The Heroine's Journey
Many of us are familiar with the hero archetypes talked about by Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. It is easy for us to draw parallels between the heroes of ancient Greek, Norse, or Celtic mythology, we can even quickly cite modern interpretations of the continuing Hero’s Journey myth, of the trials and tribulations of a certain character, their descent into darkness, and their ultimate triumph over evil at great personal cost. It’s also quite explicit from most of these tales that the heroes of these myths, whether it be Moses, Spartacus, Frodo, or Luke Skywalker, tend to have one major thing in common more than anything else, they are all male.
Yes, there are often supporting female characters in these tales of suffering and triumph, but they are there as a source of inspiration, a voice of wisdom, or a thing of beauty to be protected and revered. The woman is portrayed as either the Goddess or the Temptress in The Hero’s Journey, further demonstrating the patriarchy that shaped the minds of even great writers and mythologists such as Joseph Campbell, who dichotomised women into either virgin or whore, mother or lover. Rarely do we see tales where a well rounded, fully characterised female central character has undertaken the familiar journey into the unknown and answered the call to adventure in the same way as her male counterparts have. This is undoubtedly because of the patriarchy which has ruled over society for thousands of years, where women were seen solely as a support to men, as a thing of beauty or as something which needed to be protected. Female archetypes have been limited to the mother, the caregiver, the ethereal beauty or the damsel in distress. That is of course, until very recently. Thanks to female emancipation and a few brave and inspirational writers, we now have a modern age of female heroines, who plunge into a life of adventure and battle in order to overcome evil and save the day. That is not to say that heroines did not exist before the modern age, of course people such as Susan B. Anthony, Joan of Arc, and Countess Markievicz prove that they did, and of course there is Artemis from Greek mythology, but it seems that women are finally getting the recognition they deserve as tough, ass kicking warriors who are just as capable of bearing the title of hero as any of the boys.
Here’s three such examples.
1. Katniss Everdeen - The Hunger Games
When we are introduced to the sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen, we meet a provider, a hunter, and a caregiver. Katniss is forced into this role by utter destitution brought about by her position in the cruel dystopian regime of Panem. Katniss becomes a player in the ‘Hunger Games’ after volunteering as tribute so that her younger sister doesn’t have to take part.
Over the course of the book trilogy, Katniss displays amazing survivalist techniques, incredible strength of character and amazing bravery. Her skills with a bow, her intelligence and her ability to hunt means that she survives where her brutish male and female counterparts cannot, yet she also shows incredible tenderness with her young friend Roux, who she strives to protect at all costs. Although there are love stories related to the plot, Katniss’s focus is always on survival, and protecting her family, when juxtaposed with vacuous female archetypes such as Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett or Twilight’s Bella Swan, this is an important distinction. The book also offers an important commentary on the objectification of women, and the fetishization of female celebrity. Katniss is scrubbed, plucked, and corsetted into submission by the make up team for The Hunger Games, showing that even though a woman may be physically strong and capable, it is not acceptable for her to be unattractive. Katniss is never described as pretty in the books, and the character rarely comments on her appearance, but this is heavily juxtaposed by the media’s expectations of her. Once again, Katniss proves that the secret to becoming a hero is not just about seeking the prize, or ‘boon’ as Joseph Campell refers to it, but is about the descent into darkness, the sacrifices that must be made and the ultimate effect the quest has on the heroine once it is completed. Katniss does not make it through her ordeal unscathed, but is forever scarred, both physically and mentally, by her victorious quest.
2. Starbuck - Battlestar Galactica
Starbuck, also known as Kara Thrace is a little different than the other heroines, in that she’s almost the anti-heroine, who is as troubled as she is brilliant and who battles internal demons as well as external threats. Battlestar Galactica is set in a universe where ‘Cylons’, or Artificial life forms created by humanity, have launched an attack on human civilisation, and left just under 50,000 humans running from certain death. Starbuck is a fighter pilot on the last surviving military spaceship, the Battlestar Galactica.
Starbuck has had a very troubled past, suffering abuse at the hands of her mother and the death of her fiancé. She drinks too much, she attacks her superior officers and can be incredibly subordinate. However, she is the best pilot in the fleet and capable of completing missions that nobody else, male or female could dream of. Starbuck’s character becomes more complex as she encounters the Mentor character of the traditional hero myth, a Cylon named Leoben, who tells her that she is special and that she alone can find Earth and offer hope to humanity. Starbuck follows the quest after the initial misgivings typical from the hero archetype, and is reborn in the process.
Starbuck is a very important heroine to examine for a number of reasons, firstly, the character was originally male in the seventies interpretation of Battlestar Galactica, but was chosen to be female for the 2001 version. This arguably shows the shift in consciousness that we have undergone as a society in the past thirty years, and also that women are capable of adapting traditionally male roles. Secondly, Starbuck is incredibly fallible, showing that whether they be male or female, all hero’s have their struggles and human weaknesses, but it is their actions that define who they are.
3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy is without a doubt, the ultimate heroine. The writer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and self proclaimed feminist, Joss Whedon, was once asked why he writes so many strong female characters, and simply responded with ‘because you’re still asking me that question’. The world needs more writers like Whedon to demonstrate the power of women, not just as mother, lover, wise old hag, or evil temptress but as an equal, capable and multi dimensional archetype.
This is what is is so important about Buffy, she is not just a one dimensional warrior character, she clearly undertakes the traditional hero’s journey in so many ways. She is firstly introduced to the supernatural when she is called to be a Vampire Slayer at the age of 15. She was then introduced to her mentor, in the form of her ‘watcher’ Rupert Giles, who guides her into becoming what she needs to become, despite her initial denial of the role. She faces great evil and is transformed by it, but is also deeply affected by it and forever changed by it.
What is so great about Buffy, however, is not just that she is tough. It’s that she’s a fully rounded sixteen year old girl, who loves shopping, spending time with her friends and who is sometimes physically and emotionally fallible. Buffy shows that being feminine is not a weakness, and that being female and being tough are not mutually exclusive. She inspired a generation of young girls and women to expect more from themselves, to be independent and to know that they can be a hero, despite, and because of, their gender.