I am made of stories.
Most of them are my own stories, in the form of memories, ideas about the world and how it should be navigated, or my beliefs about who I am.
I’m not going to talk about those right now.
But I am also built from other people’s stories or at least the way those stories shape me and my perceptions.
I’m talking about comic books. I’m talking about video games. I’m talking about movies and sports columns and television shows.
I’m don’t mean this symbolically. I have the Decepticon logo from Transformers tattooed on the inside of my right forearm. I am wearing a fake concert t-shirt featuring the Max Rebo Band from Return of the Jedi. These stories are a literal, physical part of the self I present to the world.
A t-shirt and a tattoo. Something I can put on and take off and something that’s a part of me. Shirts and skins.
My stories are like that too.
Let’s talk about shirts first.
* * *
I’ve never known a world without the original Star Wars trilogy.
It was so much a part of my life growing up, I have no idea if it’s I actually like it. I know the characters, the lines, but I don’t have an OPINION on it per se. That would be like having an opinion on gravity or weather.
Then again, whether Star Wars is good or not or how much I like it is beside the point.
To me, Star Wars is a community story, which is to say the story itself isn’t as important as its role as a marker of my cultural identity.
The interesting thing about stories in this role is not only is liking them or not beside the point, but also that stories don’t even need to be seen or experienced to engage with them on this level.
For example, a few weeks ago, an episode of the TV show Game of Thrones, one that ends with one of the show‘s major characters being sexually assaulted, is dominating the internet conversation.
The conversation is about the use of rape as a plot device.
I feel like I have to have a public opinion on this Game of Thrones episode even though I haven’t actually seen it (*), and I also feel this opinion says something about the kind of person I am.
In other words, we aren’t talking about the stories. We are using them as jumping off point to publicly identify where we stand on social issues, our cultural identity, or our belief systems.
It‘s a way of saying who you are and which tribe you belong to. The stories themselves are beside the point. My opinion tells other people what kind of person I am.
Star Wars shirts are like that. Over the last few years, I have watched much MUCH more UFC than I have Star Wars. But I would never wear a UFC t-shirt. It’s not because I’m ashamed of watching UFC, but because mixed martial arts does not feel like part of my public identity. It’s not the first thing I want people to know about me.
I don’t wear Star Wars t-shirts because I feel a connection with Han Solo. I wear it so other people know I know Star Wars and we can quote Han Solo line at one another.
But Star Wars is not a part of me. Like the shirt, it’s something I can take off.
Not every story is like that.
* * *
There’s another way I engage with stories. It’s more primal, more direct, and harder to explain because as soon as I try to put it into words, I feel as though I’ve put something between me and my experience.
No explanation is required. It hits you or it doesn’t.
In some ways, music is a great example of this. I can write about Queensryche or Vinnie Vincent Invasion all I like. None of those words will ever be able to make you feel what I feel when I listen to them. I can write about how these songs mattered to me, but can never make you feel what I felt when they first touched my life.
Sometimes the personal becomes part of our identity. Skid Row was a big part of my life during the late eighties early nineties. It was personal to me. Now…not so much. So I consider myself a Skid Row fan even though years pass without me listening to their music and when I do my only connection with the music is sentimental--hey, I remember that song. And these lyrics coming up are ones I used to really like (**).
Sometimes the community prevents me from wanting to make a personal connection with the material. I remember the hype around The Phantom Menace when it came out. I distinctly recall walking into a department store and seeing row and row of Phantom Menace projects--coloring books, action figures, puzzles, posters as far as the eye could see.
And I thought, Nope. I don’t need to see this movie.
I still haven’t.
Sometimes, the fact that there is no community or cultural narrative built up around a show leaves me more space to engage with the material. I can quietly watch it and process it in my own way and not feel any need to Have an Opinion on it.
The Americans is great for this. The show is well-acted, well-written, and non-judgemental, and far from the public consciousness. It shows me the choices the characters make, the consequences of those choices, and how they feel about it all, but it rarely asks me to feel any particular way about it or invite me to draw any conclusions about What it All Means.
In some ways The Americans goes beyond shirts OR skins. It’s neither a part of my community, nor a part of my identity, and thus it manages to transcend both. I relate to it on its terms instead of trying to fit it into my own.
I might be made of stories, but there are other stories out their besides my own.
It’s a joy to be able to see them.
(*) Oddly, in some cases not seeing the source material HELPS. For example, I learned a lot from the Game of Thrones debate. I got a clearer picture about what the people who objected to the scene found objectionable and understood better what the scene‘s defenders were defending. And I found it significantly easier to see to what others were saying about the show when I wasn’t blinded by my own opinions on the scene.
(**) Who am I kidding? I still enjoy Skid Row’s lyrics, especially the ones off the Slave to the Grind album. Check them out--they’re more evocative than you might think.