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The female hero’s journey, the hot mess and martyrdom.

A post by screenwriter Tony Binns on FB (I thought I’d linked to it before, but I can’t find it) argues the female hero’s journey is different from the male: “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.” Luke Skywalker rises from farmboy to Jedi, for example; Peggy Carter is tough from the beginning but she has to constantly push against men who refuse to see it.

I think there’s some truth to that, but only some. Although Brinn brings up Wonder Woman, for example, as someone fitting this template, in the comics she’s accepted as a hero almost from the start. CL Moore’s Jirel of Joiry is likewise tough and deadly from her first story, Black God’s Kiss and nobody ever thinks being a woman means she’s soft (that cover by Margaret Brundage does not do Jirel justice).

Then again, we have characters such as Batwoman or Pat Savage who get sidelined even though they’re shown to be perfectly competent. While they weren’t written with women readers in mind, I suspect plenty of women could identify with that.

But this version of the hero’s journey isn’t unique to women. The Get Smart! reboot movie, for example, is about Maxwell Smart proving he already has the skills to make it as a field agent, instead of being stuck behind a desk. The Seven Year Itch is one of several rom-coms where the protagonist’s character arc is being recognized as someone special: his wife may think he’s a henpecked nonentity but look, Marilyn Monroe is into him!

Then there’s the hot mess trope where the woman is awesome and recognized as such, but it’s undercut because she’s a screw-up in her personal life. For example, I can think of several female characters who are competent and formidable but oops, they make really bad choices in men (Black Canary in the early Birds of Prey stories, for example). I can’t think of many male characters like that: at worst it’s a matter of having made a bad choice of partner at the start of the story and finding a better one by the finish (as happens to the protagonist of Armageddon Rag).

Which Gail Z. Martin said on FB is typical of men in fiction: they can be screwups or failures and get redemption arcs while women get martyrdom arcs. A bad man or a screwup proves himself over the course of a movie: he redeems his past failures and gets a happy ending. Case in point, Clint Eastwood’s character in The Gauntlet is assigned to bodyguard a witness because his corrupt boss knows Eastwood’s a screw-up guaranteed to blow the job. Nope, Eastwood wins and gets his HEA. By contrast, a woman screw-up can only redeem herself by dying or some comparable level of self-sacrifice. Or, in the hot mess case, stay screwed up.

Like Binns, I don’t think this is a universal rule. Jennifer Connolly in Labyrinth, for example, redeems her original failure for letting the Goblin King take her brother. Angelina Jolie’s Russian mole does so in Salt. But I think there’s some truth to it.

In rom-coms the equivalent is the woman who screws up by prioritizing her career instead of her love life; to get her HEA she has to let her career die. I can’t think of a story offhand where the man’s career has to suffer. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, Cameron Diaz proves she deserves the leading man more than Julia Roberts because Diaz has postponed college and her honeymoon so her husband doesn’t have to interrupt his career.

As Gail notes in her post, this is analogous to real-world attitudes where sexual harassment a few years in your past should never affect your career.

#SFWApro. Armageddon Rag cover by David Swenson, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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Filed under Undead sexist cliches, Writing