Books, movies, poems, songs and numerous stand-up acts have been based on Joseph Campbell’s remarkable work on The Hero’s Journey. And rightly so. Campbell’s intensive study of the hero lore of many cultures uncovered a similar theme – a monomyth – recurring regardless of time and place.
And it’s also only about dudes.
In the monomyth uncovered by Campbell, women feature exactly twice: The Hero meets a Goddess who inspires him, and then he meets a Temptress who, well, tempts him. The rest of the time, he’s a guy on a quest sometimes accompanied by other guys.
I had taken a stab at examining The Heroine’s Journey in a blog post I wrote back in 2014 – it was mostly about how we have a new female hero showing up in today’s literature and film, embodied by the character of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games trilogy.
To really dig into the topic on a larger level, though, I had to do some thinking. I took out my journal and started writing to understand the similarities and the differences between a classic man’s experience and the hero’s journey of women I’ve know and read about.
I wondered where Campbell’s ideas intersected with what I’ve observed over my lifetime. The answer?
Not very often.
I had to refill the ink in my pen more than one time to get to the heart of the matter. And here’s what I think about a women’s hero’s journey. It starts like this: A woman is going along her merry way, doing whatever she’s doing. She might be stressed, she might not be. She might be rich, poor, old, young, whatever.
She’s living the life she’s living and then all of a sudden –
A crisis erupts. The floodwaters rise, the cow runs off, the husband runs off, the tornado’s a-coming, the rent needs to be paid, the boss is inappropriate, the nuclear reactor is leaking. Whatever it may look like, something bad happens.
And the first thing she does is try to fix the crisis. She mends and tends. She looks for solutions.
But there comes a time when she’s aware she can’t fix it – there’s no way it can be fixed at all – and has a moment of deep recognition that the only thing she can change is her idea about who she is and what she’s capable of doing.
Her identity shatters. Who she thought she was, and how she thought the world was – it’s all gone.
In the depths of her soul, she finally asks who she wants to be.
She embarks on a period of trial and error to find this new self.
In the course of her quest, she forms a tribe. These are women, men, children, animals who support her as she figures out who she really is.
She has experiences. She’s growing more and more conscious. She learns.
One day she has fresh awareness: She feels like herself. A new self.
A new crisis comes up, and she handles this one very differently. This new crisis allows her to see just how strong she is.
She has created a new life.
And the people in her tribe are safe. She can live happily and contentedly, thoroughly aware of her strength and resilience.
Women – does this in any way resonate? Clarify things for you? Give you hope that there is a path through any difficulty?
Now to the men who are reading these words – why does this matter for you? If you love a woman, or are father to a girl, and you want to be a part of her tribe, recognize that her journey toward a heroic life may be significantly different from the male hero’s journey you’ve been saturated in since birth. This may be why sometimes you don’t understand why the women in your life don’t seem to value what you value, or organize their lives the way you organize yours.
Because a man’s journey – according to Campbell – is an external adventure, full of battles where you can prove yourself.
And a woman’s journey – according to me – is an internal adventure, full of the kinds of moments which allow a woman rise up and know herself deeply.
Neither is right. Neither is wrong.
We prosper as human beings, though, when we respect and support the necessary paths each of us must walk to live our own heroic lives.