Anne Bean

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Tag: heroine’s journey

Story Structure Along the Fury Road

This post will contain significant spoilers for the film Mad Max: Fury Road.

mad max fury road poster

I strongly suggest you go see it before reading the post. However, should you need convincing that it’s a film worth your time, I offer the following things I loved about it:

  1. The world-building is consistent, amazing, deeply satisfying. It’s set in a world poisoned, dead, polluted, with disposable people and a constant resource shortage/control system that means constant conflict and oppression. It’s a dying world evoked wonderfully through chrome, explosions, and cars. There is a guitar that shoots flames. There are muscle cars stacked on top of other muscle cars.
  2. It’s really well-written. Structurally, it’s great. This is what I’m going to talk about during the post below.
  3. The action sequences are intense and frequent; somehow also there is a lot of character building at the same time. Like at least four characters have character arcs. Whoa.
  4. Charlize Theron portraying a great action hero PLUS a disabled character who isn’t pitiable, “inspiration porn,” or defined by her disability. (She has a RAD mechanical arm.)
  5. The film is an action classic and also a feminist action classic, as many have pointed out in tones both admiring and revolted. I mean, this film pissed of Men’s Rights Activists, which means it’s totally worth seeing. 🙂


Right, then, spoilers ahoy:

Best Buddy Road Trip Flick 2015

After seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, a friend of mine posted on Facebook: “It was the best buddy road trip flick of 2015.” She’s not wrong. The structural bones of the film are that of a road trip flick: protagonist goes on trip with Very Important Purpose, finds not what they expected to find but something else, something about themselves, and then returns home with new-found confidence, purpose, etc. Some examples of the Road Trip Flick: Blues Brothers, Little Miss Sunshine, O Brother Where Art Thou, Dirty Girl (which is on Netflix right now and also fantastic, go watch it). The Road Trip Flick structure is pretty darn closely aligned to the Hero’s Journey structure, where the hero must venture to the “special world” to gain allies, defeat foes, and bring the elixir of life back to their people.

So in that respect, Mad Max has a very traditional structure, and it cracks me up that a lot of articles are crying “this film breaks the mold!” I mean, it doesn’t and it does. It certainly doesn’t fall back of the tropes of toxic masculinity that many action films use–it addresses toxic masculinity, but from a place of dismantling rather than blind acceptance. So what about the plot structure is nonstandard? Well, there’s a female main character and a lot of women. And they are subjects, not objects, even the ones who were sex slaves. I wish that wasn’t such a big deal, but it Action Movie Land, it totally is.

Belle vs Max

a split face: left half is Max, right half is Disney's BelleOne thing I find helpful when looking at a film is to figure out who’s the viewpoint character and whose story the film is following. Sometimes this is the same person, sometimes it is not. In this case, it’s not. Like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the viewpoint character is not the one the movie’s overall story is about. In the case of Beauty and the Beast, we’re meant to see the tale through Belle’s eyes, but it’s Beast’s story. In Mad Max: Fury Road, we’re meant to see the film through Max’s eyes, but it’s Imperator Furiosa’s story. This is what’s pissing off the sexists: this is a film about a woman and her heroic journey to gain allies (one of whom is Max), defeat foes, and very literally bring the water *cough* I mean elixir of life back to her people.

Unlike Belle, though, Max has agency throughout the film. Max’s motives are clear: survival (which he’s very clear about), and also redemption (which he doesn’t consciously know at first that he needs, but we sure do). These are the same motivations that Imperator Furiosa has, except that she’s consciously seeking redemption, thus her quest for the Green Place of Many Mothers. Max is along for the ride at first; although he is still acting in the best interest of his primary motive, survival. At some point, though, both Max and Furiosa make a conscious choice to trust each other. When Furiosa needs a driver during their passage through the mountain pass, she has Max do it. Max realizes that despite having gathered all the women’s weapons and technically holding the women at gunpoint for some time, that he and Furiosa both want escape, survival, and yes, redemption. Once he’s been trusted by Furiosa, he slowly morphs from Other to Ally. In some of the relatively sparse dialogue, Furiosa asks him what they should do if he doesn’t return from a mysterious mission to blow some shit up that’s chasing them in the fog. He looks at her funny and replies: “Keep driving.”

Max is often the catalyst for action. He sometimes serves as a fulcrum for the team. This has pulled him in to what several folks at FANgirl blog have identified as a key component of “heroine’s journey” stories: working with a team or otherwise affecting the entire society, not just the self. Notice in this scene (WHICH IS A HUGE SPOILER SO IF YOU HAVE IGNORED ME BEFORE GO WATCH THE FILM ALREADY, SHEESH) who’s making the plan, and how the camera focuses on the group as a whole:

There’s a reason why Max is there, but it’s not his story. He’s part of something bigger, and Furiosa is leading that charge.

Furiosa’s Journey

Furiosa’s arc could follow a number of traditional hero’s journeys. My favorite version of the hero’s journey comes from The Writers’ Journey by Christopher Vogler, although Furiosa is also very much following the Heroine’s Journey as outlined by Maureen Murdock in her book of the same name. Essentially, Furiosa’s Hero’s Journey narrative goes like this:

  • Inciting Incident: Setting off on her journey in the War Rig.
  • Mentor: None. While there are figures who fall into the mentor archetype later in the film
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies: Max (shapeshifter), “Wives” (ally), Nux (shapeshifter), Immortan Joe (enemy), all the other desert factions in the first half of the film (enemy)
  • Midpoint/First Big Test: The mountain passage
  • Boon: Full allyship with Max, then later Nux
  • The Road Home: finding the Vuvalini (there’s that mentor archetype, y’all), realizing that the Green Place is no more, deciding to come back home
  • Showdown/Climax: Final road battle that results in the death of Immortan Joe, where she kills him.
  • Return: Furiosa’s return home, flowing water, Action Hero Nod with Max as he leaves, etc.


There’s a lot more about this movie that I will probably talk about. We all know how big a fan I am of symbolic props, and gosh, this film used them incredibly well. But for now I say, Huzzah, a film where almost every character had at least some development and most of them had full character arcs! Huzzah, a film well-structured and well-plotted. Oh, what a film! What a glorious film!

The Heroine’s Journey, Part Two

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.

The whole Scooby Gang is part of the process.

The whole Scooby Gang is part of the process. They’re not just Buffy’s sidekicks. Anyone who thinks different, um, I dare you to tangle with Willow. Or Spike. Or Riley. Or Giles. (I guess you could tangle with Xander, but you’ll probably have an angry witch on your hands.)

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.

Murdock talks a lot about why often heroines collect male sidekicks, for example.

Murdock talks a lot about why often heroines collect male sidekicks, for example.

In Campbell’s monomyth, women show up as a) quest objects, b) the Goddess, or c) the Temptress.

fig 1: woman as quest object.

fig 1: woman as quest object.

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.

Learning to love is part of Xena's redemption quest.

Learning to love is part of Xena’s redemption quest.

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.

So the Lance sisters from the DC show Arrow have Cop Dad. That being said, at least Laurel can not only hold her own in a fight, but is a badass lawyer. Sara is freakin' Black Canary, which was not because of her was because of other men, but hey. Perhaps that at least bends the trope?

So the Lance sisters from the DC show Arrow have Cop Dad. That being said, at least Cop Dad is around, and also a three-dimensional, flawed character. Plus, Laurel can not only hold her own in a fight, but is also a badass lawyer. Sara is freakin’ Black Canary, which was not really because of her father…it was because of other men, but hey. Perhaps that at least bends the trope?

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.

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 “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:

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.

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