Last week I posted this, featuring an article by Caroline Heldman in which she made this point:
“The Hunger Games” is Hollywood’s wake-up call that female action hero movies can be successful if the protagonist is portrayed as a complex subject instead of a hyper-sexualized fighting fuck toy (FFT).
Fighting fuck toys are hyper-sexualized female protagonists who are able to “kick ass” (and kill) with the best of them. The FFT appears empowered, but her very existence serves the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer. In short, the FFT takes female agency, weds it to normalized male violence, and appropriates it for the male gaze.
From an ethical standpoint, Hollywood executives should be concerned about the damage girls and women sustain growing up in a society with ubiquitous images of sex objects, but they’re not. From a business standpoint, Hollywood executives should be concerned about the money they could be making with better female action heroes, but so far, they seem pretty clueless.
Hollywood rolls out FFTs every few years that generally don’t perform well at the box office (think Lara Croft, Elektra, Cat Woman, Sucker Punch), leading executives to wrongly conclude that female action leads aren’t bankable. The problem isn’t their sex. The problem is their portrayal as sex objects, and objects aren’t convincing protagonists. Subjects “act” while objects are “acted upon,” so reducing a female action hero to an object, even sporadically, diminishes her ability to believably carry a storyline. The FFT might have an enviable swagger and do cool stunts, but she’s ultimately a bit of a joke [emphasis added].
In comments, we had an interesting discussion that suggested to me this is a subject worth exploring further. As a self-avowed acolyte of Joseph Campbell and longtime student of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” I am well-acquainted with The Hero’s Journey. I am also quite aware of how Campbell’s ideas about it have often been reduced to formula, a trend I attempted to respond to here, here, here, here, and here.
There is also this: It is a hero’s journey. As much as we may prefer to think of that as gender non-specific, there is plenty of literature and commentary on the subject that suggests the masculine identity of the hero is reflected in the details of the journey, but that there is another way to think of hero archetypes — from a female perspective.
A good recent example is an AlterNet article by Lynn Parramore titled: “Heroine With a Thousand Faces: The Rise of the Female Savior”. Some excerpts:
Hard times were made for heroes. In the face of oppression, it’s natural to want a savior – an intermediary to carry our hopes and dreams of overturning The System. From the wreckage of the Great Depression, a slew of caped crusaders rose, like Superman, corruption-busting Batman, Captain America, and The Shadow, who knew “what evil lurks in the hearts of men.”
Male heroes abound in our culture, virile figures who dazzle us with their wits and brawn. But lately, they just don’t seem to be getting the job done. The cowboy is looking ragged. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action hero turned governor, turns out to be a run-of-the-mill womanizer and cheat. Far from battling global financiers, Barack Obama bends to the will of bankers. As a network of lawless capitalists and their political puppets squeezes and starves the world’s citizens from Cairo to California, Superman seems to have fled the scene.
Somebody else has leapt onstage. And she’s not wearing a codpiece.
In the most familiar dramas, epics and action stories, women play a small part — usually as idols, temptresses and servants. But the phenomenal success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, with their ass-kicking female protagonists, raises the question: Has the era of the female hero arrived? If so, why now? And what is she trying to tell us?
The traditional presentation of the Young Girl in literature can be summed up in the formula She-Who-Waits. Between childhood and adulthood, the young woman must wait for a male liberator to save her from evil. The male is endowed with riches, power, connections, and moral authority, and it is in the best interests of the girl to become his apprentice or love interest.
But what if there aren’t any male heroes to wait for?
The new narratives presented in the Millennium trilogy and The Hunger Games present apocalyptic realms where grief and rage haunt a population crushed by wealthy and malevolent forces. Men in authority positions are mostly corrupt, and the good men have been shorn of their power. Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist is a down-and-out, middle-aged journalist who has been framed by a powerful financier. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s male reality-show partner Peeta, with his diminutive name, is a beaten-down teenage boy with scant confidence in his physical prowess and mental acumen.
The Young Girl must be transformed if she is to carry the hero’s burden. Larsson’s Lisbeth Salandar is far less a creature of the male gaze than her predecessors. Defiant, gaunt and sporting a spiky mohawk and prickly Goth accessories, she is an open challenge to the fantasy of soft curves and patriarchal expectations of feminine compliance. A computer hacker, she is resistance incarnate. The psychologically complex Lisbeth echoes the resourcefulness and survival instinct of fairy tale women, who often achieve their ends through masquerade and dissimulation.
Lisbeth’s purpose is not only to survive, but to challenge corporate wealth amassed at the expense of the common good. A victim of rapists, she becomes a superhero, a female Robin Hood who plunders plutocrats and outwits corrupt bureaucrats and policemen.
Like Lisbeth Salander, Suzanne Collins’ Katniss Everdeen faces a world in which the state has become corrupted and the people are perceived merely as sources of wealth extraction for elites. Collins, a television writer, is not an overtly political figure in the mold of Larsson, but she has expressed the impact of her father’s service in Vietnam on her view of the brutality and absurdity of war, and she cites his experience of the privations of the Great Depression as inspiration for the survival themes in her books. The Hunger Games appeals to anxieties about government corruption on both the left and the right, manifested in fears of surveillance and a hunger for revolt.
Armed with her Mockingjay emblem – a bird symbol of rebellion that suggests a satirical, subversive stance toward The System – Katniss is tasked with surviving a state-sponsored reality show killing match in which she must rely on both her physical skill and intellect in order to return to her impoverished coal-mining district. Only when Katniss pantomimes compliance before the television camera does she conform to conventional expectations of feminine eroticism. For her, the femininity of curls and frilly dresses is pure artifice — a mask of survival. Her romantic entanglements are equally ambiguous: her life depends on enacting a love affair with Peeta, but while she cares for the hapless boy, she is no lovestruck teenage girl. When she is released into the woods, Katniss is outfitted as Artemis, the hunter– as likely to slay men as to love them.
Both Lisbeth and Katniss extend the limits of what is possible in the stifling worlds they inhabit. Notably, both women display violence – they show, through their physical aggression, the ultimate proof of their subjectivity. They are committed to their own survival — quite the opposite of the martyrdom and physical sacrifice traditionally demanded of female saviors. But they also show openness to collaboration with both men and women that points to the limitations of the lone-cowboy-hero model and the traditional gender dynamic of male dominance/female servitude.
For these female characters, the waiting game of young womanhood is supplanted by active conquest, and the path is opened for independent, strong-willed and admirable heroines. The ethical, intelligent, fearless female becomes the preeminent challenge to sinister, intangible forces. Mold-breaking female protagonists subvert the rules of a rigged game in a way that is all the more thrilling and cathartic for their break with tradition.
There are many layers to this subject and many points of entry to discuss it. Simply looking at it from the perspective of screenwriting, we would be blind not to notice the remarkable success of Lisbeth and Katniss as heroine figures in the Millennium and “Hunger Game” series. At the very least we can probably all agree on this: In a culture of movies, TV series, and books dominated by male Protagonists, there can be something especially interesting approaching a story from the vantage point of a female Protagonist. We have seen male heroes in male hero roles for decades. Starting with a female hero — a S-Hero as they are sometimes called — can provide a unique, even fresh approach to these type of sagas.
But there are so many other questions:
* Is The Heroine’s Journey the same as The Hero’s Journey?
* If so, how and what?
* Is a female hero substantively any different from a male hero?
* If a female follows the path of a Hero’s Journey, does that not make them in essence a ‘male’ character?
* Likewise if there is, indeed, an equivalent Heroine’s Journey, if a male followed that path, would that not make them in essence a ‘female’ character?
* Why are most heroes in stories males?
* Are there things writers can learn about writing a male hero by studying female heroes?
* Are there things writers can learn about writing a female hero by studying male heroes?
What I propose to do is open the floor to a discussion of this subject on all fronts. I start with Parramore’s article to frame the discussion, and have several more to use as the centerpiece of posts over the course of this week.
What I’m hoping for is a wide-ranging and beneficial conversation about The Hero’s Journey and The Heroine’s Journey, grounded in a question aimed specifically at writers: Are there unique opportunities in today’s culture to write stories with a female Protagonist?
I ask this question not because I’m trying to be politically correct, rather as noted above, you’d have to be stupid not to see the enormous success of “The Hunger Games” and the Millennium series. Something is going on. Perhaps it’s as simple as Lisbeth and Katniss being two well-drawn Protagonists, regardless of gender. Or maybe there is something more at work, that in the Zeitgeist, there is an opening, even a desire to see stories with female heroes.
If there is, what can we learn this week to help us understand the unique dynamics at play? Are these stories that have to be shaped in a precise way to fly with Hollywood or are we free to cut loose with conventions if we choose to write stories with female heroes?
For the rest of Parramore’s article, go here.
HT to my good friend and Jung scholar Morgan Gould for forwarding me the article.
Tomorrow: A closer look at The Heroine’s Journey.