Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
In the 1940’s the academic Joseph Campbell created a theory called the Hero’s Journey or the Mono-Myth. It basically breaks down almost all myths in to 14 easily identifiable points. Modern story tellers have used it as a connect the dots instructions to write genre classics from Star Wars and to The Matrix. It’s basically the blue print for how a young man to becomes a hero. But the Hero’s Journey is almost always a masculine undertaking. Recently I have been wondering if it applies to females too, I am not surprised that it is also a perfect template for a heroine story.
Joseph Campbell devised 17 points, in 3 parts, that define the Hero’s Journey. Later academics have often condensed these points. It makes the Journey easier to understand and also allows us to apply it to more stories. In this post I will use the original 17 points. I am amazed how well stories fit into the monomyth, but I do not feel that every point needs to be shoehorned into every story.
I am going to break this into three posts, each one focusing on one part of the Journey. Part One is called. The Departure. There are 5 points: The call to adventure, Refusal of the call, Supernatural aid, Crossing the threshold, In the belly of the beast.
Here is the most famous male example of the monomyth, Luke Skywalker’s story broken into the 5 tropes. The call to adventure, Crazy old Ben, says hey lets go out and help this space princes. Refusal of the call, “It’s not like I like the Empire, I hate the Empire, but you know…I got farm chores.” Supernatural aid, “Here is your father’s lightsaber and let me tell you about the Force.” Crossing the threshold, Next thing Luke knows he is in Mos Isley and looking for a way off Tatoonie. In the belly of the beast, and not long after that Luke and his buds are stuck in a trash compactor with a floating one eyed monster.
The heroines that I am going to use today are, Wonder woman, focusing on the most recent movie incarnation. Ellen Ripley bug hunter extraordinaire. The ‘chosen one’, Buffy Summers, whose story parallels Kamala Khan so closely that the New Ms. Marvel would probably call them twinsies. Alice Liddle of looking Glass fame and Project Alice of the Resident Evil Movies. The enigmatic Dr. Dana and Scully. Dr. Harlene Quinzelle, AKA Harley Quinn, now I admit that she is more of an anti-heroine than a heroine. And finally rounding out the group is Beatrix Kiddo, the Bride from the Kill Bill franchise.
The call to adventure: The Heroine or hero usually has a normal life, be it a rich lifestyle or a more modest one, and some crazy stranger enters and invites them to go on this grand adventure. This is important to the mythos of the hero because they are cut from the same cloth as you and I. They have a normal world view at the start, but then the herald comes into their life and shows them this hidden world right before the heroine’s nose.
Examples of this are, Steve Trevor crashing his plane on Paradise Island, letting Diana AKA Wonder Woman know of the world of man that is on the other side of the horizon. Ripley’s introduction to the world of adventure is when Nostromo receives the distress signal form the alien ship on LV-426. Buffy Summers’ received her call when Merick (in the movie) her watcher tells her about mystic destiny. Kamala Khan gets the call when she is exposed to the terrigen mist, and it activates her inhuman gene. Alice’s world changes when she sees the White Rabbit running by yelling “I am late, I am late, for a very important date.” Project Alice’s adventure comes when she opens her eyes in a mysterious mansion without any memory, what she doesn’t remember is that she actually invited herself to adventure when she had turned against the Umbrella Corporation. Dr. Scully is not invited on the adventure but assigned it, when she is partnered with Agent Mulder. Another doctor who is assigned to adventure is Dr. Harleen Quinzel who takes over the case of the enigmatic yet charismatic Arkham asylum patient, The Joker. The Bride is called to adventure twice by the same person, Bill the Snake Charmer, the first time when he trains her to be an assassin and then when he shoots her in the wedding chapel, beginning her journey of revenge. Jyn Erso’s call comes when the rebellion bust her out of Imperial custody.
Refusal of the Call On the surface this was the hardest of the tropes for me to apply to the female hero. It is a stereotype that women do not turn things down. How many of us know that mother who takes on every project her children’s school or employer offer because she cannot say no. But as I examine it closer, I see that women are just as reluctant at first to give up their save and comfortable life as their male counterparts. This is a normal response because life of adventure means a drastic change in their life and lifestyle.
Wonder woman may not have declined the call herself, but her mother did for her. First by trying to keep her destiny as the ‘God Killer” from her, then forbidding her to leave the island. Ripley’s call denial, comes when she follows rules and would not let an infected Kane back into the ship violating quarantine protocol. In this case Ripley’s option of choosing the adventure or not is taken away from her, when Ash opens the door instead. Buffy is the best example of declining the call to adventure. She wants a normal life, she not only tells her Watcher that she doesn’t want any of this slaying business, she even surgically removes the birth mark that proves she is the chosen one. Kamal Khan like Buffy before her, wants to have a normal high school life. Alice once she falls though the rabbit hole, often wishes that she could back to her mother, though she physically cannot escape from the adventure. Project Alice’s denial is more subtle, when she looks at the pictures of her fake life given to her by the company as a cover, she is trying to find a normal life rather than one of adventure that she is about to be thrust into. Scully though willing goes on the adventures of the X-Files, her skepticism denies the super natural nature of the adventure. Dr. Quinzel coyly puts off the Joker’s advances at least at first. We know it is fake, she knows it is fake and most importantly The Joker knows it is fake, but at least she goes through the motions of trying to put up a resistance. The Bride runs away from her life as an assassin, but she also pleads with Bill to spare her and her unborn baby. Jyn Eurso attempts to flee from her rescuers.
Supernatural aid: Now this is a tricky one, how can you include it if your setting has nothing to do with the supernatural? Remember the Hero’s Journey was originally designed for myths, and we modern Homo Sapiens acquired it for more mundane story telling. Since this is my post on my blog, I am going to extend this to aid that a normal person could not obtain for one reason or another.
Wonder Woman’s gifts are pretty obvious on the surface, bracelets made of Athena’s shield, the Golden Lasso of Truth, the God Killer Sword, but we discover it is more than just her items it is her divine nature as a daughter of Zeus. Ripley lives in a universe of science, how can she get a super natural gift? In the novelization of Alien, she is surprised when Ash gives her the trackers to help follow the xenomorph, noting he didn’t have the equipment to make them himself, and that they didn’t look homemade. This is an important plot device because if he was prepared enough to bring them, he had to know something was going on beforehand. Buffy’s gift is her preternatural strength and coordination, it is a supernatural control over her body much like Kamala Khan’s gift is the ability to shape her body and regenerate. Alice from Wonderland fame’s gift is the pill and cakes that make her big and little (I know you just thought those were drug references) Project Alice is given psychic powers, from the company that she is going to use them to fight against. Scully’s supernatural gift is her partnership and relationship with Mulder. Now I hated it as much as the next fan when it turned romantic, but let’s face it the first few seasons their platonic relationship not only keep her going but was beyond what most people could hope for from a co-worker. Harley Quinn is eventually given super strength and immunity to toxins from Poison Ivy, but her initial gift from Joker is insanity. When she becomes cray-cray she could do things that normal people could not. I may be stretching hear a bit but The Bride’s gift is that she comes out of the coma with near super human determination. And Jyn Erso’s gift is the Force, which is represented in the Kyber Crystal given to her by her mom.
Crossing the threshold: This is when the heroine leaves her mundane world and inters the world of adventure. Often this is leaving one geographical area for another, like when Frodo left the Shire and journeyed into Mordor, but sometimes it is lifting the wainscoting that covers the magical world from the real world. From this point on heroine is officially on her adventure, For Wonder woman this moment happens when she leaves Themsycira for London. For Ripley it is when the Nostromo lands on LV-425. Think of this from a larger prospective, sure we see Alien as the story of a crew being picked off by a killer xenomorph, but for Earth this is first contact with aliens of not one but two species. Though Wyland-Yutani covers it up, this changes the world view of everyone who encounters them. Buffy (at least in the movie) stays in Los Angeles, but from now on it is an LA of Vampires and monsters. Kamala Khan had always been aware of the world of superheroes, she even wrote hero fan-fict, but now with her being an Avenger she is part of this world she has seen from a distance. For Alice Liddle it is those doors that she has to get past to enter Wonderland. Project Alice has two threshold experiences, the first one is when she opened her eyes in the mansion and could not remember anything, and the second is when she leaves the lab in Raccoon City to find the world devastated by zombies. For Scully it is her and Mulder’s first assignment in Oregon investigating teenagers abducted by a UFO. Though there are different origin stories for Harley Quinn, in at least the most recent form that threshold is the moment when she stands above the chemical vat Joker was immersed into, and she either jumps or is pushed in. The Bride cross the threshold when she awakes from her coma and kills Buck stealing his uniqly named truck. Jyn Erso’s Threshold moment is when she is presented to the leaders of the rebellion.
In the belly of the beast: This is when stuff gets real. This is the point of no return event. Even if for some reason the heroine gives up the quest she cannot return to her old world, the same person. She has changed fundamentally, and her understanding of her world is different. This is the first of many changes as she journeys down the road of adventure.
In the movie Wonder Woman gets to this point when she protects Steve Trevor in London from the German assassins. For Ripley it is when the rest of the crew is killed and she is forced to take on the xenomorph herself. This happens to Buffy Summers when put on the black leather jacket over her prom dress and goes off to fight the vampires invading the dance. For Kamala Khan it when she fights off super powered villains at her school, even if it might reveal her powers. For Alice it is when she leaves the underground and comes up in Wonderland. Project Alice, actually crosses this point before she receives her powers, it when she sees her first zombie. Dana Scully, comes to this point when she investigates her first X-File and chooses not to spy on Mulder. For Harley it is when she commits her first crime, of all her versions this is probably best demonstrated in the animated series The Batman. For The Bride it is the massacre at The House of Blue Leaves, even though it is told in the movie out of chronological order. This is not only the first check on her deadly to do list, it is a warning to Bill that she is awake and out for revenge. For Jyn Erso it is when Cassian sees her save the child in the streets of Jedda.
At least for me these and many other genre heroines fit in the hero’s journey like a finger-less glove on Harley Quinn’s larcenous fingers. In part two we see how they do in the initiation.