Brand building through storytelling

What the media still miss about women

When new Chatelaine EIC Lianne George invited me to speak to her team today about my years at the helm, I thought “Not at the busiest time of the year.” Then I realized it’s exactly when I’m busy and stressed that I most value the lift of a meaningful connection. What people on the run need to balance isn’t work time and personal time; it’s things that deplete our mental wellspring and other things that top it up. Returning to Chatelaine was a bit like taking my grandson Cameron on an outing–all fun, no worry, and other hands, eminently capable, to take over at the end of the adventure. Of the many thoughtful questions the group asked, the one still on my mind is “Which story about women’s lives has been most mishandled or ignored by the media?”

Bear with me–the answer is going to take a while. And before I comment on today’s media landscape, I need to tell you about the dark, tangled thicket where I started out as an editor and writer.

Picture the Maclean’s story meeting, circa 1980. The power brokers at the table are all men, one of them a vicious misogynist. The few women are younger, trying to fit in and avoid costly missteps. As a new recruit from a women’s magazine, I’m regarded as an airhead by some of those at the table. Yet my brief includes health, among other topics, and our writers are turning up compelling untold stories about women’s health. Every time I pitch one of these stories, I must explain why it’s a Maclean’s story, not a trifling “women’s magazine story.” I am reminded, yet again, of my inferior status. I feel called upon to disown and deny my reality. My navy blue jacket proclaims my serious intentions; the kitty cat bow on my red silk blouse says, “Guys, I’m not here to break your balls.”

Big media then were controlled by men and conceived for men. Stories about women were either buried in the life section (as if men were much too important to care about this thing called “life”) or left to women’s magazines, which in those days ran lots of cheerleading “first woman whatever” or “women in ” articles. That’s by no means the whole picture, though. As a prolific, full-time freelancer in the 80s, I got to write some groundbreaking stories that Maclean’s and the Globe would not have touched–for instance, a full-length Chatelaine feature in which mothers opened up about their struggles with postpartum depression. That story took the reader right inside the world of women who’d been told that motherhood was their highest calling, yet felt like cows as they nursed their colicky newborns. These women were under pressure to disown and deny their reality, just as I had been at Maclean’s. When some of them were interviewed on a phone-in show, they were vilified and told they didn’t deserve to have children. (I had used their real names, and regret it to this day.)

So much has changed since then. Missing and murdered indigenous women are finally getting sustained and serious attention. The rights and wrongs of breast cancer screening are a front-page issue (along with many other long-ignored health concerns of women). Editorial writers are cheering Trudeau’s 50 percent female cabinet. As the Ghomeshi scandal broke, CBC was roundly and rightly lambasted for creating a culture that promoted the abuse and humiliation of women. And we’re starting to see a recognition that raising kids while earning an income is a pressing human issue, not just a women’s issue. I could go on but I still haven’t answered the question. So here’s what I want to see that mainstream media still aren’t showing me with any regularity:

* I want to see transgressive and conflicted women speaking truths shared only with their closest friends, if at all. There’s a whole realm of largely untold stories about how it really feels to caring for someone with a grave, progressive illness of the mind or body. “Caregiver burnout” is a label slapped on a condition that’s going to be all around us as the baby boomers age. What’s it like from the inside? Some of the best writing on this discomfiting subject has appeared in online publications–e.g., an unforgettable first-person piece about the indignities of changing your disabled spouse’s diaper. You may think you don’t want to read about this. And if this is your husband, you may think you don’t want to talk about the looks you get in the women’s washroom when you bring him in on his walker. But I was grateful for the piece. It said to the reader, “There is nothing you can face that it’s not okay to talk about.” Readers can’t hear this too many times.

Women still come under pressure to disown and deny their reality. I see this every time I lead a memoir workshop for women: my students’ fundamental challenge isn’t word craft or narrative arc, but the fear that their story doesn’t matter and that by presuming to tell it they are breaking the cardinal rule of womanhood.

* I want to see abortion approached as a human issue, not simply as a political issue–although the politics have never been more urgent and newsworthy. What’s it like to need an abortion when you live in a state that has made it all but impossible to have one? Where are the stories that reflect the hard choices made by conflicted women? The one powerful example I recall, by Carolyn Jones in Texas Observer stands out partly because there should be other voices.

* I want to see a searching conversation about the D-word. That’s D for death, a stigmatized topic even as the boomers enter the peak years for grim diagnoses. Oliver Sacks has proven that death need not be depressing. And there’s so much territory to explore. Assisted suicide, obviously (from the inside, and from multiple perspectives). But also funerals and other memorials. As some of you here are aware, I’m planning a memorial website for a mentor and friend who died 20 years ago. Nothing depressing about that! It’s all about celebration.

* I want to see an exploration of what working people can do–men and women alike–to counter the increasingly dehumanizing effects of the modern workplace. It’s getting harder to cultivate and maintain a sense of meaning. How are we going to do that? Who’s on the case?

* I want to see stories about what it’s going to take to live on less, as so many families must do in this age of fleeting employment. Recently on Facebook, I joined a conversation in which people young enough to be my children were talking about the dream of home ownership in Toronto. Most had realized it wasn’t going to happen. They didn’t sound particularly down about it; they were just being realistic. If I were still editing a magazine or pitching stories, I’d definitely jump into action. And I would see potential for years of stories to come.

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