Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Heroine's Discovery

Being the lover of theory and patterns that I am, I've always found Joseph Campbell's description of the hero's journey to be illuminating and fascinating.

However, there always seemed to be something...incomplete... about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on. (Beyond the obvious: that people are too complex and varied to be explained completely by simplistic theories.) The fact that most of "our' myths are based on the doings of men seemed a likely cause, but I could never really quite see the missing piece itself.

So, my metaphorical ears perked up when I read Carol Gilligan describe the myth of Demeter and Persephone as a myth about women’s' psychology and the relationships between men and women.

I'd already heard Bettelheim's theory that fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty are myths about female adolescence (among other things) - a theory that always made perfect sense to me, and yet such stories also struck me as decidedly wrong in their portrayal. When Gilligan mentioned Bettelheim's theory, then spoke of the myth of Demeter and Persephone as representing "the elusive mystery of women's development" I could start to see that missing piece hiding inside her words. When she then went on to contrast traditional views on moral development with her understanding of women's moral development, its shape became clearer.

"[I]f the secrets of male adolescence revolve around the harboring of continued attachments that cannot be represented in the logic of fairness,” Gilligan writes, "the secrets of the female adolescence pertain to the silencing of her own voice...by the wish not to hurt others...[and] the fear that...her voice will not be heard." The differences in these experiences, while hardly prescriptive for either gender, are nevertheless striking in their prevalence throughout western culture. Gilligan theorizes that the cause lies in part in each child's relationship to their primary care giver - a relationship that is in turn shaped by the gender roles that require that this person be female. While boys’ experiences tend to follow a pattern of early detachment followed by a lifetime of learning how to make connections, girls’ experiences tend to center around a world of ever-present and continuous connections to others that must somehow make room for the individual.

The problem with Bettelheim's theory is not that such stories are not about female adolescence, it's that they are stories told by observers of the process, not participants. Female adolescence may be a time of increased passivity and lassitude, but only on the outside. Internally girls are waging war with themselves. They are continually struggling to subdue their own "selfish" desires while at the same time trying to "disentangle [their] voice[s] from the voices of others and to find a language that represents [their] experience...and sense of [themselves]."

A part of why I find this so fascinating is that, at one point last year, I attempted to chart one of my favorite childhood stories, A Little Princess, in terms of the "hero's" journey. Partly because I'm that much of a nerd, and partly because I had vague notions of rewriting the story. It always felt like I was forcing the story to fit Campbell's pattern, even though the rise and fall of the plot fit nicely into the journey's outline when considered separate from theme.

I'm realizing now that my problems in doing so were rooted in the parts of each that I could not make connections between: the themes of Campbell's monomyth and the Sara experiences in a world of women. Much like the way Sleeping Beauty's slumber - devoid of dreams and nightmares - is an incomplete representation of female adolescence, the hero's journey - rooted in psychology that assumes the male experience - is an incomplete theory of the meaning of story and myth.

Despite their disclaimer that they consider the word 'heroine" to be "demeaning and inappropriate" because it is the "diminutive form of "Hero"" this site not only cites mostly stories with male protagonists, their description of the hero's journey is still centered around the male experience of adolescence:

First the initiate faces separation from his own, familiar world. Once separated, he undergoes initiation and transformation, where the old ways of thinking and acting are altered or destroyed, opening the way to a new level of awareness, skill and freedom. After successfully meeting the challenges of the initiation, the initiate takes the journey's final step, the return to his world. When he does, he will find that he is more confident, perceptive, and capable, and he will discover that his community now treats him as an adult, with all of the respect, rights and privileges which that status implies.

A Little Princess however, is only peripherally concerned with "respect, rights and privileges." Like the story of women's development, it is mainly a story about connections and about carving a space out for oneself within them. The thematic importance of Sara's abandonment by her father is not the loss of "[her] own, familiar world", but that in losing her father she loses herself. Her banishment to the "right-hand attic" is symbolic of girls’ rejection of self - not of the "reality" of ones separation from others . Sara’s journey over the threshold and into the attic not only immediately strengthens one of her friendships, it results in a change in the type of connection she has to others, not a severing of them. The trials she faces do not "[open] the way to a new level of...skill and freedom" nor require that she confront her ego, instead they force her to acknowledge that her responsibility to others includes a responsibility to self. Nothing is more indicative of this than her dealings with Miss Minchin. While boys may learn physical skills, such as how to fight dragons with swords, Sara learns to resist Miss Minchin by displaying even more audacity than she had ever done before. Her deeper understanding of the truth that she cannot stand up for others without standing up for herself is what gives her the strength to make moral choices with regard to others. Sara’s return from the underworld does not center around achieving freedom from Miss Minchin, it is about other’s acknowledgement of their responsibility to her.

When you compare stories like A Little Princess to the hero's journey they fit the pared down structure as easily as anything else, but when you start to ascribe monomyth meaning to the thematic elements of girls' stories, something often seems a bit off-kilter. This is because, while men's and women's experiences are hardly strictly divided along gender lines, the stories that epitomize girlhood in our culture, like girl's moral development itself, is often a mirror rather than an imperfect copy of the "typical" boy's journey that we accept as the norm. So instead of looking for the rejection of ego, one must look for the acceptance of self. Heroines are not tempted by selfish desires, but by the seduction of refusing responsibility for one's actions in a world where reality is grounded in relationships and autonomy is a myth.

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