Narrative Bias and Why Context Matters

It’s hard not to be caught up in the excitement of the Olympics. Beyond the awe-inspiring athleticism, stories abound. They resonate in large part because we understand the context. The narratives fulfill a hunger of sorts — whether for inspiration, a sense of accomplishment or a common bond that goes beyond country or sport. Not all succeed though.

Some narratives simply annoy. Salon‘s Mary Elizabeth Williams piece, “So she’s a mom. So what?,” underscores the weird and prevalent mom worship in today’s society noting:

“Moms have been a running theme for these games ever since Procter & Gamble rolled out its surprisingly off-putting “Thank you, Mom” campaign earlier this year — the one that, while ostensibly paying tribute to the devotion of Olympians’ parents, managed to rebrand motherhood as not just a job, but the very hardest and very best one in the world.”

She goes on with, “As P&G says, ‘behind every Olympic athlete is a mother.’ Suck it, dads!”

What Williams doesn’t say — but I will — is this campaign and fixation with moms also says suck it, aunts, uncles, coaches, mentors, and all others who contributed to an athlete’s success.

Williams is not alone in her exasperation with the mom obsession. The Daily Beast called out the “mommy cam” fixation:

“The stars of this year’s summer Olympics? Moms. Weeping, screaming, covering their eyes, performing gymnastics floor routines in their seats, wearing American flags in their Aquanetted ponytails. The middle-aged American parent who has given her life savings and every waking moment over to her child’s athletic ambition is this year’s undisputed Olympic champion.”

Is this an American phenomenon, readers? If you’re from another country let us know if the coverage provides more complex context.

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Meanwhile, other Olympic narratives jar the senses and reveal a different bias. Take Oscar Pistorius who (Update: prior to the brutal murder of his girlfriend) redefined what it meant to be an Olympic sprinter. When he appeared on the scene the camera operators seemed transfixed by his form, unwilling to pull away to show the other runners on the track. The commentators struggled to describe his accomplishments in a way that didn’t sound patronizing. The constant references to Pistorius’ disability spoke volumes about the commentators own discomfort with what they were seeing.

I didn’t fully appreciate the able-bodied bias until I came across this recent analysis from Disability Studies Quarterly. In it, Silent Sorority and Good Eggs — and the infertility narratives of the respective authors (in the former case that would be me) — are contextualized within the field of disability studies. The piece raises provocative questions and provides a new lens with which to view and understand infertility, with the author Crystal Benedicks noting, “Perhaps infertility memoirs are of particular interest to disability studies because they grapple with the problem of disabilities that are not immediately obvious.”

In looking at the genre, Benedicks notes:

“…these infertility narratives, which begin in secret shame and rage and end with a deconstruction of the very idea of normative biological experience, provide a blueprint for what happens when those who once perceived themselves as able-bodied people begin to question the assumptions on which the idea of biological normalcy rests.”

Among other observations, she suggests that:

“…infertile women must do the hard work of imagining counter-narratives to the omnipresent maternity path. Disability studies might be a fruitful place for Tsigdinos and other women to turn in this quest, as one of the core struggles identified by this field is to imagine and articulate ways of being that are not structured by and for the able-bodied.”

Hard work is right. It’s one thing to push forward and come to terms with a narrative that is unlike the one we once envisioned for ourselves, it’s another to “grapple” when those around us are ignorant of the complex nature of the “disability” we’ve had to confront.

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Without high profile role models addressing the limits of fertility medicine we are often left struggling to explain our context to the “able-bodied” among us — as amplified by blog reader Jen, who declared this in a recent comment:

“I need, NEED, people like me, who’ve walked this very ugly road like me, to be my closest friends. I couldn’t articulate why, but you’ve given so many good reasons. I need to feel like my perspective is real, legitimate, that this experience is significant and I have permission to have it be as important to my life as it has been. I need someone to whom I don’t HAVE to explain. Whom I don’t have to teach or correct or silently forgive for being horrendously but unintentionally insensitive.”

Where Benedicks is troubled by the seeming lack of closure in Silent Sorority and Good Eggs, I would argue that the stories remain unfinished. We’re in early days when it comes to this topic. Fortunately, the context gets richer and better understood with each story we tell.