Heroic Genders

I’ve just been reading “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler, one of those Hollywood script writing bibles, as part of my MA in Writing reading list.  It’s closely based on Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”.  Now, I’m an advocate of this sort of thing, believing that comments like “I don’t want to write formulaically” and “rules are made to be broken” are missing the point.  When you ask these mavericks what the rules are, they usually reply “Well, they’re made to be broken”.

However, there have been a number of irritations with this on the whole good book.

Firstly, there are a number of errors in the examples.  They don’t actually negate the arguments being put forward, but nonetheless they are mistakes.

From page 205: “The James Bond movies often climax with 007 battling the villains and then racing against time and impossible odds to disarm some Doomsday device, such as the atomic bomb at the climax of Goldfinger.  Millions of lives are at stake.  Hero, audience, and world are taken right to the brink of death one more time before Bond manages to yank the right wire and save us all from destruction.”

From page 297: “By the third film, Vader’s reversal and redemption are complete.  In death he has been transformed into a benign spirit, standing as part of a ghostly trinity with Obi Wan and Yoda, Luke’s mentors. […] Evil is still there to be fought in the form of the Emperor and his legions.”

But no, James Bond doesn’t yank the right wire out, someone else does and the bomb would only have destroyed Fort Knox and not the world.  The Emperor is killed at the end of “The Return of the Jedi” and in the later fiddled about with cuts everyone in the galaxy has street parties to celebrate it.  It’s just irritating to see factual errors like this.  James Bond is still heroic and it’s jolly exciting; Vader gets redemption and we all quietly ignore all the murders, particularly of all the children in the prequels, ‘cos John Williams uplifting music is on.

Secondly, the Hero’s Journey Analyses at the end of the book that cover films like “Titanic”, “The Lion King”, “Pulp Fiction”, “Full Monty” and “Star Wars” seem to do so by attaching Hero’s Journey labels to various moments.  Labelling all the parts of an engine: carburettor, oil pump, yellow widget, PE-HD-02 and so on, doesn’t mean that you understand how the internal combustion engine works or how to drive.  If a character says something useful to the protagonist, then give them a ‘Mentor’ badge.

Thirdly, and most irritatingly and interestingly, is the overuse of the female pronoun.

Early on, Vogler makes the very important point that the hero of a story can be male or female.  Heroes have traditionally been male: Odysseus, Theseus, Hercules and so on.  There has been Penelope, Ariadne, Xena and so on, but they’ve always had a minor role: the protagonist has been male.  However, The word ‘Hero’, Vogler says, covers both sexes (quietly ignoring the word ‘heroine’) and she can follow the Hero’s Journey.  This is an important point, well made, but Vogler then uses the female pronoun throughout his book, as in: “the Hero, she does whatever with her magic sword.”  Fine, you might argue, it redresses the balance.

However, his examples come from myth and film, the reserve of predominantly male Heroes.  To my mind you can’t have a male example and then use the female pronoun.

Consider this section on page 120-121, all under the title “Mentor Himself”   “The term Mentor comes from the character of that name in The Odyssey.  […]  Mentor has given his name to all guides and trainers, but it’s really Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who works behind the scenes to bring the energy of the Mentor archetype into the story.  […]  Mentors in stories act mainly on the mind of the hero, changing her consciousness or redirecting her will.”

Now wait a minute, you’ve a female goddess pretending to be a male mentor to guide a male hero, Odysseus, and then talk about how it changes her consciousness.  Is this is an attempt to out-cross-dress Shakespeare?

Far better to use ‘he’ when talking about historical myths and then really make the point that ‘she’ can be just as heroic, but he can’t make this point because he’s confused the genders and put the argument on shifting sand.

Or use ‘they’: “the Hero, they do whatever with their magic sword” works fine.

What we really need is a proper pronoun that means ‘he or she’.  As ‘he’ means male, and ‘fe’ is a prefix for female, might I suggest splitting the difference and using ‘ge’ and ‘ger’.  (Mind you, there’ll be people who disagree and go with ‘ge’ and ‘gis’.)

The advantage of using ‘ge” (or ‘they’ if you insist) is that it covers the general, and then you can talk about Heroes that are ‘he’ and those that are ‘she’, which started me thinking about stories that have to have a male or female protagonist.  Put aside the fact that Odysseus was male and that the Greeks of the time wouldn’t have employed female military advisors, it is still possible to change his sex and write, say, a fantasy Odyssey with a woman returning to her husband in a long voyage with exactly the same episodes.

So is there a story that has to have a male Hero or one that has to have a female Hero?

Consider “Alien”: I believe the character of Ripley was male in the script until they cast Sigourney Weaver.  Obviously Ripley can be changed back to a man, and indeed the sex of all of the characters in Ridley Scott’s film are completely changeable; it would have worked just as well if he’d swapped every single one.  The story is essentially asexual: ‘he’ means ‘he or she’.  It’s a ‘ge’ film.

However, this is not so with “Aliens”: you cannot change Ripley back to being a man.  “Aliens”, with its chest bursting ‘birth’ scene, the adoption of Newt and the understanding scene between Ripley and the alien Queen, is a film about motherhood; therefore Ripley has to be female.  Cast Harrison Ford or Brad Pitt and it becomes just an adventure film, the theme has gone.

Most stories are ‘he or she’ and there are stories that are definitely ‘she’, but are there stories that are ‘he’.  I can’t think of any.  Sure, James Bond bedding the latest girl is seen as heroic, whereas Lara Croft jumping into bed comes across as something of a slut, which is an observation that speaks volumes about sexism, but I can’t actually think of any story that can’t have the male hero swapped out for a female one.


One thought on “Heroic Genders

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s