On traditional storycraft, patriarchal conditioning, and how a woman might approach slaying the beast from a different perspective.
by Heather Jo Flores
“The mystery of human destiny is not that we are fated, but that we have the freedom to fulfill or not fulfill our fate: realization of our fated destiny depends on us. While inhuman beings like the cockroach realize the entire cycle without going astray, because they make no choices.”
— Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H. p. 129
“It may be that the human race is not ready for freedom. The air of liberty may be too rarefied for us to breathe…The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.”
— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art, p. 37
Humans love stories. No matter who you are, where you live, or what your life is all about, chances are you love to witness the transformation of a dynamic, willful protagonist. And the stories we tell, from Beowulf to Zootopia, have shaped human culture since that first cavewoman explained how she discovered fire.
But how have these stories also corrupted our culture? And how have they reinforced harmful, oppressive paradigms that now, as we face widespread social, economic, and ecological chaos, need to change?
Is it possible that, by changing the way we tell stories, and by changing who’s stories we tell, we could change the destructive trajectory of our species? I believe the answer is yes, and such is my obsession with the Heroine’s Journey.
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Think about it. How have the stories that you’ve read, seen, heard, and remembered affected your relationship to the world, the paths your have chosen, the trajectory of your life?
I know that repeated early readings of Alice in Wonderland, The Selfish Giant, and the Wizard of Oz shaped many of the perspectives of my early adulthood. It sounds so silly now, typing this, but I can see that this magical explorer archetypal journey on which I find myself today is still connected to those fantastic stories I adored when I was a kid.
When I was thirteen, I found a copy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong in a thrift store and it shaped my approach to sexuality.
Later, I sat in a park in San Francisco, eavesdropping on a story about real people, fighting for the trees. I quit my job, moved to Oregon, and spent the next five years on the front lines of the Northwest Forest movement of the 1990’s.
And when I read a story by a Japanese rice farmer who stopped tilling his fields and changed the way millions of people think about agriculture, I found my calling as a permaculture activist.
And so on.
Of course it’s not just books and oral storytelling I’m talking about. It’s the movies, the news, the internet. All around us, every day: story.
Now I spend my time using story to help people overcome fear, anxiety, lack of self-worth, and creative blocks. By telling them my stories and the stories of others, and by encouraging them to tell their own, together we discover how quickly and joyfully the telling of a few stories can unleash a flood of creative potential.
And I believe this approach can be taken with changing culture on a larger scale. I believe that, by telling stories self-empowered, fiercely compassionate feminist heroes who embark on deliciously harrowing, ardently transformative journeys but do NOT use violence to solve their problems, we can create a new cult of humanity that values this type of heroism over the old Slay Every Dragon and Steal the Princess Without Her Consent paradigm.
Do you see where I’m going with this? My primary inquiry:
How can we create a truly feminist hero(ine) who doesn’t use violence to solve her problems? And, if we do create a timeless body of popular works that center nonviolent women instead of violent men, how will that influence human culture over the generations to come?
This is not to say there aren’t already lots of feminist hero(ine)s! We’ll get to that…
The Hero’s Journey
Most of us have heard of the hero’s journey, and many of us have used the formula for our work. From storytellers to salespeople, the classic archetype of the hero, as he travels from catalyst to climax and conclusion, is a metaphor for the transformation that most people want to achieve. We all want to improve our lives, to become better people, to succeed. But what about the Heroine’s Journey? Here I present an analysis of the classic formula, through a feminist lens. My intention is not to negate the archetype, but rather to enhance it and to offer an alternative for myself and others to use as we forge our stories and, by extension, our lives. My purpose is to present some questions, many of which do not have concrete answers. I ask the reader to be okay with this, to let the questions just be questions, and to allow this atmosphere of inquiry to shape the journey. Let us begin.
For as long as I can remember, I have identified as a writer, but for many years I eschewed formal training. I proudly displayed my autodidactism like a trophy, believing that if I read enough books and saw enough films that I could someday write them. This was partially true, and I wrote my entire book, Food Not Lawns, without having ever taking a single writing course. Later, when I was ready to write novels and screenplays, I realized that I needed to learn more about putting a story together. I had a mountain of ideas, but I needed was a structure that would help me pull them together. So I enrolled in a screenwriting workshop.
The first thing we learned in the workshop was the hero’s journey, sometimes called “three-act structure.” We discussed Shakespeare, Greek tragedies, and blockbuster films, and analyzed them to discover common patterns. First we looked for the pattern used in Greek mythology, as follows:
Prologue: The set up;
Agon: A contest offers opportunity;
Peripitia: A reversal of circumstances provides unforeseen challenge;
Pathos: An emotional appeal to the audience;
Sparagmos: A tearing asunder;
Epiphany: A sudden vision saves the day (and usually, the world.)
Most ancient stories adhere to this format, and modern tales are usually built on a similar but expanded framework. The most widely-regarded expert on this was Joseph Campbell, who devoted his life to studying and articulating what he dubbed the “monomyth.” In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell analyzes hundreds of stories and presents a consistent formula. Campbell describes seventeen specific steps that heroes take, broken down into three distinct stages. The first stage, “separation and departure,” includes the Prologue and Agon stages of the Greek structure listed above, but with a deepened experience for the hero that includes denying his destiny and being forced to pursue it anyway. The second stage, entitled “trials and histories of initiation,” includes Peripitia, Pathos, and Sparagmos, and requires the hero to find a mentor, endure a series of trials, and annihilate himself in order to cross many difficult thresholds towards his destiny. The final act, “the return and reintegration with society,” includes an Epiphany and requires the hero to find his way home and reconcile his new self with the past.
Back in the screenwriting workshop, we learned that Campbell’s formula has been used consistently by novelists and screenwriters since it was originally published in 1949. In The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field (considered the Godfather of screenwriting) presents a detailed formula, similar to Campbell’s but designed to fit into a 100-page screenplay. This formula is now commonly referred to as “high-concept,” or the “blockbuster formula.” Here it is, as I understand it:
Act One (The set-up)
When I sat down to write my first novel, Naked Lady Soup, about a troubled yet successful artist who leaves her Bohemian life behind to search for a higher purpose, I knew right away that I would have to alter the hero’s journey to fit her story. First of all, I wanted her to solve her problems without using violence, and the blockbuster formula is generally filled with battle scenes. Doing the best I could, I wrote the novel quickly, and finished it, but something in the text just wasn’t working. My protagonist’s quest was to find a way to love herself, and she didn’t have any external dragons to slay. Her beasts were within, and she had to connect with, rather than eradicate them. When I gave the manuscript to people for critique, they came back with comments like, “there needs to be more sex, more violence.” I found that disturbing, and realized that the hero’s journey formula might have been the problem. So I started to seek alternatives, looking for examples of work that followed a different pattern.
Theater of the Oppressed
The first thing I came across that offered a strong critique of the hero’s journey was Theater of the Oppressed, founded by Brazilian director Augusto Boal in 1971. Boal believed that the hero’s journey formula perpetuates an authoritarian regime by presenting an opportunity for empathic catharsis that is so satisfying that the spectator is content to do just that: spectate. Boal felt that watching a hero complete his journey replaces the need to embark on our own, and that the separation between performer and audience reinforces the chasm between oppressor and oppressed. When I consider the massive volume of formulaic, unchallenging titles available on bookshelves, the internet and broadcast television, and the countless hours the average American watches and reads this crap, lost in happy catharsis, I can easily agree that this seems to be an effective system for maintaining a dominant paradigm and discouraging real life heroism.
Boal’s method, which is now used in communities around the world, creates theatrical performances that invite spectators to actively participate in the outcome. In Games for Actors and non Actors, he writes, “Artists are witnesses of their times: they should not impose on their public their own view of society, their own understanding of human beings, or their own way to make decisions. . .they should help others to stimulate inside themselves the artists that lie within.”(172)
I was inspired by Boal’s work, but there was still a big problem: theater, as was Boal’s focus, has the benefit of having direct contact with the audience, which presents opportunities for interaction that are not available to most writers and filmmakers. I couldn’t quite figure out how to apply Boal’s ideas to my own work.
Remember the choose-your-own-adventure books? I used to love those when I was a kid, and I wonder how much of my self-directed nature was shaped by the experience of participating in rather than just ingesting stories. But we can’t expect the whole of literature to become a world of choose-your-own-adventure books, and I don’t feel compelled to write them. As I continued my search for an approach to storycraft that is as compelling and entertaining as the hero’s journey, and yet subversive and non-violent, I realized that there was a massive question swirling in my mind:
What About the Women?
In most of the myths, tales, stories, and epochs that have shaped our culture and continue to entertain us today, women have been consistently pigeonholed into those tired old roles: virgin, mother, wife, whore and hag. In almost every case, she is either a villain, a damsel in distress, or some other sort of obstacle for the hero to save, defeat, and overcome in order to acquire his grand prize (which is often a woman, objectified and/or used as bait.) Sometimes women can be found in buddy/helper roles, but they are almost never in equal partnership with the hero. Upon an initial inquiry, I found several modern female heroes who seemed to carry the feminist torch, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, Lara Croft, and Katniss of the Hunger Games Trilogy. However, all of these heroines solved problems with violence as their primary tool, and what I was looking for was an example that involves a heroine that strives to understand, rather than destroy, the enemy.
Recent commercially successful examples might include Bridget Jones’ Diary and Eat Pray Love. Unfortunately, these tales are generally lumped together as “chick flicks,” marginalized as being just a bunch of whiny women complaining about their lives. This is eternally frustrating, but I refuse to play the victim. The 2003 reprint of Erica Jong’s 1973 bestseller, Fear of Flying, includes an interview with the author. In it, Jong says, “I think our culture says that women who wonder about their own fulfillment aren’t doing what women should do — which is take care of everyone else. . .But how can women become important writers if they are thought to be unfeminine when they look into the female mind?” (459) She makes a compelling point, and I share her frustration.
The rest of this article will be devoted to my quest to define a heroine’s journey. I will start by presenting a few feminist critiques the hero’s journey, and will then share some stories that have had the most profound effect on my life and my writing. Finally I will offer my own take on the journey, an armature on which to hang a new kind of story.
Charting the Path
Let’s go back to Joseph Campbell and his ideas about men and women. In Hero with a Thousand Faces, we find very little on the role of women in mythology, but this paragraph seems to sum up Campbell’s perspective:
woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know. . .she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending. She lures, she guides, she bids him to burst his fetters. And if he can match her import, the two, the knower and the known, will be released from every limitation. Woman is the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure. By deficient eyes she is reduced to inferior states; by the evil eye of ignorance she is spellbound to banality and ugliness. But she is redeemed by the eyes of understanding. The hero who can take her as she is, without undue commotion, but with the kindness and assurance she requires, is potentially the king, the incarnate god, of her created world. (97)
There are a lot of serious assertions in that passage, and I could easily dedicate the rest of this essay to tearing them apart, but for now I would like to focus on the overarching message that, according to Campbell, a woman is simultaneously a prize on a pedestal and an obstacle to be overcome, after which she should stand behind the man, and if he can meet her mountain of needs, they can rule the world. It is difficult to respond to this without a lot of emotion, and I struggled to find a way to write about it that would prevent this essay from going off the deep end into a familiar feminist rant. Fortunately, I found a handful of well-written feminist critiques of Campbell’s hero, many of which came from the comic book world, where women are vilified, objectified, and mutilated in extreme measures.
On Fangirl, a blog dedicated to supporting strong female protagonists, a writer credited only as “Lex,” posted an article entitled The Heroine’s Journey: How Campbell’s Model Doesn’t Fit, in which she does an excellent job of articulating exactly what is wrong with Campbell’s perspective. She points out that, “Campbell’s framework for the Hero’s Journey is inextricably bound up in the values, conventions, and perspectives of the sources upon which it draws… most of the historical myths he studied arose in profoundly sexist eras of human history.”
Lex points out that a feminist journey would have to consider the types of choices that women have to make, such as whether or not to have children, how to balance work and home, and how to include friends and family in her quest. But she also notes the importance of avoiding the assumption that all heroines are dealing with traditional female problems. She states that a feminist narrative should not restrict or limit its heroine to any sort of predictable stereotypes, feminine or masculine, and asserts that the goal is not to write stories about a “hero with boobs.”
This makes a lot of sense to me, and begs the question: what are the specific differences between the hero’s journey and the heroine’s journey? Perhaps the hero follows a linear trajectory, whereas the heroine tends toward a more cyclical unfolding? Perhaps the classic hero on his quest is, by definition, a masculine pursuit, if for no other reason than that he has the privilege to go a-questing, whereas a woman might be more likely to find herself financially, emotionally and physically trapped in a perpetual status quo.
For me, the most important piece of this puzzle is the question of whether our heroine even wants to slay the beast. Might she be more inclined to try and befriend it, to reach a mutual understanding? This is not about men versus women. It is about a bigger, much less dualistic picture, one that strives to accept, rather than make an enemy of, the unknown.
It is important to mention that the goal here is not to vilify Joseph Campbell. He was a product of his times and his work is a precious resource for understanding the fine art of storycraft, and if he was here today I am sure he would appreciate the deepening dialogue around this issue. But our purpose is to push beyond his work, and to support a new generation of stories from the next level of understanding.
In the late 1980’s, while researching her book, The Heroine’s Journey, Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, Maureen Murdoch interviewed Campbell. Murdoch asked about women’s role in the monomyth, and was told that women don’t need to make the journey, because “In the whole mythological tradition, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to. When a woman realizes what her wonderful character is, she’s not going to get messed up with the notion of being psuedo-male.” (2) Murdoch was deeply unsatisfied with this answer. She felt that Campbell was saying that a woman has no quest of her own. She retorts: “Women do have a quest at this time in our culture. It is the quest to fully embrace their feminine nature, learning how to value themselves as women and to heal the deep wound of the feminine.” (3)
I can see where she is going with this, and it makes sense, but what if we, for the moment, give Campbell the benefit of the doubt? Perhaps he and Murdoch were just trying to say the same thing, but in different languages. Could it be that a woman’s journey is about finding one’s own “wonderful character,” and accepting it, in spite of whatever flaws and monstrosities it might contain? Campbell brushes up against this, early in Hero with a Thousand Faces, in one of the few passages where he deviates from the male pronoun and refers to the hero as a “we.” He writes, “and where we had thought to find an abomination, we find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” (18)
Murdoch arrives at a similar conclusion, in her own way, by focusing on internal transformation as the core of the heroine’s journey. She presents an alternative pattern of heroic quest, traveling in a cyclical rather than linear pattern. She emphasizes that the pattern cycles back around, again and again, with the knowledge that we can easily slip back into old ways of thinking and must remain steadfast in our commitment to change. I will summarize her version of the journey in the next few paragraphs.
The heroine begins in a state of illusion. She has rejected the feminine in her search for identity, and strives for success as defined by the patriarchy. Murdoch writes, “anything less than doing ‘important work in the world’ has no intrinsic value. . .as a woman focuses on. . .the inner journey, she receives little recognition and less applause from the outer world.”(6) In order to be seen as successful in a man’s world, the heroine eschews traditional female roles and qualities, and fights like a man to get to the top, where she might find herself in a position of power, especially when she relates it to the oppressed roles she has rejected.
However, “in her desire to dispel the negative associations with the feminine, our heroine has created an imbalance within herself which has left her scarred and broken. She has learned to get things done logically and efficiently but has sacrificed her health, dreams, and intuition.”(7) This manifests as physical and/or mental illness and the mechanisms by which our heroine has achieved her success are no longer effective.
Now comes the descent, manifesting perhaps as depression, dysfunction or downright psychosis. But if she perseveres, then the true journey begins. She ventures into uncharted territory and perhaps finds a renewed passion for nature, art, and relationships with other women. She experiences a transformation of her old self into something wholly unforeseen, and discovers a re-identification with the goddess archetype. This, however, could lead to extremes, coming out as anger, bitterness and a general loathing towards all things masculine, that which has betrayed her.
Our heroine’s mission at this stage is to heal old wounds — from her childhood, her mother and father, old lovers, past regrets. Her task is to bring herself into the present moment and find a healthy integration of masculine and feminine qualities, to overcome the illusion of duality and begin to achieve a balanced perspective. “The heroine must become a spiritual warrior. This demands that she learn the delicate art of balance and have the patience for the slow, subtle integration of the feminine and masculine aspects of herself.” (11)
Until finally, “when a woman reduces the emphasis on the outer heroic quest for self-definition, she is free to explain her images and her voice.” (10) She begins to discover a true success on her own terms. In her conclusion, Murdoch writes, “Today’s heroine must utilize the sword of discernment to cut away the ego bonds that hold her to the past and to find out what serves her soul’s purpose. She must release resentment toward the mother, put aside blame and idolization of the father, and find the courage to face her own darkness.” (184–5)
Psychology vs. Storycraft
For the most part, I agree with Murdoch’s perspectives, and I can see many parallels in my own life and personal journey. However, I want to differentiate between taking a personal journey and writing stories with a feminist protagonist. Campbell and Murdoch were therapists, psychologists focused on helping people transform their minds and their lives. I am a writer, and while I place immense value on personal journey and transformation, my goal for this essay is to develop a suitable framework on which to build a story that can help to extract, rather than embed, the patriarchal splinter in our collective subconscious.
To write a story, we need our protagonist to do something. In order to create a narrative that engages the audience and holds their attention, our heroine must carry her body through the adventure at hand. It’s a physical quest as much as an emotional one. And so, if we go with the idea that a feminist quest moves through the above psychological stages (or something similar) how can we build an action-based narrative?
Another writer, Catherine Bailey Kyle, tackles the subject from a different angle. Rather than focusing on the narrative structure, she emphasizes the components of a feminist story. In her essay, Her Story, Too, Final Fantasy X, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and the Feminist Hero’s Journey. Kyle defines and discusses the problems with “misogyny in geek culture,” and states that, “patriarchy is a many-headed hydra.” (132) Indeed.
Kyle goes on to reference Murdoch’s book, plus fifty other sources. From this she compiles a list of criteria for a feminist hero. She does not require that the hero be female or female-identified, but rather presents a list of elements that should be included in a story, in order for it to become a work that empowers, rather than objectifies women. In Kyle’s opinion, the narrative in question should achieve at least four of the following:
-passes the “Bechdel Test,” based on a 1985 comic strip entitled “Dykes to Watch Out For,” in which the characters state that a feminist plot must contain at least two female characters, who talk to each other about something other than a male character.
-includes representations of round, dynamic women
-contains at least one woman who helps others
-includes at least one instance of non-violent problem solving
-accounts for multiple subjectivities
-releases female characters from the “marriage/death trap,” in that it presents examples of effective, heroic women who are neither married nor dead by the end of the story.
-eschews the “chosen one” plot in favor of a voluntary heroism
-engages intersectionality, meaning the story is not just about sex and gender but also creates dialogue around class, race, privilege and oppression.
-does not pointlessly sexualize characters
The above list is compatible with both Boal’s and Murdoch’s ideas, and adds an excellent framework for building characters that break out of the patriarchal pigeonhole.
Now I would like to present a few of my favorite examples of women whose stories represent narrative examples that embrace some or all of the above theories. None of these heroines are a perfect representation of a balanced, embodied feminist, but each of them has qualities that I admire and would strive to include in a heroine of my own crafting. At this point, it seems important to state that I am not trying to oversimplify the issue.
This topic could fill a lifetime of study, but my purpose here is just to open some doors to the heroine’s world. There are infinite layers of cultural and sociopolitical implications to consider, so many that a writer could easily talk herself out of writing anything at all, for fear of screwing it up. This essay is meant to serve as a gateway, connecting just a few points on a multidimensional plane, in hopes of inspiring the writerly reader to attempt a different type of narrative.
I am enamored with a story from the King Arthur tradition, about a willful woman who falls under a curse and frees herself by finding a lover who doesn’t try to control her. In my research I encountered many versions of the story, accompanied by a massive body of scholarly work. Here is a short version, in my own words:
One day, King Arthur was caught off guard by his enemy Sir Gromer, who snuck up on him from behind. Just as the man was about to strike him down, Arthur suggested that to kill him in this way wasn’t exactly chivalrous. Sir Gromer thought about it for a second and then said, “ok, you’re right. How about I make you a deal? I will give you one year to solve a riddle, and if you can’t come up with the answer, then I shall ride into court and cut off your head in front of everyone.”
Arthur accepted the deal, thinking, “how hard could this riddle be? Surely I already know the answer!”
But then Sir Gromer said, “What do women want, above all else?”
Arthur was at a complete loss. For the next year, he rode from village to village, asking everyone he met. As the year came to a close, he sent out a last, desperate call, offering great rewards to anyone who could provide the answer. At the last minute, Lady Ragnell, a hideous hag known for her unruly ways, came snorting into court. She weighed four hundred pounds, with matted, greasy hair and two large, moldy tusks growing out of her face. Her skin was lumpy and she smelled like a rotting swamp. Everyone stared as she lurched toward the King, saying “Sire! I have the answer you seek!”
“Wonderful!” cried the King.
“Eh, not so fast,” said the Lady Ragnell, “you must pay a price.”
“Name it,” said the King.
“In exchange for my help, I shall marry the handsomest, most honorable man in court, your nephew Sir Gawain.” The court went into an uproar, for Gawain was dearly loved by all of Camelot and many women already had a mind to marry him.
But Gawain stepped forward, saying, “if it shall save my King, I shall marry the Lady.”
The next morning, when Sir Gromer rode into court, Arthur was ready with the answer. Hoping to save his nephew from the gruesome fate of marrying the hag Ragnell, he first offered all of the other answers he had collected throughout the year, reading them one at a time. But none of them was the true answer, and so finally Arthur offered what the hag had told him:
“What women want, above all else, is sovereignty, the freedom to make their own choices.”
“Blast!” yelled Sir Gromer, and off he rode, foiled.
Next came a glorious wedding celebration for Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell. The bride blushed in forty yards of white lace, for it took that much to cover her massive form. The groom stayed by her side, acting as if he were madly in love. This hag was to be his wife, after all, and the knight had resolved to make the best of it. When the time came to go to bed, the Lady draped herself against the pillows, beckoning to her new husband. “How about a little kiss?” she said.
Drawing himself up with all of the courage for which he was known, Sir Gawain replied to his wife, “Nay, I shall do more than kiss,” and began to climb into the bed. Suddenly, she was transformed into a beautiful woman. Alarmed, Gawain insisted the Lady explain herself.
“I am under a terrible curse,” she told him, “and by choosing to love me regardless of my looks, you have freed me of half of that curse. But now you must make a decision: either I can be this beautiful woman in your bed, at night and when we are alone, and I will still appear as a hag in court and to all the world, or I can be your beautiful wife to all the world but when we are alone together I will be the hag. What shall it be?”
Gawain was stumped. He thought about it for a long time and then finally he said, “Lady, Wife, I cannot be the one who makes this decision. The choice is completely yours.” And with that, he freed her of the second half of her curse. She explained that the curse had come onto her many years before, when she had refused to obey the orders given by her father and brother. They had insisted that she would never find a husband who would give her the freedom to think for herself. And they had cursed her to wear the guise of a hideous beast until she could prove them wrong.
Lady Ragnell’s ultimate prize, sovereignty, lines up with Maureen Murdoch’s heroine, who is also questing for the right to make her own choices, on her own terms. In so many ways, this old tale reeks of patriarchal domination: Lady Ragnell was originally cursed by a man, her brother, for refusing to do what she’s told. She is then redeemed by a man, her husband, who frees her of the curse. One man revokes her sovereignty, and another gives it back. Of course this provokes me! Why do we need their permission to run our own lives? Alas! This is still the world we live in, and that is why we need to create new stories, so that perhaps one day a woman’s sovereignty will be the status quo, rather than the prize.
Another thing that interests me about Lady Ragnell’s story is the representation of her transformation in physical terms. As an oppressed person, she is hideous, trapped inside a horrific body with which she doesn’t identify. Granted her freedom, she transforms into the beautiful person that she feels to be inside. This physical transformation is often concrete in real-life journeys such as my own — in my quest to find sovereignty and wholeness, I lost the forty pounds of extra fat I had carried for a decade. This reminds us that any journey is a physical endeavor. The path must be walked upon with our two feet, connected to our bodies and our minds.
Many of the sources that I read for this essay discussed Eve’s role as a scapegoat for the problems of humanity, and identified the legend of her original sin as a crutch for the patriarchal attitudes that persist in life and literature today. But must we continue to blame the hapless Eve? Can we just let her off the hook and focus on a different side of the story? Throughout my life I have been particularly fascinated with the legend of Lilith. Lilith appears in dozens of ancient texts, and the versions of her story vary widely. In some versions, she was always a demon, in others, she began as a goddess. Here’s my synopsis of the common threads:
Lilith and God were friends. Perhaps he created her, perhaps they created the universe together, or perhaps it created them. At some point, God ordered Lilith to go to Eden and live as Adam’s subservient wife. She went there, tried it out, and didn’t like it, not one bit. Adam was bullish and abusive and Lilith called out to God and went up to heaven to tell him she wasn’t havin’ it. He ordered her to return to Eden and she refused. She went to live in a cave by herself. God sent three angels to tell her she absolutely must return to Eden. Lilith told those three angels to get lost. God was so angry he turned Lilith into a demon, cursed to fly through the skies at night, fornicating with monsters and raining wet dreams upon innocent little boys for all eternity.
Not at all like the hero’s journey, Lilith’s is a story of co-creation, subservience, refusal, rejection, escape, blame, demonization, and monstrosity. She, like Eve, became the scapegoat for the rotten things that happen to humankind, but unlike Eve, Lilith reveled in her role. To her, this was a better fate than God’s chosen role for her, and to me, her virtue as a heroine is found in her affinity for her own monstrosity. She chose to be a monster rather than a slave.
Jong’s Fear of Flying changed the face of modern literature, granting permission to women to write about their desires and their sexuality with a candor previously unheard of in mainstream literature. It sold over seven million copies in a dozen languages and continues to be one of the most commercially successful novels featuring a non-violent female protagonist. Raised to be a good girl, the protagonist Isadora goes in search of “the zipless fuck,” with the idea that being more casual about sex will lead her to a feeling of liberation. I have spent much of my life bewitched by a similar illusion, and at this point the notion feels akin to Murdoch’s ideas about rejecting the feminine. If we fuck like men, we can achieve what men achieve, no? No. It didn’t work for me and it doesn’t work for Isadora. She does, however, learn to be more honest with herself, and discovers a shameless connection with her true purpose.
Towards the end of the book, Isadora says to her extramarital lover, Adrian:
“all my writing is an attempt to get love, anyway. I know it’s crazy. I know it’s doomed to disappointment. But there it is: I want everyone to love me.”
And Adrian says, “you lose.”
As the book resolves (which it really doesn’t — we expect her to find herself, strike out on her own, eschew the men and perhaps become a lesbian) she goes back to her husband and this is realistic, especially considering that it all took place in the late 1960’s. Of this, she writes, “it is damned clever how men had made life so intolerable for single women that most would gladly embrace even bad marriages instead. . .Though I’ve no doubt that being single is just as lonely for a man, it doesn’t have the extra wallop of being downright dangerous, and it doesn’t automatically imply poverty and the unquestioned status of a social pariah.”
I too believe that most women will choose comfort over free will, because being a lone heroine out in the world is terrifying to the point of exhaustion. I appreciate how Jong ended Fear of Flying; no big epiphany, just some baby steps and a few more ounces of self-respect. The book was widely criticized for being overtly sexual, labeled as indecent and pornographic, but what comes through in the text is not so much about getting laid for the fun (or sensationalism) of it, but more so about the inseparable connection between a woman’s sexuality and her creative process.
Jong speaks directly to this in a 1972 article entitled The Artist as Housewife/the Housewife as Artist:1 “Women artists cannot escape exploring their own sexuality, because the connection between sex and inspiration is intimate. . .If sex and creativity are often seen by dictators as subversive activities, it’s because they lead to the knowledge that you own your own body (and with it your own voice) and that’s the most revolutionary insight of all.”
Indeed, my own sexuality, connected to the rest of my relationship with my body, has consistently and profoundly affected my creative work. This is not to say that our heroine need be promiscuous, but rather to state that promiscuity of the body, especially as an act of free will, seems to bring about a promiscuity of the mind, and vice-versa. And further, could the demonization of the promiscuous woman be connected to a patriarchal tendency to limit the creativity of the masses?
In Hour of the Star, Lispector tells the story of Macabea, a homely virgin typist who has no family, no talent, no friends, and no aspirations. She is too stupid to know how miserable she is. The true protagonist of this story is, however, the narrator, who is so disturbed by Macabea’s story that he cannot tell it without interrupting himself, interposing his own gratitude for not being her. He says, “this tale could only come from a man because a woman would weep her heart out.” and “I have only escaped from a similar fate because I am a writer.” Of the invisible, ugly women that Macabea represents, he states, “they aren’t even aware of the fact that they are superfluous and that nobody cares a damn about their existence. Few of them ever complain and as far as I know they never protest, for there is no one to listen.” (14)
Halfway through the tale, Macabea meets a suitor. On their second date, she says to him, “I’m sure I can sing that music. La-la-la.” He responds, “You look like a deaf mute trying to sing. Your voice is like a broken reed.” She says, “That’s because I am singing for the first time in my life. “ (51)
She is just starting to realize her self, her sexuality, and her desires, and standing up to him is the most willful action she takes until the very end of the story, when a coworker convinces her to visit a fortune-teller. Macabea decides that she wants to know something about herself, about her life and her path. The fortune-teller says that a beautiful man in a fancy yellow convertible will come and change everything for Macabea. Elated, she pays the woman and dashes out into the street, excited to finally embrace her life. A man in a yellow convertible whips around the corner and runs her down, and a few minutes later, Macabea dies in the gutter. The final passage reads:
At heart, Macabea was little better than a music box sadly out of tune.
I ask you:
— What is the weight of light?
And now — now it only remains for me to light a cigarette and go home. Dear God, only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me?
Don’t forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.
Hour of the Star was Lispector’s final work, published just a few months before she died of cancer in 1977. Since then it has become her most widely-known text, but before that, the work that made her famous in Brazil, not so much as an author, but more as a mystic and metaphysical guru, was The Passion According to G.H., published in 1964.
A protagonist that is almost the complete opposite of Macabea, G.H. is a privileged woman who lives in a penthouse in Rio de Janeiro. She haphazardly kills a cockroach in her apartment and then, through a massive existential transformation provoked by the killing, decides she must eat the dead roach in order to reconcile her spiritual debts. This conclusion is not arrived it casually; it takes her most of the day, staring at the dying beast, thinking to herself about all things human and humane. I could fill these pages with powerful quotes from the text, but this is the one that drives it home: “In the presence of the living cockroach, the worst discovery was that the world was not human, and that we are not human…the inhuman is our better part, is the thing.” (61)
G.H. finishes her story terrified that she will continue to live with the arrogance and hubris that had clouded her awareness before the encounter with the cockroach. She is afraid she will lose the power of the epiphany. She wants to hold on to the feeling of enlightenment but she knows that life will intervene. She knows that the world makes it much easier to be ignorant of the self than to be aware. She says, “my unreachable nowness is my paradise lost.” (143)
And finally, she releases the struggle, hopes for the best, steps out into the street and back into her life, and lets it go. The final line of the text: “Life is itself for me, and I don’t understand what I’m saying. And therefore, I adore.” (168)
Completely apart from a classic hero’s journey, Lispector’s version of heroic quest offers no catharsis whatsoever, but instead provides us with something else: a reflection and an opportunity. Her entire body of work features female protagonists who are unaware of their own strength, juxtaposed against a world that does not see them as heroic in any way. And through their obscurity, through the banal, the ugly, through self-reflection and tiny unseen actions, and through the subtle happenings of everyday life, they discover something that is perhaps far more valuable than heroism: self-worth.
This notion of self-discovery taking precedent over self-annihilation is at the heart of my quest to define a heroine’s journey. In Hour of the Star, Lispector writes, “Who hasn’t asked oneself, am I a monster or is this what it means to be human?”
The beast is a part of us, and our fear of it might be what drives us as a species to vilify and destroy nature. Is it possible that, by facing our fear of monstrosity, by embracing it within ourselves, we can arrive at a place of unity, rather than opposition to that which is wild, that which we cannot control or understand?
In the fourth installment of her published diary, Anais Nin discusses the problem of male-centered storytelling, and asserts that there is no such thing as objectivity. She writes, “[Man] thinks God did it all alone, and he thinks he did it all alone. And behind every achievement of man lies a woman, and I am sure God was helped too but never acknowledged it. . .It is man’s separateness, his so-called objectivity, which has made him lose contact, and then his reason.”
Nin felt that a more authentic story would have to embrace the inescapable interdependence of humanity. She speaks of objectivity as a fatal illusion, as as the driving force behind the oppression of women and also of nature. She believes that “man created art out of fear of exploring woman,” and that “woman stuttered about herself out of fear of what she had to say. She covered herself with taboos and veils.”
As she continues her treatise against man’s (and God’s) charade of objectivity, she connects it to the problem of vilifying nature and the unknown. She writes, “Man invented a woman to suit his needs. He disposed of her by identifying her with nature and then paraded his contemptuous domination of nature. But woman is not nature only. She is the mermaid with her fish-tail dipped in the unconscious. Her creation will be to make articulate this obscure world which dominates man, which he denies being dominated by, but which asserts its domination in destructive proofs of its presence, madness.”
At first, her perspective seems to scream of a dualistic attitude: men versus women. But to me, Nin’s primary message is that there is no such thing as a solo transformation. We simply cannot do it alone. We need help, partnership, community, therapy, love, support and feedback. We need nature and wilderness and mystery. And we need each other.
Again, this isn’t about a war between the sexes. There is a fine line between analyzing traditional masculine and feminine roles and characteristics, and generalizing opinions about men, women and genders between. I have been aware of this throughout this inquiry, and have attempted to focus on the former, rather than the latter. As I was finishing my research for this essay, I came upon an excellent book that supplied a missing link in this regard. The Female Hero in American and British Literature, by Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope, presents an in depth study of stories that rivals Campbell’s work, yet focuses on strong female protagonists. Pearson and Pope emphasize how the stereotypical hero archetype hurts the entire society by reinforcing a duality and separation between men and women. They criticize the literary paradigm that “the woman who elects a life of courage, strength and initiative on her own behalf is an exception, a deviant, and doomed to destruction.”(7)
But while this book examines the hero’s journey from a feminist perspective, it focuses on the importance of not making this a gender issue. They write, “The assumption that the male is subject and hero and the female is object and heroine injects patriarchal sex-role assumptions into the discussion of the archetypal hero’s journey; this confuses the issue and obscures the true archetypal elements of the pattern.” (4)
Pearson and Pope stress the importance of representing the heroism of not just women, but also others who have been historically marginalized because of race, class, etc. They write, “distinctions between male and female, mind and body, spirit and flesh, self and Other, are artificial dualities that distort her perceptions of the world.” and assert that, “as a result of her journey inward the hero overcomes alienation and rejoins herself with the world. This hard-won ability to celebrate the self and all experience — without escaping or repressing knowledge, pain, oppression, or evil — enables the hero to love, and find a community with other people.” (226)
Pearson and Pope also stress the importance of representing the heroism of marginalized people in mainstream literature, so that mainstream folk will be more able to believe that heroism is common and achievable in their own lives, and will see that a true hero “masters the world by understanding it, not by dominating, controlling, or owning the world or other people.” (5)
For me, the main point to consider here is whether the archetypal hero has marginalized the essential feminine nature in all of us, and whether the quest to slay the beast (repeated endlessly in stories since the beginning of time) has obscured the intrinsic living value of the monstrosity that exists in all of us. Again, the problem is with the dualistic thinking. When we accept that we cannot divorce ourselves, nor can we separate our connection to all of humanity and all of nature, we can embark on a different kind of quest, and we can do it together.
Before we move into my own formula for writing a heroine’s journey, I’d like to mention the concept of ecofeminism. Much of my life’s work has been as an eco-activist, and the community of women in which I worked strongly identified as ecofeminists. Since then, the study of ecofeminism — what it means, where it’s going, and who’s an authority on the topic — has expanded far beyond the scope of this essay, but I do feel it is important to bring some thoughts into the discussion because it connects directly to the problems with dualistic thinking presented above.
For now I will just say this: An ecology is an interdependent system, made up of species and habitats, edges and middles, peaks and valleys. In an ecology there is no such thing as complete equality, but rather a constant cycle of coexistent give and take, life and death, above and below. Each element, be it flora, fauna or feldspar, retains its individuality while remaining eternally connected to the whole. The patriarchal attitudes that have oppressed women throughout the ages have also oppressed nature. As a humanity, we tend to attempt to control that which is wild, that which we don’t understand. It could be a woman, it could be a wilderness, it could be a beast, or it could be that shadowy side of ourselves that society tells us must be kept hidden.
So how can our heroine portray the values of an ecofeminist? By integrating. And this integration comes through an escape from the duality. To me, this implies cultivating awareness and compassion, versus anger and vilification. It means finding context and intent through a balanced physical, mental and emotional interaction with our environment. It means letting the wilderness (and the beasts within it) be wild, uncontrolled, and misunderstood. And it means studying ourselves and our cultural and biological surroundings, and tuning into the constant changes within. Our heroine does not have to know the answers, she only has to embrace the questions.
At last, we arrive at the final threshold. There are a lot of ideas in this essay, and again my purpose is not to denigrate the value of traditional storycraft, but simply to present some thoughts and questions that can help to build a narrative pattern that embraces a feminist perspective. In the final act of Fear of Flying, Erica Jong writes, “Life has no plot. It is far more interesting than anything you can say about it because language, by its very nature, orders things and life really has no order. Even those writers who respect the beautiful anarchy of life and try to get it all into their books, wind up making it seem much more ordered than it ever was and do not, finally, tell the truth.”(184)
Alas, it is simultaneously wonderful and unfortunate that there will never be a single formula through which we can craft every story. On the best of days, all any writer can hope for is to get fresh words on the page. But for what it’s worth, here I present my own structural framework. This pattern has been influenced by the stories and sources in this essay as much as my lived experience, which has followed its own subversive path to bring me to this place, here and now.
Part One: Illusion
Maureen Murdoch’s assertion that it is common for feminists to tell themselves that they need to eschew traditional feminine qualities, such as nurturing, emotions, and intuition, makes a lot of sense to me. I can see in my own life how much I built an illusion of success in a masculine context, and how that created an imbalance. Our heroine has done the same. She thinks she knows what she wants, and she thinks she has made choices based on free will. Perhaps she has eschewed love, marriage and family. Or maybe she has chosen a partner who only loves a certain side of her, and has obscured her deeper self, in fear of being abandoned. And so the heroine finds herself within the status quo of this illusion; perhaps she is successful on some levels, but she has become separated from herself, and something is clearly missing. This is the starting point for her journey and she experiences a physical and emotional awakening that makes her realize that the illusion is not real.
Part Two: Curiosity
In Murdoch’s version of the journey, she discusses betrayal, and indeed this is a powerful force that could manifest in many ways. When the realization sets in that our heroine has been living an illusion, that she has been lying to herself, a string of reactions can occur. This could show up as physical and/or mental illness. Her body will surely respond to the deeper truth that her mind knows. Perhaps she betrays herself by sabotaging jobs, relationships and her personal health. Perhaps she takes irrational risks and has a traumatic accident. Maybe she has a baby she doesn’t really want, or goes to college to become an expert on something about which she isn’t passionate. Or maybe she does everything right, plays the good girl, and something else (a man, a friend, the universe) betrays her.
In all cases, this is a blessing in disguise. The betrayal is the catalyst that sets the journey in motion and forces her to step away from the illusion and onto a path towards truth. And that’s why I chose to call this stage Curiosity. Because sometimes what seems like a betrayal is really just a powerful, pressing question. Sometimes what seems like the worst thing that ever happened is really just a deep hunger for change, pushing itself to the surface. Curiosity, that driving force that ruined Pandora and set the whole of beautiful, sinful humanity in motion, is the greatest the instigator of discovery. And so it goes for our heroine. She feels betrayed, and that makes her curious. How will she survive without those old illusions? What does she need to learn? What is really worth doing, and why?
Part Three: Resistance
And so the trials begin. Our heroine hits the road and begins to define new ways of knowing herself and others. And it hurts. At this point the resistance sets in. She tells herself, “What was I thinking? I have to go back to that job/man/life. I was happy then. This is too hard. I don’t deserve this. I’m not capable of this. It’s not important.”
In his delightful book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield portrays resistance as the wickedest beast of all. He writes, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” (1) Pressfield defines resistance in a hundred different ways, articulating how clever we are at avoiding our real work in the world. We clean the house, we fall in love, we have children and travel and go to school. We get our hearts broken and get sick and fall apart. We live and live and live and so much of what we put onto our own plates is just resistance to what we really want to be doing. Pressfield writes, “Resistance feeds on fear. . .Fear that we will succeed. That we can access the powers we secretly know we possess. That we can become the person we sense in our hearts we truly are. . . because, if it’s true, then we become estranged from all we know. We pass through a membrane, we become monsters and monstrous.” (142)
And there it is again: monstrosity. And again I assert that coming to terms with this monstrosity, accepting that it is part of being human, part of our internal Ecology, is part and parcel to the path of a heroine.
Part Four: Persistence
Here the heroine begins to reverse the circumstances, on her own terms. She fights the beasts of resistance, taming them and turning them into her allies. She learns that you can’t go back, ever, and that her journey is important. Now she is ready to start acquiring skills that will help her succeed. She might feel angry and betrayed by having embraced so many masculine qualities, and might be tempted to eschew those, but she realizes that this, too, is just more resistance. This is the stage where our heroine must reconnect with her body, seek therapy and support, and find the strength to face her fears. Her goal is not just to survive, but to thrive.
In 2011, I went through an extended period of depression. In a terrifyingly rational pattern, I began to make plans for suicide. I sold all of my stuff, recorded my songs, finished the stories I had started writing. I wrote to my mentor, telling him how grateful I had been for his support over the years. He read between the lines and wrote back immediately, and I will never forget what he said. “Don’t let them win.” And I realized that suicide was just that. It is the ultimate form of resistance. And I chose to persevere.
This brings up an important point. When I was trying to figure out how to finish my novel, Naked Lady Soup, I was tempted to kill off my protagonist. When I ran the idea by a writing colleague, she exclaimed, “Why does she have to die? Can’t she just get laid and enjoy it? Can’t she just make mistakes and live through them?” In an interview about Fear of Flying, Jong addresses this, saying, “ I found myself fantasizing that Isadora’s answer to her dilemma would be suicide. I think I was influenced by the cultural archetype in which women die for sexual passion. But then I realized that I had to transform that archetype. I thought it was important to grant women the possibility of passion without draconian punishment.” (457)
Agreed. In the Female Hero, Pearson and Pope write, “the difference between the female and male heroic pattern usually results from the cultural assumption that strong women are deviant and should be punished.” (10) And so, let’s not punish our heroine, nor shall we have her punish herself. Let’s just challenge her and give the space to find and define success.
Part Five: Grief
Now that our heroine has reached the top of the mountain, the time has come for her to deal with the pain of having arrived. She has made it this far, but she doesn’t know if she has the strength to make it back. She knows the trip home will present new beasts, new forms of resistance.The despair of having lost her old self makes her feel more vulnerable than ever, and her new self is still in its infancy. The time has come for her to engage in an intentional process of grief, moving through the stages of letting go. When you are grieving you are completely open to the universe. You feel you have nothing to lose. Our heroine must learn that there is beauty and power in vulnerability. She must grieve her childhood, her lost loves, and her betrayal of herself. She has gone through her life being tough on the outside and secretly soft on the inside, and now she must reverse that; she must become soft on the outside, willing to let the world in, and remain strong and secure on the inside. This is akin to the self-annihilation or the classic hero, but our heroine knows that what comes next is rebirth. And she knows that birth is painful, but she knows she will survive.
Part Six: Gratitude
Now our heroine brings her treasure back home without any resentment for those who may not appreciate it. She presents herself without fear, or perhaps she feels fear, but she sees it now as a compass, and walks towards it. In yoga philosophy there is a saying “be grateful to everyone.” This means that even those who have betrayed us have been our teachers, and that, when we judge others as being unworthy of our gratitude, we lose our grasp on transformation. Connected to this stage of the journey is our heroine’s deep commitment to self-care. She is grateful for her experience and so she trusts it. She is grateful for her spirit and so she spares no expense in nurturing it. She is grateful for her body and so she cuts no corners in caring for it. She recognizes that her body is the primary tool with which she can forge her path, and takes ownership of it like never before. Now she might take renewed action in service to her family and community, not because that is the role that has been assigned to her, but because she sees the ways in which she is inextricably connected to them, and is grateful.
Part Seven: Sovereignty
And finally, our heroine receives her grand reward: the freedom to choose for herself, and the ability to determine whether her choices are authentically her own. But this freedom presents a significant challenge: Can she retain her sovereignty without reverting to bitterness and anger at the oppressors of her past? Can she remain balanced and compassionate? Can she at last free herself of the victim role? In The Female Hero, Pearson and Pope discuss the power of freeing oneself from the victim mentality. They write, “When women discover that their femaleness is not a wound, the kingdom — or society — is miraculously transformed.” (14) Further, they make this important point: “a woman’s experience in a sexist society makes her less likely to envision heroism in traditional elitist terms. Unacknowledged as a cultural leader, she does not presume to kill dragons for others, [they are] actually and potentially her equals, and she encourages them to undertake their own journeys.” (15) Yes, there is such a thing as real victimization. Abusers abuse, and people suffer. But simply being born female is not a curse, and seeing it as such eliminates the potential for transformation.
And so, our heroine completes her journey without resentment, does not seek revenge. And she steers clear of the moral high ground, knowing that there is no such thing as becoming perfect. Like G.H., enlightened for the moment with the taste of the cockroach still in her mouth, our heroine knows that the next adventure will require a return to the beginning. There will be new illusions to dispel, new betrayals to reconcile, new beasts to embody. She can do it.
About Heather Jo Flores
I'm a spitfire Chicana ecofeminist author, artist, farmer, musician, and creativity trainer. I wrote Food Not Lawns…www.heatherjoflores.com
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