*Deep sigh of satisfaction.
I've been doing some research on the female hero, and it's giving me ideas for my girl, Trilby. Here's a summary I wrote of a book I read that impressed me. Such good food for thought. Does it nourish you?
The female hero’s journey differs from the male’s in a number of ways. “Patriarchal society views women essentially as supporting characters in the drama of life. Men change the world, and women help them,” note Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope in The Female Hero in American and British Literature (vii).
This view is perpetuated in most of today’s media. Cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel created the Bechdel Test to analyze movies according to how women are portrayed. The vast majority do not pass her simple three-point test: 1) There are at least two female characters, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man.
It was scholar Joseph Campbell who originally identified a pattern he called “the hero’s journey” which appears in myths and stories across cultures and ages. This pattern can be broken into three broad stages: the Call, the Quest, and the Return. After analyzing hundreds of works of classic and popular fiction in the Western canon, Pope and Pearson identified ways this pattern differs for women and men.
The first stage is the Call, when the hero is summoned to go on the quest and begin her adventure. This stage is often more difficult for women, who may be leaving a protected environment controlled by people she loves, such as parents or a husband. While the male hero slays “dragons” or overcomes obstacles on the quest itself, “the first task of the female hero is to slay the dragon within,” to recognize that she has the heroic traits necessary to undertake a quest. (viii)
What are those “dragons within?” The authors identify four myths which socialize women to be passive receptors rather than dynamic actors in their lives: 1) the myth of female inferiority 2) the myth of virginity 3) the myth of romantic love, and 4) the myth of maternal sacrifice. Perhaps, in the United States in the 21st Century, the first myth can be discarded as unsupportable. But what is wrong with the other three? The flaw in these still-popular feminine ideals is that they value women only in relation to other people. Rather than encouraging women to be the “subject” of their own heroic journeys, they teach women to be the “object” in another person’s story.
This does not mean that it is wrong to be a virgin, to love another person, or to make sacrifices for children, but that when women are cast entirely in the “helper” or “complementary” role, it prevents full development of their individual character.
The second stage of the journey is The Quest, and this, too, differs for men and women. While the traditional male hero succeeds by overpowering his enemies, women master their world by “understanding it, not by dominating, controlling, or owning” it. (5) Many modern male heroes also reject the traditional “masculine” model which calls for the hero to win by demonstrating superiority over others. But rather than adopt a more “feminine” and egalitarian world view, they become alienated and unhappy “antiheroes.”
Pope and Pearson point out that minorities, the poor, the disabled, and other people whose power is limited in modern American society will relate more to the female’s journey than the male’s. This is bourn out in analysis of the “tragic hero” pattern. “It is axiomatic that the tragic hero falls from power because of hubris. An excess of pride is a characteristic of those bred to have power and accordingly to believe in their superiority. The white male tragic hero experiences a tragic fall when his inflated ego encounters experience,” the authors write. But “the destruction of the oppressed more often occurs because they accept the role of victim.” (10)
Pope and Pearson blame strictly-defined gender roles for the failure of both men and women to achieve their full human potential. “The tendency to see men and women as inherently opposite—as respective embodiments of head and heart, conscious and unconscious, adventurousness and nurturance, aggression and passivity—has led each sex to denigrate the other because it represents the negative half of all human characteristics.” (19)
Many classic works contain scenes in which men are tempted by a “seductress” who is “a projection of the attributes he identifies as female but cannot internalize in a positive form.” (19) Likewise, women may face a “seducer” who “ultimately betrays her as a result of destructive myths governing male behavior. He may ‘seduce and abandon’ the hero in accordance with the myth that men are predators who demonstrate their virility by ‘ruining’ virtuous and attractive women. He may limit her freedom because he believes his masculinity depends on controlling a submissive and loving woman. Or, as in the case of Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, he may lack the courage” to face the consequences of his behavior and be “reluctant to lose male patriarchal status and power.” (144)
In the Return stage of the journey, heroes typically bring a gift back to their community. For women, this gift may be the realization her true, heroic character. Although her journey leads to development of her potential, that potential varies widely according to the time period in which the book was written and the author’s bias; in many classic works of literature (Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, Daisy Miller by Henry James, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman), the best a female hero can do is to die or go insane rather than conform to stereotypes which limit and diminish her.
A more positive outcome is possible when all people integrate the varied aspects of human experience--both masculine and feminine--into one healthy whole. “Both male and female heroes begin the quest for wholeness and selfhood by risking the violation of conventional norms, including conventions about appropriate sex-role behavior; both learn not to manipulate and restrain other people; and both reach accommodation with the best qualities associated with men and with women, integrating strength with humility, independence with empathy, rationality with intuition, and thought with emotion.” (15)