Updating Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” to Cover Female Action Heroes–Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #33

This week’s guest Vi Burlew has arisen, a shin­ing fig­ure clad in mail, car­ry­ing aloft a shim­mer­ing broadsword to bring your hosts Mark Lin­sen­may­er, Eri­ca Spyres, and Bri­an Hirt this top­ic about the hero’s jour­ney.

This gen­er­al plot struc­ture dat­ing back to ancient myth was detailed by Joseph Camp­bell and famous­ly and delib­er­ate­ly plun­dered to cre­ate the plot of the orig­i­nal Star Wars. So how has this evolved with the increas­ing intro­duc­tion of female heroes in recent, large­ly Dis­ney-owned block­busters? We talk Won­der Woman and Cap­tain Mar­vel, antic­i­pate Black Wid­ow and the new Mulan, but also bring in Lord of the Rings, Har­ry Pot­ter, The Wiz­ard of Oz, Lit­tle Women, Jane Eyre, Work­ing Girl, and of course Road House.

What com­pli­cates this issue is that a dis­tinct “hero­ine’s jour­ney” had already been plot­ted in response to Camp­bell by fem­i­nist thinkers at least back to Mau­reen Mur­dock in 1990. The key dif­fer­ence is that while the hero achieves the goal and comes home in tri­umph, the hero­ine then real­izes that there was some­thing self-betray­ing about the tri­umph and requires an addi­tion­al step of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with her ori­gins. This is like if Luke real­ized after destroy­ing the Death Star that he was a mois­ture farmer all along and had to come to terms with that. (Maybe he could actu­al­ly grieve for his dead aunt and uncle and his best friend Big­gs!)

It’s been argued that Har­ry Pot­ter’s jour­ney more close­ly resem­bles that hero­ine’s jour­ney, where­as, say, Eowyn from Lord of the Rings (“I am no man!”) is a more tra­di­tion­al hero. Action films of today may fea­ture female heroes, but when this is done thought­ful­ly (not just by tak­ing an action hero and swap­ping the gen­der with­out fur­ther alter­ation), then film­mak­ers may tweak the struc­ture of the myth to include some gen­der-spe­cif­ic ele­ments and per­haps blend the two types of jour­ney. These new vari­ants that may or may not res­onate in the way that caused the orig­i­nal Star Wars/Campbell for­mu­la to become so pop­u­lar.

Two arti­cles we specif­i­cal­ly cite in our dis­cus­sion are:

For some basics about the jour­neys described by Joseph Camp­bell, Mau­reen Mur­dok, and a dif­fer­ent ver­sion by Vic­to­ria Lynn Schmidt, see the Wikipedia entries on Hero’s Jour­ney and Hero­ine’s Jour­ney.

In addi­tion, The Hero­ine Jour­neys Project web­site fea­tures numer­ous arti­cles about female heroes in media. We also looked at this red­dit thread, which among oth­er things pro­vides some oppos­ing views to those of our guests about the Star Wars fran­chise char­ac­ter Rey.

This episode includes bonus dis­cus­sion that you can only hear by sup­port­ing the pod­cast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This pod­cast is part of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life pod­cast net­work.

Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast is the first pod­cast curat­ed by Open Cul­ture. Browse all Pret­ty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.