So what do heroic stories look like, if not Campbell’s monomyth? Are there female-specific stories and story structure?
At the panel I went to at GeekGirlCon, B.J. Priester, Tricia Barr, Jennifer Stuller, and Alan Kistler identified a few things they noticed while looking at female-centric films and television shows of the past thirty or so years. Here’s some of the things they found:
Heroine’s journeys tend to be less about an individual going forth and coming back tales, and more about getting a whole community through heroic growth. It’s not just about the heroine; it’s about her AND her community. Collaboration, not just cooperation.
Tricia Barr pointed out that Jada Solo (Han and Leia’s daughter) does get a monomyth-esque origin story in the Star Wars novels, but it’s nonetheless about finding herself within community, not separate from it. Also, the panelists pointed out, the Harry Potter books then follow more of a heroine’s journey than a monomythic hero’s journey.
I find this model of the heroine’s journey compelling, not only because it busts out of the monomyth, but also because it goes beyond even Maureen Murdock’s model of the heroine’s journey, which is intriguing, but ultimately a model for a solo journey of the lone heroine.
In Campbell’s monomyth, women show up as a) quest objects, b) the Goddess, or c) the Temptress.
According to Campbell, the Goddess gives the hero a boon of divine love, but then he has to go have an Oedipal moment and feel tempted and weird. Or, as Campbell puts it in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, “The mystical marriage of the queen goddess of the world represent the hero’s total master of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master.” But when he starts to realize that women, and himself, are actual living creatures with slowly decaying bodies, “there is experiences a moment of revulsion: life, the acts of life, the organs of life, woman in particular as the great symbol of life, become intolerable to the pure, the pure, pure soul.”
In the hero’s journey, love is a mixed blessing then, okay if divine but problematic if fleshy. In the heroine’s journey, love and connection are a boon; something the heroine struggles with but ultimately needs as a source of strength.
Some of the tropes that continue to dog female characters in modern media: Dead Mom and/or Cop Dad. Dead Mom is a trope as old as time; it’s a recurring theme in fairy tales. Many have written about it, notably Carl Jung. Perfect Mom dies and is a source of strength for the hero/ine from beyond the grave, oftentimes via a magical object like Vassalisa’s doll, or Cinderella’s magical tree and/or flock of murderous doves. The perfect mother dies and is replaced with a wicked stepmother in these tales, because the Victorians couldn’t handle wicked mothers. The further you go back in the tales, the more wicked mothers you find. (You also find more incestuous fathers, but that’s a separate another tale for another time.)
Speaking of fathers, though, Cop Dad comes up more often than is comfortable in modern TV. It’s irritating because, as Alan Kistler pointed out, it emphasizes that the father is not only a part of who the heroine is now, but in fact the reason why she’s heroic.
The panelists’ final point was this: we are storytellers. We help shape stories. Look forward, not backward. Look to the ways heroine stories can be, and how we want to write them.