An Oral Storytelling Paradigm For Our Cyber Village Squares

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, pp. 249-70.

3 Luckman, p. 255.

4 ibid.

5 Luckman, p. 264-265.

6 Bridget Crawford, “Who’s Afraid of Cupcake Feminism?”

Image on front page by Gwydion M. Williams and available on Flickr. 


I remember reading The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights and drawing the same parallels as the students mentioned above. For me, Shahrazad was Jasmine and King Shahriyar was the villainous Jafar figure. As a student, I overlooked the subversive nature of her narratives. It was taught to me as a glimpse into "Arabian" culture and not as "subversive proto-feminism." The connection between cultural narrative, social media, and engagement with dominant narratives immediately made me think of the Arab Spring (the use of social media to protest, share experiences, and in some cases, overthrow governments). This lead me to think of other areas/times (hip hop in the 70s/80s) where narrative was meant to enact social change, engage dominant narratives, and gain social position. How these narratives transfer into cyberspace, I'm not sure. Tumblr's microblogging and social networking nature may lending itself for a space where narratives can be crafted and shared with multimedia.

Chvonne, I think Tumblr is an interesting site to bring up in the context of this conversation. The format lends itself  to more reflective narratives and tumblr posts can capitalize on digital affordances to create narratives that are non-linear and associative--layers of knowledges. So, it is kind of on its way to dialog. But I still wonder if the social networking part of Tumblr is not just the same old "like" culture of instant non-substantive and disembodied response.  I guess I am wondering if social networks can/should become more engaged, or if some other aspect of digital space will evolve to take up that banner--perhaps through annotation, which Marc Andreeson of Rap Genius sees as potentially an internet-wide way of revealing "layers of knowledge" in everything!

Fascinating questions, and I found your discussion of Etsy and Pinterest particularly interesting as spaces of "cupcake feminism." 

In regard to your point about identity, I teach general education composition courses, and I can't help but think of college students and the way they enter social media spaces and engage with them -- the way they utilize them to construct and publish a "college kid" identity on media like Vine. For example, Gawker, a popular news/gossip site, posted this blog featuring one particular college student's vine videos:

First of all, the vines reviewed here are pretty hilarious, but your piece had me considering some of the implications behind Gawker's review. Because social media sites are often used by celebrities (comedians, actors, football players), does there seem to be an impulse to entertain an audience as much as there is to inform (perhaps more)? If so, it appears that the narratives presented on social media sites are often rated by the level of entertainment they provide. In this Gawker blog, the writer evaluates the level of entertainment in these vines (as well as the character of the student who created them), and many comments on the blog follow suit. While Vine may not offer a reflective space for this kind of evaluation, other supportive social media (like blogs), offer an opportunity to assess narratives (and narrators) and point viewers to the next big thing in social media entertainment.

You make a great point about college students' online identities, and I think of this in terms Susan D. Blum outlines in her book My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture, Cornell University, 2009. She sees today's college student as adept at performing many selves, and one of those is, as you point out, this sort of broad entertainer-identity associated with social media. Blum brings Sherry Turkle into the discussion with Turkle's question that I think is important to our conversation here: "Do our real-life selves learn lessons from our virtual personae?" ( Turkle qt. in Blum 79) This would make a great starting point for a critical assignment that engages students with something like Vine--which is just plain so much fun to work with. So, for example, instead of qualitatively evaluating a Vine according to its entertainment value, create the opportunity for students to think about the different ways they present themselves in different parts of their lives, and perhaps challenging them to bring those identities into new places--?

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