Is There a Heroine’s Journey?
by Dr. Rosanne Welch
In all my years of writing and analyzing scripts for film and television I’m embarrassed to admit it never occurred to me that there could be different types of heroic journeys for male and female characters, different journeys each needed to take. Anytime I was writing for a female lead I followed the various steps of story structure that came to me from books by Syd Field Robert McKee, John Truby, etc. Most of these men were inspired by the work of Campbell and his hero’s journey. That journey involves basic steps for the hero such as Hearing a Call to Adventure, Refusing the Call, Meeting a Mentor, Leaving the Known World, Meeting Allies and Enemies, Facing an Ordeal, Earning a Reward and Taking the Road Back Home.
But merely swapping the gender does not honestly tell female stories now, does it?
I began to wonder if I had continued to insist on putting the female on a male’s path really because I felt that that’s what I was doing in my own career, stepping into it occupation largely dominated by men. So did I feel the need to “become one of them”?
I think that’s an interesting question because many women in power today are discussing the need to bring female instincts to largely world problems. I begin to realize I have been afraid to be seen as the girl in the room. But succeeding and operating in the world built by boys rules did not seem to satisfy me. As I read more I found that many women, those succeeding in career paths that were gendered for males, seem to have found that search for validation from the patriarchy to be lacking — and hurtful — and not altogether the thing that they had hoped to achieve.
Again, I’m amazed that this didn’t occur to me until a student asked me if I have any books to recommend regarding the Female Heroine’s journey. Of course, heroine is a tough word to begin with because it equates itself with the drug so perhaps we should say the Female Hero’s journey. That student question sent me on my own writer’s journey of discovery and I found that the female characters in history in Greek mythology and English literature to go through different steps — and those are worth exploring. I had vaguely touched upon this concept when I considered one of my favorite shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I knew when ending the series writer Joss Whedon discussed the fact that a female hero would solve the problem in a different way than a male. And in fact this equates to the Ted Talk on the Wizard of Oz versus Star Wars. Dorothy solves problems differently than does Luke Skywalker. So the question became, is the solution the only difference?
Naturally that set me off on a reading binge where I happily discovered author Maureen Murdok and her book The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholesomeness which proposed 10 other steps that female characters go through — — in literature and in life. Murdoch feels the women’s journey begins when she separates from being feminine in order to achieve in a masculine world. Then you watch her face challenges and grow in that world until she discovers a lack of spiritual success and fulfillment. About halfway through the journey, the female begins to reconnect to her feminine self. In the mirror of the “Luke, I am your father moment” in Star Wars in the female journey she heals the relationship between herself and her mother. It’s only upon doing that that she can accept both masculine and feminine parts of herself and therefore be spiritually healed.
So how do I see that playing out in many of the films I enjoy? The first thing that comes to mind is a movie that didn’t work as well as it was supposed to Eat, Pray, Love. Though the book was a bestseller and Julia Roberts a huge draw, something held back the audiences. For me it was that in the book the author had spent too much time whining about her ex-husband, the one she had left, rather than focusing on the fun of her spiritual adventure. I feared a repeat of that in the film and avoided it at first and perhaps others did.
This also reminds me of the very successful Under the Tuscan Sun. Here we have a woman truly rebuilding a home, in this case an old beautiful cottage in Tuscany, yet for the film that was not good enough. The character is made to fall in love while she’s there. This is unfair because in the book and the true life story the character and her husband rebuilt the cottage. So the movie subverted the females journey and turned it into a mere romance. The other movie/book that came to mind is Harry Potter. I have always said that being written by a woman the story gave great focus to female power. It is after all Harry’s mother who saves his life. And he wins against Voldemort often due to the intelligent assistance of his female ally, Hermoine.
So all the study made me wonder if Harry’s journey is in fact a Female Hero journey… He is separated from his mother — the feminine influence over his life, made to identify with masculine things, meets ogres and dragons, finds success is empty without reconnecting to the friends, which heals his wounds and Harry — more than most modern heroes — has taken a Female Hero Journey across all the books right down to where he is taught that the thing that makes him different from Tom Riddle is that he shares with friends/he has the ability to make friends, and that is defined as the ultimate power of life.
And now I’m worried over whether wondering this will be seen as questioning Harry’s sexuality? And then I grew mad at myself for falling for that trap, men can be gentle without being gay — and, of course, it’s not a problem if they are gay. Men and women each share testosterone and estrogen. We are yin and yang. Perhaps the ultimate hero’s journey is to accept that. In art. And in our life.
Maureen Murdock’s book, The Heroines Journey, being written by therapist and not a writer, might seem a little woo-woo to people. To which I ask what’s wrong with a little woo-woo? What is wrong with seeking out a spiritual answer to our life questions? I often say in writing that in order to make a character three-dimensional one has to talk about their spiritual life. That doesn’t mean they have to be religious, they can be atheists as characters, but even an atheist has come to that opinion through researching the question of faith. I want to know about that search.
The next book I scarfed up was From Girl to Goddess: the Heroine’s Journey Through Myth and Legend, by Valerie Estelle Frankel. She traces the role of female heroes in ancient Greek myths and find there were just as many female heroes as there were male heroes. So it seems once again that it is Hollywood that distorted the image of the female hero. In the same way Hollywood films made all Cowboys out to be white boys (even though many real cowboys of the West were Mexican or African-American), Hollywood made all heroes out to be men. Women in many stories were either the villain or the prize. But women do not take a life journey to become a prize.
So what does a woman take a journey to do? In the Greek myths women most often saved loved ones from fates worse than death — but the tools they used weren’t steel and stone, they were character traits such as patience and strength or fortitude. So Tolkein gave us a modern day female hero in Lord Of the Rings when the Nazgul says, “No man can kill me” and Eowyn responds, “I am no man”, making Eowyn follow the modern day male hero journey rather than be a heroine from the ancient times he seemed to be celebrating in his epic.
Why did Hollywood do this when Greek myths did not? Movies involve MOVING pictures and so the epic battles involving male heroes made the best early films and created a pattern studios continue to follow to his day. The other odd thing is that it is usually the women who are the storytellers of a culture. This proved to true in early Hollywood as there were more female script writers in the silent days. But when script writing became a money-making endeavor, men crowded women out and that changed the focus of what types of hero journeys they would tell. Pity.
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey Steps:
- 1. THE ORDINARY WORLD.
The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
- 2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.
Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
- 3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL.
The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
- 4. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.
The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
- 5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.
At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
- 6. TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.
The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
- 7. APPROACH.
The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.
- 8. THE ORDEAL.
Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
- 9. THE REWARD.
The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
- 10. THE ROAD BACK.
About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
- 11. THE RESURRECTION.
At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
- 12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.
The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.
- 1. Separation From The Feminine
- 2. Identification With The Masculine & Gathering Of Allies
- 3. Road Of Trials, Meeting Ogres & Dragons
- 4. Finding The Boon Of Success
- 5. Awakening To Feelings Of Spiritual Aridity: Death
- 6. Initiation & Descent To The Goddess
- 7. Urgent Yearning To Reconnect With The Feminine
- 8. Healing The Mother/Daughter Split
- 9. Healing The Wounded Masculine
- 10. Integration Of Masculine & Feminine
My favorite 11 Steps of Story Structure come from
Screenplay: Building Story Through Character by Jule Selbo
1. Character’s Overall Want/Need and Why
2. Character logically goes for it
3. Character is denied
4. Character gets 2nd Opportunity to Achieve Overall Want
5. Conflicts about Taking Advantage of 2nd Opportunity
6. Character decides to go for it
7. All Goes Well
8. All Falls Apart
11. Truth comes out to make things right
If you have any comments or ideas to share, let me know via the comments,
email at Mindfull@3rdpass.media or via Twitter @MindfullMedia and we’ll develop your ideas as we go.
— This Article was written by — Dr. Rosanne Welch
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