It’s the journey that matters

The writing world is fascinating. You’d think that, as an aspiring Writer (though also somebody who vehemently declares themselves Not A Writer Anymore), I would be more interested in what’s going on with my kin. Apparently not.

Thankfully there’s this wonderful thing called Twitter that does all of my engagement for me.

There’s apparently been a huge shitstorm brewing with the Hugo awards, the most prestigious sci-fi literary awards in existence, or so I gather. Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin won a bunch of them so I assume that’s all the evidence I or anybody else needs. TL;DR: a bunch of bitter white conservative cishet dudes are gaming the voting system to flood the nominations with their own selected nominees. It’s worked.

It’s disgusting.

The fact that the system works like that to begin with is … well, no system is perfect. It goes to show, though, that it is only angry white dudes who have opted to game the system in this way, despite it being open for exploitation for anybody with a chip on their shoulder and enough friends with enough money to do so. Then again, maybe that’s partly why it’s only angry white dudes who have managed to game the system.

The argument they’re making is basically that “the good old days” are gone, replaced by politically-correct placard-waving feminists, gay rights activists and people who aren’t white. Daring to speculate on things like pertinent social issues of the day, human nature, politics – absolutely nothing like the entire fucking point of science fiction. And one of them openly supports gamergate. I would pray for you, Hugo Awards, if I believed in any kind of higher power that responded to prayer. Instead, I just hope you get your shit together.

What really frustrates me is that within this viscous morass of inanity is, deeply submerged, a nugget of value: the issue of what is “typical”, and what is “neutral”. We’re talking about people like Orson Scott Card here, who openly and financially opposes gay marriage and gay people in general, yet has written one of the most widely-celebrated science fiction novels of all time, across political spectrums and social demographics. I haven’t read it because 1): I can’t be fucked and 2): I totally buy into personality politics and don’t really want to read something written by a raging homophobe. But that’s not to say that I don’t have my own problematic faves (hello Vampire Academy), nor to call out anybody who likes Card’s work from an artistic point of view. The one sliver of valid discussion in the Rabid/Sad Puppies’ rabies-infected rhetoric is that certain stories do get more celebrated than others – not the ones they’re talking about, because their outrage is so narcissistic they can’t help but miss the point – but, for instance, the Hero’s Journey.

I’ve been thinking for a while now that Joseph Campbell’s celebrated monomyth is not as universal as writers, editors and anybody who knows who Joseph Campbell is seem to claim it is. I mean it’s fairly obvious that it gets used to tell pariticularly sexist, racist, homophobic, trans-erasing and all other manner of regressive stories, but that doesn’t mean that the model itself is regressive. You could use the Hero’s Journey to tell a story about a trans protagonist, or Black, or disabled – it’s just that it either doesn’t happen very often or, as is more likely, mainstream readership doesn’t have it marketed towards them.

That’s what I thought up until very recently. While I still believe that you could do that – because, well, you could – there’s also a problem with it, because the monomyth is very heavily gendered. A posthumously published book of Campbell’s, Goddesses, does explore the feminine divine and the role it plays in world mythology and narratives, but I can’t help but find it a bit suspicious that Campbell never published these lectures in book format during his life – he obviously had a lot to say on the subject. I have to suspect a bias on his part, not finding the topic quite worthy of publication – or perhaps he had plans to do so but never got around to it, or was turned down, or fuck it why am I speculating on a dead guy’s motivations anyway the book exists and I want to read it.

But this book existing – as it has for quite a while – has done nothing to diminish the near-reverence that the hero’s journey is treated with, and it certainly doesn’t seem to have encouraged the big-money mainstream media to find alternatives to it. It may well be less that the gatekeepers of the storytelling industry view the hero’s journey as gender-neutral and more that they have a bias towards gendered-male narrative storytelling, probably without realising it, like I’m imagining Campbell didn’t realise he de-valued the importance of publishing a book about female and feminine myth and narrative. Perhaps unfairly, but I really don’t trust men. And being a man myself, I have quite a bit of material to back that stance up with.

Regardless, this question of whether the hero’s journey as a structure, rather than an actual story, is male-specific, because I think that it is. So what would a heroine’s journey look like? Would it be fundamentally different to the hero’s journey, or is the hero’s journey truly neutral enough to accommodate any protagonist, any setting, any quest, so long as the basic structure is kept in tact? I found a couple of articles discussing it, and in the process I think I’ve discovered my favourite topic ever: Narrative and Gender. There is nothing more me than this topic, and I need more of it.

The first article I found talks about what the hero’s journey lacks in terms of being a good fit for a female protagonist. There are a few points that I take issue with in the specifics of the argument – the suggestion that Katniss Everdeen is a heroic character in particular, though that is probably because I am a total book purist when it comes to the series – I absolutely agree with one of the big points: the hero’s journey, because it is an aggregate of myths and folklore throughout history, is inherently retrospective, lending itself to a “good old days” kind of thinking, and often that is exactly what happens (anybody who doubts me can go watch Seventh Son, and then rejoice in the fact that they are one of the only people in the world who watched Seventh Son). Trying to build a heroine’s journey out of the myths that Campbell works with in the hero’s journey, using the kinds of roles that he allocates to women in the monomyth, is a recepie for disaster unless you are looking to be very, very subversive. And subversion is fun as fuck, don’t get me wrong, but it also often feels like a response, a reaction rather than an action, and in doing so can feel like it has less of a self-determined identity. I hate stories like that. And thus the assertion in this article that a heroine’s journey must be “forward-looking” is one that I am absolutely on board with. The only issue for me is that it assumes that the monomyth is the full scope of our possible material to draw on for constructing a heroine’s journey, instead of looking at, for instance, some of the myths and folklore that feature girls and women in the leading role, but then seeing how prevalent and insisted-upon the hero’s journey is for storytelling at a commercially viable level, this implicit assumption is pretty fair. There’s only so much you can cover in a single argument and keep it coherent.

The second article expands upon this concept of the heroine’s journey, giving some specific examples of where a heroine’s journey would differ from a hero’s. Two points stuck with me in particular. The first was this line:

Sometimes, we rob the dragon of its fire by giving it a task.

Cooperation over confrontation, yo. It stuck with me because I cannot, for the life of me, remember this ever happening in a story that featured a male protagonist, unless that protagonist was also a small child and unable to fight his way out of the danger he was in.

The second is this passage, quoting Carol Pearson:

In our culture, the heroic ideal of the Warrior has been reserved for men–usually only white men at that. Women in this plot are cast as damsels-in-distress to be rescued, as witches to be slain, or as princesses who, with half the kingdom, serve as the hero’s reward… The Warrior archetype is also an elitist myth, which at its base embodies the notion that some people take their heroic journeys while others simply serve and sacrifice…

[Although] many women enact the Warrior archetype… they do not see slaying dragons as very practical, since the people who often entrap women are husbands, mothers, fathers, children, friends–people who insist that good women forgo their own journeys to serve others. That is why there often are no true villains in stories about female heroes.

Spirited Away, anyone?

Harry Potter is essentially in this situation until Hagrid comes along and jailbreaks him, and it is this tension that opens his story. It also makes for the tightest, most satisfying storytelling portion of Philosopher’s Stone, so very obviously this is one to consider. Also considering the kind of toxic socialisation that a lot of women and girls go through, where they are taught to put others before themselves, in both subtle and non-subtle ways – I’d say that’s a pretty damn solid setup for some heroics to follow.

But both of these articles – and the very act of questioning the gender-neutrality of the hero’s journey, or any other narrative model – also raise the equally serious issue of gender determinism, the “well why should a heroine’s journey have to be fundamentally different to the hero’s journey?”, and, of course, “why couldn’t a male hero’s narrative follow this supposed female-centric structure?”, never mind what happens if we have nonbinary protagonists (which I have yet to find any writing on). It is this question that keeps me from completely giving up on the hero’s journey as being doomed to serving the patriarchy, because I see the structure it offers as being, if not neutral, then at least very adaptable. But on the other hand, the proposed heroine’s journey – I like it a lot. I think we need more heroes like that; we already have a couple with Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins and the Guardians of the Galaxy, and if this article is correct in its assumptions – well, I hope it is. I want more of this collaborative-effort-heroism, and definitely more diversity within that collaboration. And while the issue of gender determinism is a really important one that should not be glossed over just because the rest of the argument is good … the rest of the argument is good. Particularly the part about involving other people in the journey, because I’ve always been drawn to ensembles in my storytelling, and I feel lately that my more recent stories are missing that element, which is perhaps why I’m so loath to actually write any of them. Heroics are all well and good, and I love A Wizard of Earthsea for its introspective hero’s journey. But at the same time, that’s a pretty subversive twist on the formula as well, because in the end it is Ged who is the main antagonist and main protagonist. It is his arrogance and pride that threatens the world, and only through learning to accept himself as he truly is can he save himself, and thereby save the world. Granted, that also makes it an incredibly myopic hero’s journey, but no less pure of an example for it. It’s just that stories of a lone hero doing lonely hero things really doesn’t appeal to me, unless that loneliness is part of the journey. Because there’s more than one important person in the world, and it certainly takes more than one person to change it.

Even the Puppies get that part.

I lament the toxicity that seems to have engulfed the Hugo Awards, but I am also somewhat hopeful that it is a backlash that is indicative of the death throes of that particular way of thinking, rather than a resurgence of it. I hope that’s what it is. And in the meantime, I am very glad to have found some eye-opening discussion on the way that we tell stories, the gendered assumptions we collectively make about our culture’s most defaulted-to narrative models, and to consider the possibilities that arise from this discussion.

It’s also gotten me to dig myself out of my creative writing rut a little bit, and has taught me a valuable lesson: there’s interesting shit going on in the writing world, and it’s not just interesting to read – it’s also useful for getting me out of my own head, opening up my perspective and getting me closer to being as involved in storytelling as a craft, a philosophy and a culture as I’d like. Because just like the hero’s journey suffers from isolation and myopism, writing suffers from trying to “go it alone”. I miss having a writing buddy. I miss the feeling of writing in the company of others, because storytelling is a very social act. And I’m remembering that I need that part of it.

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