Three “Best Picture” Films That Subvert Conventional Journey Arcs

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


Now that over one third of the world has been ordered to stay at home unless they are working in essential services, people are watching a lot of movies. So, we thought this would be a good time to update the Heroine’s Journey Project Drama and Film page and to offer our thoughts on three recent Academy Award winning films, Moonlight, The Shape of Water, and Parasite, that challenge conventional journey arcs.

The 2016 Best Picture winner is a three-part coming-of-age drama about Chiron, an African American boy in Miami, Florida who wrestles with bullying over his sexuality and with a pervasive drug culture neighborhood. Chiron in Part I of Moonlight

 

In Part 1, a Cuban drug dealer finds Chiron, who has been dubbed “Little,” hiding from a group of bullies in a crack house. The drug dealer, Juan, takes Chiron to his own house where he and Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, make up a spare bed for Chiron.  When Juan returns Chiron to his mother the next morning, Chiron’s mother, Paula, punishes the boy for worrying her although she is an addict and often out later herself. Juan and Chiron continue to spend time with each other and Juan teaches Chiron how to swim. When Juan sees Paula smoking crack with one of his customers, he berates her for being addicted and neglecting her son.  Paula lashes back at Juan for having sold her crack in the first place. She suggests she knows why Chiron is bullied by his peers, saying he walks like a girl. The next day Chiron tells Juan and Teresa that he hates his mother and asks what “faggot” means. In a surprising departure from machismo, Juan describes it as “a word used to make gay people feel bad.” He tell Chiron that it’s okay to be gay and that he shouldn’t let others bother him. Chiron asks Juan whether he’s really a drug dealer and leaves when Juan answers truthfully.  In short, in Part I, the film evokes and shatters masculine stereotypes, mixing objectification (Juan vis a vis his customers) with sympathy (for Chiron), indifference (Juan’s attitude as a crack dealer) with tenderness (for Chiron and Teresa), denial and bravado (in drug dealing scenes) with perspective and sociological imagination (Juan on the beach with Chiron).

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In Part II of the film, the plot seesaws between increasing cruelty and powerless good intentions. Juan has died and the teen-aged Chiron spends his time trying to escape bullying at school and with Juan’s nurturing former girlfriend, Teresa. Chiron’s mother’s crack addiction progresses and she more openly abuses Chiron, begging and threatening him for money for a fix.  A classmate, Kevin, is Chiron’s only friend. One night Kevin sees Chiron at the beach, and they smoke a joint let down their defenses, talk, and then kiss. Kevin masturbates a shy Chiron. The next day the leader of the school bullies threatens Chiron, and Kevin is manipulated into punching Chiron, believing that this will save Chiron from a worse fate. When Chiron refuses to surrender to Kevin’s punching the gang beats up Kevin. The next day an enraged Chiron smashes a chair over the bully’s head. The police arrive, and Chiron is sent to a juvenile hall. Rather than meeting and succeeding at increasing difficult obstacles as would happen in a hero’s journey, Chiron is caught in  downward spiral in which neither he, nor sympathetic others, can protect him.

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In Part III, machismo faces off against emotional connection and reality. Chiron, now a much larger, muscular adult, goes by the nickname of “Black.” After being released from prison, he becomes a drug dealer in Atlanta.  His mother, much the worse for wear, now lives in a treatment center. One day he receives a call from his old friend Kevin who invites him to visit if Chiron is ever in Miami.  Chiron visits his mother and tells her he is dealing drugs. His mother expresses regret and apologizes for not loving him when he needed it most and tells him she loves him even if he does not love her back. Later Chiron drives to Miami to visit Kevin, who now works as a cook at a diner. Kevin tells him he has a child by an ex-girlfriend and although the relationship is over, he enjoys acting as a father. When Kevin asks him about his life, Chiron is silent. Chiron asks Kevin why he called and Kevin plays a song on the juke box that he says reminds him of Chiron. After Kevin serves him dinner, they return to Kevin’s apartment.  Kevin tells Chiron he is happy although his life didn’t turn out as he had thought. Chiron then breaks down and admits that he hasn’t been intimate with anybody since their encounter years earlier. Kevin comforts him and they embrace. Although the could suggest a happy ending, the film rejects the easy ending. Instead, the film closes with a flashback of young Chrion standing, alone, on a beach looking at the ocean where Juan taught him to swim, and where, later, he and Kevin would kiss. The beach may signify that it is still possible for Chiron to choose again, to envision a different future, but he is standing alone. There’s no suggestion that such change would be glamorous, quick, or easy.

 

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Shape of Water, the 2017 Best Picture winner, is a dark fantasy about a mute young female cleaner, Elisa Esposito, who works at a high security government laboratory where she falls in love with a humanoid-like amphibian creature.

Elisa, who was found abandoned by the side of a river with wounds on her neck as a child, communicates through sign language. In the laboratory she begins to visit the Amphibian Man and non-verbally communicates with him. When she learns that his keepers (an American researcher and a Soviet spy posing as a researcher) plan to harm the Amphibian Man, she persuades her next door neighbor to help her save the creature. They plan to release him back into the ocean, but Elisa must bring him to her apartment until it rains and the canal that leads to the ocean is open. Various complications and a somewhat bizarre sex scene (unless one views the film as metaphor) ensue, and viewers discover that the Amphibian Man has magical healing powers. The laboratory researchers discover the Amphibian man is missing and chase Elisa and her neighbor to the canal where they are about to release the Amphibian Man. The lab researchers shoot the Amphibian Man and Elisa, but he is able to heal himself in time to slash the shooter’s throat and jump into the canal with Elisa. Underwater, the scars on Elisa’s neck open to gills, and Elisa and the Amphibian Man embrace.

In the voice-over narration, the next door neighbor states that he believes Elisa and the Amphibian Man lived “happily ever after in love.” Because the neighbor can’t really know what happens after Elisa and the creature sink into the ocean,  the story can be interpreted as a hero’s journey in which two misfits find themselves and have a “happily-ever-after” conclusion, or as Elisa dying while trying to save a “creature” that will never be accepted in the world, or as Elisa and the creature attempting to flee (successfully or unsuccessfully) a world into which they will never fit. As a fairy tale, The Shape of Water follows the conventional hero’s journey arc. To the extent that one views the film as metaphor, the story can also be interpreted as a heroine’s journey metaphor in which Elisa is pursuing wholeness whether one interprets the Amphibian Man as an aspect of Elisa (and following Maureen Murdock’s heroine’s journey arc) or as a separate outcast who supports rebirth of Elisa’s true full creature self (Victoria’s Schmidt’s heroine’s journey arc).

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Parasite, the 2019 winner and first non-English language film to win Best Picture, is a dark “thriller” directed by Bong Joon-ho (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Han Jin-won).  The movie follows the lives of a poor South Korean family of four, the Kim Family, who live in a small basement apartment and are trying to survive on low-paying temporary jobs. A friend of the twentyish- year-old son, Ki-woo, suggests that Ki-woo take over his job as an English tutor for the daughter of the rich Park family.  Once he is hired as tutor, Ki-woo sees additional opportunities that could come from working for the Parks. He helps his sister, Ki-jeong, pose as an art therapist to secure a job as counselor for the Parks’ hyper-active son. Ki-jeong then gets the Parks’ chauffeur fired, and the Kims’ father takes over as the new chauffeur. They then get Parks’ housekeeper’ fired, and the mother becomes the new housekeeper. Although the Kims’ rise in fortune looks something like a Hero’s journey and they sporadically see themselves in that light, the father continually disavows any plan or vision of sustained success.

Sure enough, when the Parks go on a camping trip and the Kim family assembles in the Park’s home to revel in the luxuries of the mansion, the former housekeeper returns and reveals that her husband has been living in a secret bunker below the house built by the prior owner. The original housekeeper and her husband’s deception are eerily similar to the the Kims’ who keep their own family basement living arrangements a secret from the Parks. After bad weather disrupts the camping trip, the Parks return home early and a melee breaks out in the Parks’ house. After several more plot turns in which a member of the Parks family, the Kim family, and the original staff’s family are killed, the movie ends in the Kims’ basement apartment where the son, Ki-woo, is writing a letter to his father, vowing to earn enough money to purchase the Park’s house, set him free, and reunite the family. Although the actor who played Ki-woo has suggested in interviews that he believes this could happen,images

Parasite’s director has stated that he believes Ki-woo’s dream is only a fantasy and that the story’s characters end up where they started.  Each family is “parasitically” dependent on the other as they focus on getting ahead; each family loses some of its members but gets nowhere. There is no economic/class journey arc because both families end up where they started (minus a member) and no one seems the wiser for having lived their story. The beauty of Parasite, is that it takes our natural (or at least conventional) inclination to expect that the story will become a Hero’s Journey (underdog wins) or a cathartic Tragedy (greedy characters get what they deserve) and teases and then frustrates our expectations while provoking us to reckon with class inelasticity both literally and metaphorically.

Although the majority of the winning films follow the Hero’s Journey pattern, there has been a significant increase in Heroine Journey films in recent years. More recently, film makers have also gravitated toward making movies that involve ambiguous journeys (The Shape of Water) or resist concluding a journey arc (Moonlight and Parasite). We believe this trend is based on an increasing recognition of the complexity of an interconnected global world and the legitimacy of multiple perspectives. We’d love to hear from our blog readers on what films you have been watching that follow a Heroine’s Journey, include multiple journeys, or provide variations on a journey arc as a meta-statement on the content of the movie.

Harriet Tubman’s Storied Journeys

written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson


Araminta “Minty” Ross, born into slavery in 1820, flees her plantation in Dorchester, Maryland and somehow manages to make her way 100 miles on foot to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she takes the free name that we know her by today—Harriet Tubman. 

Tubman’s life as an agent for the Underground Railroad is the subject of the Academy Award nominated movie, Harriet, and she also has a key role in Ta -Nehisi Coates’ novel, The Water Dancer, which tells the story of a young man with a similar background and talent who also becomes an agent for the Underground Railroad.harrietdirector

Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Cynthia Erivo, tells Tubman’s life story as a fairly classic Hero’s Journey. As a girl and young woman, Minty Ross watches several of her sisters being sold to far away slave owners and being taken from her and the rest of her family. She marries a free African American, John Tubman, and obtains legal documents that confirm that her mother’s previous owner granted her children freedom—only to have her current plantation owner rip up the documents. Cynthia Eviro as Harriet TubmanUnable to bear a lifetime of enslavement, she flees north on foot (leaving her husband behind because she does not want to endanger his free status) and makes it to Philadelphia, a “free” state. Tubman joins the Underground Railroad and repeatedly risks her life to bring hundreds of black slaves to freedom even after her former owner places a large bounty on her head. Her ability to guide so many runaway slaves to freedom earns her the nickname, “Moses.” How does an actual person, rather than a mythical god or cartoon character pull this off?harriet-1563893309

 

Although the movie focuses almost exclusively on Tubman’s near magical successes, it provides a few hints on how a real person could become Harriet Tubman. When Tubman returns to Maryland after becoming a free woman, she discovers that her husband had presumed her dead and is now wed to another woman who is pregnant with his child. Tubman leaves him to his new family and now, single and childless, can take life-threatening risks without being psychologically torn apart by conflicting maternal loyalties and obligations. From the time that she gives up on her husband and marriage, Tubman is portrayed as being more devoted to freeing slaves than to personal relationships. 

Tubman is also depicted as having extraordinarily strong faith and intuition that manifests as spiritual visions and premonitions that forewarn her of imminent danger. Although the exact nature and origin of her visions is not explained (she is religious and also had a severe head injury as an adolescent), they seem to have given Tubman a combination of intuition and decisiveness that led others to trust her in the face of formidable odds. In the movie, her former master’s mother declares that she wants Harriet caught so she can be burned alive at the stake, “like Joan of Arc”—another well-known vision-driven crusader. HarrietFeat

A final element that may explain Tubman’s intense focus is suggested in a short scene in which Tubman is shown in a stately Philadelphia home, crying while working as a domestic alongside another maid who looks at her quizzically. It’s not hard to imagine that, having risked her life multiple times and survived a perilous solo escape to Pennsylvania, Tubman would not be satisfied with a “free” life of making beds for a wealthy white family. But what can an illiterate runaway slave without any family do?  Tubman decides to become a freedom fighter.

At the end of the movie we are told that Tubman went on to become a spy for the Union Army and the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. In her later years, she worked for women’s suffrage and started a rest home for former slaves. She lived to be ninety-one.

Harriet TubmanAlthough the movie follows a Hero’s Journey narrative arc, I suspect that Tubman’s lived experience was at least as much a heroine’s journey  as hero’s journey. Her headaches, trances and visions were likely the result of the severe head injury she suffered when a slave owner threw a metal weight at another slave and hit her by mistake. She suffered from epileptic-like seizures and hypersomnia—the inability to maintain normal consciousness during waking hours—for most of her adult life. Perhaps the adrenaline produced by being in terrific danger played a role in helping her feel alive and engaged after her head injury.

PBLA2A-00003Tubman was periodically recognized for her contributions to the Underground Railroad and the Civil War as a spy, nurse, scout, strategic advisor, and troop leader. However, she never received any pay for her work in the war and was denied veteran’s compensation for many years. After being heralded by newspapers for her work in the war, she was accosted by a train conductor while riding back to New York, where her parents lived, and was instructed to move to the less desirable smoking car. She produced government papers entitling her to ride in the car she was in and refused to move, whereupon the conductor enlisted several other passengers to help him force her to move, breaking her arm in the process. Most of her life, Tubman was penniless or nearly so, and what money she had was often spent providing food to the boarders who had even less than she did.

The movie, Harriet, depicts many of the amazing feats this determined woman accomplished. I look forward to another telling that shows the complexity of strategies Tubman used to persevere through her many challenges, hard times,  tough decisions, physical and emotional stresses, simple pleasures, and heartbreaks. I would welcome another story that depicts the myriad of ways Harriet Tubman helped herself and others who once were counted as only 3/5 people to believe and experience themselves as whole.

In Ta-Neshi Coates’ novel, The Water Dancer, The Water Dancerprotagonist Hiram Walker is portrayed as a male soul-kin to Harriet Tubman. Both were born slaves and both have similar talents for feats of miraculous transportation. In the magical realism of the novel, this talent is referred to as “conduction”—the ability to move people “magically” from one place to another based on the strength of the conductor’s desire and memory. Coates portrays Tubman as a mythical figure who appears and disappears and reappears at important moments. Hiram Walker, her psychic kin, is much more humanized and his story allows Coates to explore the psychological implications of post-freedom identity and purpose. Walker, too, becomes a daring agent for the Underground Railroad and much of the book leans toward a hero’s journey until he must confront how to integrate his family and community ties into his quest to fight slavery and re-connect families separated by it. I believe The Water Dancer is ultimately more of a heroine’s journey than a hero’s journey.

And, of course, the struggle continues.unnamed

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Water Dancer


Where the Story Ends

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson. 


One of the questions we are most frequently asked by our readers and workshop participants is “How do you know where a story ends?”

Where to end a story is one of the most important decisions a storyteller makes. A story ends when a central character finds what they are looking for—even if it wasn’t what they thought they set out to find—or finds what they didn’t know they were looking for.

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Where and how a teller ends (and begins) a story frequently determines whether the story is a hero’s journey, heroine’s journey, or other journey story. The ending can be even more important than the nature of the events being described. For example, if you tell the story of Joan of Arc and end with her leading the French to an unlikely victory over the English at Orleans, the story would likely be a hero’s journey. If the story then continues through her capture and trial for witchcraft—depending on the perspective—it could be a hero’s journey (Joan as martyr) or a heroine’s journey (Joan seeking understanding and serenity in the face of a rigged trial). If the storyteller then reflects on Joan’s life and meaning from the present day, the story could be a hero’s journey characterizing Joan as an inspiring icon to generations of women and the French following her death. It could also be a heroine’s journey that reflects on recent theories regarding Joan’s mental health, or on the differences in how passionate male and female leaders are treated. Or it could be a Journey of Integrity, in which the narrator reflects on Joan’s decision-making process through the lens of victory, defeat, and the years since her death.

The Hero’s Journey ends when the hero finds success or the ultimate boon. He has achieved his goal, returns to his society, and/or is recognized by his peers as having achieved success. The hero is a master of two worlds—the inner world which makes him a good leader/hero and the outer world which allows him to be a leader or proclaims him a hero.

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The hero’s journey also ends with the implication that the hero’s success won’t be snatched away any time soon. It’s a kind of happily-ever after ending. If a sequel is anticipated, perhaps the hero’s success will lead to other complications that provide the chance for a new hero’s journey, but the success won’t be undone—at least not for that hero. If the success is undone, the former hero tends to become a supporting character (no longer the main character). They may become a wise elder or a mentor who urges the hero of the next generation to reclaim, recapture, or make additional progress on a larger problem that wasn’t anticipated when the first success was achieved.

In a hero’s journey, there is always the sense that success is right around the corner. Their journey is not envisioned as a long, imperfect struggle that will continue forever. The hero’s agency—his or her ability to bring about change—is central to the hero’s journey arc, so the journey usually ends shortly after the hero accomplishes their final feat and/or their victory/ability is hailed by others.

In a heroine’s journey, the story ends when the heroine recognizes and experiences wholeness. Life includes both success and failure, vulnerability and ability, self and others, and a larger world. The heroine’s self is not necessarily dominant or foregrounded, even over long periods of time. The heroine’s final goal is not to defeat or dismiss vulnerability, or failure, or sadness, or pain, or self, or others. Their goal is to integrate and value all these as necessary and valuable aspects of the human experience. It is rare that this experience of wholeness is solely an internal realization; a non-dual world is also manifested in the events of the story. It may be tempting to try to view wholeness as a resolution to a story in which the unpleasant aspects of life are part of the past but not the present, or new understanding will eliminate future suffering—but that is a hero’s journey.

Several of our readers have wondered if the heroine’s journey is more depressing than a hero’s journey. Many heroine journey stories have heartwarming or uplifting endings. For example, in the play about the women’s suffrage movement, I Want to Go to Jail, the story ends with a celebratory moment after a group political action. However, the main characters and the audience (which has the benefit of hindsight) understand that more action will be required before women are able to vote.National Womens' Party picketing

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Another example of a heroine’s journey that ends on a positive note is the 2018 movie, The Green Book, which tells the story of an African American pianist traveling through the American south in the early 1960’s with an Italian-American bouncer who serves as his bodyguard. The story has a heartwarming ending when the jazz pianist drives through the night so that the bodyguard can get home for Christmas. The jazz pianist is then is welcomed into their home, but it remains clear that the pervasive racism that has followed the pianist throughout his tour has been neither “solved” nor “conquered.” The odd-couple main characters have grown personally and relationally within the racist societal backdrop. The heroine’s journey doesn’t end with a sense of a “once-and-for-all” victory.

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The end of the Healing Journey revolves around forgiving the self and sometimes others for not being able to control even one thing that you feel you most need to control. In this journey, the protagonist’s rage against the wound is at the center of the story. This may also appear as the apparent unfairness of an injury/illness, or the protagonist feeling overwhelmed by the cards they have been dealt. The protagonist often tries at first to solve their dilemma with a hero’s journey approach. For example, she might imagine that if she fights her illness hard enough, she will be healed, or that if she just accepts her illness instead, the conflict within will be resolved and she will get better. The hero’s journey promises that you can get well. The heroine’s journey involves finding compassion for one’s self and others whether or not you recover. The Healing Journey usually involves a point of absolute break-down, where the injured one wants to quit, and possibly die. Then there is a moment or experience of beauty that surprises them, and allows for a shift in perspective, a shaft of light to enter their consciousness. Sometimes they give up trying to control, sometimes they give up magical thinking, sometimes they give up, giving up—the action can vary. What is important is that the protagonist forgives him/herself and an imperfect world.

A Journey of Integrity involves both the protagonist action and awareness (culminating in the moment of integrity), and also the witness/viewers’ awareness of and reflection on the meaning of the protagonist’s action. These stories may end with the protagonist returning to ordinary action in the ordinary world, but they also often jump forward in time or expand geographically so that the narrator or audience can see and comment upon the protagonist’s action within a larger context.

Readers and listeners always evaluate the meaning of a story through the lens of its ending. No story has a single, objective endpoint. As storytellers, we shape the readers’ experiences and the meaning of a story through the endings that we choose.

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In our next post we will discuss how the storyteller’s choice in where to begin a story affects the journey.

 “Gloria: A Life”: “Lead with love, low ego, high impact, and move at the speed of trust”   

By guest blogger Maureen Murdock; editorial review by Nancer Ballard and Savannah Jackson.

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Last year my partner, Bill and I went to a matinee performance of “Gloria: A Life, ” Emily Mann’s play about Gloria Steinem. The setting at the Daryl Roth Theater in lower Manhattan was arranged as if we were in a consciousness-raising group. The stage area was in the middle, carpeted with Persian rugs like Ms. Steinem’s own apartment. We, the audience, sat around the stage in bleacher-style rows covered with multi-colored pillows. Six aisles allowed for non-Gloria characters to come and go as scenes changed.  Images of Gloria’s life were projected above the stadium seating on two opposite walls. Christine Lahti, looking exactly like the feminist trailblazer in black bell-bottoms and tinted aviator glasses played Gloria.

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The first act traced Gloria’s life from small town girl taking care of her mentally ill mother in Dayton, Ohio through her rise to become an icon of the Second Wave of Feminism.  What was poignant is that Gloria became a journalist to get away from her mother and found out years later that her mother had been a newspaper journalist herself before Gloria was born. Her mother was then abandoned by her husband and became terminally depressed. Gloria realized, like so many of us who have had depressed mothers, that she ended up living her mother’s “unlived life.”

Film clips of Gloria from her time undercover as a Playboy bunny, to her early reporting on the women’s movement, to her involvement in the creation of Ms. Magazine (with many others in her living room), to images of her addressing the crowd at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D. C. appeared on the walls around us as the play evolved. Other actors played many other feminist leaders such as Florynce Kennedy and Wilma Mankiller, black and Native American leaders often left out of standard histories.

When her husband of three years died of cancer, Gloria turned to Wilma Mankiller. Wilma told Gloria a story about her own near death experience in her forties which included such a feeling of ecstasy that she didn’t want to return to the living when  given the choice. However, she did make the decision to live and assured Gloria that her husband probably was also gifted with an ecstatic release from his suffering in death.  The whole idea of death being an ecstatic experience gave me hope.

Gloria Steinem,  Image by © MARIO ANZUONI/Reuters/CorbisGloria had her own #MeToo moment before the movement was named. A New York Times editor suggested to Steinem that they “discuss her work in a hotel room this afternoon”; and in 1963, when she was sitting in a cab ride in between Gay Talese and Saul Bellow, Talese said, “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.”

Perhaps the most important part of Gloria’s coming of age was finding her voice by listening to others in consciousness-raising groups and speaking with other women. It surprised me to learn that she had a fear of public speaking and so she always invited another feminist like Florynce Kennedy or Bella Abzug with her colorful hats to share the stage with her. “Social justice movements start with people sitting in a circle,” she says in the play and that’s exactly what the second act consisted of. At the end, there was a 20-minute talking circle in which we, the audience, were invited to share our own responses to what we had seen in the play or what we had lived. The guidelines were principles enunciated by Black Lives Matter projected on the walls in big letters: “Lead with love, low ego, high impact, move at the speed of trust.”

The lights came up and the first person to raise her hand for a microphone was a 16-year old girl. I was pleased to see such a young woman present because most of the audience—almost all women and the few men—looked like survivors of the nineteen sixties. She said, “ I’m 16 and I grew up with a mother who always told me I could be anything I want to be. I appreciate the sacrifices that Gloria made for all of us and I’m really grateful to my mother for giving me the confidence that I can be anything I want to be.” Impressed by how articulate she was, we all clapped as Christine Lahti said, “There is the next Gloria Steinem!”16steinem1-articleLarge

An older woman, sitting high up in the bleachers said, “I want to tell you what it was like in the ‘60s. My husband was a student at Yale and I worked in the library to support us. There was a man who worked with me in the library and I found out that he was making more money than me. I talked to some of the other women who worked there and we went to our boss and asked for a raise. Our supervisor said, “Well, he’s a man. Someday he will have to support a family!” The woman replied, “Well, I am supporting a family. My husband is a student and I work to support us both.” (I nodded, thinking back to how I worked on a psych ward while my first husband was in law school). Having received no satisfaction from her supervisor, she went above him to one of the Deans, who eventually gave her a raise. She interrupted our applause by saying, “Wait! There’s a happy ending to that story. I got promoted and now that man works for me!” We all roared with approval.

There were a couple of men who raised their hands to speak. One man, who appeared to be in his early ‘50s, said, “I work for a company whose name is not important. I wanted to give a woman who works with me a 20% raise. I was told by the HR department (managed by a woman) that I could only give her a 10% raise. So I said, ‘Oh, I see. She’s a woman. We always pay a woman less.’ We all groaned. As he gave up the mic, he said, “She got the 20% raise. It works every time.” We hooted and hollered!

Another man, with thin graying hair, on the other side of the theater, took the mic and slowly said, “I have been crying throughout this entire performance. It touched me deeply.” We all got quiet and the woman sitting next to him put her arm around him. He continued through his tears. “I have been thinking about how oppressed I have felt throughout my entire life.” His comment surprised me.

When he spoke the word “oppressed,” I thought he was going to admit to situations in which he had oppressed women and apologize. Or that in seeing the play and identifying with women, it began to dawn on him that he had been oppressed during his life as well. But he didn’t explain how he felt oppressed and I began to feel cynical. This show was about how women have struggled against inequality and I felt that he was co-opting Gloria’s story for himself. He continued, “I’m 72 years old and I was a feminist before any other man was a feminist.” The audience sighed. I wanted to scream. How dare he claim that for himself.

Here was a man pulling on our heartstrings by comparing what he saw as his own oppression to the oppression of women we had just witnessed on stage. The principle of Low Ego had been abandoned: instead the man was inducing the audience into expressing sympathy and taking care of him.  Christine Lahti could have explained that the play wasn’t about male oppression, or called attention to the message on the wall.  She didn’t do either, at least not on this afternoon.  Instead, she fell into the trap of equating men’s and women’s circumstances by saying–with great warmth–“Thank you so much for your courage and your tears.”

He  successfully hijacked the moment.  But I am sure I wasn’t the only one who had noticed that the self-proclaimed first male feminist hadn’t grasped the concept of low ego.   And a moment is not the journey. As Gloria—A Life, Gloria Steinem herself, and many of the other speakers that day showed us, when you encounter high egos blocking the way, it’s a call to step around them–and keep moving.Gloria Steinem at Women's March, Photo by Jenny Warburg

Maureen Murdock, Ph.D. teaches memoir writing at UCLA and in Pacifica Graduate Institute’s memoir certificate program, “Writing Down the Soul.” She is the author of the best selling book The Heroine’s Journey, which delineates the feminine psycho-spiritual journey, as well as four other books: Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and MemoryFathers’ Daughters: Breaking the Ties that Bind; Spinning Inward; The Heroine’s Journey Workbook, and Blinded by Hope: My Journey through My Son’s Bipolar Illness and Addiction published under a pseudonym. Maureen Murdock b&w jpeg

You can find her blog on her website:  www.maureenmurdock.com

I Want to Go to Jail: A Heroine’s Journey Drama on Women’s Struggle for the Right to Vote

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.

Coretta Scott King

This year we’ve vowed to explore the work of activists and social action organizations and movements through the heroine’s journey lens. We believe that a heroine’s journey perspective can help activists to sustain themselves and their commitment in the face of what seems like failure or regression. We begin our examination by reviewing a new play about early 20th century U.S. women’s struggle for the vote written by Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center Resident Scholar Pam Swing and her student-scholar partner, Elizabeth Dabanka.

Suffragists Protest Against DisenfranchisementRather than focusing on a single protagonist, I Want to Go to Jail follows a group of women suffragists and their struggle for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.  The drama generally follows Maureen Murdock’s articulation of the heroine’s journey and also demonstrates how a heroine’s journey often skips forward and loops backward rather than proceeding in a single arc or cycle.

The play opens in February, 1919 at the National Woman’s Party Headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts. Since politely asking for the vote hasn’t persuaded men to enfranchise women, Suffragist Betty Gram announces that they must picket—e.g. she issues a clarion call to separate from their culturally prescribed feminine role. Several well-known and lesser known members of the National Woman’s Party voice their support—consistent with stage 2 of the Murdock  version of the journey: identification with the masculine and gathering of allies.  But I Want to Go to Jail isn’t so much about a central protagonist gathering allies, as it is about a group of individuals with distinct personalities working as a body to move the story and their shared cause forward.

In the first scene we are introduced to half a dozen characters of different ages, political experience, commitment, and concerns. They prepare to picket the U.S. President Wilson’s motorcade that is coming to Boston, knowing that they are likely to be arrested. Together, they plan for their road of trials, but of course, planning and experiencing are two different things.

The following day the women take their places outside the State House. Their demonstration has barely begun when the Boston Police Commissioner informs them that if they don’t move before the President’s motorcade arrives, they will be arrested for loitering. Their decision to remain and express their First Amendment right to demonstrate peaceably results in their being forcibly taken into custody. Suffragist Alice Paul foresees their imprisonment as a means to increase publicity and sympathy for their cause. Thus, their arrest actually appears to be a boon of success even though President Wilson doesn’t arrive until after they are arrested and are being taken to the courthouse.Alice Paul

In Act II the suffragists, triumphant at having been able to march past a line of marines holding banners, continue their unified protest in the courtroom by claiming they are all named Jane Doe and insisting on their right to go to jail rather than pay a fine for exercising their constitutional rights.  Up until this point, it seems as if the story could be a hero’s journey: women protest, gain support from the public after going to jail, and force the legislature to support a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. Indeed, we know that something like this in fact, happened. But both the play and the historical facts are more complicated.

Outside the courthouse, a journalist asks passersby how they feel about women having the right to vote. There is support and dissension.  The dissenters point to tradition and use self-righteous references to religion– the same arguments used today throughout the world to justify limiting women’s rights. Both sides claim to have moral values on their side.

Suffragist Warning AdvertisementInside the Charles Street Jail, the suffragists, who have vowed to go on a hunger strike, have been separated and housed in cold cells with buckets for  toilets. Suffragist, Betty Gram, who has been jailed before, starts to experience what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or Acute Traumatic Stress since she is again in jail), as she recalls rats dragging food from her cell during her previous time in jail as an advocate for women’s rights.  From their own cells, other suffragists call out their sympathy and support.  Others muse about how the world and their homes households are proceeding without them. Eventually, they access their strength and commitment to sisterhood by singing together.

The play then loops back for another road of trials: the father of one of the suffragists comes to bail her against her wishes. When her father threatens to turn her out of the house if she does not leave, she reluctantly puts on her suffrage sash and departs, still protesting. Another suffragist hails the jailer to complain that he isn’t delivering the packages that she knows are being sent to them. The Sheriff appears and tells Suffragist Katherine Morey that her fine has been paid by a mystery man that the women believe is is trying to undermine public sympathy for their cause.  The remaining prisoners again find a “boon of success” when they discover that they’ve received 268 telegrams from supporters and are being covered in newspapers across the country. One of the suffragists writes a letter to President Wilson calling upon him to reconnect with his prior promises to enfranchise women. When all of the suffragists except Mrs. Rosa Roewer–whose husband supports her political action– is released from jail, the released women gather outside the jail to sing to the Mrs. Rosa Roewer in their own reconnection with their sister suffragist.

In the last act of the play we learn that the last anti-vote Senator they needed to win the vote had decided to vote for the constitutional amendment, but other anti-suffrage Senators had prevented the amendment from coming to the floor for a vote. Suffragist strategist Alice Paul urges the dismayed activists to regard this as a temporary setback.  Mrs. Rosa Roewer, the last suffragist to be released from jail, points out that Susan B. Anthony worked for women’s right to vote throughout her life and died without seeing it. One of the new, young suffragists promises Mrs. Roewer that this won’t happen to her, but we know that she can’t be certain of this.  Replica of Jailhouse Door PinIn the last scene, the women hold a ceremony at a local theater to honor those who went to jail for the cause and present them with “jailhouse door pins.” It is a momentary pause and time for celebration, for the play appropriately ends with Alice Paul announcing that there is more work to be done, and a new cycle of activism must begin.

I Want to Go to Jail will be performed at Brandeis University on Saturday, February 9, 2019  during their [Bran]“Deis” Week of Social Action, and at the Massachusetts State House in Boston, MA on February 28.  Both performances are free and open to the public.  For more  information on the performance at the State House, click here. To see more about the Heroine’s Journey in contemporary literature and drama, click here.

Thanksgiving Reflections

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


Until women can visualize the sacred female, they cannot be whole and society cannot be whole. 

– Elinor Gadon

In late November in the United States, Thanksgiving is a holiday to celebrate the harvest and gratitude. Many of us also share food with people from other cultures and circumstances. The first “American” Thanksgiving was celebrated by 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans in 1621. Thanksgiving was officially declared a federal holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the American Civil War to express hope for an end in civil strife, and as a day of gratitude. Some Americans  also observe American Thanksgiving as a day of mourning to commemorate genocide against Native Americans by United States settlers.

Not surprisingly, the United States was not the first to celebrate harvest feast days.  The Canadians held October harvest feast celebrations years before the Pilgrims arrived, and the French and Spanish have been celebrating harvest feast days since at least the 16th century.  Wisdom practices such as honoring female deities connected to nature, expressing gratitude, sharing, and giving, are integral to many indigenous cultures and communities.

Regardless of your geographical location or cultural identity, the season of harvest seems appropriate time for The Heroine’s Journey Project to review some of the year’s gifts.  WP_20160823_002

We appreciate the thousands of site visitors from around the world who read our blog posts, send comments and suggestions, and ask us questions. We are grateful for the essays, plays, books, and stories sent to us by our readers. In particular we’d like to give a shout out to Jean Marie Bishop who sent us her plays about Jeanette Rankin, the first woman to hold federal office in the United States when she was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916, and Mary Dyer, an American Puritan turned Quaker who was hanged in The Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1660 for defying Puritan law banning Quakers in the colony.  We would like to give a shout out to Jody Gentian Bower, author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters;  How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story who sent us an essay on the Heroine’s Journey; to Duda Dorea, who is translating The Heroine’s Journey Project site into Portuguese so that it can be more widely shared in Brazil, and Judah Quinn, a filmmaker in Australia who is making a documentary on five women’s experiences with the Heroine’s Journey in their lives.  We are hoping to feature some of this work in the coming months.

Elinor GadinThis year we are sorry for the passing of Elinor Gadon, cultural historian, Indologist, art historian, Resident Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center. She is the author of The Once and Future Goddess; a visual chronicle of the sacred female and her reemergence in cultural mythology and was an exuberant student of the heroine’s journey throughout her long life. Filmmaker Megan McFeeley put together an excerpt from her two-hour interview with Elinor in 2000 for Elinor’s Celebration of Life at Brandeis. We hope to introduce you to Elinor Gadon’s and Megan McFeeley’s work in the near future.

Your most-requested items are the names of books, films, and stories that include a Heroine’s Journey.  This fall we have begun to compile lists  which we plan to add as permanent page to the site  this spring.

Some of the books with heroine journeys that we’ve reviewed in the past year include:

Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill (fiction); Tell Me a Story 3A with printing

Fun Home by Allison Bechdel (graphic novel, later made into a musical);

Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon (non-fiction with many heroine journeys depicted in the descriptions of the lives of non-conventional families);

Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverni (historical fiction);

Lila by Marilyn Robinson (fiction);

Once and Future King by T. H. White (the first portion of the book known to many as the story of The Sword in the Stone is a Hero’s Journey, but the book as a whole is a Heroine’s Journey);

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by  Adrian Nicole LeBlanc  (nonfiction); and

Chalice and the Blade; Our History, Our Future by Riane Eisler is not a heroine’s journey story but traces the origins of the descent of goddess worship and the psychological impacts of the denigration of female deities on men, women, and cultural values through archaeology, anthropology, history and religion.

Movies we have recently reviewed and plan to blog about in the future include:

Boys on the Side directed by Herbert Ross and starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker, and Drew Barrymore;

RBG,  a 2018 American documentary directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, on the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg  which includes both elements of the Hero’s Journey and Heroine’s Journey. RBG was chosen by the National Board of Review as the Best Documentary of 2018; and

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, the story of a Native American’s health worker’s search for the truth about the death of prominent transgender activist Marsha Johnson.

In the next few weeks look for an upcoming post on “Kicking the Stone,” a wonderful short story by Barbara Leckie in Salamander, one of the literary journals that’s one of the offerings from the Journal of the Month Club.

Later in the winter and spring we will be exploring work by Jean Marie Bishop, Elinor Gadin, and suffragist scholar, memoirist, and playwright, Pam Swing and her student playwright co-author, Elizabeth Dabanka.  We are also seeking to interview several others working with the Heroine’s Journey in a variety of disciplines.

We will also be focusing on how the Heroine’s Journey can be applied to social activism and, hopefully, collaborating with others working on similar projects.

We would love additional suggestions from our site visitors. Send the name of a book, story or film with a sentence or two on why you think it follows the Heroine’s Journey and we will review it as we work to expand our lists. Meanwhile, may your lives be full and your burdens light.

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This chalkboard mural by Coty can be found at the wonderful Green Goddess Cafe in Stowe, Vermont.

 

 

 

 

 

Captain America: A New Kind of Hero(ine)

Written by Katerina Daley; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


By virtue of being superheroes, it would be easy to assume that all popular DC and Marvel superhero films would chart neatly onto the Hero’s Journey. Indeed, popular movies such as the Christian Bale Batman trilogy and the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy do map smoothly onto these paths. As film-viewing audiences become increasingly interested in more complex story lines there may be more opportunities for superhero(in)es and Heroine’s Journeys. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the sequel to Captain America: the First Avenger) Marvel has created in Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) a hero whose selfless and emotionally-driven arc more accurately resembles Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey than it does Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

steve rogers on the subway in avengers deleted scene
Steve tries to take in the world around him in this deleted scene from The Avengers.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins with the very purposeful meeting between Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Sam is a former air force para-rescue member who now works with Veterans Affairs helping former soldiers with PTSD. Steve is a perfect case study for this kind of psychoanalysis. Having been a soldier in World War II who witnessed his lifelong best friend plummet to his presumed death, and having been reanimated seventy years after his own presumed death, Steve has many issues to grapple with. In a three minute scene from the previous film involving Steve, The Avengers, he is pictured struggling to come to terms with the world around him. He struggles to understand the end of World War II, the fact that all of his dearest friends are dead, and the preponderance of bizarre technology filling the world around him.

steve rogers visits the captain america exhibit at the smithsonian in the winter soldier
Steve visits the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian with presumable regularity, reinforcing his feelings of guilt.

Considering this backstory, it is significant that the first friend Steve makes in this film is Sam and that Sam sees in Steve a familiar vulnerability. After meeting during an early morning run, Sam simply asks, “It’s your bed, right? […] Your bed. It’s too soft,” and in doing so, Sam reveals his own sleep difficulties. Steve acknowledges that he too struggles with sleep and states that his bed now feels like “lying on a marshmallow [and that he] feel[s] like [he’s] gonna sink right to the floor.”

Steve also avoids developing romantic relationships and frequently visits the Smithsonian exhibit on Captain America in order to reinforce his self-inflicted feelings of guilt about the loss of his past friends. He even visits his lost love, Peggy Carter, who is now elderly, suffering from dementia, and forgets his visits the moment he is out of her line of sight. The Mayo Clinic lists sleep issues, emotional numbness, “reliving the traumatic event,” “overwhelming guilt or shame,” and “hopelessness about the future” as markers of PTSD. The film therefore invites the audience to infer that Steve is going through this trauma. As we have observed on our Best Picture Oscar Winners page, Heroine’s Journeys male protagonists often have some kind of marginalizing characteristic. For Steve, it is PTSD.

Following this introduction of Steve’s emotional state, the film refocuses on the familiar patterns of typical superhero films. For Steve, the Illusion of the Perfect World is his naive belief in his status as Captain America working for S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), a governmental agency staffed with superheroes that help combat all forms of terrorism. Steve is sent on a mission he believes is to save hostages on a ship, but discovers that his current partner, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), has instead been given a different mission: “saving S.H.I.E.L.D. intel” from the ship’s computers. This initial Betrayal or Disillusionment from both his partner and his superior, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), quickly sets the tone of mistrust that will continue to build in a series of successive Betrayals. After confronting Nick Fury with his valid concerns about the lack of transparency between them, Steve is made privy to information regarding the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. that are far above his clearance.

steve rogers realizes he is going to be killed in the winter soldier
Steve realizes that the surprisingly crowded elevator is filled with men who have been ordered to kill him.

For a brief moment, Steve is an insider in the world of S.H.I.E.L.D., but just as soon as this new coping strategy is created, Fury is the subject of an assassination attempt from within S.H.I.E.L.D. When Fury shows up injured and bleeding at Steve’s apartment, he shows him a series of messages, including the simple but powerful “SHIELD COMPROMISED.” This new Betrayal causes Steve to realize that the Perfect World he had lived in was, in fact, an Illusion. Fury gives Steve the flash drive with the intel that Natasha had saved from the ship, and moments later, Fury is shot fatally through the wall of Steve’s apartment. As he lays dying, he urges Steve, “Don’t trust anyone.” Fury’s assassin is a figure known only as The Winter Soldier, a terrorist who has wreaked havoc and committed mass murders for nearly seventy years. Rather than give in to the temptation toward hopelessness, Steve attempts to do justice by avenging Fury’s death. When he is summoned by the new leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), and questioned about Fury’s death, he claims to know nothing. The next Betrayal takes place immediately after this, as he is branded a fugitive by Pierce and finds himself the subject of an assassination attempt in an elevator in S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.

After this third Betrayal, Steve undergoes The Awakening and Preparing for the Journey. He becomes even more determined to honor Fury’s memory and expose S.H.I.E.L.D.’s inner corruption, and due to this new determination, he goes against his previous state of emotional numbness and forms a hesitant allegiance with Natasha once again, as they both have a stake in having the truth brought to light. During The Descent or Passing the Gates of Judgment, the usually honest and straightforward Steve is forced to follow the guidance and tactics of the Russian-trained spy Natasha, which results in his growing sense of discomfort with the world around him. As he is hunted by men whom he had previously considered allies and friends, he becomes a more covert operative than he has been accustomed to.

steve sam and natasha form a team in the winter soldier
“Everyone we know is trying to kill us.” “Not everyone.”

In The Eye of the Storm, Steve discovers a hidden bunker belonging to S.H.I.E.L.D. that is being used to preserve the digitized consciousness of Arnim Zola, a founding member of the Nazi subsidiary Hydra. In an interrogation with the digitized consciousness, Steve learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by the corrupt and morally devoid members of Hydra, but before Steve and Natasha can receive all the answers they are looking for, they are thrust into the Death/All Is Lost phase as they find themselves the subject of an assassination attempt once again organized by Pierce. Following this near death experience, Steve immediately seeks out Support in the form of Sam Wilson, who proves to be a more capable ally than either Steve or Natasha could have expected. Sam possesses a specific skill set with an EXO-7 Falcon set of wings from his days in the military and, therefore, becomes the perfect third member of their quickly forming heroic team.

As the trio begin working together to isolate the members of S.H.I.E.L.D. who have been corrupted by Hydra, Steve’s journey cycles back and presents another Eye of the Storm. They are successful in apprehending Agent Jasper Sitwell and begin to interrogate him for the information they desire regarding Hydra’s plans. Before they can get all of this information, however, another Death/All Is Lost moment occurs. The group is attacked by The Winter Soldier, the same assassin who killed Fury near the film’s beginning. But as Steve engages in a hand to hand combat with the assassin, he learns the most shocking truth of all: the Winter Soldier is his own childhood best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), whom Steve had believed to be dead but who was, in fact, frozen in time just as Steve had been.

Following this revelation, Steve appears to have lost all hope until he, Sam, and Natasha are saved by the Support of one of the few uncorrupted S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). The group then gains more psychological Support when they learn Fury survived his assassination attempt. With his team growing larger and stronger, and with the revelation that his lifelong best friend has been turned into a brainwashed killing machine, Steve enters a stage of Rebirth/Moment of Truth. While preparing to launch an attack on S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, Steve breaks into the Smithsonian Captain America exhibit to steal his old Captain America uniform in the hope that Bucky, as the Winter Soldier, will be stirred enough by the familiar memory to recognize Steve for who he really is.

bucky remembers steve in the winter soldier
Steve finally gets Bucky to recognize him.

As Steve and the Winter Soldier engage in a presumable fight to the death, Steve desperately tries to trigger Bucky’s memories. “Bucky, you’ve known me your whole life….Your name is James Buchanan Barnes….I’m not gonna fight you. You’re my friend,” he implores, but Bucky remains firmly fixed in the mode of the Winter Soldier, even with Steve’s familiar uniform and candid speech. “You’re my mission,” the Winter Soldier replies coldly before attacking Steve again, but Steve won’t give up. “Then finish it,” he says shakily, before adding, “’cause I’m with you ’til the end of the line.” This phrase, a direct callback to what Bucky told Steve when Steve’s mother passed away (a flashback scene inserted within the film’s main narrative about half an hour prior), seems to finally bring Bucky back. He gazes at Steve in wide-eyed horror and recognition, unable to move, before suddenly, Steve is ripped from his hands as the aircraft they are fighting on begins to give way. Steve falls to the Potomac below, but Bucky saves him from certain death by dragging him to shore.

At the film’s end, S.H.I.E.L.D. is in shambles, Fury leaves in hopes of finding and destroying whatever remains of Hydra, and Steve and Sam go off in search of Bucky to see if they can help him. Very few things are clearly resolved, but there is no doubt that Steve is undertaking a Return to a World Seen through New Eyes. His emotional journey of saving and reconnecting with his best friend is just beginning, as is his friendship with Sam, and a subtly hinted-at romance with former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp). Steve’s world at the end of the film may appear similar to the world at the film’s beginning insofar as he is still undertaking dangerous adventures as Captain America, but he is now wrestling with the disillusionment that S.H.I.E.L.D. is not as idealistically motivated as he had believed. He still seeks to do good in the world, but it is his own personal, emotional drive that compels him to do so, not any kind of blind faith in the government or America as a whole.