The danger of a dominant frame of reference
We are, many of us, aware of the danger of a single story, of a single representation defining and confining us to stereotypes. When we see diversity represented in stories, when we see ourselves not as caricatures but as full-fledged people, we shatter the assumptions that come from having seen, for instance, hundreds of darker-skinned people as villains or women as princesses in need of rescuing, or heterosexual marriage as the only kind of happily ever after.
Our family has been watching Encanto for the last week, appreciating every loving detail on each rewatch. We’ve rejoiced in seeing a dark-skinned bespectacled ordinary girl take on the lead role in a genre formerly left to princesses, with an extended family that shows the diverse tapestry of human existence while the language of emotion and music can make that very diversity feel universal.
I love Encanto, but even as far as we have come, I still find something fundamentally dissonant about the way Disney tells stories. This is their frame of reference, the structure and language of storytelling itself. I don’t just mean the way heroes are encoded with soft curves and villains with sharp edges. We’ve started, more recently, to get over that, and Encanto doesn’t really have a villain. But it does have a clear antagonist, and a clear protagonist, who are positioned on opposite sides of the house.
Two concepts that are endemic to Western storytelling are the binary divide between protagonists and antagonists, and the dominance of a single frame of reference, a point of view. Even in ensemble stories like Avengers, even when there is a civil war between protagonists, they are fighting not just each other but for screen time, for the right to tell the story. The antagonist rarely occupies the frame as much as the protagonist.
The stories I read growing up were different. I had to braid in the independent story arcs of various characters who were each protagonists in their own right, whose backstories occupied so much of the story that there was never a single frame of reference. Any attempt to define good versus evil would fail instantly, of course, but so would any attempt to determine whose story this was in the first place. I’d start off reading about a character only to have them cede the foreground to their descendants as the next generation took over the reins of the story.
I’ve been reading some of these stories to my niblings, and noticing how challenging they find it to break past the structures of Western storytelling. From asking, “But who are the birds and who are the pigs?” to “Wait, but [character] died? Why did we read about him for so long if he died before we even got to the battle?” their questions betray assumptions that come from the reductive nature of Western storytelling.
How are children supposed to grapple with moral ambiguity and the complexity of real decisions if we teach them that there is always a right and a wrong answer, that every choice is between good and evil? And how are they supposed to learn to resist the lure of easy fixes if they don’t understand long-term, intergenerational consequences? Neither of these lessons is possible within the structure of Western storytelling, where a dominant frame of reference tells you who to root for before you’ve struggled with the story questions.
If you’re surprised this piece ends here, without a solution, you’re probably caught up in the structure of Western storytelling too.
Below: one frame of three on a bridge in Isfahan, Iran