How to follow the thread
It’s no coincidence that The Fates of Greek mythology are female. The sisters sit and spin, each thread the life of a mortal. One sister decides when a thread will start, another adjusts the tension and thickness, and the third cuts it at the end.
Women are frequently storytellers. Sit around a playground and listen to the moms chat, or go to a laundromat, or the communal dressing room at Loehman’s. You’ll hear epic tales of finding a bargain at the designer rack, or intrigue and scandal at the PTA. You’ll hear detailed comparisons of size and technique.
Men tell stories to each other, too, when women aren’t around. Or so I’m told.
Are men’s stories better than women’s? I doubt it. Are they different? Perhaps. Are they told differently? You bet!
In her insightful book You Just Don’t Understand, Deborah Tannen describes the different ways men and women use speech. In general (and Tannen goes into more detail than we have space about the range of individual exceptions), women use conversation to establish common ground; men use it to establish hierarchy. This would suggest that we tell our stories for different reasons.
Other research suggests that men, in general, are more visually oriented than women. Some use this research to defend American comics’ overwhelmingly male audience. Men use their eyes, so they like pictures. This would be more credible if women didn’t constitute the main audience for text-challenged media like fashion magazines and celebrity tabloids. Women and girls also make up substantially more than half the market for books sold in bookstores, in all categories, including photography books and children’s picture books.
There must be other reasons that more women and girls aren’t reading American comics. Let’s reconsider what it takes to spin a yarn.
If research shows that men are more visually oriented, this suggests that women are more oriented to other senses. We are more likely to notice smell, touch, or sound. Stories that engage these senses will be more attractive.
When I started to knit, before I knew how to do fancy stitches, I loved knitting with hand-dyed yarns. I liked the seemingly random ways the different hues would fall together, the ever-shifting shades of color caused by pure fibers and dye. I would knit multi-colored yarns more quickly than single-colored yarns, eager to get to the combinations of colors that appealed to me the most.
I wanted to know what would happen next.
A good story engages all one’s senses. Prose, movies, theater, dance, painting and comics, when done well, stimulate the parts of the brain that simulate what isn’t explicitly there. If you read Shakespeare, you can feel the dampness in Hamlet’s castle. You can smell the rot on the battlefield in Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. Martha Graham’s ballets use muscle movements to evoke emotion.
American comics, for the most part, don’t do this. And when they do, there is no mechanism in place for readers to find out. The spirit is willing, but the marketing is weak.
Whether this creativity inspired in a man or a woman should be irrelevant. A good story is a good story. The pace, the movement, will both remind us of our shared humanity and transport us into another reality.
A good story pulls us in, word by word, stitch by stitch, row by row, line by line.