When Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces was first published in 1949 it introduced (or perhaps reminded) the modern world of the archetypal Hero’s Journey. The narrative of this mythical journey follows a particular arc, as described succinctly in the book’s introduction –
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
I first encountered the written myth of the Hero’s Journey in my adolescence in the 1980s, more than thirty years after Campbell’s book was published. As a politically charged (if not particularly astute) adolescent, I immediately noticed the gender asymmetry. Women and girls were side characters, there to provide incentive or reward or danger or intrigue to the Hero. The Hero was always a man or boy. George Lucas exemplified this in his Joseph Campbell inspired movie Star Wars (perhaps notably, the first movie I remember seeing as a child).
As I reached the cusp of manhood myself, I wondered how women felt about so rarely having a mythical journey of their own told in story or represented in myth.
Today we see gender roles increasingly challenged and deconstructed. Women are taking the Hero’s Journey (and men are often-times foregoing their own, but that’s a discussion for another time). And yet, in my counselling work I regularly encounter frustration and confusion from women around the Hero archetype and myth. They don’t usually use the words “Hero” or “Hero’s Journey,” but I discern the reference to myth in the words they do use.
In our sessions women will report feeling restricted, burdened, immobilized, especially women who have made significant sacrifices as a mother or wife. The women who have made a pronounced Hero’s Journey will sometimes lament their loss of a sense of home or family, of belonging, of “hearth.”
The Hero’s Journey is in essence a masculine journey, and although women will embark upon it, often successfully and with great reward, there remains a glaring gap.
The Heroine’s Journey
It stands to reason that if there is a Hero’s Journey, there must be a Heroine’s Journey. But what is the arc of the Heroine’s Journey? Is it enough for the Heroine to simply follow the Hero and call it a journey of her own? Certainly we see this in storytelling, for example in the character Lyra Silvertongue, a pre-adolescent girl who travels to other worlds on a typical Hero’s Journey in Philip Pullman’s astounding Golden Compass trilogy (a personal favourite in contemporary literature).
But might the Heroine’s Journey be substantially distinct in form from the Hero’s Journey, even as it mirrors it in value, significance, and depth? It’s worth considering.
I was considering just this question recently when I happened to watch Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 film The Shape of Water (Del Toro is also responsible for the wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth).
The protagonist and Heroine is Eliza, a mute woman who works as a cleaner in a secretive military base where a special government agent has suddenly arrived at the base in possession of a military “asset.” This asset turns out to be an amphibious “aqua-man,” a prisoner, a creature that the agent, clearly the story’s antagonist/villain (perhaps the dragon or giant of the Hero myth) treats with open disdain and cruelty.
The agent is sadistic and efficient, identified as “a man of the future,” proponent of progress, enemy of the past, enemy of uncertainty, enemy of feeling (except perhaps anger and disgust), of vulnerability, and certainly enemy of the feminine.
The asset, the captured aqua-man, is revealed, through Eliza’s silent hand-signed interactions, to be highly intelligent, sensitive, and also powerful, all qualities that the evil agent is blind to (if not actually blind, unwilling to acknowledge, committed as he is to the cold ideology of the dominator-heirarchy and the particular brand of masculinity to which he has pledged his allegiance).
The asset/Aqua-man too is clearly male, but is completely unlike the agent. A Dionysian figure dragged from his ancient home in the murky wet depths up into the dry and shallow world of Apollonian modern man, he is in fact a river god, embodiment of the past, now scheduled to die at the hands of the future.
It is up to Eliza to save him, and of course she does, and of course in the process she too is saved.
But there are marked differences between her Heroine’s Journey and the archetypal Hero’s Journey. Her tasks of courage are the same as the Hero’s. Her transformation and initiation are no less profound. As in the Hero’s Journey help arrives from unexpected sources. But unlike virtually every Hero’s Journey, Eliza is not called away from home… her quest finds her right where she stands. This seems to be a rarely recognized distinction. I didn’t really think about it until a colleague pointed it out, and I think the implications are worth exploring.
The Shape of Water could be called a feminist film, but rather than minimizing, discarding, or demonizing the masculine element, a distinction is made between styles of masculinity, while a distinctly feminine Heroine musters all that is required to face the challenges that have come through her door.
The story offers a refreshing, imaginative, and symbolically rich take on the Hero/Heroine’s Journey. The Heroine is pitted not against men per se, and not against just a random “bad man” but, and this is worth repeating, against a particular and distinct style of masculinity. Along her Journey, the Heroine, in typical fashion, receives help, sometimes unexpected and often from men. The complexity of character in the men who help her is actually necessary in order to appreciate the complexity of what the Heroine’s Journey demands. This understanding seems to be lost on many popular film-makers and storytellers who settle instead for simplified stereotypes.
I hope for more stories of this caliber to help express the myths, new and old, of the lesser known and equally potent feminine side of the transformative human Journey.
Recommended books –
The Hero Within by Carol Pearson
Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Goddesses in Everywoman by Jean Shinoda Bolen
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4 replies on “The Heroine’s Journey – Transformative story and myth for women”
If you want to see a brilliant analysis of a feminine counterpoint to the Hero’s Journey, check out The Virgin’s Promise by Kim Hudson. In her articles and in the book of the same title, she identifies 13 “beats” of the Virgin’s Promise storyline and provides multiple examples of movies that follow this archetypal structure. As you noticed, the key idea is that rather than journey away from a safe, harmonious kingdom into a world of danger, the protagonist finds herself in a kingdom that is oppressive and out-of-balance, but she stays where she is and transforms the world around her — through embracing and manifesting her true self rather than allowing the world to remake her. You can read a summary of the Virgin’s Promise story structure here: https://www.writersstore.com/the-virgins-promise-a-new-archetypal-structure/ The book is well worth buying and reading over and over.
p.s. the 13 “beats” of this archetypal structure are given as follows:
1. Dependent World
2. Price of Conformity
3. Opportunity to Shine
4. Dress the Part
5. Secret World
6. No Longer Fits Her World
7. Caught Shining
8. Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck
9. Kingdom in Chaos
10. Wanders in the Wilderness
11. Chooses Her Light
12. The Re-ordering
13. The Kingdom is Brighter
Check out Ancient Maps for Moden Birth by Pam England in which she uses the heroic journey to explain a woman’s experience throughout pregnancy, birth and postpartum. She compares this journey to the story of Inanna and the Underworld, the first heroic journey story (and first story in general) ever physically written. So actually, it seems that females (goddesses) were the first protagonists in these types of stories after all.
For even more female-centered myths and journeys of similar structure you could check out Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She gathers a bunch of stories often told during times of more personal storytelling and fable, passed down through generations, and analyzes them. You’ll see that she explores them in the way you described, where it focuses on aspects of maculinity, as you say, or more so specific facets of our inner selves that are either masculine-leaning or feminine-leaning. Very empowering for women, just like Pam’s book.
The book that comes to mind for me is a brilliant C.S Lewis retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche in Till We Have Faces. Psyche’ older sister Orual tells most of the story, and a poignant part is where she speaks of the title sentence. “Orual ultimately realizes that the gods cannot “meet us face to face till we have faces” (294), implying that the having a face includes being conscious of one’s entire self, both good and bad, and understanding one’s motives and the results of one’s actions.” Quoted from a response to an inquiry of what the title of the book means. This is an all time favorite book for me! I’ve had several copies over the years, as I do most of my favorites. I always want as many as I can to experience the magic and end up either giving away or borrowing out my copy, never to return again in most cases.