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.
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 “Mistress of Both Worlds: Women’s Stories and the Monomyth.”)
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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.