The Heroine’s Journey

What are women afraid of? Why do women matter? How are women useful? Do these questions have gender-specific answers?

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell says that a hero is “someone who has found or achieved or done something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience. A hero properly is someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself or other than himself.” He goes on to distinguish between physical heroes, those who do deeds, and spiritual heroes, those who “[have] learned or found a mode of experiencing the supernormal range of human spiritual life, and then come back and communicated it.”

This is a grand and beautiful model. And especially when we just leave it at “someone who has achieved something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience,” it works very well for a hero of any gender. But when Campbell gets into the specifics of what counts or is celebrated as an unusual achievement, or how that achievement goes about getting done, I start thinking “well those are pretty unambiguously good achievements, but they’re also pretty male.”

That’s because there’s another element to heroism, which is where it interacts with social values, and gives us a mythology about what we should care about achieving. If we tell stories that laud a person for being unusually sacrificial, then we’re communicating that selflessness is a value of our community. Even when a story isn’t explicitly or intentionally communicating information about what is socially and morally good, we can retro-engineer a lot from the text to determine what its underlying values are.

While stories in general can be about any number of things beyond telling the reader what kind of person they should be (thank goodness), it’s important to remember that the genre of hero stories really is fundamentally about what makes a remarkable and laudable human. Even when a character is simply coded as a protagonist, hero stories have primed us to expect, justified or not, to learn something about what it means to be a good human from that character. So while I don’t want to go down some alarmist road that ends with “exposing children to Harry Potter means they will become Satanists,” and as obvious to the point of pedantic this might sound, the whole point of heroes is that we admire and emulate them, and it’s worth talking about what the consequences of being told we should emulate some trait actually are.

So to bring this back to the Heroine’s Journey, if we look at something like the Odyssey, we have two different kinds of heroes: Odysseus and Penelope. Odysseus is a pretty Campbellian hero. He leaves home, he does deeds, and returns home, having earned some kind of mantle of authority. Penelope, on the other hand, is left at home with the challenge of figuring out what to do with herself. She waits for Odysseus and she fends off a series of suitors. In the story itself she isn’t as perfectly virtuous as she’s made out to be by various pro-chastity ideologues. But she does, nonetheless, “achieve something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience” if you care about achieving fidelity. But this is a very different kind of heroism.

The Heroine’s Journey is about learning to suffer, endure, and be subjected to indignity while maintaining grace, composure, and patience. While most heroic stories involve some element of perseverance and strength of will, what makes Heroine’s Journey stories different is that a heroine’s perseverance is tested not to see whether she can persevere to achieve a separate goal, but rather simply to see if she can persevere, period. When you lay it out like that, it’s pretty hard to see the Heroine’s Journey as fundamentally heroic, to which I say: well yeah.

I suppose I’m interested in the Heroine’s Journey because I’m interested in the cognitive dissonances women experience; what creates them, what the consequences of them are, and what to do about them. In Heroine’s Journey stories, for example, women are told that their entire social role and contribution to society is contingent on them being really really good at being graceful martyrs. Yet at the same time, women are told that being a martyr is a weak thing to be; ie, the opposite of heroism. And even without being told that, most women can figure out in their heads that the Heroine’s Journey 1) doesn’t feel good and 2) is flawed heroism.

So the story of the Heroine’s Journey, the meta-Heroine’s Journey, if you will, is the story of being told a dissonant truth, and then attempting to disentangle it. In order to chart that story, we need to look at both the original, traditional Heroine’s Journey and then the modern Heroine’s Journey, troubled in its own way, that developed as a result of grappling with the traditional one.

The traditional Heroine’s Journey goes something like this:

  1. The heroine is yet undeveloped. She may be wild and undignified, she may be mild and unremarkable, or she may be seemingly already virtuous.
  2. Her worth is threatened. That is, her ability to persevere is threatened. The threat may be an assault on her virtue, an undignified circumstance, or random misfortune.
  3. She endures, gracefully. She suffers, but her dignity isn’t undermined. If anything, her dignity is antifragile, she becomes more dignified the more she suffers.  Her perseverance then makes her previously undefined nature snap into place. Her dignity gives her strength.

Thankfully, it’s not 1850 anymore. The modern Heroine’s Journey is more like:

  1. The heroine is yet undeveloped. She is often highly confused about where virtue is located.
  2. Her dignity, composure and grace, ie, her worth in the “traditional” sense are threatened. Additionally, and perversely, her ability to defend traditional worth is tested.
  3. She proves her value by either transcending or invalidating the test (“fuck it, this is a bad metric”) — or by transcending/invalidating the test, but still passing it (“having it all”). The modern Heroine’s Journey is about defining one’s worth anew.

A traditional Heroine’s Journey looks like the women from Les Miserables: the rejected Eponine, the destitute Fantine. Cosette never seems like much of a hero, but she certainly starts out from rags. The Victorian era was probably the height of the Heroine’s Journey, and you can see it in things like Dracula. As many horror stories would go on to mimic, two women, Mina and Lucy, are tested with seduction, but only the former resists and therefore gets to survive for her trouble. Jane Austen’s women teeter on the edge between the traditional and modern journey, each tasked with seeing through the cads and settling on the moral, pragmatic partner. Once you know this narrative, you see it in all kinds of romance stories: the triumphant woman is the one who rises above (or outsmarts) the men who would degrade her.

The modern heroine looks like Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, a movie that pulls indignity rugs out from under its protagonist for two hours. She lost her business! Her ego is dependent on a guy who makes her hate herself! Her friend has a new best friend, one who’s richer, prettier and thinner! The movie is not so much critical as lovingly satirical towards female preoccupation with indignity, coming to the conclusion “indignity is bad, but not so bad in the end.” The modern heroine also looks like Sylvia Plath, who has both become a symbol of female suffering (trite, traditional), and of an interpreter of suffering that is female in a human sense. She is a symbol, in other words, of not wearing suffering easily, or of having suffering that is serious and legitimate. The modern Heroine’s Journey has no better description than Leslie Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” which describes contemporary women as “post-wounded.” The post-wounded woman is one who is never suffering in the present, but is instead always contextualizing and nervously proving ownership over that suffering. Jamison’s piece is one of the best (and perhaps only) articulations of the Heroine’s Journey, and I will continue to refer to it.

How did we get from the traditional to the modern? And where do we go afterwards?

You could argue, perhaps, that maybe there was a time in which Heroine’s Journey values were once constructive. Say, stability and self-sacrifice are good for childrearing; female work frees up men to be creative/accomplished; it’s to an oppressive group’s advantage to feed the oppressed group a heroic narrative about grunt work, shame, and putting up with crap.

But regardless of why, precisely, Heroine’s Journey values became socially useful, it’s clear that they became less useful over time. Increasing wealth, public health, safety and opportunity meant that whatever division-of-labor benefits enforced gender roles might have had, both women and men could suddenly not participate in various “duties” and they and human civilization would still survive. Such upheaval necessitates a series of grappling questions.

1. “Does this quality I’m told is good actually contribute to human flourishing?”

Stage one is destructive. It tends to involve a certain amount of hatred, either directed inward, or directed by one against another. Stage one amounts to smashing a social value, and smashing is usually crude. Smashing is like a person pacing back and forth and muttering “This thing is WRONG. I don’t know quite what it IS or what it MEANS but I know that it is WRONG.”

In practice, stage one is mostly torture porn. I’m thinking about Andy Kaufmann’s tape Andy and His Grandmother, which (as described in a Grantland article) made an art form of ribbing women. His questions sound almost earnestly direct, but because women are unaccustomed to responding to such directness, and he knows it (or else he wouldn’t make comedy of it) there is something disingenuously torturous about them as well.

Though I’ll say more in a second about why horror is actually one of the best genres for women, the reason that people can look askance at that idea, is because a lot of the time, for a long time, anti-female-composure stories have been for the amusement of people (largely men) who want to punish women. Take a hot girl, who thinks she’s hot shit, and put her through hell–that will teach you to be hot!!! Horror is catharsis, and it makes some sense to me that it would be a realm of catharsis, however essentially misogynistic, for sexual rejection and desire. When I described this piece to a friend, he replied: “So isn’t like 90% of porn the Heroine’s Journey then?” Well…perhaps so. If the graceful negotiation of composure and things that threaten composure is the essence of female value, and fetishes originate in the secret and taboo, then well, of course the destruction of female composure would become deeply, repeatedly fetishized.

The potentially brutal treatment of women in stories is also complicated by the idea that the way men become symbols for corrupt authority, women become symbols for corrupt social values and contracts. When you smash one of them in a story, often enough that’s what you’re symbolically smashing. But I think it would be disingenuous to say that all virulence directed at female characters is simply thematically motivated.

So that’s two kinds of composure-destruction by men. But you’ll notice that early female comedians got their start by challenging femininity too, people like Lucille Ball (who juxtaposed the ideals of homemaking with relentless physical and situational indignity) and Joan Rivers, people that were willing to look ridiculous and self-deprecating (“A man can sleep around, no questions asked, but if a woman makes nineteen or twenty mistakes she’s a tramp.”).  That’s because comedy comes from the same place as horror, that place of essential fears and need for catharsis. Was there any other place for female comedy to go? Lucille Ball took a lovingly destructive angle, one that’s maybe more stage three (below) than one. As for Joan Rivers, I don’t know if she ever liked being a woman much, but she was good at hating herself for it. And laughing, more importantly, at the ridiculousness of that hatred. This strain in female comedy has stuck around: think of Liz Lemon under a blanket eating cheese or Amy Schumer’s “I’m a sad slut” schtick.

2. “If it doesn’t, or if I could better contribute in another way, then do I care about having status in a hierarchy that says it does?” (“Do I really care about human flourishing?”)

Female comedy verges into stage two. Stage two is conflict. Stage two stories aren’t made by people that want to punish women/society, they’re composure stories made (usually) by women and for women in order to grapple, rather, with the fear of punishment. Imagine our muttering person suddenly standing up and shouting “I DON’T care about the hierarchy. I’ll do what I LIKE.” Defiance. And then imagine them becoming fearful. “Doing what I like has the best chance of making everyone happy right? So why do I feel miserable? Wasn’t misery the trope I was trying to destroy?”

Bridesmaids (which had the honor of newly convincing us that women can be funny), again, is this. Girls traffics in it as well, as Leslie Jamison describes:

“These days we have a TV show called Girls, about young women who hurt but constantly disclaim their hurting. They fight about rent and boys and betrayal, stolen yogurt and the ways self-​pity structures their lives. ‘You’re a big, ugly wound!’ one yells. The other yells back: ‘No, you’re the wound!’ And so they volley, back and forth: You’re the wound; no, you’re the wound. They know women like to claim monopolies on woundedness, and they call each other out on it.”

Girls, both the characters and the writing itself, are stabbing at being crass, at being superficially elegant, and at being “transcendent,” and seeing what will stick. Girls gets at that intersection of feeling a duty to exorcise fears of being gross, but still wanting to be liked and wanted, and also thinking both of those are such small and unimportant goals in the end.

Caroline Knapp’s famous anorexia memoir Appetites uses the framework of disordered eating to discuss the female relationship to pleasure, denial, and suffering in general. Knapp sums up the twisted heroism of self-denial early on: “Other women might struggle with hunger; I could transcend it”; as in, become more than human in the classic Campbell-ian sense. Because glorifying suffering is seen as poisonous, having control over that suffering feels good, even though it also creates further suffering. Appetites represents how women struggle just before they realize they must “man up.” Writes Jamison: “We want our wounds to speak for themselves, Knapp seems to be saying, but usually we end up having to speak for them.”

People like Beyonce because she is a fantasy of stage two being resolved. Her persona is a fantasy of being sexual/human/regal and yet she feels beyond “having it all” even though she does, in fact, have it all. That’s because Beyonce is charismatic and that is how charismatic people make you feel (liked and okay!), but it is significant that the thing she makes you feel okay about is this modern quandary. You feel permission to partake in the resolution her persona offers. You don’t feel competitive with Beyonce.

Stage two is also where intersectionality becomes thematically salient. The dilemmas of the Heroine’s Journey universalize fairly well, but people (including women) participate in more than one social hierarchy at any given time. It might be hard to justify suffering for the sake of itself, but suffering for the sake of justice is pretty much the easiest thing to justify there is. The details of one woman’s dilemma will not be the same as another’s; her suffering has different origins and flavors.

3. “If I do care about human flourishing, and I’m going the wrong way about it, then what do I do about that?”

So what do post-Heroine’s Journey stories look like? Stage three is constructive. As Jamison asks “How do we talk about these wounds without glamorizing them? Without corroborating an old mythos that turns female trauma into celestial constellations worthy of worship?” There have been many many stories about women throughout the history of stories that have been much more complex than the Heroine’s Journey, stories where female agency and/or grossness aren’t questioned (I think about classic female “trickster” stories like Scheherazade)…yet as Jamison’s piece and Appetites and all the works I’ve referenced so far demonstrate, somehow the Heroine’s Journey’s values still seem to underlie the choices of women constantly. What this means is that if a story with and about women and heroism doesn’t somehow admit the fear of loss of composure or come to grips with it or feel some way about it, I sometimes wonder if it’s about women at all. Moreover, that task in the third stage of the modern Heroine’s Journey, the task of defining worth, is huge and fascinating. And it is under-utilized.

In a great interview on Playing D&D with Porn Stars, Sarah Horrocks explains why, perhaps unexpectedly, the horror genre is actually one of the greatest genres for female heroism.

“S: Getting pushed to your limits, to the point of hysteria, but still surviving—that you’ve taken this huge weight of the world on you, and like Marilyn Burns in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you’re covered in blood and screaming and laughing—but you’ve somehow come out on top.  I don’t think other genres allow women to be strong, tough, and vulnerable in this way. And I mean there’s just way more movies in the horror genre where the perspective is that of a woman’s.  The slasher flick is not through the killer’s point of view after all, it’s through the woman’s.”

In other words, there’s no room for composure in horror movies. Which means that in them, a female character has the opportunity to be immediately exempt from having to prove that she is some conventional version of dignified in order to be heroic, and is instead forced to admit what she’s made of when that’s stripped away and no one’s looking.

One of the reasons I adore Lyra’s heroic journey in His Dark Materials, is that in spite of it being a very Campbell-style story (mysterious origins, a call to adventure, ad nauseum), Lyra’s girl-ness remains inherent throughout. One of the main arcs of the book begins with her being suspicious of femininity and only trusting male figureheads, and concludes with her accepting that she values wisdom, that the acquisition of wisdom is slow and difficult and that the unflashy female wisdom-seekers she once derided have things to teach her. We don’t want our heroes to be blandly competent, we want them to exist in the same world of difficulty that we exist in, so that they may give us a map for dealing with it. Lyra doesn’t do the Heroine’s Journey, exactly, but perhaps more importantly: she resolves it.

Understanding the Heroine’s Journey is not a replacement for or an improvement on the general writing prescription to “just write women like people.” It’s a hopefully helpful explanation, rather, of one (very important, complex) element of female people-hood. If you want to talk about how a person grapples with their society, look to the cognitive dissonance produced by what society tells them is heroic.

Thanks to Gabriel Duquette for his help in developing some of the ideas in this piece.

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About Haley Thurston

Haley Thurston is a resident blogger. In her posts, she explores what it would mean for us to move away from a self-reflexive, tvtropes understanding of how art works to something more fundamental. You can find out more about her on her website.

Comments

  1. Jordan Peacock says:

    *Lot* of food for thought here, but the linking of comedy and horror, and particularly the comment that the POV of the woman in a horror film gives the character permission to be ‘undignified’ I found particularly helpful.

    One concern though, with your comment “somehow the Heroine’s Journey’s values still seem to underlie the choices of women constantly. What this means is that if a story with and about women and heroism doesn’t somehow admit the fear of loss of composure or come to grips with it or feel some way about it, I sometimes wonder if it’s about women at all”:

    This runs the risk that Campbell’s work falls into, where circular definitions easily define away the threat of counterindicators. But I don’t want to derail the discussion into an argument about the viability of the monomyth.

  2. Glee Bohanon says:

    This is probably the most thoughtful essay of yours that I have read. I think you came a long way in the exploration of this topic. As I read it I was often saying to myself “yes, of course”. I felt let down by the conclusion, however. “just write women like people” – really? As if women aren’t people, but we should write about them as if they were? Maybe it would be impossible for me to accept a conclusion at all. Maybe it’s the process of getting there that is more important than arriving at the destination. Maybe that’s a fundamental difference between us (male and female) : that achieving the final goal is paramount to a male, and the process of getting there is the focus for a female.

    You gave me much to think about. Thank you.

    • Haley Thurston says:

      Thanks!

      Yeah totally, my conclusion could stand some expansion: I referred to “just write women like people” because it’s the advice that gets foisted on writers who aren’t sure how to create rounded female characters. But I’m wary of that advice because it’s obviously not very specific, and leads to that old tactic of writing a character as if they were a man and then changing the name to a woman’s (check out this whole list, for example: http://www.blastr.com/2013-7-30/8-female-sci-fi-roles-were-originally-supposed-be-played-men). But that implies that there is NO difference between the conflicts a man experiences and the conflicts a woman does. I end up feeling both grateful that there’s a complex woman on the screen, and also annoyed that that character doesn’t really help illustrate or help the average woman navigate womanhood. I watched the show “Damages” recently and I thought it was really cool that although it seemingly starred a character that was essentially a genderswapped man, it also didn’t exist in a world where female power was common or effortless, but more was like “oy, if you’re a woman and want to hang on to power, you have to fight tooth and nail and probably give some things up.”

      Anyways, the point is that the goal is to write complex female characters that are still allowed to be female, and doing that requires understanding what uniquely female internal conflicts are. And the Heroine’s Journey is one of them.

  3. On the other side, I’ve read a few female authors who can’t write believable men. Their characters are constantly paying attention to minute social nuances and worrying about others’ opinions of them in exactly the way that (straight) men don’t. I recall Elizabeth Bear being like this, but it’s been a while since I read her work.

  4. Have I somebody been re-directed to Jezebel.com?

  5. Which means that in them, a female character has the opportunity to be immediately exempt from having to prove that she is some conventional version of dignified in order to be heroic, and is instead forced to admit what she’s made of when that’s stripped away and no one’s looking.

    Sounds like the girl-brute is doing the same on her heroine journey as all woman ( and men ) who are going to toilette – a place, where one can admittedly come to oneself untouched by social conventions and the penetrating gaze of the others. However some of my boorish ex-colleagues used to leave the door wide open so that everyone could listen to their authentic performance …

    While the nerds on the net might still discuss how to boost their productivity and if they are 10-timers, others already produce the real thing – dark materials – and let everyone know. So are the post-bourgeois times and in retrospect I realize this was a transition from a culture of shame and taboo to one of regressive exhibitionism. Liberating? Sure, we always laughed wholeheartedly at the wrong places and bought another bag of popcorn.

  6. Jiaoning Pu says:

    Hey, thanks for posting this. You put so many bits and food for thought I here and also gave some great reading in the links.

    I really did like this part from the Leslie Jamison link:

    “These girls aren’t wounded so much as post-​wounded, and I see their sisters everywhere. They’re over it. I am not a melodramatic person. God help the woman who is. What I’ll call “post-​wounded” isn’t a shift in deep feeling (we understand these women still hurt) but a shift away from wounded affect: These women are aware that “woundedness” is overdone and overrated. They are wary of melodrama, so they stay numb or clever instead. Post-​wounded women make jokes about being wounded or get impatient with women who hurt too much. The post-​wounded woman conducts herself as if preempting certain accusations: Don’t cry too loud; don’t play victim. Don’t ask for pain meds you don’t need; don’t give those doctors another reason to doubt. Post-​wounded women fuck men who don’t love them and then they feel mildly sad about it, or just blasé about it; they refuse to hurt about it or to admit they hurt about it—​or else they are endlessly self-​aware about it, if they do allow themselves this hurting.

    The post-​wounded posture is claustrophobic: jadedness, aching gone implicit, sarcasm quick on the heels of anything that might look like self-​pity. I see it in female writers and their female narrators, troves of stories about vaguely dissatisfied women who no longer fully own their feelings. Pain is everywhere and nowhere. Post-​wounded women know that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood. Their hurt has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, jaded, opaque; cool and clever. They guard against those moments when melodrama or self-​pity might split their careful seams of intellect, expose the shame of self-​absorption without self-​awareness.”

    Leave in the implicit poetry of pining for these wounds to speak for themselves through so many layers. To say “I’m tough.” But only as a way of claiming wisdom and worldliness and under layers and layers be somewhere about getting attention or maintaining dignity under hurt. Leave all that in and make it more codified and I can’t help it feel you’re talking about men.

    I’m just thinking of bell hooks : “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”

    What are they left with but this same, post-woundedness problem? Sold as to have been long codified into layers of their psyche. The cocksure attitude that also begs you to appreciate its hard earned worldly wisdom pulsing underneath, wile denying any performances of pain. Sounds like a Clint Eastwood character to me.

    • Everybody’s suffering. Buddha said it 2500 years ago, and it wasn’t very original then. Most of us get over performing our wounds by the end of high school; there’s no real point.

      • “Non-stoic artistic representations of pain — if they are to be represented at all — are immature, pansy-ass bullshit.” That about sum up your view?

        • There are levels of pain that people can’t deal with, and levels of damage that can’t be hidden. Still, most functional adults (and artistic depictions thereof) are damaged people trying to perform adequacy, not the other way around.

  7. Plenty to think about, but your piece led me to one particularly disturbing conclusion: the heroine’s journey seems to have expanded, not contracted, as an archetype. Without denying the very real suffering of many people, there is definitely a case to be made that the media currently glorifies contests between sob-stories; and the number of groups that are making claims to this mode of discourse has seemed to increase, not decrease.

    The reason this disturbs me is in light of (what I took to be) a major point in your essay: that glorifying suffering can be an extremely effective tool for subjugation. Having read your response to Chait, I’ll offer my own similar criticism of him: that by buying into the dichotomy between intellectual inquiry and protecting the marginalized, he’s validated the idea of oppression being purely a matter of deep personal revelation*, effectively promoting an ideal in which attempting to understand and manipulate the world around you is discouraged in favor of slowly building a narrative fortress of solitude around one’s suffering (i.e. agency is thrown to the winds in favor of a misplaced notion of redemption.)

    I used to attribute such ideas to Christian millenarianism, but your analysis of the heroine’s journey suggests to me that the trope of redemption via solitary suffering is something much older and perhaps more fundamental.

    *The phrase “deep personal revelation” was taken from some essay called “Everything is Problematic”, just to give credit where it’s due.

  8. Haley

    that was a fantastic post. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Heroine’s Journey. Do you read Justine Musk’s blog? she was just posting on this as well, going even further back to Persephone and Inanna:

    “You are your own damn permission slip…
    Pain can remain pain – nothing more or less. Or pain can be ritual pain, if you use it as a call to adventure, a portal to change and transformation. Then, it becomes an initiation into the life of the soul: a deeper sense of you, your connection to a larger story, and perhaps to the mystery itself.”

    http://justinemusk.com/2014/10/19/heroines-journey/

  9. Strange Attractor says:

    Lois McMaster Bujold, science fiction and fantasy writer extraordinaire, shared some of her thoughts about the woman’s journey vs. what joseph campbell wrote about in this interview: http://www.womenwriters.net/june09/paladin_interview.html

    Here’s a quote:
    “It was clear to me from reading Campbell and listening to his recorded lectures that while he was very big on the Hero’s Journey, he was utterly clueless about women. The journey into maturity (for which the above was metaphor, in Campbell’s view) has an entirely different structure for women than for men, starting from the fact that while the male goes out into the world and returns to his starting point to take over the role of his father, the successful female (in exogamous cultures, which most are) goes out and keeps on going, never to return. The Hero’s Journey is just the wrong shape for the Heroine.”

    I like what she has done in her novels, particularly the more recent ones, playing with different types of structures to the story, ones that don’t follow the mono-myth.