One of the things that’s been most thrilling to me about this spring at the movies is that we have not one but two films featuring female protagonists who have what can only be described as hero’s journeys of the sort our culture typically allows only male characters to have. From Jesus Christ to Luke Skywalker to Frodo Baggins, these archetypal heroes have not only physical adventures but philosophical ones that involve spiritual growth so profound that they are changed forever in profound ways. While there have been films with female protagonists, the only female character in cinema history that I can think of who has anything close to an classic hero’s journey is Scarlett O’Hara of Gone with the Wind. (Rose DeWitt Bukater of Titanic might possibly qualify, though her story is tougher to squeeze into the archetype.)
Until now. In movie theaters right now — at the same time! — we have both Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games and Snow White of Mirror Mirror, whose stories are unquestionably of the hero’s-journey stripe: expulsion from home, adventures in a strange and dangerous realm, a return home to find they’ve changed so much they don’t fit in anymore (though, to be fair, with Katniss, we won’t see this till the next movie in her series). Unlike most female characters in most movies, Katniss and Snow grow and change, and everyone they meet is present, narratively speaking, to help them on their journey.
This is very exciting! And I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Lynn Parramore at AlterNet:
Hard times were made for heroes. In the face of oppression, it’s natural to want a savior – an intermediary to carry our hopes and dreams of overturning The System. From the wreckage of the Great Depression, a slew of caped crusaders rose, like Superman, corruption-busting Batman, Captain America, and The Shadow, who knew “what evil lurks in the hearts of men.”
Male heroes abound in our culture, virile figures who dazzle us with their wits and brawn. But lately, they just don’t seem to be getting the job done. The cowboy is looking ragged. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action hero turned governor, turns out to be a run-of-the-mill womanizer and cheat. Far from battling global financiers, Barack Obama bends to the will of bankers. As a network of lawless capitalists and their political puppets squeezes and starves the world’s citizens from Cairo to California, Superman seems to have fled the scene.
Somebody else has leapt onstage. And she’s not wearing a codpiece.
Parramore goes on to discuss Everdeen and Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/Man som hatar kvinnor, the latter of whom I’m not sure I would classify as having a hero’s journey. But there’s definitely something in Salander’s rise as a pop-culture figure that speaks to the world today, as Parrmore explains:
Women’s perspectives and input have become part of an ongoing values recalibration. As the world’s citizens confront a financialized monster, it’s no wonder they would turn to the very opposite of the hyper-masculine hustlers of Wall Street and their swaggering political enablers to rescue them from despair. In Wired magazine, Angela Watercutter discusses the cultural impact of the female leadership of women like Asmaa Mahfouz, whose call to young women to protest Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt last year helped topple the dictator. In the 21st century, the hero is emerging in literature and film as a distinctly female force who faces a world of soul-destroying bleakness. Two wildly successful fiction series and their film progeny depict worlds where dreams are betrayed, human values are abandoned and women lead the charge to combat evil.
The fact that Salander’s story is explicitly about fighting misogynist male aggression against women is clearly part of its fresh-feeling power. More from Parrmore:
The new narratives presented in the Millennium trilogy and The Hunger Games present apocalyptic realms where grief and rage haunt a population crushed by wealthy and malevolent forces. Men in authority positions are mostly corrupt, and the good men have been shorn of their power. Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist is a down-and-out, middle-aged journalist who has been framed by a powerful financier. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s male reality-show partner Peeta, with his diminutive name, is a beaten-down teenage boy with scant confidence in his physical prowess and mental acumen.
The stories partly reflect a widespread male identity crisis in which the social and economic foundations of male prestige have been threatened.
Parramore has lots more to say that’s fascinating and provocative; go read her whole piece.
What do you think? Has the era of the female hero arrived?
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