Summer 2017: Heroine’s Journey
It is with some amusement that I start this blog inspired by my second viewing of the movie, Rango. Five years ago, it was all about finding community—a sense of belonging. And same as before, the hero’s quest motif was evident to me this time, too. Which got me mulling again about the Heroine’s Journey as well as the depth and subtleties hidden within Rango—the character and the movie. For such “light fare” as animated films generally are meant to be, this one strikes me as quite profound at the same time as amusing and uplifting.
Using Rango as the quintessential hero’s quest (rather than the usual Hercules), it showcases well the contrasts and similarities to the classic Heroine’s Journey. Much of what I’ll be referencing is from the book, Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story, by Jody Gentian Bower (2015). For starters we’ll look at what the genres have in common.
- In essence, they are stories about emotion and connection.
- Both the Journey and the Quest are about the lead character becoming a whole person, but following different paths to get there.
- Both travel physically as well as within his or her “psyche to a new place of self-understanding.” (p. 134)
The key difference is that the hero must travel away from community in order to rejoin the community with a fuller understanding of himself and what he contributes to society/ how he serves the group or greater good—to find or fulfill his sense of belonging. The heroine or Aletis (Greek for wanderer) must break away from the community she serves to find herself and a truer way of being in community on her own terms—not defined by those around her.
At its core, the hero’s quest is about the male protagonist accomplishing something to prove himself the hero: “the single wondrous thing” that solves all problems for the hero and for his realm. (42) The male hero must leave the comforts of home to prove his masculinity and return to embrace the feminine.
“Men are constantly under tremendous pressure, particularly in Western society, to prove their maleness. Until they can accomplish this feat, they may be denied heartfelt connection to others…Almost any show of emotion, other than anger or pride, is feminine—and therefore threatening to heterosexual maleness. But emotion is how we connect with others…The hero has to learn to trust his maleness, to know that he is truly a man, by doing what only a man can do. Once the hero knows absolutely that he is a real man, he can stop fearing betrayal by the feminine side of his own nature and learn how to connect emotionally…The whole man is at ease with his emotions and can respond to an appeal for connection. The quest usually ends with the hero coming full circle, back to the land of his origin, and getting married. This is symbolic recognition that the feminine is no longer a threat and that the hero’s feminine qualities no longer have to remain in shadow.” (Bower, 45-47)
A female’s femininity is never in question. The female protagonist must wander in search of herself and her true place in the world. She, rather, must travel away from home “to seek not only to know herself but also to reclaim those parts of herself devalued by society.” (135) It is no easy task to break away from the confines of a prescribed role or definition of femininity to discover what it means to be a woman for yourself—to be your own true self regardless of what others tell you it means. “We have to stop looking for a heroine who acts like a hero and look instead for a different kind of bravery.” (Bower, 67)
In the movie, Rango faces challenges to figure out the answer to the question: Who are you? Turns out he is much more than he thinks he is. He looks upon himself as insignificant—not even having a name. Yet he bravely faces his fears, overcomes obstacles, is guided by ancient wisdom in various forms, and ends up saving the day—and himself. He knows who he is now. He is no longer insignificant. He has a place where he belongs. He knows what he brings to the table—what he contributes to society—and he gets the girl.
The Aletis (wanderer) learns who she is when she leaves too. But she doesn’t return from whence she came. She finds a new place of belonging—after she discovers who she is and how she chooses to contribute and connect. She also meets ancient wisdom, but usually as a teacher of some sort—hidden in the woods or a cave—from whom she learns difficult lessons. She proves herself to the “wise woman” in order to face future challenges. As Bower notes, “To embrace femininity entirely means to embrace the dark, wild, and dangerous aspects as well as the queenly, loving, and mother-like aspects.” (60) Too often our prescribed female role in the community focuses on serving and overall goodness which means denying being fully human with a dangerous, dark side as well. This leads to all sorts of un-wellness and dysfunction with which we are all familiar.
There are far too many nuggets in the book by Bower to do it justice in this blog. In a nutshell:
- The Hero’s Quest is about “doing” and the Heroine’s Journey is about “being.”
- The hero’s bravery is in accomplishing the “single wondrous thing,” while the heroine’s is in refusing to do what is expected of her.
- The hero often starts out isolated from community whereas the heroine is immersed in it to the point of being invisible or denied a separate identity.
- The hero does what is expected to complete his quest, the heroine does what is unexpected to begin her journey.
- The hero moves toward, and the heroine away from, something.
- Significantly, “the hero transforms himself and restores or preserves the community…The Aletis transforms the community while preserving herself.” (69) The heroine “embarks on the journey because she knows her soul will die if she stays”…She journeys to discover “and value the uniqueness of her being.”(72)
Bower concludes her chapter highlighting the key differences by saying, “To become balanced and whole, it seems each must learn the opposite shape: the hero must trace a circle while the Aletis must follow the arrow’s flight.” (72)
Understanding these two types of storytelling will change forever how you watch movies or read books. You will see these patterns and motifs over and over again. Hence why plots and characters can become predictable. We know how the story will end because we have been told it so often. It is the storytellers who brave exposing the shadow side that tend to switch things up and pique our interest—and disappointment without the expected happy-ending. Fortunately life stories are made of chapters—each with its own ending—leaving the story open for more possibilities. We never know what lies around the next corner…