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The Men Discovering “The Heroine’s Journey” And The Women Who Understood The Assignment

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There are people in this world coming up with brilliant ideas at the same time that OTHER people are coming up with equally brilliant ideas along the same lines. It is a part of nature that groups of strangers will come to similar conclusions, piecing together commentary that is communicated differently from different sources. Flipping the classic “The Hero’s Journey” into a more nuanced and false gender-construct specific issue created quite a stir – primarily with people who didn’t already know about the many books on the subject.

Tony Binns of Alberta went on Facebook to share his opinion on the “Mulan-y Sue” that sparked a viral reaction:

“It’s a long one… brace yourself.

Mulan-y Sue: Or How I Almost Agreed with Petulant Fanboys for about a Minute.

So… the wife and I watched the Disney live action Mulan last night. She really liked it. I didn’t. Some nice fight choreography, but on the whole…meh. She literally had to tell me to put my phone down at one point. My issues with it, apart from turning Chi back into the Force, and literally stealing lines out of Star Wars was that unlike the original, Mulan was a fully complete, magic martial arts expert who kicks arrows out of mid-air from the start. She didn’t work to earn the powers, she was just flawless going in. This is what many a neck bearded internet pundit calls a “Mary Sue”. “Mary Sue” is not a term I like. It feels inherently dismissive, condescending and sexist. After all a lot of these guys who complain about a female protagonist like Rey being too invincible from the start will breathlessly explain why John Wick is the greatest action hero of the modern era in the same breath. But I felt myself really starting to agree. Mulan didn’t train for her powers she just had them. As a screenwriter that feels wrong to me. I started to feel like…. Blergh… maybe these guys were actually on to something.

Then I had a revelation, which formed into a theory. Again, I would never presume to say I know how women think or any such nonsense, so feel free to contradict or correct me here, but….The Heroes journey fantasy for men is always starting at the bottom and coming into your own, so you are the complete bad ass at the end. The heroes journey fantasy for women is to be acknowledged for the power they already possess. This has real world echoes. Men have always been told to roll up shirt sleeves and work their way to the top, whereas women are struggling to be heard, to not be interrupted, to be taken seriously, to not have their ideas stolen and to have equal pay and opportunity as their male counterparts. We fight for position, they fight for recognition.So it’s no surprise then that the female power fantasy so often centers around ability being recognized rather than acquiring the ability in the first place. Wonder Woman was bad ass from the start. She comes into a world where that isn’t recognized and has to kick a few asses to get some respect. The other example is Captain Marvel. When I saw it, I thought, “Yeah it’s pretty good. I would have liked to see it told in a more linear way, I’d be more interested in seeing how she developed” What I didn’t realize is that’s not the point. The point is she is being gaslighted, held back and controlled. It’s not about a classic hero’s journey, it’s about her breaking free of the constraints that have been placed on her. Brie Larson famously pissed off fanboys when she said “It’s not for you.” But she was right, it isn’t for me. I haven’t lived that experience so obviously I’m not going to get it. But it must have resonated because it made over a billion at the Box Office.

Part of the problem with the fanboy community is they can’t handle the idea that someone might make a comic book movie that isn’t for them. They get online and rant about alienating the fans, review bomb Rotten Tomatoes but in reality it’s like they are little boys who want to take their action figures away from their little sister because she “Isn’t playing with them right” Well, the little sister is playing with them based on her own feelings experiences and desires. She isn’t playing with them for you, she’s playing with them for her. That’s why when you get female writers, directors, and producers you are going to get more movies from the sister’s point of view. It’s not for me, and I’m totally okay with that. I don’t need everything to be about me. I have Dune coming out in 4 days. I’m gonna be just fine.It has started me wondering about how we get taught to develop characters and stories in screenwriting. These sometimes seemingly arbitrary rules, The protagonist must change and grow by page XX, after the incident etc. etc. These are based on time tested storytelling structures, but…Is there inherent bias tilted toward the male point of view baked into story structure? Is the classic heroes journey based off male experience? I mean obviously you can have a female protagonist go on the journey, there are lots of examples of that, but when the story is told with male power fantasies in place, is that becoming increasingly less relevant to what women want to see?

I don’t have the answer to any of those questions, but this framing does give me a little insight, and something I will carry with me when creating female protagonists in the future.

But for the record, the animated Mulan was better.

A lot of reaction was aimed at that last line, but we don’t need to get into that too much.

From Bob Askins: “You realize that A LOT of the people that didn’t like Mulan were women? And chinese people? Who is being condescending now?”

It got a lot more heated, but I’m setting that aside.

In Chris Devers‘ commentary: “I learned about Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey via “Star Wars”, and the evolution of Luke Skywalker. But now that you mention it, there’s already a bit of this in Princess Leia, too. She’s introduced to the audience as a powerful character — a literal princess — and she’s defiant & strong from the very beginning. Luke’s following Campbell’s version of the monomyth, but in her own way, Leia is, too.”

From Erik Ramsay in Idaho:

As someone else said, you’re comparing “Apples and freakin’ moon rocks.” Mulan in the animated movie was a teen, with no training or powers, and through the training montage learned to fight as a soldier. Mulan in the live action movie had magic Kung fu action!

John Wick, on the other hand, has had a long and successful career as an assassin, and is coming back into it after tragedy and loss. He is skilled from a LIFETIME of training and experience, and is literally known as “the Boogeyman.”We don’t question John Wick’s skills because the secondary characters inform us what a badass he is as the plot unfolds.

Bruce Wayne in the the Christopher Nolan trilogy doesn’t just wake up one day, and suddenly the rich kid knows how to fight; we watch him learn, fail, and grow as he develops the “Batman” persona. He tries things, gets hurt, adjusts his tactics and gear, gets hurt, adjusts some more, and “dials in” what he needs.The same thing happens with women, if the movie is done correctly.

Cipher, Charlize Theron’s character in F&F 8&9, is explained to be a skilled, experienced villain from the start. No one questions this because she has had a long history in this field, and let’s face it, she isn’t a plucky teenager that is suddenly naturally skilled at everything she does.Riley North, Jennifer Garner’s character in Peppermint, starts off as a typical suburban housewife. The movie progresses ahead a few years and she is now a skilled fighter. This is explained as the plot progresses, and is believable because there is a long time period missing when she could have gained those skills, and the movie explains that she does. No one has to “recognize her inner power,” she trains and transforms herself to become who she needs to be to avenge her family, instead of “discovering her inner power.”

When we meet Julie Shackleford in the Monster Hunter novels is in her early 20s, but she is already an amazingly skilled fighter and sharpshooter despite her young age and complete lack of any military experience. Why? Because she is a 5th-generation Monster Hunter and literally grew up relearning, shooting, and fighting, learning the family business from the ground up. She later is cursed with certain abilities, but only after she has been revealed to be a badass in her own right. No Mary Sue needed for a strong and outstanding female character.

Calling a character a “Mary Sue” is not “dismissive, condescending, and sexist;” it is a trope that too many stories with a female protagonist like the live action Mulan, Hunger Games, Divergent, and others rely on to explain why their protagonist is nigh unbeatable. It’s lazy, and frankly, writing a Mary Sue character is much more dismissive of females, as it assumes women can’t be great characters and/or heroines without unrealistic, overwhelming natural talent, mystical inner power, and inexplicable charisma.

See also: “Marty Stu”

From Albany’s William Andrew Hainline:

I have a book called “The Writer’s Journey.” In it, the author (a man) speculates that the female form of the Hero’s Journey may have to it less of a “pyramid of conflict” or “uphill battle” shape, but more of a spiral outward, coupled by a recoiling, oscillating back and forth until the tale is told. And like the author above, he believes that Female Heroes primarily seek recognition, identity, and moral truth rather than being “the chosen one” or seeking power over their enemies, or confrontationalism, though the Female’s Hero’s Journey can indeed include ALL of these things as well; it just depends on how well it is written.”

Whether or not the thousands of commentators could find a way to examine this without getting heated, there were some comments that stood out … written by women …that felt like they understood the assignment.

Cindy O’Malley: “Yes the classic hero’s journey is based off male experience. As is most everything else in our society. If you’re interested in reading a woman’s perspective I recommend The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock.”

From Susan Kaye Quinn: “I recommend you read a real analysis of the Heroine’s Journey: Gail Carriger’s version”

And Lyric Montgomery Kinard: “Have you read Gail Carriger’s The Heroine’s Journey? It talks about how a hero ends changed and broken and isolated after completing a quest but a heroine creates community to accomplish her quest.”

Adrienne Masler: “Check out the heroine’s journey. It’s an archetypal story structure as ancient as the hero’s journey but not commonly recognized. And it is significantly different….”

Brandi Kalena‘s addition: “If you didn’t know, many have claimed this exact thing: that the hero’s journey was supposed to be for men. Hero = male, obliviously. Here’s an example I’ve read that’s thought provoking: https://www.amazon.com/Heroines…/dp/0877734852/ref=nodl_

The women KEPT coming while the male commenters kept in-fighting their points. Here was Susan Kaye Quinn‘s response: “Those questions are rhetorical, right? And if you’re creating stories—any stories at all, not just stories with female leads—you should understand the Heroine’s Journey. Gail Carriger’s book should be required reading for every writer.”

And another from Marisa Dunton Means: “Omg YES. You might want to see the newly available book by Annette Simmons. But even more so…these types of stories ARE FOR YOU..so you can grow & mature and recognize EVERYONE is worthy.”

And, even more, Rachel Bailey: “As others have mentioned above, there has been a fair bit of examination of gender in the hero’s journey. One of my favourite approaches is Kim Hudson’s The Virgin’s Promise. This is Christopher Vogler’s preface to her book: https://kehudson.wordpress.com/forward-by-christopher…/

Other than one male commenter, most of the female writers drawn to this piece gave recommendations – high praise for books that the original poster would likely enjoy. So, I thought you might want to explore these recommendations here:

Jennica Schwartzman, Managing Partner at Purpose Pictures Productions, Co-Founder of Little Sister Entertainment, and a member of The Producers Guild of America, SAG/AFTRA, and Moms-In-Film LA, loves tackling a project from idea to distribution as a multi-hyphenate actress-writer-producer. Jennica has been published in the Producers Guild Magazine "Produced By," Legacy Arts Magazine, Paragon Road, Bustle, and she is a guest writer for the acclaimed entertainment industry websites MsInTheBiz.com, FilmmakingStuff.com, Artemis Motion Pictures' #WomenKickAss Forum, and WomenandHollywood.com. She has been invited to speak on film festival panels and is a workshop teacher for The International Family Film Festival's Road Scholars intergenerational filmmaking camp. Jennica has produced ten feature film releases. Jennica and her husband /producing partner /writing partner Ryan have two kiddos and reside in Hollywood.

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