Sunday, August 4, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Whose Problem Is It?

So, someone I follow on Tumblr mentioned a local-to-her newsstory, with no link, about an 11-year-old robbing a lemonade stand at gunpoint. This was apropos of why she was glad to be moving someplace entirely different. The fact that she said "lemonade stand" rather than "juice bar" implies the old-fashioned elementary school entrepreneurial endeavor of making a pitcher of lemonade and selling it to passersby. I've never seen one in real life, but the meme is a strong one, so let's assume that this was one 11-year-old, with a gun, confronting another 11-year-old, with money. Very high concept, that!

The most basic definition of story is character + conflict, or as I like to put it, a person with a problem. Structurally, then, the first question to ask here is - this is clearly a problem, but to write the story we must know whose problem we're dealing with. My source considered it a problem with the neighborhood, and certainly the adults around the kids need to treat it as such; but a neighborhood is not a character and the minute the adults start organizing the story becomes politics. As a society, we tend to treat the kid with the gun as a problem and the kid with the money as a victim; but this is not at all a realistic or constructive way for them to view themselves. Who are these kids? Who were they before they got to the gun/money point, who are they during that transaction, and who are they afterward? And is the gun/money point the beginning of the story, or the end of it?

An unusual artifact of the way this story came to me is, that I have no gender label for either child. They are wholly defined by their ages. I bet most people who read the original reference, and most people reading this now, however, automatically assume that the kid with the gun was male, and that the visualization of the kid with the lemonade and money is about 50/50 male or female - in the gender schemata of western society entrepreneurs are male, but females are victims and food-providers. But what happens to the story we spin if the kid with the gun is female and the kid with the lemonade is male? If they're both female? Or if - to go way out on an imaginative limb - one of them is intersex or transgendered? (Yes there are transgendered 11-year-olds - it doesn't hit with puberty or track consistently with sexual orientation!)

Because I said I'd do two garage sale ideas to make up for zoning out last week, here's a related conundrum: At what point does "their problem" become "my problem?"

I was led to this question twice by following trails (again on tumblr, which I am finding much less overwhelming and stressful than Facebook, possibly because the way I approached tumbler I get this kind of thing thrown in on top of pages and pages of pictures from people's sims games which seems to talk to me without demanding anything of me) that led back to a blog post about "changing the creepy guy narrative" and another about a food service employee doing the best he could to come to the social rescue of a customer being bullied by another customer. In both these instances, we have a "hero" who accepts another person's problem as his own and steps in to deal with it on behalf of a "heroine," and we are left with a superficial good feeling on top of a tangle of other questions.

Like, why is the "heroine" of these stories unable to rescue herself? Is there no way out for her, in Western society as it exists today, except to be white knighted? (In the first case, alas, this is so; the only unaided defense against the creepy guy is to totally ignore him, because any response is experienced as reward and encouragement. Trust me on this.) If so, what happens when the gender roles in the sandwich story are switched up - could a female employee pull off this rescue without repercussions? Would female bullying be recognized as a serious problem? At what point does "minding your own business" become "complicity," in one direction; and in the other, at one point does "meddling" become "courage?"

And how does one go about tackling someone else's problem without co-opting their story? The only satisfactory solution to a story is for the character with the conflict to solve it - not to have it solved, or alleviated, or distracted from, by somebody else.

This is as true in story as it is in real life.

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