Stories are like sentences: when they are about us, we can be the subject of them, or the object of them. And it presents a very different experience to people to be the subject of a story, rather than the object of a story.
Being the subject of a story—or a sentence—is empowering. You are the one who acts. If you are a person who shares identity markers with that subject, then you get to see somebody like you acting, being empowered, being the driving force of the narrative.
Some people get to take that position for granted: they are presented as the heros of all sorts of stories. They can be anybody, any time, any place. They are always important. Always centralized. This can lead to toxic mindsets on its own, “protagonist syndrome,” the sense that everybody else you meet in the world is there to serve your story.
Other people only get to be the subjects of certain kinds of stories. Romances, say. Tragedies. Stories where the bad person gets punished, and certain kinds of people are automatically bad. It’s hard to imagine yourself as the protagonist of a spy thriller or a hospital drama if people like you only ever get to be villains or supporting cast or love interests in stories like that.
Stories tell us who we can expect to be. They’re tools by which we understand the world and our place in it.
And stories can place us in that object position: a passive construction. What does it do to us if the only role models we see are people who are acted upon? Who exist to serve some other character’s growth and trajectory? Who are in the passive voice, who receive the action of an unspecified other?
Mistakes were made, indeed. But by whom?
It’s important, in other words, whether Sheena herself identifies as a punk rocker, or if Joey Ramone is just some guy objectifying her and telling her that’s what she is. It’s important for all the little Sheenas out there to know that they have space to establish who they are, and not whats some dude in a striped shirt tells them they are.
This is why it’s important to support, publish, and read a range of voices in fiction. And it’s also why some people find it really uncomfortable when they’re not the only ones centered in the narrative anymore: because it confronts them with the understanding that they’re not the only subjects in the room, and that maybe all the stories don’t have to be about them.