This post is a modified version of a presentation I gave at the AAWP conference in South Australia at the end of November. I got a lot of positive feedback, which is very exciting since it was my first time being part of an event like that! Mostly, I’m just delighted they let me talk about cartoons. But hey, if you can wrap it in a scholarly framework, you can talk about whatever you please. It’s really rather wonderful. So without further ado…
I’ve talked a lot about The Hero’s Journey on this slice of the internet—one of the first posts I made applying my studies to pop culture was looking at Moana as a Hero figure, and one of the most recent was looking at Revolutionary Girl Utena. For some beautiful symmetry, I’ve brought the two together, to examine how they both work as critiques of Joseph Campbell’s model in their own ways, laying a challenge to the static image of The Hero and the gendered implications of Campbell’s text. One is a metatextual challenge, telling the story of a girl who just happens to be a Hero and silently asking the audience (and the pre-conceived assumptions they’re bringing into the cinema) “why not?”, and one is a much more direct in-text challenge that ends up tearing the whole business apart. Both are valid and both are effective, and both tell, in my opinion, really fun and interesting stories along the way.
But first, let’s look at The Hero’s Journey, and why it’s important that these contemporary stories are playing with this familiar model and critiquing it. The Hero’s Journey is a narrative framework created and coined by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, where he discussed his idea of the universal narrative—a set of plot beats, relevant themes, and reoccurring motifs that appear in mythology and folklore all across the world. This is usually a coming-of-age story and quest narrative, where a young protagonist is called to adventure by some greater destiny, and must leave the familiar safety of their childhood world to enter a wider, more scary one, symbolic of the transition to adulthood. There will be challenges to face, a symbolic death and rebirth that comes packed with character development, and in the end they will return home with some great treasure, be it the elixir of life or a cool sword or just new knowledge. Campbell’s thesis is that humans have effectively been telling the same story for all of time, and so this story structure must speak to the human condition.
Given that The Hero’s Journey—and thus The Hero as a figure—is ‘universal’ in Campbell’s definition, it would make logical sense that the journey, and its core concepts of coming-of-age and adventure, would not be gendered concepts. Despite discussing the theory under the banner The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it does not take long to notice that Campbell’s writing defaults to a certain singular image when discussing his figure of The Hero. Namely, as scholars such as Sarah Nicholson and Maureen Murdock have noted, The Hero with a Thousand Faces is permeated with the presumption that The Hero on this Journey is always a dude.
(I said “a dude” in the presentation and it got a giggle out of the audience. You gotta throw in little things like this to liven the mood and make sure people are listening)
This assumption that the figure undertaking The Journey is always a man is implicit as well as explicit in Campbell’s discussion. While some myths and folktales with woman protagonists are used as examples in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope point out that Campbell always diverts to “discuss the heroic pattern as male and to define the female characters as goddesses, temptresses, and earth mothers” rather than considering they can take the role of Hero themselves. Sarah Nicholson draws our attention to the chapters ‘Woman as Temptress’ and ‘Meeting with the Goddess’, which describe feminine archetypes in a way that only makes sense if you assume that the Hero interacting with them is always male. Needless to say, Campbell also defaults to using masculine pronouns (he/him) when discussing The Hero in broad terms.
This is also a concept expressed explicitly by Campbell outside of this specific book: scholar and therapist Maureen Murdock asked Campbell if there was a feminine equivalent to the decidedly masculine framework of The Hero’s Journey, and Campbell responded that women did not need one, saying “In the whole of mythological tradition Woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place people are trying to get to.” (This quote comes from the introduction to Murdock’s book The Heroine’s Journey. This is still my favourite anecdote to tell)
The central aim of my creative research has been to prove that this vision of The Hero as always and only male is a cultural assumption rather than anything intrinsic to the archetype—following on from Lee R. Edwards’ declaration that “heroism […] is a human necessity capable of being represented equally by figures who are either male or female”. Though my thesis dealt primarily with myth, I’m also fascinated by how these familiar mythic patterns reappear in popular culture, and how contemporary popular media like the stories I’m talking about today use and play with these patterns to critique and grow from them.
Borrowing and playing around with ancient storytelling patterns, whether a direct retelling of a myth or telling an original story that draws heavily from mythic formula, is an ideal way to question and challenge problematic ideas and assumptions embedded in storytelling and culture. Susan Sellers suggests that the familiar aspects “operate as compass points around which we can weave new and different stories” and create an ideal space to explore, challenge, and breathe new life into aspects of these stories and patterns that “are dead, deadly, or simply no longer appropriate”.
Disney’s Moana is one such contemporary story that borrows a familiar mythic pattern, and can be read as a metatextual challenge to the traditional gendered narrative in Campbell’s discussion of The Hero’s Journey. Not only does Moana follow The Hero’s Journey almost perfectly, but the story and setting draws heavily from mythology itself: mythic patterns are woven tightly into the narrative, with its titular protagonist embodying the archetype of the hero-king who must restore balance to nature, journeying to strange and perilous realms and tangling with trickster gods along the way.
Moana is, however, not a king but a chief’s daughter… not that this hinders the progress of her Hero’s Journey, nor, indeed, does any aspect of the story world really bring it up as an issue. Moana is set to inherit her father’s throne, with no fuss whatsoever about the fact that she’s a young woman. Moana receives the Supernatural Aid of the ocean and the grand destiny that it represents, and her doubts about her suitability for this destiny are based on personal conflicts rather than doubting her own strength or right to power because she’s female. Basically, there’s no ‘you can’t do that, you’re a girl!’ dialogue in the film, neither from the mouths of characters or in the themes of the story, to the point where you can reasonably accept that the mythic realm Moana lives in is a fantasy world without gender roles as we would recognise them, and certainly a world where Campbell’s assumption that The Hero is always a man does not exist.
This female protagonist is given the role, adventure, and story arc that is traditionally occupied by a boy, and no one in her story world bats an eyelid. Moana is a girl who simply happens to be a Hero—if anyone is surprised by this, it will be the audience, who will bring their own package of gendered assumptions into the cinema. The film’s critique of the gendered slant of The Hero’s Journey is metatextual, then, speaking directly to the audience via their pre-established knowledge of story patterns and tropes. It presents this fantastical adventure that follows archetypes we are familiar with, but tweaks them without a word, to quietly ask “why not?” Presenting a world where Campbell’s gendered assumptions don’t exist, demonstrating a Hero’s Journey undertaken by a girl with no issues, quietly challenges the biases, conscious or unconscious, of the audience, responding to their knowledge of the canon of myths and popular culture—those “familiar compass points” Sellers talks about—and playing with them to make a point.
Moana is simply a Hero who happens to be a girl, no fuss made about it. But now we turn to Utena, the eponymous revolutionary girl of Revolutionary Girl Utena, who does not have that luxury. She is faced at every turn with the ‘you can’t do that, you’re a girl!’ conversation, both from the mouths of other characters and in the very foundations of her story world. Her Hero’s Journey, then, is one that critiques Campbell’s assumptions in-text, drawing the audience’s attention to the archetypes and issues it’s addressing as part of the story itself rather than as part of the audience’s external experience with the story.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is a Japanese piece of media, however since it draws so heavily on European fairy tales it lends itself neatly to discussion through Campbell’s folkloric framework, and in my reading, works as a fantastic multi-layered critique of the gender roles that permeate his dissection of mythology. The series begins framed as a fairy tale, opening with narration telling the audience about a sad little princess who was rescued by a prince on a white horse, who was then so impressed by his nobility and grace that she decided to become a prince herself. Utena’s is very much a story about a young woman seeking to take on a traditionally male archetype while retaining her feminine identity (i.e. Utena wants to be a prince but does not want to be a man, as shown in scenes like when she rejects the offer to join the boys’ basketball team). As Isaac B. Akers writes, “in the context of Revolutionary Girl Utena, hero and prince are, effectively, synonymous terms”, so for the purpose of this analysis we can view the show’s challenge to the gendered criteria for being a prince as a challenge to the gendered criteria for being a Campbellian Hero.
Unlike Moana, the world Utena inhabits does not accept this (you could say, magic and all, that it’s a world closer to our real one and further from fantasy). To quote analyst Vrai Kaiser, “while Utena is technically free to change her path the world will never allow her to forget that she is different, that what she’s chosen is abnormal and weird”. The story then becomes about Utena working to overcome sexism and actively trying to subvert archetypal expectations that both she and the audience are familiar with.
Each physical step on her Hero’s Journey is matched with a psychological, more uniquely feminine aspect, neatly disproving Campbell’s suggestion that there is no need for a woman to take the Journey, or that the Journey can only apply to a masculine coming-of-age story. The series follows The Hero’s Journey almost perfectly up until a certain point—the ending, for example, doesn’t fit particularly well with Campbell’s pattern. However, I feel this is deliberate, as one of the key themes of the self-aware Revolutionary Girl Utena becomes the breaking of patterns. The reoccurring fairy tale framing device falls apart over the series as Utena matures and learns that life is not as simple as fairy tale archetypes would make it seem, and that archetypes like the prince—and by extension The Hero—are false ideals built by society to enforce certain patriarchal narratives, and are unattainable by normal human beings.
So not only does Utena critique The Hero’s Journey by giving it to a girl, but it ends up pulling the entire thing apart to show that folkloric patterns are holding these characters back. At least, that’s one interpretation of a notoriously surreal and highly symbolic series finale, but I feel it’s a valid and powerful one when looking at Utena through a Campbellian lens.
So, Moana sticks deliberately close to the “familiar compass points”, in Sellers’ words, and keeps the mythic pattern the same but for one subtle but significant detail—the gender of the Hero—and uses that to raise questions in the audience’s mind about the gendered nature of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Utena establishes itself around the familiar compass points but then deconstructs them, essentially challenging our reliance on them, drawing the audience’s attention far more directly to the inequalities inherent in those familiar archetypes and story types that inform our expectations.
Both these methods have their merits. It’s worth noting that of course Utena is a more dark and in-depth exploration of folkloric tropes than Moana is, because Moana is a children’s adventure movie and Utena is for a teenaged and adult audience. But it’s important to note subversions that both directly address the issues with our mythos, as well as present fantasy worlds that suggest and pave the way for change. Likewise, it’s important to have both stories where the girl Hero has to fight (what’s recognisable as) real-world sexism, leading to cathartic release when she’s successful, and escapist stories where there’s no sexism to fight in the first place. I, personally, feel like I’ve seen enough stories about combating and disproving the ‘you can’t do that, you’re a girl!’ shout that I’m happier to see stories where no one says ‘you can’t do that, you’re a girl!’, but I recognise the need for both narratives in media and how they can each be empowering in their own ways. It’s all about having a spectrum.
Both Moana and Utena serve the purpose to challenge the gendered implications of Campbell’s framework and suggest, no matter how directly, that as we tell new stories we should adjust the definition of the ‘universal narrative’ to be more inclusive… while still paying homage to the grand mythic structure that, for whatever psychological reason, has been and continues to be so near and dear to the heart of humanity across all of history. There’s no doubt that The Hero is a vastly important figure, but in acknowledging that we ought to endeavour to stretch the definition of Hero, and the stories we tell about them, beyond Campbell’s discussion and let The Hero have a thousand faces rather than one singular patriarchal vision.
Akers, I.B. (2015). Revolutionary Girl Utena: Reflections on The Hero. Mage in a Barrel. Retrieved from https://mageinabarrel.com/2015/02/02/revolutionary-girl-utena-reflections-on-the-hero/
Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Paladin: USA
Edwards, L.R. (1979). The Labours of Psyche: Towards a Theory of Female Heroism. Critical Inquiry, 6(1) 33-49. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343084
Kaiser, V. (2014). The Consulting Analyst – On the Night of the Ball. Fashionable Tinfoil Accessories. Retrieved from https://vraikaiser.com/2014/08/08/on-the-night-of-the-ball/
Murdock, M. (1990). The Heroine’s Journey. Shambhala: Boston, USA
Nicholson, S. (2001). The Problem of Woman as Hero in the Work of Joseph Campbell. Feminist Theology, 19(2) 182–193. DOI: 10.1177/0966735010384331. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0966735010384331?journalCode=ftha
Pearson, C. & Pope, K. (1981). The Female Hero in American and British Literature. Bowker: New York, USA
Sellers, S. (2001). Myth and Fairy Tale in Contemporary Women’s Fiction. Palgrave: UK