The Current

Everyone loves a good hero story, but this author says we need to look at the bigger picture

Author Rebecca Solnit's new book looks at the contemporary struggle over who controls the story of our society, and why some of those who have held the podium for so long are reluctant to share that microphone.

Rebecca Solnit's new book examines who gets centered in media narratives and why

Author Rebecca Solnit has just released a new collection of essays, Whose Story Is This?: Old Conflicts, New Chapters. (Adrian Mendoza)

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When author Rebecca Solnit was 18 and bussing tables at a diner in Sausalito, Calif., she says a chef nearly three times her age kept grabbing her from behind.

This was four decades ago, and she says she didn't think her boss would take her seriously if she brought a complaint to him.

So, she came up with a plan: the next time the chef grabbed her, she was holding a tray with nearly 40 clean glasses and let them all crash to the ground.

"I doubted [my boss] cared about the integrity of my ass, but he did care about losing 40 glasses," she told The Current interim host Laura Lynch.

Today, she says, there's a chance she wouldn't have to resort to those kinds of measures. She pointed to the story of a Georgia waitress who recently body slammed a customer who groped her, and received immediate support from the restaurant's manager and owner.

"She must have felt, 'I am in a world where my boss is actually is going to take this seriously. Maybe I'm even in a world where the police are going to treat this as assault,'" Solnit said.

Solnit just released a new book of essays, Whose Story Is This?: Old Conflicts, New Chapters, about the cultural shift around who gets to be at the centre of the stories we tell as a society.

Centring marginalized voices

"We are in this incredible era of changing the story," she said, arguing that recent social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have helped hand the microphone to voices that typically haven't had power.

"The police shooting the unarmed black woman is going to be about the woman, and not about the cop," she said.

Sandy Hudson, Alexandria Williams and Yusra Khogali, co-founders of Black Lives Matter Toronto, at Pride Toronto in 2016. Black Lives Matter is one of the movements Solnit credits with helping create more space for marginalized voices. (Courtesy of Paige Galette)

Solnit said that shift is causing "a tremendous battle" with people who have traditionally held the reins of power.

"We still have old white male judges who will treat a rape as how it affects the boy's future rather than the girl he raped," she said. "The story of immigrants is focused not on the desperation and terror that makes people become refugees, but how it is for the people when they arrive, the mild discomfort or annoyance of strangers in your community."

Greta Thunberg and the hero treatment 

Solnit also argued that as this cultural shift continues, storytelling — from Hollywood to journalism — needs to stop focusing on individual "heroes" and instead look at the underlying movements that have allowed those people to be propelled into the spotlight in the first place.

"The whole framework suggests ... that the rest of us are not heroes, that we're passive or wicked or helpless or confused and need to be saved," Solnit said.

"If you actually look at the most beautiful parts of our histories, it's mass movement, it's collectives, it's groundswells," she said. "It's not the exceptional, but the ordinary people who change the world."

Swedish activist and student Greta Thunberg, centre, takes part in the Climate Strike in Montreal on Sept. 27. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Solnit pointed to how the media paints environmental teen activist Greta Thunberg as an individual hero, instead of looking at the decades of feminist and environmental activism, especially by Indigenous people, that helped lay the groundwork for more people to be open to hearing Thunberg's message. 

"I think Greta is wonderful and amazing, but I think that she was in the right place at the right time. And what made it the right place? What made it the right time?" she said.

"It's a collective engagement that created this space for her to be heard. And it's the people ready to listen to her."

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Karin Marley.