Women as cultural storytellers (and lack of international voices in media)
Our stories have the power to break down barriers.
We are already well aware that women are essential to fully understanding history, as family & tradition teachers, cultural witnesses and storytellers, yet their stories have been often omitted from the narrative, which has led to a very one sided account. As we have seen in the last century, there has been movement towards equality, but it’s been on long, slow march and we still battle one-sided conversations, power structures, opportunities, and representation. As someone who has worked in media, entertainment and travel/hospitality, I have seen the unbelievable absence of voices from women beyond our boarders, from around the world, and across racial and economic lines, which has no doubt further marginalize the realities (and relatabilities) of the female experience. This is also not new, and I am hardly going to tackle the massive conversation of so many other omissions of representation (i.e. ageism, sexual & gender identity), but it has always stuck me as odd that travel stories told in magazines, newspapers, tv, new, movies and marketing, have lacked the actual voices of people from the other cultures they are exploring. Surely to tackle stereotypes, we should be hearing more from locals directly (not just other people’s interpretation of them), in any and all capacities, in an effort to find our commonalities and bridge our relationships. If we are really living in a global society, where is the ease of understanding, dialogue, and relatability, instead of “convenient” stereotypes?
As a traveler, I sure know it’s always better to learn about a place from the locals, and every time I sit and speak with new communities, I find we have far more in common than not. And specifically speaking with women across cultures, and recognizing our many shared hopes and fears, says more about the human race than any one particular nation. Diverse global voices can only strengthen our understanding of one another and bridge the divide that continues to be wedged wider from politicians pedaling their “us” and “them” messaging, pitting humans against each other for perceived gain, rather than the will of the people. I see greater power in women discussing their experiences and observations as mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, — certainly as strong communicators and empaths — on a variety of media platforms, with much greater frequency. It helps that social media and forums like youtube give substantial direct access to one another, but to start tearing down those preconceived notions, and empower youth to see beyond the limited images they are presented of “others” vs themselves, why aren’t we hearing from more multi-national voices in our media, entertainment, marketing?
*Revisit my podcast interview with journalist Hollie McKay on her conversations with women in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and more.
While journalism, entertainment and advertising are at the forefront of storytelling and selling images, it important that they also strive to include many more of these voices (as actress Frances Mcdormand recently called attention to with her “inclusion rider” mention in her Oscar speech), as they hold the power to great change through mass exposure. Just last week National Geographic released their ‘Race Issue’ that addressed their lack of accurate cultural representation over the years, while the NY Times ran obituaries for incredible women who shaped our culture, yet were never acknowledged in their esteemed pages.
*Read the latest National Geographic ‘Race Issue’ and their lead article ‘For decades our coverage was racist. To rise above the past, we must acknowledge it’.
*Read the NY Times ‘remarkable women we overlooked in our obituaries’
Media & Entertainment
Journalism always leads the charge on international stories, and it’s been great to see more interactive coverage on outlets like the NY Times that include audio interviews with locals, as well as programming like Christiane Anampour’s new show ‘Sex & Love Around The World’ and Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” (both CNN) that spends it’s time giving a platform to other places and people that beam back to our homes, and inspire us to learn/see more (hopefully it even challenges perceptions). Now that entertainment will need to adjust to a new selling model (international movie box offices, and direct to consumer programming now that people prefer apps & streaming services to cable), it will need to increase content production on shows that appeal to an international audience, which means they have a HUGE opportunity to tell stories with a diverse cast. Hopefully this can lead to stripping away of lazy stereotypes, convenient appropriation and marginalization of other cultures, and of course, sexist role play. In terms of women (and the west’s obsession with homogenized youth), general misrepresentation on issues of sexism, ageism, class & race, can have the opportunity to reflect the people that we see out in the world every day, not just in the confines of past selective imagery. We are starved for better stories which include wisdom, experience, perspective, originality, and authenticity. How can we amplify diverse voices from around the world, and encourage the “we” not the “them” or “other”?
CONTENT AND PROJECTS
→ Both projects ‘The Atlas of Beauty’ and ‘Humans of New York’ have made an effort to go out into the world to capture the faces and stories of men and women from around the globe, even in war torn regions. (I also really appreciated actor/musician Riz Ahmed’s recent instagram stories from Pakistan to share his family roots). We need more of this. MUCH more.
→ The artist JR has created photography murals around the world to challenge stereotypes and racism. His powerful imagery has appeared everywhere form the slums of São Paulo to the border wall in Israel. The street artist Banksy too has made these challenges around the world in the most unexpected ways.
→ Kudos to both Conan O’Brien and Chelsea Handler for their effort to shoot more segments from around the world, spending real time locals. I know some people have criticized them, but you have to appreciate the fact that they leveraged their large audiences to share life in others parts of the world, which is one more step toward’s bringing down walls people make with their pre-conceived notions about “others”. And doing so with humor can go a long way.
→ New entertainment production companies, such as Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine, were founded on the principal of telling female-driven stories. And the production company behind ‘Parts Unknown’ and ‘Somebody Feed Phil’ — Zero Point Zero— was co-founded by Lydia Tenaglia. I can only hope that such female -driven stories will include women of different cultures and ages, and that female hosts are added to the hefty travel and food show line up on Netflix which are nearly all presented by male hosts (don’t even get me started on Travel Channel, Nat Geo TV, Discover Channel).
→ Travel writers: More interviews with locals wherever you find yourselves please, we want to hear them, and you can share interviews anywhere from your publishing platform, to social.
→ Travel Bloggers: Please consider sharing more interviews with locals, in their own words. Adding audio and video behind the scenes would go a long way. Their local insight isinvaluable.
→ Travel TV: If you really want to access more stories from locals, PLEASE give more of your shows to female hosts that can access conversations their male counterparts cannot. I don’t say this out of resentment, it’s literally that women journalists/writers/hosts can often meet and interview local women where men cannot, and we are missing a big part of the cultural conversation. And while I love all of the current travel programming, from ‘Parts Unknown’ to ‘Somebody Feed Phil’, there is a gaping hole and longtime travel show host Samantha Brown can’t host them all 😉 Also, Youtubers-turned-segment hosts, this goes for you too — more interviews!
→ While social media has opened a portal to other worlds, people and places (Pinterest claims 40+ million people use their platform every month for travel ideas, and you only need to search #travel on instagram to see just how many people are suddenly travel experts), there is an opportunity to be voyeuristic in the visual. What would be great, is if people (not just publications) who have a captive audience would add historical and/or cultural context to their glossy posts (which many professional travel writers do) — just imagine the impact of connecting tiny dots of knowledge could do for the many people watching!
HOTEL & DESTINATION MARKETING
→ Having worked with international hotel and hospitality brands, I have often been shocked by the lack of imagination and local storytelling for their destinations (what about the local culture, people, unique qualities?). Given luxury hotels obsessing about personalization & connecting with their customer, it seems odd so much of their marketing consists of sweeping general statements and imagery. For an industry ripe with storytelling possibilities, where are they? I was a big fan of Airbnb’s local citizen campaign series, among others they did, as they understand tapping into local scenes.
→ Local Tourism bureaus are getting better at tapping into local stories as well, and everyone from Destination Canada to South Africa have been creating unique stories on their video platforms. I think Brand USA has a real opportunity to bridge the divide with great multicultural stories and history from around the country.