There’s a scene in the first Hunger Games movie that sticks with me. It’s near the end of the film – Katniss and Peeta have just had an epic fight on top of the Cornucopia with their adversary, Cato. After a tense stand-off, Cato has fallen to the ground and is being attacked by fierce dog-like things, called Mutts. You can hear the Mutts gnawing at Cato, and his agonized cries. He’s being chewed to death.
Now, if this film had been made when I was a girl, the rest of the scene would have gone this way:
Katniss: Peeta! This is horrible! What are we going to do?
Peeta: Katniss, give me the bow and an arrow. I’ll take care of it.
Katniss (holding the back of her hand to her mouth, tears streaming down her face): Oh, Peeta!
Peeta (shoots Cato through the heart): He was a worthy adversary.
[She throws her arms around him, sobbing. He comforts her. The scene ends with a passionate embrace. Fade to black.]
Instead, here’s how the scene went down:
Katniss and Peeta observe Cato being eaten alive. Without a word, and without a glance toward Peeta, Katniss slips an arrow from her quiver, nocks it, and lets it fly – performing a mercy killing for her biggest foe. Peeta says nothing. She says nothing. They move on.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a new kind of female hero. And I’ve been thinking about it so much that I went back to review Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey.
Do you know Campbell’s concept? In a nutshell, it’s that throughout time a monomyth has been established across cultures to describe how a hero is made. [It will be fine if you want to take a minute and read the link – just come back lickety-split.]
What struck me is that the monomyth Campbell outlines is all about a man’s journey. Women only feature in the monomyth twice – as a goddess and as a temptress. While I like to think of myself as often as possible as the former and from time to time the latter, Campbell’s work doesn’t reflect me and my own life experience. Nor does it speak to the journeys of the women I’ve worked with and been friends with over the years.
No, the Female Hero’s Journey is markedly different from a that undertaken by a man.
Let’s face it – many of us women were raised to be “good girls”. That’s shorthand for kind, quiet, self-effacing, self-sacrificing, obedient and predictable. Oh, and to always ask for permission before we do something.
To me, the heroine’s journey is one of moving away from these external pressures toward permission to act on our own authority and to live in harmony with our own strengths, the way Katniss did. You might say, “Hey, Katniss is supposed to be 16 years old in that story – certainly she’s not completed her life’s journey.” And I would remind you that the character of Katniss was created by woman born in 1962. Perhaps author Suzanne Collins has made her own hero’s journey and reflected that knowledge and understanding in Katniss.
Because Katniss certainly is a hero. And, fortunately, Peeta loves that about her.
Why is this important? Why is knowing that a woman is on a heroine’s journey relevant?
Because there is going to be that moment at which you, or someone you love, has to take a deep breath and make the female hero’s journey. She’s going to have to decide who she wants to be.
Not who others prefer her to be, or give her permission to be – but who she knows she needs to be so she can be fully herself.
If she senses that one choice, or a series of small choices, can put her further down the hero’s path then maybe – just maybe – making those choices will be easier for her.
Maybe if she can acknowledge that she’s on a hero’s path then she can do the hard or scary thing. The thing that takes her even deeper into herself, so she can emerge stronger, wiser, and better able to be a force for good in the world.
Maybe, just maybe, in that moment when she gets to choose, she’ll pull out the equivalent of her own arrow. She’ll nock it, aim, and let it fly.
And you’ll be right there at her side, safe in the knowledge that she’s strong enough to do what’s right.
[photo: Murray Close/Lion’s Gate Entertainment]