed like a hot goddamn, but I submit it, apologizing for its easiness. Little Red Riding Hood. Girl pursued by Big Bad Wolf. In the Charles Perrault version, it ends badly. She gets eaten, and there’s a moral to the story: don’t disobey your mother (and subtextually, relevantly, don’t get involved with strange men: they’re blatantly going to rape you and kill you. In fact, don’t even walk past strange men. Strange men have only one goal. They see you in the woods, and bam. They chew you up.) (Note: I don’t remotely believe this. I believe that most people are good. I believe that certain things need to be pointed out, in order to help us be better.) (Let’s be better.)
In later versions, Little Red Riding often gets saved by a Woodsman (subtext, with apologies, but also, come on: a Good Man) who comes in and heroically cuts the little girl out of the wolf’s maw. And happily we go into ever.
So here, in this Lion + Little Girl news story, the dynamic is succulently reversed.
The Woodsman wants to eat/rape/sell the little girl, and she gets saved by the Big Bad Lion(s). This surprises and pleases an audience used to variations on the other story. Including me.
So, meme-wise, I (and a lot of other people too, I suspect) have an urgent desire to bring in opposing predators. That – along with everything else – makes a newstory like this go viral, maybe even more than once, treated as breaking news over and over. We covet – sometimes quite problematically, though that’s another essay – reminders that surprising good can come of bad. We’re in a moment where raping, all over the world, is a huge topic.
We would like our girls to be saved by lions. We would – on some level, a very sad one – like our girls to be saved by someone else. Not by us. We have a terror of getting involved in other people’s business, and one of the incredibly shitty things about rape and violence toward women is that it is very frequently viewed as other people’s domestic trouble. Our culture is to blame for rape. And here we are, all of us, products of our cultures. Guilt makes us nervous.
It is therefore convenient to bring in as a hero something from utterly outside our (and by our, I mean human) culture. Lions are useful. They are not human. They can stand-in for saviors in a nearly supernatural sense. The lions in this story are superhero angels. They have no voices, but they are Aslaning it up. They are righting our wrongs, and they look good doing it.
Likely, those lions, if they ever existed, are dead now. The little girl – if she exists – would now be 20, but in this story, she is forever 12, “shocked and terrified” and the lions are forever guarding her, and then tripping back into the woods of 2005. The men in the story – if they exist - were apprehended, four of the seven. The rest of their story is an unknown on every level, fact or fiction, myth or magic.
All of it is a history of our obsessions, our broken parts, our baggage, our hopes – written in retweets.