A Voice of Her Own: Tiny Stories and the Politics of Women's Agency

A Voice of Her Own: Tiny Stories and the Politics of Women's Agency

Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 23
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4829-5.ch001
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This chapter provides a theoretical discussion on women's voice and agency by referring to the selected works from feminist theory and history. It highlights the importance of storytelling in women owning their own voice and exercising their agency through the multilayeredness of the experiences of women coming from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Also, in this chapter, digital platforms and what they offer to women, such as digital storytelling, are discussed. And finally, it includes academic and activist works on individual and collective digital storytelling examples and practices of women from around the world.
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Starting from a very early age women have been told stories to fulfill their feminine duties, are also advised to find their one and only true love, and when found, do whatever it takes to make him happy, sometimes, in exchange for their own happiness. And that is why I find Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid as a great example of the sacrifices suggested for women to make in order to ‘make a man happy’. Ariel, the Little Mermaid falls in love with a human at the age of 15 and makes a deal with a witch against her father’s will. As part of the agreement, she gives away her ‘beautiful’ voice in exchange for legs to be able to ‘walk’ in and to this man’s world. The agreement implies that it is always an either/or situation for women, and there is always something to give up in exchange for gaining something else. Did Ariel have an agency? She sure had, when she wanted to have legs when she chose to visit the sea-witch when she accepted the witch’s deal, but at the expense of losing her voice, or rather, she had to agree to have a ‘silent voice’. She had to use her ‘body’ to enchant the man she fell in love with. Ariel, of course, is not the only fairy-tale in which the female character had to come to terms with an authority’s limitations: Cinderella had to leave the party early even though she was having a really good time; Belle had to give up her own freedom in exchange for her father’s, and eventually learn to love the Beast; Snow White had to leave her father’s castle and live with seven dwarfs, do the household chores for them, and in the meantime, survive several deadly attacks by the evil Queen and finally fell asleep after consuming a poisoned apple; and that is just to mention a few.

With a number of Disney feature films based on these fairy tales, these stories have reached wider audiences globally and are watched by little girls and boys all around the world. The dominant/preferred reading of such stories not only reinforces patriarchal femininity but also hint that female agency needs to be kept under control and women’s voice needs to be silenced. It is also interesting to see that more often in these fairy tales there is a villainess who makes the lives of innocent and beautiful young girls miserable; the sea-witch, the stepmother, the step-mother-queen and so on. This indicates two interrelated insights from where I read these characters: First, patriarchy makes women turn against each other and second, women’s voices become the patriarchy’s vessels to oppress other women.

How is it possible to cope with these entrenched gender roles that we grow up with? What does it take for us to overcome the boundaries of the ‘acceptable femininity’ drawn for us starting from an early age? How do women in different geographies with diverse backgrounds manage to reclaim their own place, agency and voice while listening to the same stories about being a woman? Looking back to the history, we see that there have been singular women whose resistance and struggle granted them a place in intellectual, political, cultural and artistic domains, from Sappho to Hypatia, Cleopatra and Joan of Arc to name a few. However, women as a group had to wait until the eighteenth century to demand their political, social, economic and cultural rights. Particularly, as the nineteenth century, women’s movements became widespread in different parts of the world and resulted in them gaining basic rights which have been denied to them for centuries. The question was though, would it suffice to have basic rights, such as access to education, voting, working when there were still clear limitations based on class, civil status, ethnicity, race and age? How would women own their own agency and voice without being marginalized? How could women resist the norms of patriarchal femininity and write, create and be acknowledged for their competency for what they do without the prefix of ‘woman’ before their profession e.g. ‘female poet’, ‘woman painter’ or worse ‘black woman writer’? These and many similar questions are not new of course and have been resonating in the works of ‘women’ intellectuals and artists from the early twentieth century onward.

In this chapter I aim to offer an account of seminal works in the area of voice, agency, feminism and intersectionality. I will be unpacking and considering these in a way to introduce a number of the key arguments that have impacted on contemporary understandings of women’s self-empowerment, empowerment and disempowerment in so-called ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ societies. Also, I aim to provide an overview to the field while at the same time discussing the value of voice and its relation to agency, and later how it manifests in digital platforms. In the last part of this chapter I will be giving scholarly examples on digital storytelling practices from different parts of the world.

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