Steampunk and the Heroine’s Journey: Part Five

The surprising impact of Steampunk novels on The Heroine’s Journey

A series by Mary Sheridan

PART 5 – CONCLUSION

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“I do not wish women to have power over men
but over themselves.”

~ Mary Shelley,

Author, “Frankenstein”

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STEAMPUNK FEMINISM

Subversion is common theme in “punk” culture. It is therefore no surprise that challenging or undermining real and fictitious tropes is a natural part of Steampunk novels. With the growing list of female genre authors writing women as protagonists and working to define them as heroines, it also comes as no surprise that Joseph Campbell’s male monomyth is a prime target.

From Gail Carriger’s “Neverending Interview”:

You’ve mentioned you deliberately set out to subvert Campbell’s hero’s myth with the Demeter Myth – can you elaborate on that?

Women in ancient myths often accomplish their quests through the building and maintaining of friendships and family groups. They use networks to complete tasks on their journey. I think it’s a cultural problem that we often view this behavior as weak. We are obsessed with the idea that in order to succeed a hero/heroine must be strong and independent and act alone. All of my heroine’s greatest strengths are in their friends and their relationships. I always try to ensure that my stories highlight this fact.

To state the obvious, women and men can respond quite differently to adversity. Steampunk tends to reflect this gender difference more than some other genres and the ancient Greek myth of the Goddess Demeter has been used by Steampunk writers to challenge traditional definitions of a heroine. Unfortunately, the man who influenced generations of modern writers on the subject of heroism, Joseph Campbell, did not see the rise of Steampunk culture in his lifetime. His thoughts on Steampunk writers inserting an ancient feminine myth into his framework for male heroes would have caused some interesting debate.

WHAT DEFINES – AND DIVIDES – HEROISM?

The Oxford World Dictionary defines a hero as: “A person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”. Before female readers raise a fist in outrage, the term heroine is likewise defined as “a woman admired for her courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”. This rare moment of equal billing from a reputable source is idealistic and its sentiments most often do not play out in real life or in fictional worlds.

Each of us has our own sense of the heroic and we choose people and characters to admire as heroes based on those highly personal criteria. Yet the standard measure for writing a heroic character has long been the model created by Campbell. It is a male monomyth because its author did not believe in heroic females. In fact, Campbell repeatedly pointed out that most female characters we think of as heroines are, in fact, not classically heroic.

STRONG WOMEN, FALSE HEROINES

Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) Paramount/Lucasfilm
Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) Paramount/Lucasfilm

In “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, for example, Marion Ravenwood out-drinks the local sherpas and swaggers around in her shabby bar with a posture and wardrobe that reflect mostly male role models. Marion survives in a remote, dangerous, patriarchal, 1930s culture by adopting a masculine stance in defence of her feminine self. She performs heroic acts and it is fair to say that the average observer views her character as an adventurous heroine. However, an interpretation of that role based on Campbell’s extensive research into history and ancient myth, demonstrates that by his widely-accepted standards she does not meet even the most basic and gender-neutral of his scholarly criteria.

Those base criteria are described in the March 2012 blog article The Heroine’s Journey: Defining Concepts. Essentially, a hero must be the central character in a tale of epic proportions and that story will have mythic cross-cultural resonance. The protagonist must have a coming of age experience, triumphing over adversity that transforms them “from ordinary to extraordinary”. A true heroine will grow through her journey and be changed forever.

A multitude of fictional characters like Marion may therefore be considered strong women – but not heroines. Marion initially follows the “masculine female” trope, an archaic fictional stereotype in which independent women adopt male characteristics in order to be considered strong. Clearly, she is intended as a female ally for the redoubtable Indiana Jones, and when Marion sheds her masculine exterior she reveals herself to be spirited, independent, feminine, and vulnerable. Unfortunately, she gives up those masculine affectations only to become a different trope, the “damsel in distress”, because more than once, Marion requires a rescue by male protagonist Jones.

Campbell’s heroic framework has moved in and out of literary favor but is still very much considered a valid model. The most contentious issue is his obvious gender bias. If we are to build a defining fictional context for heroines to parallel his Hero’s Journey, then female characters must be more than strong. Women as protagonists cannot simply meet the male monomyth’s baseline criteria. Campbell’s broader, seventeen-point framework describing the Hero’s Journey must accommodate female attributes that objectively describe a woman’s passage to heroism.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: RESEARCH AND REALITY

As discussed throughout this series, fiction mirrors reality through every author’s personal lens. The timeframe of the Indiana Jones movies were years of loss and instability in a male-dominated world, with massive problems like the Great Depression and World War II. These were also the days when Campbell was a young student in his thirties. It is reasonable to consider that his personal experience and definition of gender roles were influenced by the difficult real world in which he lived, and resulting attitudes would have impacted his work.

Joseph Campbell was a highly respected scholar and lecturer, but neither he nor his theories were perfect. Until perhaps the early post-Victorian era and the growth of women’s suffrage, the social standard for a woman’s role was at the heart of home and family – mother, nurturer, caretaker – an antiquated and rather pastoral view that Campbell quite fervently believed was ideal. His study of religious and mythical symbols served to strengthen his admiration for the female biological role which was supported by social norms for most of his lifetime. To Campbell, “the virgin birth” was a metaphor for the birth of the human spirit and compassion – a view expressed during his famous Skywalker Ranch interviews with Bill Moyers.

Campbell’s reverence for a woman’s place as homemaker, wife, and mother-nurturer, represented the common view as it was throughout time. As previously noted in Defining Concepts, he always looked back on tradition, not forward into the future. To Campbell, this was the correct social order: traditional roles, well-established and quite unassailable. Even when women’s roles began to change drastically in the years just prior to his death, Campbell acknowledged the shift but treated women’s aspirations with disdain. [“Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine” (2013). Collected lectures and workshops from Joseph Campbell’s personal archives. Joseph Campbell Foundation (New World Library, NY).]

SUPERWOMAN SYNDROME: QUESTIONING CAMPBELL

In the 1970s and 80s, women expressed unhappiness and frustration over the pressures of trying to “have it all”. Psychotherapist and author Maureen Murdock recognized this emerging trend and wrote a psychological analysis of this societal problem in her 1990 book, The Heroine’s Journey.

The therapist reports hearing:

“…the resounding cry of dissatisfaction with successes won in the marketplace…These women have embraced the stereotypical male heroic journey and have attained academic, artistic, or financial success; yet for many the question remains, ‘What is all of this for?’”

Murdock resolved that these women were in pain because “[they] chose to follow a model that denies who they are”, openly referring to Campbell’s male monomyth.

Women were losing themselves in pursuit of historically masculine quests for power, money, and professional stature. In addition, they were expected to simultaneously maintain their original role as homemakers. This placed tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of women to build a modern myth of a “perfect” life, and earned the name “Superwoman syndrome”. Clearly, such efforts were unsustainable. Men retained the balance of societal power and women’s frustration began to blossom into capital “F” Feminism.

Murdock was eager to speak with Joseph Campbell as she began to write her “Heroine’s Journey” book. She hoped to compare her ideas for a female quest with Campbell’s theories on myth, religion, and the path to heroism:

“I wanted to hear Campbell’s views. I was surprised when he responded that women don’t need to make the journey: ‘In the whole mythological tradition the woman is there All she has to do is to realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to. When a woman realizes what her wonderful character is, she’s not going to get messed up with the notion of being pseudo-male.’

“This answer stunned me. I found it deeply unsatisfying. The women I know and work with do not want to be there, the place that people are trying to get to…They do not want to be handmaidens of the dominant male culture, giving service to the gods. They do not want to follow the advice of fundamentalist(s) and return to the home. They need a new model that understands who and what a woman is.”

Murdock’s book has remained in print since 1990. Although much of the content is dated and some of it quite irrelevant after a quarter-century of social change, Murdock presented an early challenge to Campbell’s dismissive attitude toward women making mythic quests and some of her insights into the scholar’s thoughts are still worth noting. In the book’s conclusion, she predicted some aspects of the nature of women on a heroic journey:

“We are a pilgrim people; we are on a journey together
to learn how to honor and preserve the dignity of all life forms
seen and unseen, therein lies our heroic power.”

~ Maureen Murdock
“The Heroine’s Journey” (1990)

CAMPBELL AND THE DEMETER MYTH

“Many of the difficulties that women face today follow from the fact that they are moving into a field of action in the world that was formerly reserved for the male and for which there are no female mythological models.”

~ Joseph Campbell, from an archived lecture in “On the Great Goddess” (2013)

By refusing the idea of a Heroine’s Journey, Joseph Campbell denied, among other things, the potential for a woman to grow beyond her biological functions – to develop her humanity from ordinary to extraordinary. He also denied the importance and relevance of one of the best-known ancient Greek myths: the tale of Goddess Demeter (“the grain mother”) and her daughter, Persephone. In fact, it is the “Demeter myth” that seems to mark the end of Campbell’s interest in the female story.

During the extensive Moyers interviews, Campbell said:

“The human woman gives birth just as the earth gives birth to the plants…so woman magic and earth magic are the same. They are related. And the personification of the energy that gives birth to forms and nourishes forms is properly female. It is in the agricultural world of ancient Mesopotamia, the Egyptian Nile, and in the earlier planting-culture systems that the Goddess is the dominant mythic form.”

This description of women as agrarians, homemakers, and child-bearers is very close to the description of Goddess Demeter’s immortal role:

Demeter is the goddess of corn, grain, and the harvest…It is Demeter that makes the crops grow each year. The first loaf of bread from the harvest is sacrificed to her. Demeter is the goddess of the earth, of agriculture, and of fertility in general.

Campbell valued women in traditional roles so deeply that he persisted in discouraging suggestions of gender evolution.

INTERPRETING THE DEMETER MYTH THROUGH CAMPBELL’S FRAMEWORK

Campbell embraced the powers of Goddess Demeter for his summary model of women and yet it appears that he simply refused to entertain that myth in heroic terms. Where he ended the female story by using the description of Demeter as Goddess, women authors – notably Steampunk writers such as Gail Carriger – consider the Demeter myth in its entirety for their own quest to realize a Heroine’s Journey.

The seventeen-stage framework for the male monomyth was intended as interpretive and not all journeys were expected to pass through each sequential stage. The primary constant was Campbell’s gender bias. He allowed that the outcome of a heroic quest can be good or bad and therefore it would seem to follow that the quest itself could include a story spectrum ranging from victory to tragedy. This opens the door for even a sad myth like Demeter’s to be considered a heroic journey.

The tale of Demeter and Persephone easily passes the Bechdel test, and represents so much more than two agrarian goddesses. Demeter made an epic journey to save her daughter Persephone after the girl was violently abducted by Hades. Campbell may have devalued the tale because of Demeter’s feminine thinking and strategies lacked heroism, or perhaps because her search did not include classically heroic battles with adversaries. Yet, for example, Demeter sought Persephone for nine days and nights without food or sleep – an undeniable show of strength, courage, and will. Perhaps because Campbell himself could not possibly know the female experience, he did not understand that heroism manifests differently for women, that female myths do exist, or that he studied them without accepting their full import.

In an Appendix to this article is a chart showing the Demeter-Persephone myth told through Campbell’s framework. Also included are brief descriptions of the ways in which their story can be interpreted using the Hero’s Journey criteria.

HEROISM IN WOMEN

What are the qualities seen most often in female heroines? What makes their journeys different from those of men?

The following list is by no means definitive and there are obvious commonalities – methods, attributes, and motivations shared by both genders – but there may be significant differences in the value placed upon these qualities by men and women. There are many other possibilities but this short list contains suggested traits that are important to mythic heroines.

  • Care for others: compassion, empathy, sympathy, passionate defence
  • Strong bonds: with family, with other women, formation of strong communities
  • Self-sacrifice: for the benefit of those in their caring circle and the greater good
  • Compromise: negotiation, conciliation, adaptation to and acceptance of change
  • Stealth, deceit, trickery, concealment: in the quest for their goal, the greater good

Some physically strong women – the “kickass” fictional heroines – will meet a fight very much as their male counterparts would, but that does not redefine them as male. Plus many other different approaches to battle scenarios exist. For example, the physical component can feature endurance rather than brute strength. While a hero’s choice may include beheading a massive dragon with a modest sword, a heroine might recognize that she cannot confront the beast on the basis of her size and overall physicality. Instead, she may seek a path around the dragon, or look for an opportunistic advantage, in order to fight – and win. A heroic figure of either sex knows their limitations but also what they do well, and uses both intelligently.

Demeter Myth

ADVANTAGE: STEAMPUNK

A Heroine’s Journey can be written in any style of fiction but the speculative genre of Steampunk has two elements in its favor: temporal alchemy and the built-in aspect of character transformation. With time a very fluid commodity, plus a multitude of change-ups among larger-than-life characters, events, and stories, Steampunk creates unusual potential for new myth.

It can be argued that the same imaginative opportunities exist across every category of fiction, from romance to horror to tales of the Wild West. Yet once again, Steampunk benefits from the popularity of genre fusion in its novels (Steampunk-Vampirism, Steampunk-Western, Steampunk-Romance). What is possible in any genre very likely already exists somewhere in the Steampunk universe.

Previous Hero’s Journey blogs have told us that Campbell’s exhaustive research focused on humanity’s sexist past with little or no consideration for women’s evolution into contemporary life. The limitations of his point of view are in stark contrast to the openness of Steampunk fiction where, as many writers and readers have said, “authors can do anything with any characters in whatever time period they want”, as long as they retain Victorian ethics or esthetic in some way. The stories tend to be epic in nature – some, like Marissa Meyer’s “Lunar Chronicles” series, retell multiple fairy tales, mixed together in a dystopian universe that spans from the Earth to the Moon and addresses issues from the original tales (wicked stepsisters) to real life (bullying). In addition, Meyer’s heroine comes of age in reverse as she seeks to define who she is by discovering her hidden past.

Diverse, multi-or-cross-cultural tales like Meyer’s Lunar series are growing in number. Women writers in particular are crafting strong female protagonists and while they do not always meet all of Campbell’s heroic criteria, it is fair to say that they are more often mythic in nature than typical genre tropes. Many of Steampunk’s female leads easily deserve the description “extraordinary”, and often through a series of novels, will grow and be changed through their experiences.

Steampunk continues to be challenged by some specific Campbell criteria such as the coming of age story – a large number of novels do not follow the heroine from a young age into maturity which is typically when a “coming of age” arc occurs. But the development of a Heroine’s Journey is a process, and over time, what began as a movement involving a few authors can eventually realize its unlimited potential. The important message is that, in Steampunk fiction, the female myth is showing signs of life.

GENRE AUTHORS: PRIMARY ARCHITECTS OF THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY

It is fitting for women authors to be at the forefront of developing the feminine myth. Ursula LeGuin is a hugely successful writer of Science Fiction. Likewise, Margaret Atwood is famous for writing what LeGuin considers to be SciFi. Atwood herself refuses that assertion, insisting that her books are Speculative Fiction which, as she has recently debated with LeGuin, is a very distinct genre.

It is certainly notable that people are listening to and commenting, sometimes at length, on a discussion between two world-renowned women. Yet it means so much more that female authors of their stature are publicly deliberating how to define Speculative and Science Fiction – two genres specific to library stacks that were historically reserved primarily for men. This is a remarkable indicator of social and literary change.

An increasingly supportive and vocal community of writers, readers, and scholars is beginning to touch the heart of feminine legend. In their thoughts about the ways in which the female leader or warrior fundamentally differs from a traditional male hero, they confirm that gendered myths stand shoulder-to-shoulder beside each other. Their heroic journeys are separate but parallel because each gender brings unique and extraordinary abilities to a quest.

Hundreds of contemporary genre fiction authors are breathing life into robust characters not only in mainstream publishing, but also through burgeoning small press and independent markets. Gail Carriger, Cherie Priest, and Elaterina Sedia are among the foremost women creators of Steampunk fiction, each with different paths into the industry. They are also among the outspoken authors who have invoked the Demeter myth when discussing plans to make the Heroine’s Journey a reality. They are contemporary writers, very conscious of the traditional view of women as homemakers and mothers, a centuries-old cultural wisdom that is familiar to women around the world. And yet they know that, as in real life, women in fiction must evolve.

STEAMPUNK FICTION: CATALYST FOR CHANGE

We have emphasized that fiction and current events often reflect each other, and as well, the nature of Steampunk fiction is currently well-suited to attracting female authors

passionate about writing strong women protagonists on heroic trajectories. It is reasonable to predict that these new Heroine’s Journeys will both mirror the modern lives of women and differentiate themselves from the male myth – just as Joseph Campbell’s male monomyth was, at least in part, suggestive of the world in his lifetime.

In addition, Steampunk’s echoing of real world feminist issues heightens the genre’s importance (e.g., the promotion of education in the sciences for girls [STEM or STEAM careers], bringing past injustices to light, showing ways to handle adversity). Young women reading fiction about a female computing expert in the 1930s will gain a broader perspective for living. This may be the most important reason that a Heroine’s Journey is necessary. The future will change regardless of whether a female model is created, but the existence of heroic feminine fiction can help women everywhere to imagine new destinies – not merely exist as if their goals are already fulfilled as Joseph Campbell so often suggested.

VALIDATING THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY

Through the unique visions in Steampunk fiction, and with a nod to its burgeoning alternative culture, women are loosening their corsets; refusing to be confined to uncomfortable, ill-fitting garments that were selected for them, but not by them, despite the fact that the power to choose has always been theirs. More writers need to engage in the telling of heroic stories to encourage choice and support a new feminine myth.

The Heroine’s Journey must become a literary paradigm around the world.

As it grows and is repeated in more works of fiction, with variations in detail but an intact common framework, new archetypes will gain acceptance and broader societal changes will have the chance to follow. Development of a female myth is a beginning – an act that opens doors to disprove not only gender bias but negative ideas of cultural diversity and all matters of discrimination.

In Steampunk, women authors and their feminine protagonists are rising to new standards of heroism.

The time for discussion is over. The writing has begun.


Mary Sheridan is a former ER and Trauma nurse with a life-long passion for real and imagined adventure, often on horseback. She is an original fangirl and self-described Ancient Geek with interests in a wide range of fandoms.

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One thought on “Steampunk and the Heroine’s Journey: Part Five

  • December 3, 2014 at 9:07 am
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    The validity of Campbell’s work was shown in the OT, for Leia is the Heroine of the story. Luke and Han are heros, do heroic deeds, but the wider story is one of the re-establishment & triumph of what the Heroine embodies.

    This is why Leia’s heroic deeds are not neccessary to be in a competative form with the heroes, for the Heroine’s power is in embodiment. All the big moments in the OT were relative to this. More over this is what was lost in the story of the PT, by the Jedi for the most part, as Padme’s sub-plots relating to this area were largely cut out of the films themselves. This also shows that the Heroine, or Hero roles, are not neccessarily gender specific for the myth, & that this specificness is as Campbell showed, historical in nature. The language of the form is historical for a reason, & that has usually been the traditional male centric, but the meaning of the form itself is both dual roles of Hero & Heroine truths in connotation.

    I think Campbell may have been wary of mixing up heroic deeds with Heroine power essentially, for they are two different functions in the myth form and to do so, is to step out of that form.

    ‘And the personification of the energy that gives birth to forms and nourishes forms is properly female.’

    In the Star Wars saga myth trajectory as is, the Heroine form has this left to achieve, via the greater magic external counterpart of it’s environment, for star wars that being the galaxy and stars. That is in some form or another, always the empire of the Heroine in myths, & the through line for that in Star Wars saga terms, would be Leia.

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