GeekGirlCon 2014: Heroine’s Journey Panel Recap

Post by B.J. Priester

130304-geekgirlcon-logoTwo weeks ago at GeekGirlCon 2014 in Seattle, I moderated the panel “The Heroine’s Journey: Moving Beyond Campbell’s Monomyth.” Joining me on the panel were FANgirl’s Tricia Barr, fan academic extraordinaire Jennifer Stuller, and pop culture historian Alan Kistler. Here is the description from the convention program:

Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey derives from narratives with male protagonists in patriarchal societies. This model creates significant problems when applied to contemporary Heroine’s Journeys, which are characterized by their support network and drawing strength from interpersonal and sometimes romantic relationships. Consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Hunger Games, The Legend of Korra, and Disney’s Frozen, among others, and join us for this fascinating panel on transforming the Hero’s Journey to the Heroine’s Journey.

Up against the always-popular costume contest on Saturday evening, we weren’t sure how much attendance to expect. What we received was a standing-room only audience that filled the room and capped the line. It made for a thrilling, and truthfully a bit intimidating, way to begin the panel.

I started our conversation with a brief description of the genesis of the Heroine’s Journey post series here at FANgirl Blog, then asked the panelists to share examples of tales they identify as having good heroine origin stories. Tricia explained that while Star Wars has included great female characters like Princess Leia and Mara Jade, it didn’t truly offer a Heroine’s Journey story arc until Jaina Solo in the New Jedi Order novels. Jennifer pointed out two ways in which Buffy Summers marked a break from traditional hero stories: her story focuses on collaboration among the Scooby Gang, not just Buffy’s development as the Slayer, and instead of becoming marginalized by being a love interest, Buffy decides to take care of herself first. She also mentioned the Mills sisters on Sleepy Hollow, Bo Dennis on Lost Girl, and the sisters of Orphan Black as stories with distinctly female heroic themes. I brought up Katniss Everdeen; she stands out as a character who rejects authority figures and breaks the rules set out for her, in contrast to a character like Luke Skywalker who readily heeds Ben Kenobi’s ghostly voice advising him to use the Force or travel to Dagobah. Jennifer added that Katniss subverts the YA trope by not caring who she ends up with in the love triangle, instead focusing on surviving and protecting her family. Alan described the origin of many female superheroines as distaff characters spun off from a similar male character, such as the creation of She-Hulk as part of a trademark-protection plan. He also noted that unlike later interpretations, the original origin story of Wonder Woman ran counter to the monomyth, including Diana’s teamwork and community-building.

“Once you start looking at female hero stories you start to see this emphasis on collaboration. And it’s not just cooperation, where we’re combining our skills to work together. There’s this real aspect of nurturing. So instead of having a hero, who’s above everybody else, and then sidekicks, the female hero nurtures everybody around them. They all become heroic too. The rest of the Scooby Gang becomes heroes themselves, sometimes surpassing Buffy.”

~ Jennifer Stuller

Naturally, some aspects of a Heroine’s Journey will remain similar to Campbell’s monomyth as inherent features of an origin story. I mentioned the call to adventure, the rejection of call, and the protagonist’s metamorphosis as key factors in these kinds of tales. Jennifer explained that particularly in serialized storytelling, the heroine’s story often is cyclical. Buffy dies twice, because she didn’t quite learn the lesson and goes through the journey again. Alan noted that Wonder Woman has died repeatedly too, not even counting the reboots of her character.

Other aspects of the Heroine’s Journey, though, tend to be different from Campbell. Tricia discussed the idea that everyone has both masculine and feminine aspects within themselves, and that stories should include the same dynamic. A male character can undergo a more traditionally feminine arc, or a female character a typically masculine one. Authors and creators, as well as the audience, see characters in new ways. Jennifer mentioned a friend’s analysis of heroic characters which coded Harry Potter as a female hero – he saves the world through love, which is a female hero gift. (“The Girl Who Lived: Reading Harry Potter as a Sacrificial and Loving Heroine” by Norma Jones, chapter 15 in Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture.) Alan commented on the characterization of Doctor Who as envisioned by Russell T. Davies in his 2005 relaunch of the series, in which the Doctor’s greatest gift is enabling heroism in others, rather than saving the day himself. This also puts a more typically female journey onto a traditionally masculine character – and it may be a huge part of why the new series has been so successful, particularly in its appeal to female fans.

“When Campbell came up with the monomyth, we’re talking about stories that were global in patriarchal societies. The stories he’s studying, the stories that existed, were about male hero journeys. … It’s important to situate that. That’s how the monomyth evolved. What’s really interesting with female hero stories that are being told today, contemporary female hero stories, is that they have a modern canon to look to. They have a Buffy, they have a Xena, they have a Wonder Woman. They have contemporary stories for source material. So instead of referencing the old model of heroism, they have a new model of heroism – a female model.”

~ Jennifer Stuller

Another key difference in the Heroine’s Journey is that, unlike Campbell’s historical study and synthesis, it arises from modern storytellers in contemporary society. I asked the panelists which modern values embodied in Heroine’s Journeys they would like to see carry over into other types of stories, too. Tricia mentioned the appeal of the teamwork in Joss Whedon’s Avengers, in contrast to the loner Superman in Man of Steel who no longer works with a team of friends and allies; in Guardians of the Galaxy, Gamora starts out as a Temptress for Star Lord’s journey, but then the movie flips the trope and they become a team. Women are going to the box office in large numbers, and they respond to stories with teamwork and collaboration. Jennifer pointed out that, although she also enjoyed Guardians very much, she was disappointed that Gamora goes from one trope to another, becoming the Goddess who fulfills Star Lord’s mother figure.

“This is part of what everyone needs to do. Even if you enjoy something, recognize if it’s problematic. No one’s saying you’re a bad person for enjoying that, but you can recognize that things are problematic and argue that we can change them in the future. We can be better.”

~ Alan Kistler

One trope that recurs in many stories with a female lead protagonist is the presence of a father or father figure who is integral to the heroine’s origin. Alan described how most male characters are simply introduced, with no particular need to explain how the character became who he is. But with female characters, they often are introduced with parental figure to provide a background for their skills or experience; frequently, this involves a father who is a police officer or in the military. Sometimes this is used to justify why the female character is in a heroic role at all, or to give a reason why she is physically formidable. Likewise, many male characters embark on a solo journey, such as Luke Skywalker’s quest, but female characters often have their father or their friends also factor into it. Jennifer added that this trope also often includes an absent mother, typically one who is either dead or emotionally unavailable. This leaves the heroine to be trained or mentored by men, usually from some sort of law enforcement. All the panelists agreed the main concern is not that the trope shouldn’t be used at all, but rather that it has been over-used to the point that it feels like the only version of the origin story that we see. Alan used the evocative phrase “muscle memory” to describe reflexive nature of the problem.

“On Castle you’re introduced to Beckett and she’s fantastic. And you’re told, oh, a parent was murdered and the case was never solved, and that’s why she’s a badass cop. Well, some women are just badass cops. We didn’t need that. And it keeps happening over and over again.”

~ Alan Kistler

Tricia connected the theme to Jaina Solo in the Star Wars novels and her protagonist Vespa in her novel Wynde. After observing the storytelling potential of the interactions between Jaina and her parents, she decided to include a similar dynamic in Wynde. Vespa’s mother is an important and defining character for the heroine, rather than being absent from her story. Unlike the Star Wars novels, though, for Tricia this was a deliberately considered storytelling decision.

“By the grace of the Star Wars continuity, they weren’t going to kill Han and Leia, who were Jaina’s parents. They were there; her parents were part of reality because Lucasfilm said they couldn’t die. It wasn’t because anybody made a conscious decision that we’re going to make a different character. I watched her journey, and she had to deal with her mother being who her mother was, and her father being who he was. It was a dictate that changed that, but I noticed it and realized it made some really powerful storytelling, and chose to bring that over. It’s literally, luckily, by the grace of George Lucas that that was part of her storytelling element.”

~ Tricia Barr

For our last topic of discussion, I asked the panelists about their favorite examples of stories that subvert tropes in an effective and powerful way. Tricia praised Frozen, particularly its ending with an act of true love between sisters rather than romantic partners. She also emphasized that Disney’s storytellers consulted with real-life sisters in crafting the story, and this helped them understand how to create a modern story and to subvert the classic tropes. Jennifer described how she continues to be impressed by the stories written for Lost Girl’s Bo Dennis, including how love gives her power but does not define her, her two separate mother quests, and her emotional reconciliation with those mother figures. (“Choosing Her “Fae”te: Subversive Sexuality and Lost Girl’s Re/evolutionary Female Hero” by Jennifer K. Stuller, chapter 4 in Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture.) She also noted the comic Saga stands out as an origin story of a family going on a journey, rather than a single character. Alan shared the example of Sterling Gates’ work on Supergirl, one of the first comics to use an all-female supporting cast around a single central heroine. Kelly Sue DeConnick is writing a similar dynamic with Captain Marvel currently, and the Birds of Prey ensemble cast is all-female, too. He commented that we’re seeing this more recently, and hopefully storytelling trends won’t later backslide.

“When you’re telling stories, it’s something you need to think about. Why am I creating the police officer father figure? Why am I making the mother drunk or mentally unstable? Am I doing that because I’ve seen it happen over and over again and I think that’s what people need or expect? Or can I do something different? … When you’re creating a story always think, or even when you’re looking at a story, why did they do that? Did they do it because they’ve just seen it done over and over again? Am I creating this character this way because I’ve seen it done over and over?”

~ Tricia Barr

I was honored to moderate such a great discussion at GeekGirlCon, and thrilled by all the interest our panel generated. Needless to say, this won’t be the last discussion we have about the Heroine’s Journey at FANgirl Blog and beyond.

Alan “Sizzler” Kistler is a comic book historian and geek consultant who writes for many prominent online sites, including The Mary Sue. He is the author of Doctor Who: A History (2013) and The Unofficial Game of Thrones Cookbook: From Direwolf Ale to Auroch Stew! (2012), among other books. You can find him at his website and on Twitter.

Jennifer K. Stuller is a feminist pop culture historian who wrote Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology (2010) and edited Fan Phenomena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2013). (Tricia reviewed Ink-Stained Amazons at FANgirl Blog in 2011.) She is also one of the founders of GeekGirlCon. You can find her at her website and on Twitter.

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B.J. Priester is editor of FANgirl Blog and contributes reviews and posts on a range of topics. A longtime Star Wars fandom collaborator with Tricia, he edited her novel Wynde and is collaborating with her on several future projects set in that original universe. He is a law professor in Florida and a proud geek dad.