I received a lovely message from a wise and well-respected writer the other day. He spoke of working with Gloria Steinem back when she was just starting Ms. Magazine. He said it was an invigorating time to be a part of that project- being part of what these women were doing: “Guided by instinct, a sense of right-ness, overcoming some of their own programing”
I love how he phrased this, because to me, this is the Heroine’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is a meta-myth explained at great length by Joseph Campbell in his essential book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The myth is comprised of 17 stages that pretty much anyone familiar with stories of any kind should recognize. It begins with a call to action and then moves through (my names all, you can easily find the real terms he uses on Wikipedia) – Entering the Unknown, Confronting the Other, Seduction, Atonement with the Father Figure, Death (figurative or literal), Rescue, Mastery, and Return.
Star Wars is the most referenced contemporary telling of the hero’s journey. The Odyssey is considered the “classic” version. You can also find these elements in pretty much every Disney movie and Hollywood blockbuster ever.
One of the biggest criticisms of The Hero’s Journey as explained by Campbell is its exclusive focus on the male as the center of this universe. (There are plenty of other criticisms- my favorites being the stifling of artistic creativity because of excessive reliance on this model and the imperialistic/jingoistic sensibility inherit in it- hello Avatar, I’m looking at you).
Speaking to the heteronormativity of the Hero’s Journey, I began to consider the Heroine’s Journey. What aspects of the Hero’s Journey are analogous, and where do they differ? Is it even reasonable to consider the Heroine’s Journey in comparison to the Hero’s?
Collie, over at her blog Collie’s Bestiary, has a written great, in-depth exploration of this and I’ll leave most of the heavy lifting in her capable hands.
What I’d like to focus on is what my friend said- the importance of overcoming one’s own programming. This occurs at the end of the Departure Phase- when one steps into the unknown and must discover the rules and boundaries of a heretofore unknown world. Like Alice in Wonderland, it is only through learning to understand the “weird” world do we begin to see the cultural assumptions that underpin our daily life. As feminists, a huge part to becoming liberated from the patriarchy is to begin to parse out all the subtle ways the patriarchy controls the way we think. It may be easy for us today to consider abortion access or equal pay in the workplace as feminist causes. It’s harder, though, for many of us to break down the beauty myth so that makeup and diets are a thing of the past. The shackles that bind us are invisible and we can only see them for what they are by stepping into the radical.
What perhaps makes this phase of the journey most daunting is our reliance on so little feedback. Second wave feminists like Gloria Steinem had to rely on a inner sense of rightness when confronted with a party-line that told them they were wrong-headed and pointless. Today, we like to argue about the myriad missteps that the early feminists movements made. While there is no doubt they had some seriously misguided beliefs (the “lavender menace” being but one), it is precisely the stepping into the unknown that allows a woman to become a heroine.
Along the heroine’s path, there are few sign posts and plenty of red herrings.
Even now, we see in-fighting among queer women and feminists over reclamation of traditional trappings of femininity. Does a woman wear high-heels because she’s kowtowing to antiquated beauty standards that immobilize and ultimately deform her body? Or does she wear them because they make her feel powerful and beautiful in a post-gender way?
It’s the heroine’s job to parse these arguments and use them to reflect on the world she left behind so that she can journey back to it with new eyes and new skills for transforming it. Taking the first steps into the unknown guided only by a sense on inner-rightness is merely the first part of a lifetime’s journey.