“China’s Village of Real-Life Rapunzels,” “How Mario Got His Mustache and Name,” “Enter the Deadliest Garden in the World.” An eclectic group to be sure, but all these stories are eye-opening and compelling. These are the work of the YouTube channel Great Big Story. Its content ranges from purely factual to multicultural to food-related. Who wouldn’t be interested in what your school lunch would be in 1996? Of course, anyone would fawn over the dog that protects planes from bird strikes. Where else can viewers learn how the process of making mochi can be heart-stopping?
The Great Big Story channel takes every part of an interesting story—no matter how small—and crafts them into engaging narrative pieces. The channel has amassed a total of 2,097,843,675 views, and the most popular videos —“I Can’t Taste Anything,” “It’s-a Me, Mario” and “Meet the Man Who Beat ‘Pac-Man’”— average a whopping 30 million views each.
Even after all this success, on Sept. 30, 2020, Great Big Story announced that after five years, it was time to officially say goodbye. As a middle schooler who started watching the channel when it first started, I merely watched their videos for entertainment, a way to satisfy my curiosity and pass time. Now, I realize the true impact of Great Big Story. Specializing in niche tales, it was able to connect people’s hearts from all corners of the world with storytelling.
Great Big Story’s Narrative Framing
As social creatures with thousands of years of storytelling, our brains just love stories. When we are captivated by a story, our brains produce oxytocin, a neurochemical that is linked to empathy and has been nicknamed the love hormone. It makes us “more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate,” so much so that our “brain waves actually start to synchronize with those of the storyteller.” In short, stories can make us happy and help us to create human bonds.
Maybe the idea of a village of Chinese Rapunzels seems like something that belongs in a fairytale. Great Big Story was able to take the fantastical element and humanize it. With no voice-overs or intrusive hosts, the short three-minute video is solely focused on the “Rapunzels” from Huangluo Village.
Viewers see the women and girls smiling proudly and hear them talking about how hair relates to their coming-of-age ceremonies, motherhood and marriage—all relatable and important human experiences. There is no feeling of us versus them that sometimes hovers over documentaries. Instead of being some sort of curious mythical creatures, these women are seen as humans, allowing viewers to connect with them.
Creating Representation With Storytelling
Representation humanizes “the other.” Google search trends have shown that when given positive representation, such as Muslim athletes in the face of rising Islamophobia, hate searches fell, signaling that people are looking past racism. Great Big Story takes the power of representation and storytelling and combines them to open people’s hearts.
For example, in “This Basketball Super Fan Hasn’t Missed a Game in 20 Years,” Nav Bhatia is a turban-wearing Sikh and a beloved sports fan. Often mistaken as Muslims, Sikhs have been frequent targets of hate crimes. The video showcased his immigration story and his interactions with beloved celebrities, such as Drake and Kobe Bryant. His basketball-discovery story and clear enthusiasm for the sport will immediately endear him to almost any viewer.
Great Big Story provides a much-needed space for representation through narrative storytelling. Racists would be hard-pressed to label Bhatia as a terrorist, and his story will hopefully prevent anyone from blindly condemning others.
If you want another example, just take a look at “Giving Artists With Disabilities A Space to Thrive” and “Dancing Without Sound, Performing Without Sight.” In these videos, we see people with disabilities smile and let loose with nobody telling them “No” or preventing them from achieving their full potential. Historically, people with disabilities were often excluded, abused and discriminated against. Today, their situation is better, but they are still often excluded.
Who would have thought deaf dancers are able to perform without hearing the music? Who would have thought that blind musicians can play in harmony in whole dances and operas without seeing the music sheet? Who would have thought that freedom can allow people with disabilities to create works that are shown in the MOMA?
Great Big Story did, and they were able to give them a voice and a platform to prove themselves. The comment sections are populated with praise. User Annika Victoria commented with 4.8 thousand likes, “Thank you… for celebrating diversity, and not creating yet another medicalized space to ‘hide away’ people with disabilities. And thank you Great Big Story for presenting this story in a respectful way.” The videos create stories that allow people to empathize with, celebrate and look past differences.
In addition to videos more clearly focused on representation, the Great Big Story channel producers made sure to include diverse subjects for much of their content. “The NASA Scientist Who Invented the Super Soaker”, “The Cowboys Riding Philadelphia’s Streets” and hundreds of multicultural videos highlight the accomplishments and lives of people of color.
In these divided times full of racist rhetoric and hate crimes, including pushback against the Black Lives Matter Movement, Donald Trump’s framing immigrants as criminals and rising hate crimes against Asian Americans, viewers need storytelling more than ever. Everyone needs to witness the stories, the experiences and the role models of POC to make America a more empathetic and welcoming country.
Great Big Story was able to create bite-sized entertaining stories, making its videos more palatable to the current fast-paced social media environment. Though many of the videos may seem simple and amusing, the stories the channel chose to tell and its narrative style allowed many viewers to broaden their minds, stifling the hate that creeps in under ignorance’s shadow. Goodbye, Great Big Story. Thank you for your storytelling.