GeekGirlCon ’14 panel recap: The Heroine’s Journey

If your flavor of geekiness encompasses writing, literature, or heroic fantasy, you’ve probably heard of the Hero’s Journey, or the Monomyth–an idea presented by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book The Hero With the Thousand Faces. He identified many heroic narratives from the mythologies of different cultures and time periods as having a similar overall arc: the hero is called to adventure, initially refuses the call, and eventually sets out on his quest. He is initiated into a supernatural world previously unknown to him, undergoes a series of trials, receives aid along the way, and eventually achieves his quest’s end. He must then return to his original world (which he may be reluctant to do), ending the story as the master of two worlds.


First edition of The Hero With the Thousand Faces, 1949.
Image source: Wikipedia

Campbell applied this description to the stories surrounding Odysseus, Osiris, Moses, Buddha, and Jesus. Since the publication of his book, Many people have pointed out how closely the original Star Wars trilogy and the Harry Potter series follow this pattern.

Now, I’m not big on using “he” as a neutral pronoun, and you might have noticed that that summary was full of “he is initiated” and “his quest.” That wasn’t an accident; many scholars have pointed out how closely the myth hews to a particular ideal of masculine heroism. (A heterocentric masculine ideal, at that; “Woman as Temptress” is one of the 17 stages of the myth as described by Joseph Campbell.)

“The Heroine’s Journey: Moving Beyond Campbell’s Monomyth” was GeekGirlCon ‘14’s answer to Joseph Campbell, an exploration of alternative heroic character arcs, as seen through the eyes of female protagonists.

B.J. Priester of FANgirl blog moderated a panel consisting of fellow FANgirl Tricia Barr, GeekGirlCon founder Jennifer Stuller, and pop culture historian Alan Kistler, in front of a packed crowd on the Saturday evening. The panel was an offshoot of a discussion they’d had on their blog post series about Strong Female Characters, in which people were asking, “The Campbell monomyth is an origin story. What does it look like for a female protagonist?”

The biggest difference that our panelists saw is that, while the male hero’s journey is one of individual growth and self-discovery, female protagonists, when thrown into similar situations, inhabit stories that are much more about community and collaboration. Where male heroes get sidekicks, female heroes get peers–or people who they nurture toward heroism. In Xena: Warrior Princess, Jen Stuller pointed out, Gabrielle’s character arc is much more heroic than Xena’s.


Buffy and the Scooby Gang.
Image source: Wikipedia.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a classic example of the pattern the panelists identified. When the vampire Spike first meets Buffy, he scoffs, “A slayer with friends?” but actually it’s her friends who turn out to be her greatest strength.

As a long-time reader of comics, Alan Kistler pointed out that (unless they were teens) male heroes rarely had a family history or relationships, until the 1990s when comics narratives began to change. Male heroes might have help along their path, but usually they are orphans, unfettered by familial ties; ultimately it’s their journey. Female heroes, on the other hand, always had a family, often with their father as an authority figure–police, air force, and so on. Often (as with male heroes), their mother is absent, dead, or alcoholic, to inject some tragedy into their backstory. The example of Detective Kate Beckett, on Castle, was used. Her father was a cop, and her mother was murdered; these two factors were what prompted her to go into police work. The panelists wanted to know, why do the writers have to provide a justification for her strength? Why can’t some female characters just be badass cops?

In contrast to this example, the panel mentioned an alternative kind of heroine. One with family, friends, sisters both literal and figurative–a support system. Bo on Lost Girl and her group of female friends; the Mills sisters on Sleepy Hollow; the clones on Orphan Black. All run counter to the monomyth.


Clone Club dance party on Orphan Black.
Image source: Gotcha Movies


Wonder Woman’s story, too, was originally a great counterpoint to the monomyth, though it’s been retconned a bit since. Diana comes from a community of women, and in the second ever issue of her comic recruited a group of college students.

Because the Star Wars movies are so archetypal of the hero’s journey, the panel kept coming back to them as a reference point. B.J. Priester pointed out that whereas Luke Skywalker has a voice guiding him along the way, a heroine like Katniss Everdeen completely changes the rules when she makes her showstopping suicide pact with Peeta.

Some aspects of the hero’s journey are also common to the female versions of these stories–the call to adventure, for example, and the metamorphosis of the protagonist along the way–because these are, after all, also origin stories. The crucial ways in which they differ, however, are what make them resonate with our panel.

Rather than breaking stories down into female vs. male, Tricia Barr suggested, perhaps it makes more sense to describe them as masculine and feminine. A male character could be on a feminine journey, and vice versa.

Some examples the panel came up with were:

  • Harry Potter, who saves the world through love.
  • The Doctor on Doctor Who, during the years that Russell T. Davies was running the show–he enables heroism in others (Rose, Donna, various sidekicks-of-the-week). Putting feminine qualities onto a traditionally male character was part of why the new series was so refreshing.

When Campbell wrote The Hero With the Thousand Faces, women’s stories were basically erased from literature and fiction. His monomyth, with its emphasis on destiny, gods, and the divine right of kings, is very traditional. Heroines’ stories are modern stories, as are stories about teamwork, democracy, and community. The panel cited recent superhero team-up movies The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy as embodying more modern, democratic principles.

Successful stories often subvert existing tropes, and the panelists gave some examples of this being done well:

    • Sterling Gates’ run on Supergirl, during which the writer cycled out several of the male supporting characters and replaced them with women.
    • Saga, which is the origin story of a family.
    • Frozen, in which the “true love” that magically saves the day is the love of sisters, not romantic love.
    • The character of Bo on Lost Girl, who goes on not one, but two Mother Quests. She is unable to connect with either mother figure fully, but reconciles something within herself, which is a huge part of the hero’s journey.
    • Bernice Summerfield, a long-running fan favorite of many Doctor Who novels and audio dramas. She is in her mid-30s, divorced, sometimes awkward, and she flirts and drinks–and yet, she is still allowed to be a hero, even while aging over the course of the series.
    • Judge Cassandra Anderson on Dredd, who rescues herself, and then the male hero.

The audience asked some great questions of our panelists.

Characters raised or trained by men are often depicted as “not like other girls.” Does this internalized misogyny invalidate their power?

Jen Stuller replied that it goes back to old tropes, such as the ubiquitous dead mother in a fairy tale. Sometimes the male/female team is made up of different generations so as to bypass potential sexual tension. It doesn’t invalidate the character.

Some authors such as Octavia Butler who subvert these tropes are very popular, and yet we never seem to see movies of their work. Is there gatekeeping in action?

B.J. Priester gave an unequivocal yes, pointing out that, “They had to invent a new bestseller list because they were so threatened by YA.” Putting young adult literature on its own list saved the “adult” books from the embarrassment of being beaten to the number one spot by a young adult novel.

Greg Rucka was trying to get a movie made of Queen & Country, but was told by the studio that Salt was coming out, and that women wouldn’t want to see two action movies in the same year. As Alan Kistler pointed out, nobody making The Bourne Identity tried to can the film because a Bond movie was coming out the same year.

Jen Stuller added that even when these trope-subverting books make it onto the screen (big or small), they often get undermined. Take the massively whitewashed Earthsea miniseries, for example.


Still, as this panel showed, the more modern values of the heroine’s journey are infiltrating the mainstream, whether in blockbuster stories about female heroes like Katniss Everdeen, or in “feminine” story tropes getting applied to male heroes, and teams of heroes like the Avengers.

Want to hear more about women’s stories? Grab your passes for GeekGirlCon ‘15 and attend panels like this one!

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Winter Downs

Manager of Editorial Services at GeekGirlCon.

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