Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Hero's Journey--Does Gender Make a Difference? -- Part II

Following up our discussion from yesterday, here is novelist and freelance editor Meredith Efken's response to the question:
I've been playing with the ideas of male vs. female journeys. In 45 MASTER CHARACTERS there is a discussion on the difference between the two that really clarified it for me.

In the female journey the character (who can be either gender, really, since it's referring to a type of journey and not necessarily a gender experience or POV) starts out "making do" with her existence. It's an "illusion" of perfection. Then something happens that betrays that illusion and forces her to wake up.

This is one of the differences I see in the two journeys. In the typical male journey, the character often resists this awakening and doesn't reach it until later.

During the female awakening, she does lots of typical archetypal stuff like gather tools and encounters resistance to this process of awakening. She doesn't have much support for this process--in fact, the society around her is usually resistant to her efforts. In contrast, the male journey starts with a "call" and the hero is given the support of the community and gathers tools and strength along the way.

After this is what 45 MASTER CHARACTERS calls the "descent"--based on the myth of Inanna. This is a process where the character is stripped of those tools and those defenses and coping mechanisms. She has to give up strength instead of in the male journey where he gathers it. At the end of that, they have a period of calm where it looks like they've achieved some amount of success. After this is some sort of "death" followed by "support" and then "rebirth" and then a return to the normal world.

What I see is that the female journey emphasizes isolation moving toward community--the heroine starts out on her own and doesn't receive support until after the symbolic death. She is responsible for then returning to that world to tell her story and pass on what she's learned. So in that sense, the female journey tends to be more of a cycle.

The male journey is more linear and it moves from community to isolation. Eventually the hero has to "go at it alone" in order to achieve final success. I see it as a more personal, individual transformation, whereas the female journey is linked to a society. Both journeys have a theme of death and rebirth, but for the female journey, that rebirth leads her back to the community to aid in the journey of others where the male rebirth leads to "happily ever after."

Both journeys emphasize discovering the character's own hidden strength. The female journey does it through a process of stripping away her efforts to cope and survive. She discovers strength through encountering her own weakness and facing it. The male journey also has this stripping away--in effect, part of the male journey is a mini-female journey--but it happens later and isn't followed by community support. But the male journey emphasizes the hero starting out weak and then moving into his strength through trials and tribulation.

So in some ways they're very similar, and in other ways they are opposite from each other. The female journey tends to emphasize the role of society in keeping a woman from reaching her full potential and the lack of support for a woman who challenges the status quo, but then it ultimately offers the ideal of that woman returning to that society, changed and strengthened, and ready to be the agent of change in that community.

I don't know that the pressing problem would necessarily be different between a male lead or female lead. That would depend on the character and the story. The difference is in the process of personal transformation that the character goes through and what that transformation leads to in the end.

I've really been enjoying working with these ideas--now that they've finally clicked for me. I used them in LUCKY BABY--female journey--and I have an idea for a story that would have both a male and a female lead, and they each would go on their respective mythic journeys. Weaving the two together has been quite fun so far.

I like the female journey because it's a bit darker in some ways and it's different than what we're used to. Plus, I like the cyclical element to it, where personal transformation leads to being part of transforming society. But I think it could be interpreted as less of an individual victory and more of a corporate victory because the female journey's rebirth happens in context of the support of others where the male journey's rebirth happens because of the hero's own efforts. So depending on the story, it might be more satisfying to the reader to choose one journey over another.
Do you have any new thoughts after reading Meredith's reply?

Visit Meredith's editing service.


Hannah said...

From what I've read, I'd agree with what Meredith said. Most female protagonists I've seen discover their strengths and God-given abilities with the support of other people, while male protagonists tend to "lose everything" before they find their strength. I think it works this way because women can be more emotional than men (not always, but usually). I don't think one journey is better than the other, but that it depends upon the characters.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Excellent explanation. I have that book but haven't read it yet. Now I know what to look for.

"the female journey's rebirth happens in context of the support of others where the male journey's rebirth happens because of the hero's own efforts."

This also solves a problem I had with the ending for my series. I had included components of both journeys in the plot. The problem area is so clear now. Thank you Meredith Efken!

Meredith said...

Thanks, Brandilyn, for letting me guest blog on F&F! And thanks everyone for reading my little musings. I just wanted to restate that while usually the male/female journeys are paired up with the corresponding gender of the protagonist, it's not necessarily always that way. The journey structure is just that--a structure. It reflects different aspects of our culture and experience, but you can have either gender go on a male or female journey.

And, dsmith77, you are very welcome! Best wishes on your writing! :-)