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.
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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