Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

The Heroine’s Journey

So this past weekend, I attended GeekGirlCon in Seattle. It’s a wonderful con: a crowd of probably 70% women, 30% men, a selection of geeky arts, crafts, real SCIENCE, great panels and awesome networking opportunities.

My buddy @tereshkova2001 doing science!!1! (luminol experiement), dressed as Ms. Frizzle.

My buddy @tereshkova2001 doing science!!1! (luminol experiement), dressed as Ms. Frizzle.

One of said great panels that I went to was titled “The Heroine’s Journey: Moving Beyond Campbell’s Monomyth.” (When I saw this in the program I was like THEY’RE PLAYING MY SONG GOTTA GO. As a reminder, the title of my master’s critical “thesis” i.e. 20-page paper was โ€œMistress of Both Worlds: Womenโ€™s Stories and the Monomyth.โ€)

So I was 85% incredibly pleased with this panel and 15%…displeased? Feeling like they were missing something? At the end of the panel I sort of vibrated and wrote stuff down for the next 20 minutes because I was so excited about the topic and had so many thoughts and feelings. Allow me to try and explain.

First off, a description of the panel:

The panel was moderated by B.J. Priester, who has a great series of blog posts on FANgirl Blog about the Heroine’s Journey. You can start here.

Panelists included Star Wars expert Tricia Barr of FANgirl Blog, Jennifer Stuller of Ink-Stained Amazon, and Alan Kistler of The Mary Sue and other places as well. They are all super-rad and I recommend checking out their work.

The basic thesis of the panel was this:

  1. Joseph Campbell’s monomyth is a story far too limited to tell women’s stories. This is because a) it was based in male Freudian psychology and b) it’s limited to a going forth-becoming-returning story, i.e. a coming-of-age tale.
  2. Also Campbell was an asshat who dismissed women as even needing to go on a “hero’s journey” because they were obviously either sort of pre-enlightened quest objects, or the Goddess, or the temptress.
  3. There are specific aspects of stories involving a central female heroine that move beyond and differ significantly from the monomyth. (These were SO RAD that I’m going to discuss them next post.)

The only bit of the panel that I had a hard time with was that the panel was a bit dismissive of fairy tales. Look forward, not back, they said. And I agree that looking forward is our goal, and that these new stories with central female characters in the 20th and 21st centuries are great and worthy of study. However, it’s throwing the baby out with the bath water to dismiss fairy tales and even myth entirely. In fact, I think fairy tales in particular are incredibly important. (Duh. It’s me.)

But why? Because they have been orally transmitted vessels of popular, often populist culture for millennia. Until a bunch of middle class mostly dudes wrote them down, fairy tales were told mostly by women and poor folks. The panelists pointed out that myth and old tale have often been vehicles for advancing the ideals of patriarchal societies. And to an extent, yes. But I think there’s a lot more going on in myth and tale than mere patriarchal values. I have a working thesis that fairy tales were collected by the Great Collectors of Tales (Mme. Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy in France, The Brothers Grimm in Germany, Alexander Afansyev in Russia, Joseph Jacobs in England, etc.) riiight at about the time that nationalism was becoming a thing. The tales of a particular region suddenly got co-opted into that region’s national identity, and used as a cultural touchstone. Thing is, many have used tales for very specific purposes: nationalism, morality (e.g. bowdlerized versions of tales being read to children), propaganda (you bet the Nazis latched on to the Grimm tales), and vehicles for a particular school of thought (coughBRUNOBETTLEHEIMcough). So fairy tales have been used and abused for many reasons, patriarchal culture being a major one. But that is not all they are.

So why do I like fairy tales so dang much?

They are simultaneously problematic and redemptive for women. They are wrought with tropes and bizarre internal logic, but at the same time they exist in a weird psychological landscape that I find freeing. The influence of fairy tales in particular is strange and universal, and not always nice.

For example, why do tales about women with hands or an arm cut off come up in so many cultures? Why tales of wicked mothers? How did this dang dead mother, father raising daughter thing come about? Why so many discussions of incest in these tales? Psychologists love to have goes at answering questions like this. And I don’t begrudge psychologists their place to do so. But I’m also curious as to how we as world-builders and story-creators respond to fairy tales. We’re not all Jungian jerks like Campbell. What have we to take from this incredible wealth of source material?


Anyway, after the panel, my friend says “So…is this gonna be a blog post?”
And I, in my vibrating-muttering-frantically-scribbling state still, said, “It’s gonna be a book.”

Point is, I have a lot to say about the Heroine’s Journey. Stay tuned for some more of it next post, including all the awesome points that the panel made.


  1. Anne, I am with you on the whole fairy tale thing. There is more to them than meets the eye, for sure.

    As to why so many would feature dead moms and dad raising the children, my guess is that many women died in childbirth way back when, so that would have been a ‘story’ that people had experience with. I once read that in Victorian times (which we might consider somewhat ‘modern’) mid-wives dressed in black to attend the birth because the prospective mother had a 50% chance of dying while giving birth. Imagine what it was like 300/400 years ago.

    Anyway, I look forward to more posts from you. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Anne Bean

      October 13, 2014 at 3:43 pm

      There’s a fascinating book called Fairies and Fairy Stories: A History by Dianne Purkiss that covers many things, among them the connections between fairy tales and the dangers of giving birth, motherhood, & infant deaths pre-20th century.

  2. Hah, didn’t see you there but my daughter is in the background of that picture

  3. I am with you on mythology/fairy tales. We should go have a cuppa something sometime and talk!

  4. Thanks for attending the Heroine’s Journey panel. I’m really interested in your thoughts on fairy tales. I wish we could have covered that more, but the topic is so expansive. I’m actually a huge fan of fairy tales and incorporate a lot of the themes from them in my own storytelling. Definitely we shouldn’t throw anything out, but continually refresh them and update.

    GeekGirlCon was amazing this year.

    ~Tricia Barr, FANgirl Blog

    • Anne Bean

      October 13, 2014 at 3:38 pm

      Thank you for doing the panel! I really enjoyed the heck out of it, and will address the points y’all made in another post when I’m not hyperventilating about fairy tales. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      I would be mightily curious to know what you think of Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey.

  5. Wheee Hee! I love this piece of writing…and you assessment of Joseph Campbell, who apparently is considered sainted in some men’s circles. My women story teller friends had a different opinion…nice to see yours are akin to theirs. Hugs!

  6. Read “your assessment”…sorry…could not see how to edit.

  7. Oh gosh I am vibrating over the possibility of this book. I want to read this book. I feel like fairy tales grow up with us, and there is no ‘looking back” to them, because they’ve always been around. They’re the touchstone stories that are present in the small of your back when writing fiction, and that they’ve been co-opted for good and evil over again only speaks to their power. Fairy tales are magic spells, real ones. It’s funny; I was just reading Milan Kundara’s The Curtain and in it he was talking about how Smetana’s compositions after he had gone deaf were lifted up as folk music and made part of the national identity, when folk had nothing to do with his work at that time, but it fit the narrative Czechoslovakia was going for… So it’s like, we have this beautiful music that comes through the aether, time, deafness, whatever, and it doesn’t care what you think of it because it just exists as a backbone, connecting threads of other narratives that would be lost in space… I am getting all romantic. I love fairy tales. I can’t wait to hear more about this panel.

  8. I feel like I would have enjoyed this panel very much. You’ve given me some new books to add to my reading list, and I can’t wait to read the one you write.

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