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Telling Stories

Saturday 8 December 2018

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So I'm Charlotte Armitage. I'm a Care Experienced person and some of you may know me from my light-hearted BBC The Social Video back in August, which touched on popular culture portrayals of people like me.

If you haven't seen it, I joked about stories such as Harry Potter, the boy wizard who was raised in kinship care and went on to defeat the dark lord in an epic battle, and Kung Fu Panda, a family favourite that features an adopted panda who proves everyone that ever doubted him, wrong. Both undoubtedly great stories, however, great stories that fail to paint an accurate picture of what it is really like to experience care.

Us human beings are natural storytellers. We can't help telling stories, so much so we turn real life issues into fictional stories because we like narratives so much. Everything — trauma, heartbreak, love — needs a story before we find it plausible. Unfortunately, our desire to tell stories can and has been detrimental for Care Experienced people.

Society has become desensitised to our care identities

Often, we are illustrated as disturbed individuals, who the audience are supposed to feel are troublemakers or 'baddies' – characters like Tom Sawyer and his self-proclaimed gang of 'robbers'. Or when it's not that narrative, audiences are led to feel sorry for us and to pity us. Oliver Twist is a fine example of this.

What I think is interesting about this, is that portrayals of Care Experienced people in popular culture are happening so often, that at times we don't even realise it. Society has become so desensitised to our care identities in these fictional stories, that even I, a Care Experienced person, won't pick up if a character is Care Experienced in certain stories.

I came to realise this through coming across an excellent piece by Lemn Sissay, who is also Care Experienced. The piece is called 'Superman was a Foundling'. If you aren't familiar with it, I would recommend that you take some time to explore it. In this piece, Lemn explains how many of the world's most famous stories include representations of Care Experienced people. Some good, some bad and some I had never even heard off. I also found that whilst reading this piece, I kept experiencing a kind of 'no way' moment. Like with Rapunzel, who was fostered – a story that I grew up with, one that was embedded in my childhood and yet, for all these years, I had never given a second thought to how she was not in the care of her parents.

It was a moment of realisation, where I felt brainwashed into not giving Rapunzel's Care Experienced identity the time of day, when in fact it played a huge part in the plot of the story.

Stan Lee's comics are a beacon of hope for generations 

This moment of realisation got me really thinking, and whilst I explored the piece in more depth, I noticed many of these famous representations, were thought up by the same guy. That same guy being the late comic book writer Stan Lee.

Stan Lee's representations, however, were very different to many of the others that I spoke about in my BBC The Social video and the ones that have previously made me angry. The main difference being, that from as early as the 1960s, Stan Lee painted the narrative, that despite an extremely hard childhood, Care Experienced people have what it takes to be superheroes.

One of the most famous characters from Stan Lee's fantastic imagination is of course Spider-Man. Spider-Man is famously known as a Care Experienced person. Being raised by Aunt May and Uncle Ben plays a huge part in Spider-Man's story. What I love about Spider-Man is that teenagers in superhero comic books are usually relegated to the role of sidekick. While Spider-Man had all the makings of a sidekick - unlike previous teen heroes such as Robin - Spider-Man had no superhero mentor like Robin had Batman; he had to learn for himself that "with great power there must come great responsibility".

In Spider-Man, Stan Lee accurately portrayed the self-obsessions with rejection, feelings of worthlessness, and loneliness that is often felt by Care Experience people. But with this, Stan Lee showed the world that Care Experienced people are capable of doing great things, of saving the world – capable of being real life superheroes.

There is no denying that the portrayals of Care Experienced people in Stan Lee's comics have been a beacon of hope for generations of Care Experienced people. What Stan Lee did was innovative, it was bold, and it gave Care Experienced people, people to look up to – albeit in superhero form.

My only issue with this kind of portrayal, is that I simply do not understand why I have to be bitten by a radioactive spider, or have Hagrid knock down my door to tell me that I am a wizard, before people believe that I can go onto do truly spectacular things.

All over the world, Care Experienced people are paramedics, police officers, surgeons, firefighters, social workers, politicians, among many other great things. We are capable of being everyday heroes. We are capable of holding a Love Rally in the middle of Glasgow to call for love at the centre of the care system. We are capable of campaigning relentlessly until laws change. We capable of coming together in Global Care Gatherings and demanding that all corners of the Earth, listen to what we have to say.

We're more than capable of changing the world - we already are

My message to journalists, producers, writers or anyone looking to portray a Care Experienced person in the future would be, we don't need superhuman powers or wand to be incredible. We aren't bad people, we aren't disturbed, we are normal people, just like everyone else. Do some research, actually speak to Care Experienced people. Take the time to listen and hear our stories. Listen with empathy, not with sympathy – we aren't looking for pity. We are looking for role models, stories and characters we can relate to. Characters that we can aspire to be, but that aren't impossible to follow.

I really hope that producers, writers and everyone else will think again when they create and tell stories about Care Experienced people. Maybe then, we will be able to change the way others perceive us. Maybe then, people will see how unique, talented and full of potential Care Experienced people truly are.

Charlotte Armitage, campaigner

Charlotte talks about how care experience is represented in fiction, and reflects on Lemn's Sissay's "Superman was a Foundling" installation and Stan Lee's work and legacy









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