"Books minister to man in his search for the enlightenment that reveals the meaning of life." --former Rochester Public Library Director John Adams Lowe

Problems with Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Perceived Chauvinism

There are some understandable complaints with The Hero's Journey as presented by Joseph Campbell. First, that it's perceived as being sexist, with an emphasis on the active roles played by masculine heroes, and far more passive roles played by feminine heroines. This might seem to be pretty natural however, as Campbell allows the more superficial features of these historic and traditional heroic narratives to overshadow the real essence of the genre -- meaningfulness and the search for an authentic and meaningful existence in a rather unruly world. These meanings, historically, are naturally sexist, as an ideal of sexual equality is vastly more modern than the archetypal stories that he uses to illustrate his theories. Modern heroic fiction, however, provides us with a host of heroic stories in which empowered female heroes, far from passively accepting a role that is handed to or forced upon them, must actively struggle to confront the bewildering consequences of the roles and values they have chosen for themselves -- just as the male heroes must.

In these stories, through events often beyond their control, ordinary human beings are thrust into circumstances which entirely overturn their previously comfortable world-view, and they then must entirely reconstruct a way to interact with their new set of circumstances. Having completed this Herculean task (sorry, couldn't resist), they then have to decide if their former life is worth going back to, and if so, how exactly they're going to manage it. There are, of course, variations on this modal theme, but I'm tempted to say that all of them focus on a search for meaning, and gender doesn't make half the difference it did in the more traditional stories. Campbell isn't being a chauvinist pig, he's just being true to his source material, but then, so am I.

A second problem, very much related to the first, is the confrontation with The Feminine in both its Good and Evil forms, and then the Atonement with the Father. First, remembering that every crazy and weird thing that happens in The Other World is merely an analogy to the process of coming to understand a huge change in unchallenged and largely implicit aspects of the previously meaningful life of the protagonist, and second, that all of the writers were male, writing for a male audience, etc, etc, blah blah blah, then the use of a feminine character to symbolize a set of either benefits or dangers of this Other World, this Outer Darkness beyond the light of Society and Civilization (which is actually the Inner Darkness of private decisions, and damn all other opinions until the protagonist feels otherwise) is perfectly understandable. The male protagonist is confronted at this point, not with a circumstance to be overcome by his virtues and values, but a challenge in which the very nature of his virtues and values must instead change. This isn't very comfortable territory for men, and the more masculine or macho, the worse the experience becomes.

For one thing, what man knows what it's like to be born a woman? None, not even today. Historically, women have been mysterious, even to the point of being random, and often by design, so as to be opaque to the understanding of mere men. (A lot has changed, right?) As gender is one of the most profound differences, along with race (which is also often used in older stories), the ability to portray this inscrutable strangeness as The Feminine would have been very handy to the authors, as well as portraying the surviving traditional aspects of the former world as the Father, the comfortable and familiar, but also stern and violent, roughly transparent motivations of men, who frequently killed or died over matters of importance left unresolved through demonstration of fact or discussion.

I'm still waiting for the Wikipedia articles Masculine psychology and Feminine psychology to be written by adults rather than children, so I could better address the whole active / passive split which is present in the Hero's Journey, but don't hold your breath. What follows here is arguably better than anything written there.

In many of the stories in which the female protagonist is central, her encounter with the mysterious Other comes in the form of being dominated, and sometimes raped, by this character or force. This is a confrontation in which there are real and objective features which must be confronted, and no amount of internal subjective change or external subjective machinations will change the outcomes or consequences one whit. She must act, or be acted upon; nothing else will do. As merely an analogy, this is the confrontation with the weakness of traditional femininity; the inability to deal directly with the strictly objective features of her reality. Her self-image as a primarily social person is being challenged; she may have to confront the possibility of acting strictly as an individual, and she may have to risk her social image in the eyes of others being irreparably damaged, one way or the other.

So there we have finally, a symmetry between the two cases. In the masculine journey, the male character must confront a situation in which he may lose his self-image as a man, one way or the other, either in altering and compromising his socially indoctrinated values, or continuing to be imprisoned until he does, or simply being killed outright. In the feminine journey, the feminine character must act upon her own discretion and judgement, continue to be violated in her person, or be banished to a realm without any social meaningfulness or identity. In each case, what is being aimed at is the very innermost part of the person in question.

In a broader sense, many narratives make use of this trial by fire, either to show the virtues of the protagonists, or the vices of the villains.

The boon to my fellow man -- and costumed wrestling!

The next problem I have is that this "boon" stuff goes largely unexplained, and we aren't provided with too many clear examples. Whatever of value is being brought back from this other world is only emblematic of what it really is -- the meaningful life that the protagonist is now prepared to live, which isn't necessarily altruistic but has far more positive effects on the society as a whole than a shallow life lived only from one short-term ego-gratification to the next.

Peter Parker sets a terrific example of how this works. When he's first bitten by a radioactive spider, Petey doesn't even know that something momentous has happened that will change how he lives his life forever. In fact, even as his new powers reveal themselves to him, he's pretty much just a kid with a new toy. He decides he's going to become a masked wrestler (!) and use his strength, speed, and everything else in service of better pay-per-view events, and yeah, maybe help his Aunt May and Uncle Ben with the bills. Becoming rich and famous would just be the icing on the cake, right?

We all know what happens next (or should!), but I'll lay it out for you with some commentary. Peter gets less than he's promised from the "businessman" running the wrestling events, but he seems to have his revenge when the office gets robbed right in front of him, and Petey does nothing to stop the robber from escaping. It later turns out that this same robber shoots and kills Pete's Uncle Ben, the man who has raised him as a father, since Peter's mom and dad had previously died. (I'd hate to be related to Peter Parker!) Uncle Ben's last piece of advice to Peter, "With great power, comes great responsibility" is suddenly rubbed in Peter's face with a cruel ferocity. This is the moment when a hero is truly born out of a kid with a new toy -- when Peter Parker becomes Spider Man, not with stars or dollar signs in his eyes, but more likely tears or rage.

Would Uncle Ben have died without Peter's being involved in all this metaphysical hoopla? Maybe, and maybe not, but the problem of evil is not an unknown reality to any of us, and Spider Man's origin story is not at it's most unbelievable here, it's an all-too-plausible part of the story. Peter has the opportunity to make a difference, and by fighting fire with fire, he gets burned badly. This part of Peter's confrontation with evil is rather simple, but of course it gets much more complicated fairly quickly, and further re-tellings make things even more interesting.

So this boon to Humanity isn't the idea of obtaining strange powers from a radioactive spider, or even a guy who can climb walls and whatever else -- it's Peter's decision to be responsible for what is within his power to change for the better. That's hardly a head-scratcher when someone shows you where and how to look. (I should. P:D )