The Politics of Narrative Patterns

There are all sorts of reasons the American election went the way it did, but I think one of them, and perhaps quite an important one, was the way in which our thinking is determined by narrative patterns. What do I mean by narrative patterns? I mean that in narratives, in stories, there are underlying patterns we are familiar with. They recur from story to story: stories are often variations on these patterns. When we encounter these patterns, we feel fulfilled, comfortable — we recognize them, we like to read about them. We like variation, but only a certain amount of variation. Too much variation makes us feel unsatisfied, as though somehow the story is written “wrong.”

Let me give you an example. One narrative pattern is of the couple that dislikes each other but is destined to be together. We can call it the Pride and Prejudice pattern. As soon as we see the bickering but attractive couple on screen, we know the man and woman (it is usually a man and woman) are going to get together. We just don’t know how, or how long it will take. We willingly wait — the length of a book, a television season — for the pattern to be fulfilled. The pleasure is in watching the slow fulfillment of the pattern. But what if the woman decides it’s taking too long, that she would really rather be dating someone else? And then does date him, and then marries him and doesn’t regret it, but settles down happily to have children, grow old with her new and non-destined partner? That breaks the pattern. And at some deep level, a breaking of the pattern is upsetting to us. We might think that the writer isn’t doing it right, the television show has “jumped the shark.” We might feel cheated — after all, destined lovers are supposed to either get married or die for love. We don’t really want them to have any other ending.

Or what if the young hero, having been chosen by the wise old man (Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi), goes on his destined quest, decides he’s tired of being cold and tired and in peril all the time, and just goes home to become a farmer, or an accountant? That’s not a story at all! you might tell me. Well, no, not if we define a story in a certain way — and we do, don’t we? What if instead of oppressing Cinderella, her stepsisters act like ordinary stepsisters, have perfectly ordinary sibling rivalries but nothing that goes so far as relegating anyone to be a servant, sleep by the stove, cover herself in ashes . . . That’s not a story. No, because we define stories in terms of narrative patterns.

Really, of course, anything can be a story. I looked up the word online, to find the most commonly accepted meanings. Here are a few: “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment,” “a report of an item of news in a newspaper, magazine, or news broadcast,” “a piece of gossip; a rumor.” None of those things have to fit a particular pattern. But that’s not really how we use the term, not when we say Tell me a story. No, then we mean “a plot or story line.” We want to hear about the destined lovers who find each other through hardship or finally recognize each other despite their own pride and prejudice. We want to hear about the hero chosen for a difficult quest who finally, against all odds, fulfills it and his destiny. We want to hear that Cinderella, poor and oppressed, fits the shoe and marries the prince. That’s what we mean by stories, and good stories. These narrative patterns are not unique to fairy tales, or genre fiction — they are everywhere, and what we call realism is as driven by them as any other kind of fiction.

There are writers who have claimed there is only one narrative pattern (for example, Joseph Campbell writing about the hero’s journey). That’s wrong. There are writers who have claimed there are two, or three, or twelve . . . No, there are many narrative patterns, and some are in the process of dying while others are being born. And they are not universal but deeply inflected by culture. The young man who must renounce his earthly love to go on a holy quest disappeared some time ago in our culture, and when we read it now, it sounds funny — like, why give up romantic love for the Holy Grail? That’s because we still value romantic love. The Holy Grail, not so much. However, many of our narrative patterns are thousands of years old. Each age dresses the pattern up in its own clothes, but the pattern persists. A civilized woman can still tame the wild man of the woods, as in the Epic of Gilgamesh, although nowadays the pattern might reverse itself and the woodsy man in a plaid shirt will likely help the woman convinced all she wants is to become a partner in her New York law firm understand that really, she wants to go live in the woods and write poetry, because that’s her deepest authentic self. The pattern persists . . .

These patterns are important because they are woven deeply in us, from the moment we are born to the moment we die, through the stories told to us — by our mothers, our teachers, our media. They weave us into our culture, and they weave us, ourselves — we are made of stories. We experience these patterns as truths and expect to live our lives by them. If we feel as though we are Cinderella, we expect to marry the prince, eventually. And then, if we don’t get our prince, we are often disappointed . . . One reason these patterns are so useful is that they are cognitive shortcuts. If we can understand the world through patterns, we don’t have to think as much or as hard. In the medieval era, accepting the story that the king was ordained by God and could do whatever he wished was a useful cognitive shortcut — if you did not accept it, you had to think so much harder, and for yourself, outside the pattern. You had to become a radical.

Why am I linking the idea of narrative pattern to politics? Because, while there are many reasons the election went the way it did, one reason, I believe, has to do with narrative patterns. People did not get so excited by Barack Obama, when he first ran, because of his policies. No, he was the young hero who had overcome adversity and triumphed. This was his quest, and when he won, it was his Cinderella moment. He fit the patterns, and voters invested energy and belief in him because of that. Of course they were disappointed — how could they not be, to realize he was a human being after all, one who had to do the complicated work of actually governing, of compromising to get anything done? When Donald Trump came along, he fit another narrative pattern: the stranger who rides into town and imposes order, bringing justice to the frontier. That’s a pattern embedded deep in American culture — you can see it in Clint Eastwood movies. It did not hurt him that he was not morally pure, because we do not expect the gunslinger to be morally pure — no, that’s reserved for heroes. And for women. So what pattern did Hillary Clinton fit? That’s the problem right there. We only have two patterns for older women who want political power. One is the Virgin Queen, like Elizabeth I: a woman is fit to wield power if she is willing to give up other aspects of being a woman, such as marital relationships or children. Her sacrifice makes her worthy. Notice how often Clinton was criticized for not having gotten a divorce, usually by women voters. While that criticism may have reflected a number of things, in part it reflected our underlying expectations about women and power — Clinton’s marriage and motherhood took her out of this particular pattern. What was left? The Wicked Queen. We know what she does — she seizes power (illegitimately) for her own gain, to satisfy her own ambition. She kills people or has them killed (this too was a criticism lodged against Clinton). And the Wicked Queen cannot be allowed to gain power — she must be defeated. All of our stories have told us that, from childhood on.

Did these patterns result in election victories or defeats? Who knows. But I think we can see them in the discourse around the election, in the ways candidates were talked about and thought of. There is a sense in which we live out the patterns, we live by the patterns — sometimes we die by the patterns. The patterns give us meaning. But . . . the patterns can change.

Once, I wondered if there was any use in my being a writer. I mean, I didn’t think it would be useless to me — I like being a writer. But I wondered if I, as a writer, would be of any use. To other people, to humanity as a whole. I wondered if I should have become a human rights lawyer, or something like that. But now I think that one of our most important tasks is telling stories, and I am a storyteller. I am a perpetuator and creator of narrative patterns. That means I have an obligation to be aware of the patterns, to wield them in ways that are good, and true, and useful. And I can create new patterns.

Whatever you think of these candidates individually (and I’m not talking about them here as individuals — that’s not my aim), I think it’s clear that we have a problem with the narrative patterns for women.  If we want women in positions of power, if indeed that is something we would like to see (and I would), then we need to create new patterns. If we want to see other possibilities for women in general, so they are not stuck in binaries of various sorts, we need to create new patterns. Which is what, in my writing, I am trying to do . . .


(Portrait of Elizabeth I (Armada Portrait), by an unknown painter.)


(Illustration of the Wicked Queen from “Snow White” by Bess Livings.)

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15 Responses to The Politics of Narrative Patterns

  1. There is a third pattern for older women who seek power: the Iron Lady. It’s the one that most women who’ve successfully become heads of state, esp trailblazers, have fit into: Indira Gandhi; Benazir Bhutto; Margaret Thatcher; Golda Meir; Catherine the Great; Madame Mao; etc. Most of these women were married and had children. Often they derived some portion of their power from famous fathers or husbands. They tended to be hawkish, nationalistic, and not show much emotion. I think Hillary Clinton throughout the latter half of her career did her best to fit into this mould, and much of the media coverage of her tried to put her there too.

    • That’s an excellent point. I have a feeling that particular pattern doesn’t work as well in the US — maybe because the media kept criticizing Clinton for not smiling, not being pleasant and appealing enough? People didn’t want her to be an Iron Lady. And yet it totally worked for her as Secretary of State. The only real Iron Lady I can think of in American Politics is Madeleine Albright, another Secretary of State. I wonder if it works better in other countries because they have more models of that sort of leader? England has Queen Victorian, for instance, who had a bit of Iron Lady in her. Catherine the Great was definitely an Iron Lady! But yes, a very interesting alternative pattern . . .

      • helen says:

        This is a fascinating analysis and so good! Thank you.

        With regard to the Iron Lady, in Britain we have an interesting example of exactly what you’re talking about. Theresa May is only the second ever female British prime minister, her precedent is of course Mrs T, and both she and the tabloid press are very keen to fit her into that Iron Lady mould, to give her that narrative. Yet so far it seems, to me anyway, to be fitting rather awkwardly. I wonder how it will pan out…

    • BTW I wrote something about Hermione below — I think the smart, bookish woman is another possible pattern that’s emerging. But she doesn’t yet get to be the heroine. She’s Velma or Willow . . .

      • Hermione! I like that. That’s the sort of mold that, say, Tulsi Gabbard seems to fit into. It’s also kind of a trap, since it requires perfection. It’s sort of like the super-moms who we adulate. They need to be authentic, hardworking, smart, and non threatening.

        I also think perhaps it’s that all the leaders I mentioned took power in parliamentary systems, where they had only to persuade their own parties, rather than the voters, that they should be in charge. Maybe there’s something there. Or maybe Hillary would’ve been more successful as a republican: most of the leaders I named were more right of center.

  2. sandy says:

    I think Hillary’s biggest liability wasn’t so much that she was a woman, but she was a “Clinton.” Just saying.

    However, I think your idea of narrative pattern is correct, but I also wonder if we, as a population, are even reading the same book with the same plot. Watching CNN versus Fox News, both portray a very different America. I wonder which is the correct version.

    • Yes, I think there are lots of other things going on too! This is just part of the picture . . . I think we get many of the same narrative patterns, but yes, we interpret them differently. And we do seem to be in a particularly polarized world where sometimes the interpretations are diametrically opposed . . . (For example, we have two totally different interpretations of wolves, as either dangerous predators or endangered.)

      • Phyllis Holliday says:

        My I-Mac was in a coma for a month and a half, so I am happy to return. One thing about Hillary I thought, was that she was in a marriage like mine. My husband and I shared more than love and children. We were also a team in the arts. We supported each other in music, theatre, writing, some short movies, and illustrations. Bill never stopped supporting her. My husband did. I can post this because he left California and died in 2001.

        Also I think there is another kind of important woman in tales; either the fairy godmother or the evil witch.

  3. ronwodaski says:

    Very insightful essay. I immediately thought of one way in which these patterns confuse us by taking us down the wrong path of assumptions: Trump is much more the Wicked King, it’s just that the role doesn’t exist like the wicked queen does. And I don’t think we have a pattern for the dedicated female accountant who looks our for herself and her user-family, either…

    • I think we actually have a new pattern in Hermione from Harry Potter — the girl who does her homework. And a lot of people tried to cast Clinton in that mold. But it’s not very strongly ingrained yet . . . I would say Velma from Scooby Doo is a Hermione-type. Also Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

  4. Anne says:

    Fantastic insights!!

  5. A very insightful essay. As a Trump voter I did see Clinton as a wicked witch. I saw her as a wicked witch when I voted for Obama over her. It didn’t help her that she rose to power on the coattails of her charismatic husband who now looks like a life drained corpse.

    • That taps into another narrative pattern: the woman riding on her husband’s coattails. Most of what I’ve read suggests it was the other way round. Hillary Rodham’s friends thought she was marrying beneath her. She was making more money than he was. She made plenty of concessions in the interest of his career, including taking his name.

      Would the charismatic Bill Clinton have gotten as far as he got without Hillary behind him? Interesting question — and of course it segues into yet another pattern: the woman who wields the power behind her husband or sons, often because her society doesn’t give her the option to do it in her own right (at least at first). Mostly this is a negative pattern: think of all those evil stepmothers who intimidate their weak-willed husbands into doing terrible things. Once in a while a woman pulls it off, like Catherine the Great — but look at all the nasty things people say about her.

  6. Very interesting read. Thank you!

  7. davidlamont3829 says:

    Cast a Good-Spell!

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