Ask someone to name a hero depicted in modern movies, television, books, or stories, and it won’t take long for them to rattle off a handful or two. Perhaps they’ll name Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Hercules, or Neo.
Chances are, the hero they name will have followed the classic Hero’s Journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. This timeless model of transformation follows the hero from his departure from normal life out into the world where he must face challenges, find a mentor, awaken his gifts, and, having conquered an enemy or evil force, return gloriously home to claim his rightful place.
But then, ask that person to name a heroine, and they might take a beat or two longer. If they do come up with a name, chances are good they’ll name a female character who embarked on a Hero’s Journey of her own, such as Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games series or Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones. But a true Heroine’s Journey is something else entirely.
The Heroine’s Journey for Every Gender
Maureen Murdock wrote The Heroine’s Journey in 1970 to, as she said, “describe an alternative to the stereotypical ego-driven masculine Hero’s Journey admired in mainstream culture.”
Rather than a journey of conquering and claiming one’s way to glory, the Heroine’s Journey often starts with a fall from grace and a realization that the true self is not found in the outer journey of achievements and accolades, but in the inner journey of developing wisdom and awareness.
Importantly, it is not a journey that can only be undergone by women. Just as women can undertake a classic Hero’s Journey, men can—and ought to—explore the Heroine’s Journey. Remember that the terms “hero” and “heroine” are archetypes of the masculine and feminine, which every human being inhabits to various degrees and are not indications of gender.
The Framework of the Heroine’s Journey
Unlike the Hero’s Journey, which is linear and has a clearly defined beginning and end, the Heroine’s Journey is circular, indicating that this journey is always in process. While there are very few popular movies or shows that honestly depict the Heroine’s Journey, Disney’s Brave comes close, so I’ll use that story to highlight the following stages of the heroine, as well as offer some examples from real life.
Here is a condensed model of the Heroine’s Journey.
Separation From the Feminine and Alignment/Identification With the Masculine
This step on the journey is marked by a period in which the heroine rejects everything that has to do with the feminine and instead claims traits and a path more typically masculine. In Brave, this is symbolized by Merida ripping a tapestry of her family, creating a split between her mother and herself as she rejects the path her mother wants for her. The rift is further increased when Merida finds a witch willing to put a spell on her mother, which transforms Merida’s mother into a bear. In our lives, this is the “push off” period for many young daughters against their mothers. As painful as this is for mothers (I can attest), this is a critical stage in their daughters’ discovery of who they really are.
Road of Trials
Similar to the Hero’s Journey, our heroine must face trials. In Brave, Merida and her mother face many of these trials together in which they must find new ways to communicate (since Merida doesn’t speak bear!) and cooperate. This is a distinguishing feature from the Hero’s Journey, in which the hero focuses on developing independence and leadership. In our real world, these trials for the Heroine’s Journey tend to be more internal than external and often have to do with our relationship to ourselves and cultivating a new depth of self-love. And the heroine is not facing ogres and monsters but inner demons, such as guilt, shame, expectations, regrets, lies, and shadows. Thus, the Heroine’s Journey does not require one to depart—whether that be their marriage, home, or career—in order to do the work.
Finding the Illusory Boon of Success
As the heroine rejects the feminine and identifies with the masculine, she might initially get rewarded. The heroine learns how to make it “in a man’s world,” and yet, something doesn’t feel right. For Merida, finding a witch to put a spell on her mother seems to change her fate (an impending arranged marriage). But at this stage, her goal is to force change upon her mother. Until Merida realizes that it is she herself who must change, her fate still awaits. For a real-world example, this could be a woman who has become a high-powered executive, but must begin to reckon with what, or who, she’s sacrificed to get there. She might realize that she’s adapted and molded to the very world she once vowed to change.
Descent to the Goddess
Whereas the hero seeks great heights, the heroine descends into the underworld. It is here that she finds her courage and other lost pieces of herself. For Merida, this is when she must face Mor’du, the great bear of legend, who was once a prince who sacrificed his true self for power. But she does not defeat the bear alone, which would happen in any classic hero’s tale. Rather, it takes all the clans coming together to defeat Mor’du—a symbol of healing and community that extends beyond Merida and her mother. For women in the real world, this descent to the Goddess may reveal the gifts of the feminine that they have shunned and rejected. This will create an initial longing to reconnect to the feminine both within and outside of her.
Yearning to Reconnect With the Feminine and Heal the Mother/Daughter Split
This is the return stage in the Heroine’s Journey, which is led by a strong pull to heal and put things right. Merida suddenly realizes that she must mend the great tapestry she damaged in order to save her mother and, by extension, herself. In real life, there is often a time when the daughter comes home to the mother. This might be during marriage, childbirth, or not until much later. But if this split heals, the bond between them will be much stronger and more mature than any initial infant/mother bond.
Integration of Masculine and Feminine
Finally, there is a realization that wholeness of masculine and feminine, not one over the other, is what the soul longs for. And in this wholeness, radical change can occur. For Merida and her mother, they find the strength, together, to change tradition to better honor the wishes of the feminine. No more will the daughters be forced to marry if they’re not ready. And, refreshingly, the suitors also realize that they are free to choose now as well. The lesson here: A powerful feminine does not diminish the masculine but rather frees him to find his true self, too.
The Limitations of the Hero’s Journey and the Need for a New Path
It is likely because the hero values the same things our Western society does—independence, vanquishing an enemy, claiming power—that most of us tend to believe that it is the path of the hero we must undertake if we seek transformation. But perhaps the Hero’s Journey is losing some significance in a world in which power tends to result not in benevolence and generosity, but in greed and oppression.
We need a new model—one that isn’t about claiming the world, but one that shows us how to belong to and care for the world. One that helps us heal the deep wounds within ourselves—particularly the split between the masculine and the feminine. One that seeks mystery over riches. And one that returns us not to a throne, but to our own souls.
After so many years of immersing ourselves in the story of the hero, it may be time to awaken the equally potent path of the Heroine’s Journey.
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