Strategic Storytelling & Women Empowerment

dr behice ece ilhan
6 min readMar 10, 2020


A woman who is strong in her core does not feel a need to say ‘I am a strong woman in her words. She just shows in her actions. The strength of a woman lies in her ability & willingness to open doors for the other women. #quotebyme

Dior T-Shirt: We Should All be Feminists

The day after #InternationalWomensDay, we probably have read a lot of blogs & posts about brands that are telling the stories of women — their strength, resilience and perseverance — in various ways, formats and lengths. The women empowerment stories are placed on T-Shirts, dresses, memes, and even on hair pins. I am smitten about this focus. There can never be enough stories to paint all the shades of womanhood.

Yet, women empowerment is a glossy term. It is shiny. Everybody wants it or seems to like it. Everybody talks about it. Very much like the environmental movements or social responsibility issues, it is a socially desirable stand making it very difficult for people to say something against it. But, at this intersection, it is essential to note that women empowerment is not composed of a homogeneous block of conversations. There are some unspoken issues as well as some fragmentation & polarization in this movement and the discourses surrounding it.

The women empowerment has a different meaning across generations, races, religions, and even geographies.

Although the dominant discourse on women empowerment is progressive liberal, we should avoid imposing a monolithic understanding of what women empowerment is onto different races, generations, religions, political stands, or geographies. For some women groups,for example, the women empowerment could be perceived as the choice and power to be able to use birth control and for some others it can be having choices after being pregnant. In some parts of the world, the women empowerment can be manifested in the right to drive; in another geography, it is the right to run for President. This imposed unified narrative about what women empowerment is and what it should be is making women uncomfortable, to say the least. Personally, I deem women empowerment as any step women take beyond the perceived limit or structural borderline to achieve their perceived freedom.

There are unspoken issues and camps at the intersection of race, gender, and class. In the US context, the Black women movement dates back and preceded the more recent #GirlPower, #MeToo, or unified women empowerment discussions. And, there is some discomfort among African American women about the discourse of having a more gender/sex focus narrative where race is taken out of the equation. Our stories of womanhood should not homogenize the experiences and struggles but rather should be able to portray the richness of the backgrounds, desires, and range of anxieties.

COLLECTIVE JOURNEY: A New Strategic Storytelling for Social Movements

Many brands have relied on the “hero’s journey” as part of their brand storytelling. Very broadly, hero’s journey is the “common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.” Nike, for example, has relied on the stories of the different celebrities in their commercials like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Kaepernick, Serena Williams to display their “hero’s journey” as inspirations for the brand’s broader consumers. These celebrity heroes have been used to capture the combative solo willpower ideology that Nike was trying to capture as part of their “Just Do It” tagline. Very good example of a hero’s journey type of brand storytelling will be the Nike’s more recent ad on Serena Williams, following the catsuit kerfuffle at the French open in August [the ad copy below]. The brand has responded to the controversy: “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers” Using the hero explicitly or not, like Nike, many brands have relied on similar hero journeys as their narrative strategy.

Hero’s journey is a linear storytelling that focuses on the stages of an individual protagonist based on a conflict-riden format. Although it is a common storytelling template, there are discussions in the field about whether ‘hero’s journey’ is the best narrative strategy in the era of immersive and mobile technologies where interconnected consumers produce more stories than the brands. Hero’s journey does not adequately serve us to address the nonlinear, sprawling, networked, and participatory narratives in the contemporary connected culture, particularly in the case of consumer or social/political movements. Especially in those widespread engagements, we need to be able to tell a communal narrative that portrays the collective journey of the participants or all the people who will be impacted by the topic. There are some new narrative strategies — like the concept of the Collective Journey coined by Jeff Gomez — that lend themselves better to the social/cultural movements.

In this hyper connected culture, the nature of conflict itself is changing. Hero’s journey emphasizes the metamorphosis of the singular protagonist rather than the systematic change. The change is driven by and dependent on the villain’s transformation and war against the evil. In these types of stories, the individual’s transformation story is leveraged to tell the story of the change in the community, society, group, or the world. To be able to understand narrative-lead and self-organized movements like the Black Lives matter, Arab Spring, #MeToo, we need to understand the collective stories told by multiple subjectivities ‘that push their momentum to the tipping point.’ And, the didactic hero’s journey is very much built on the “masculine impulses” of domination, aggression, etc. That’s another reason why it might not be the best mode of storytelling for women empowerment.

There are some examples of the collective journeys on TV series and in Hollywood. In GoT, we are given a plethora of characters with different strengths and weaknesses immersed in the interlocking conflicts and flaws of the system that impacts everyone. The audience has differing views on their favorite character (vs. a single villain) and various views on what needs to be done for a better system. The collective narrative gives equal voice to the women, men, gay, lesbian, disabled, faulty, good, and bad characters and leverages all of their voices. The same collective journey as the narrative strategy is used in The Walking Dead, Westworld, Stranger Things etc. The power of these stories does not rely on the transformation journey of their villains but in their diversity of voices that are equally represented in the narrative. The collective journey will be a better narrative strategy to tell the story of the women empowerment because ‘collective journey stories are about how communities actualize in their attempt to achieve systemic change.’ In these meta-narratives, there are no saviors but communities ‘become their own salvations.’

The collective narrative should embrace its opposition(s).

Smarter storytelling strategies will tactfully integrate responses to the critics or respond to the alternative positions by providing clear and plausible explanations in their meta-narrative. This inclusion of the oppositional narratives in your story will serve to strengthen your position by reinforcing your rightness over different POVs and different ways of being a woman. The collective journey allows for multiple perspectives and does not rely on the polarization of the good and the evil like the hero’s journey. Responding to your critics within your story will allow for more interaction with the story and help many voices to be integrated in the narrative. This type of story will resonate with the women empowerment movement as it helps many different constituencies with different understandings of ‘women empowerment’ to be welcomed into the story and participate. This plethora of viewpoints resonates with various levels of the community and deeply gratifies and activates the base.

Empowered women empower women.

Note: Collective Journey is a term coined by Jeff Gomez. For more information, you can follow his blogs on Medium.

PS: This blog was part of a POV I have written on April, 2019.

#strategicstorytelling #womenstories #womenempowerment #internationalwomensday #storytelling #collectivejourney #herosjourney