Storytelling is an undeniable part of who we are, weaving through our career journeys, our entertainment choices, and our everyday conversations. What we may not fully realize is that what we tell stories about—along with how and by whom they are told—makes all the difference in the world. That’s why TFQ founder Shelley Zalis sat down with five incredible women in media at the Girls Lounge to break down the ins and outs of storytelling and how changing our approach can help pave the way to equality.
WHAT WE TELL STORIES ABOUT
Particularly as women, telling our own stories often requires an alarming level of both vulnerability and confidence, something which feels frustratingly contradictory. But there’s power in numbers, and the #metoo movement has served as a watershed moment for women, inspiring us to embrace the discomfort of getting personal to put our stories out into the world, often helping to move the needle on crucial social issues.
In the lounge, one by one, we heard each woman on the panel open up about a range of topics including disrespect, diversity, and finding their confidence while walking through a male-dominated world. A brave storyteller by trade, Univision journalist Arantxa Loizaga described her approach to adversity, saying “I’ve always been fearless because I have my weapons: my mic and my camera.” Orion’s Sally Preston emphasized how important learning that “being strong and being compassionate aren’t mutually exclusive” was to her career path. And as the five women spoke, their words resonated throughout the room, proving that El Chapo showrunner Silvana Aguirre was right: “We are all vulnerable, just pretending not to be.”
That’s the beauty of what happens when a story is told that resonates right down to our bones—when we can practically see ourselves in another’s experiences and hear our journey in their voice. We feel seen, understood, and included in the larger human experience.
This, at its core, is the incredible power of inclusivity. And yet, in a recent survey, inclusive storytelling popped as a top five concern for young adults 18-34 when asked about the “one thing” they would change about movies and TV today.
No matter our field, it is crucial that the stories we tell resonate with our intended audience. However, the execution of the story is just as important, if not more so, than the content itself.
HOW WE TELL STORIES
Have you ever seen an ad that was making every effort to be inclusive, but missed the mark in rather cringeworthy fashion? While the effort is a definite step in the right direction, these instances serve as proof that how we tell stories matters.
In findings from the same study mentioned above, the number one issue people think needs to be addressed in TV and movies is racial stereotypes/tropes/typecasting. What some of these offenders of cultural faux pas have failed to realize is that representation goes far beyond diverse casting.
Take recent blockbuster Black Panther for example; while it was important to the black community to see a predominantly black cast in a major Hollywood production, the movie primarily garnered support for its empowering and positive portrayal of POC (People of Color) characters. This includes the diverse representation of various cultural groups within the fictional country of Wakanda, which was sensitive to the wide range of tribes and cultures present within Africa and avoided the pitfalls of generalization and stereotypes.
The key to authentically brave storytelling lies in perspective—of the audience and the people telling the story. On the panel, showrunner Silvana Aguirre explained how the lens of her personal experiences shaped her decisions on set: “You come with your own experience and your own baggage. The way you see the word translates to how you see the series you are going to create. It’s because of that that you bring something else—I really took care of how women were portrayed on the series.” She described putting her foot down to male directors on everything from wardrobe choices to how sex scenes were shot.
WHO TELLS STORIES
Silvana’s experiences as a woman and as a POC served to directly impact the output for an audience that is increasingly diverse, honoring not just some, but all of the viewers she set out to serve. This is the key to inclusivity and the reason for Univision’s initiatives surrounding diverse storytelling: working with content partners from around the globe, mentoring and connecting creators with opportunities, and developing the Storytelling Unbound Handbook which will lay out essential practices of diversity agreed upon by the most influential partners in the industry to accelerate progress in the creation of inclusive content.
While incredible initiatives like #SeeHer and #MoreLikeMe fight for representation in front of the camera for women and minorities, Storytelling Unbound fights for diversity behind the camera as well. Because the unspoken truth is that lack of diversity behind the scenes stifles authentic storytelling. Aguirre gave us a perfect example: “When we have male photographers or male videographers, we find women aren’t as comfortable telling their stories.”
The handbook will guide storytelling organizations on how to implement these “essential practices” in their organizations and track and measure success. We have a long way to go to reach equality, but there’s value in celebrating progress: while only 38% of study respondents feel good about how representative TV shows are today, 49% feel good about the progress movies and TV shows have made.
Our stories matter. It is our job to help tell them— and tell them well.
Source: The Storytelling Unbound research study by UCI and Media Predict, 2017.