Sun, 13 November 2016
For the third consecutive year, I was delighted to moderate a panel on the Heroine’s Journey at GeekGirlCon in Seattle. Inspired by The Force Awakens and its breakout heroine Rey, we titled this year’s panel “The Heroine’s Journey: Awakening Its Potential.” Tricia Barr and Jennifer K. Stuller returned again as panelists, and we were joined for the first time by Teresa Jusino, a feminist pop culture critic and an assistant editor at TheMarySue.
After introducing the panelists and our respective backgrounds and interests in analysis of the Heroine’s Journey, we briefly reviewed the contexts of our prior discussion for those attendees who hadn’t seen the previous panels. We emphasized that Joseph Campbell’s famous Hero’s Journey framework has its roots in historical myths that arose from patriarchal, misogynist, and unjust societies – yet many storytellers today continue to reflexively rely on its familiar elements without considering the implications for contemporary characters and audiences. The goal, though, is not necessarily to reject Campbell out of hand, but rather for storytellers to make sure they undertake informed decision-making about creating heroes and their character arcs.
We then turned to sharing our thoughts on recent stories which have succeeded in creating Heroine’s Journey tales that can serve as good models for other storytellers. Tricia talked about Rey and The Force Awakens, and Teresa praised the joy of Kara’s adventures in CBS’s Supergirl. Jen noted the great dynamic between Brienne of Tarth and Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones, which inverts medieval fantasy tropes. Netflix also earned acclaim for shows including Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Stranger Things. Common themes we identified in well-crafted Heroine’s Journey include the roles of sisters and mothers, teamwork with allies instead of solo heroism, the importance of mentors, and an emphasis on love and compassion.
We also discussed the pros and cons of the concept of a Heroine’s Journey framework in storytelling. The similar idea of “strong female character,” for example, often is misunderstood as referring to physical prowess rather than other forms of strength such as willpower, or misses the point that advocating for more and better “complex” or “well-written” female characters is the most important goal. On the one hand, show like Jessica Jones or Game of Thrones illustrate that the value in not limiting the focus to heroism as such, but rather encouraging the creation of more stories of all types with women protagonists. More female characters with nuance and agency in lead roles will make a huge differences in evolving tropes, even if some of them are anti-heroes or other non-heroic characters. On the other hand, Tricia pointed out, Hollywood often only understands simple terms, so the terminology of the Heroine’s Journey may be valuable as a form of consciousness-raising to keep the goal of creating aspirational heroes for girls and women at the forefront of the discussion in the entertainment industry. Ultimately, we urged storytellers to consider both perspectives – all in service of the goal of ensuring thoughtful decision-making about how Heroine’s Journeys, and other stories with female protagonists, are designed and written.