Monday, November 23, 2015

Story-coding for a more inclusive future

Note: This piece by Don Bosco was originally posted on Medium @StoryCodeSG.

L to R: Children’s books authors Adan Jimenez, Felicia Low-Jimenez, 
Melanie Lee, Catherine Carvell, Don Bosco

This week I was a panel speaker at a session organised by the Singapore Committee for UN Women. The topic — An Inclusive Future: Gender Equality in Children’s Stories.

This captures many of the concerns faced by everyone creating story entertainment for children today. Whether you’re making books or movies or software or live performances. I really started paying attention to this after I came across the We Need Diverse Books movement. They made me aware that diversity issues have a great impact on the creative, social and business future of storytelling. Especially due to the internet, as audiences start to aggregate on a global level.

But back to the event. Those who turned up included writers, editors, parents, educators and social entrepreneurs. Everyone came to this from different angles, but all were interested in understanding the deeper connection between stories, audience, industry practices and ultimately, gender well-being.

Photo: Singapore Committee for UN Women

It was a lively discussion. These were three ideas in particular that resonated with me.

A child’s story experience starts with the shopping ritual
So much effort goes into staging the buying experience for parents and children. From packaging decisions, to the shelving strategies in malls, to in-your-face gender cues. It seems like the main agenda here is to accelerate the transaction process in the malls. In this theatre of consumerism, there’s a challenge for story creators to champion a more thoughtful approach towards perpetuating gender messages.

Traditional folk tales and fairy tales are being replaced by corporate remakes
There were mixed feelings about the Disneyfication of children’s entertainment. The original spirit of traditional fairy tales, sometimes morbid and chilling, has been sacrificed for mass entertainment and merchandising appeal. Still, some parents acknowledged that children really enjoyed these corporate updates. And also that the music, gags and character designs were often delightful and heartwarming.

We’re still driven by the lizard brain
Whether it’s kids or grown ups, we can’t help being drawn towards entertainment that is shiny, glittery, loud and convenient. We might not approve of the ideas and values embedded in a James Bond movie, or the over-simplified messages in an animated film from Pixar, but people are still spending lots of money on these, and they are often hard to avoid. Why? One possibility is that our lizard brain is still very much active. It causes us to crave vivid stimulation, feel pressure to conform, take comfort in basic pleasures, and long to be entertained. The more effective story-coders always work with this.

The panel speakers were:

Catherine Carvell (Australia)
Author of children’s books, currently living in Singapore.

Adan Jimenez (US) and Felicia Low-Jimenez (Singapore)
Husband-and-wife writing team, authors of a popular middle-grade series. Also professionals in the local book trade.

Melanie Lee (Singapore)
Editor and lifestyle writer, also picture book author.

Don Bosco (Singapore)
Author of mysteries and thrillers for children, inspired by Asian legends and pop culture.

This event was in support of the Help Anna campaign.