The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights1 began in the oral storytelling tradition, taking shape in dusty village squares through the verbal interplay between storyteller and community. In contrast to our romantic tradition of a text as fixed, an oral narrative is a constantly changing co-creation. Shahrazad and King Shahriyar represent this recognizably social medium in a particularly exigent way, as nightly she invents another tale forestalling her death, and the murderous King gradually revises the violent narrative about women that has led him to want to kill every one in the kingdom.
Today we engage in many cyber village squares. The character of Shahrazad and the oral storytelling tradition have things to teach us about how our cultural narratives might go forward in purposeful, generative ways. The keys to meaningful uses of social media lie in the co-creative process and in the way Shahrazad embodies the change she wants to effect. In what ways do we use social media to speak back, to rewrite unjust narratives as Shahrazad does?
Young women in my literature classes at first interpret Shahrazad’s narrative tactics not as subversive proto-feminism but as a non-threatening performance of beauty and brains. They conflate her with Disney’s film Aladdin, a confection that gave them princess Jasmine, who always comes up in affectionate terms, bringing memories of Jasmine toys and clothes. The typical Disney princess not only doesn’t shake up the patriarchal order, she has her own commercial empire. Having begun to learn their own narratives as women here, where is the media magic carpet taking these students now?
Successful social spaces like Etsy and Pinterest spin complex narratives for women. The disembodiment of cyberspace has lead to the popularity of social sites with a traditional feminine home craft emphasis that recalls the analog2, creates feel-good nostalgia, and purports to empower women economically while wrapping women’s stories about their lives in a curatorial frenzy reminiscent of my students’ early Disney princess collections. In an article about the “Etsy moment,”3 Susan Luckman points to this human need for embodiment in the face of the digital: “...handmade objects are imbrued with the sense of touch and therefore offer the sense of the ‘authentic’ in an inauthentic world.”4 Luckman expresses concern about Etsy’s emphasis on women’s creative work in the home as reinforcing “the invisibility of women’s labor” as well as serving utopian middle class consumer values “...quench(ing) the desire for genuine change.”5 According to Bridget Crawford of the blog Feminist Law Professors, “the sugar ‘n spice act counters next to no expectations.”6 Etsy’s kind of “cupcake feminism” is simply more girl than grrl.
How can we characterize digital narrative tactics? In our social media environment of instantaneous response, Shahrazad’s narrative tactics seem ponderously reflective. (It takes her 1001 nights to effect a change!) Where are our places for reflective social exchange and purposeful engagement with dominant narratives? How do we bring our bodies, our gendered, racial, cultural identities into cyberspace in authentic ways that tell stories to generate change instead of to quench it? How will we move the mind of the King?
1 The version I refer to here is The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights, Malcolm C. Lyons, trans. Penguin Classics. 2007.
2 Susan Luckman, “The Aura Of the Analog in a Digital Age,” Critical Studies Review. 19:1, http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/csrj/index. pp. 249-70.
3 Luckman, p. 255.
5 Luckman, p. 264-265.
6 Bridget Crawford, “Who’s Afraid of Cupcake Feminism?” http://www.feministlawprofessors.com/2012/02/whos-afraid-cupcake-feminism/