In the process of writing this incredibly rambling Firestarter I was asked: why does this matter? Why have I spent all this time considering what a Heroine’s Journey might consist of? My answer lies in the beginning of this Firestarter. Remember the two books I found? One for boys that was exciting and fun and adventurous, and one for girls which was stultifying and pointless and lifeless? Well, when I indignantly asked, through my life, why this terribly unfair double standard existed, I kept getting variants on the same old tired theme: “That’s just the way it is, kid — get over it. That’s the way it’s always been.”
Even as a child I knew this was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on precisely why — I didn’t know about societally transcribed gender roles, or culturally enforced histories to support the status quo — but a small part of me always fostered a tiny, hidden, internal rebellion; kept insisting that could not be right! That might be how it was now maybe… but surely it hadn’t always been that way! Even if it had, it needed to change, into something better — for women as well as men.
Because of my need for that change, I spent several decades researching off and on, trying to peer past culturally taught platitudes and taboos, and I’m happy to say now that I have indeed found a better answer. Now, when I hear that terrible, apathetic lie: “That’s the way it’s always been — get over it!” I can say strongly and truthfully, “No. No, absolutely not, that is NOT how it has always been — there is a better way!”
That’s why I think about this stuff, really — so the young women and girls who’re going to live after I die will have fewer cultural lies and social handicaps laid on them due to their gender — just as I had fewer than my mom’s generation. Prejudices like sexism, racism, homophobia — in the end they serve no one; in the long run they’re nothing more than fear of the unknown.
So when someone tries to tell me that women are all weaker than men, that men are tougher than women, that women are too fragile to serve their country as soldiers and warriors, that only men are strong enough to rule in any capacity… when I hear that women aren’t priests or presidents or mathematicians because it’s too hard for them, or that’s just the way it’s always been — then I will do my best to refuse and refute that lie, and to laugh in the face of anyone too cowardly to face the facts — because that’s what I have researched and found. I’m damn proud of what my gender has done through history, and what we’re capable of.
So how does this tie in to the Heroine’s Journey? Well, talking to a few friends of mine, I received an interestingly wider perspective on it. As one woman friend put it, the Hero’s Journey as portrayed by Campbell appears to have a beginning, middle, and end, and seems to be done relatively quickly. The Hero goes forth after some terrible thing happens (a monster attack, the death of his entire family, a rape, etc.); he sometimes is shown conquering his personal fears as he matures with the aid of wise and/or helpful sidekicks; in the process of facing external monsters he potentially also comes to grips with some internal monster (even if it’s as simple as becoming a man in the eyes of his community and himself); and then, if he isn’t nobly slain in the process, he comes home to general adulation and settles down.
This issue — declaring adulthood — isn’t easy or clear-cut for males. As was fascinatingly suggested in Judy Grahn’s remarkable and provocatively titled Blood, Bread, and Roses, I suspect this is the reason behind all the often bloody, messy, and painful initiation rites boys are put through even today to prove they are men — which effectively includes the Hero’s Journey. It’s almost miraculous how adult women can bleed without wounding; adult men must wound themselves in order to shed that ritual blood that denotes the passage into physical maturity — whether it is shed in personal scarification, hunting dangerous animals or monsters, various forms of combat with others, or even religiously sanctioned war.
Once the Hero’s Journey is done, though, that’s it — story over. He’s served the community and been lauded for it, he’s won the girl and will breed, and now, at least as far as the story goes, he is utterly unnecessary and might as well lay down and die. That’s how the Hero’s Journey seems to go in most of the more patrifocused societies I’ve studied: young men are glorified while they’re useful in the defense of the community, old men are useful to pass on knowledge; young women are useful as prize breeders for the young men who succeed in their Journeys, old women are useful as tragic murder victims which often serve as the metaphorical starter flag for the Hero to start his Journey.
Sounds a little hollow, doesn’t it? It’s no surprise, with mythic inspirations like that, that modern day men and women who’ve dedicated themselves metaphorically to the Hero’s Journey often find themselves confusedly looking around in middle age, wondering why they feel so unfulfilled and dead inside.
Oh, they’ve done all the right things according to the social legends they were taught: they slew their monsters and faced their fears, they caught that football and worked overtime for that raise, their increasing bank accounts and expensive cars and club memberships were clear markers of their social success as they slowly burned themselves out… and frequently, by the time they realize no one cares about their financial conquering any more, they’ve lost their family in the process as well.
The really sad ones are the ones still busily thrashing around in sound and fury, to hide their internal emptiness. What did they do this for? Who are they truly? They don’t know any more.