Joseph Campbell’s Shiny Pedestal, Part 1

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In the whole mythological tradition the woman is there. All she has to do is 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.

Joseph Campbell, 1981

Once upon a time, there was an medieval literature scholar who decided to write about a motif he felt propagated stories in every culture: the journey of the hero. That journey, in a nutshell, entails a hero embarking on a quest, gathering a mentor and allies, being tested, enduring a “supreme ordeal”, completing the quest and eventually returning with newly acquired knowledge or a gift for human society. If you’ve seen Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, you know the hero’s journey. The works of Joseph Cambell are well worth studying in greater depth than these articles will plumb, and I recommend them to anyone who loves storytelling.

Note: “studying” doesn’t mean memorizing with glassy-eyed admiration and shaking your head in sad condescension anytime someone raises a question, disagrees or – heaven forbid – applies the same scholarly criticism to Campbell that he applied to the literature of others. I mention this, because that’s what the Cult of Campbell, fueled by whatever bits of information stuck with them from the Bill Moyers’ PBS interviews at Skywalker Ranch, has done.

Somehow, Campbell’s work has become the holy scripture of writing courses throughout the civilized world, influencing filmmakers and authors like a gospel, floating free of sorely needed context on the wings of devout faith. Ironic, considering how Campbell himself examined the symbology of Christianity and other cultural sacred cows. Now he’s become one himself.

For what it’s worth, I doubt Campbell sought for his ideas the unassailable status they have attained. I also don’t know if he intended for his ideas to sideline female characters in modern storytelling. But regardless of his intentions, what we ended up with was a massive writer’s instruction guide which answered the question “Where do women fit in?” with “around the hero.”

The quote at the top of the article was his response when author/psychotherapist Maureen Murdock asked him the question directly. Needless to say, she found his answer unsatisfactory. In fact, she wrote her own book, which I also highly recommend reading.

It’s not that Campbell says anything negative about women. He just ignores us. Palpably. Oh, they show up as queens and mothers and tyrants and love interests – as satellites of the hero. Reading Campbell’s work feels like walking into a very big party where there are no women have arrived yet, and realizing after a couple of drinks there still isn’t a single woman there. He came from an age when women simply did not factor into equations, particularly in the academic world. They were irrelevant. In saying women were already “the place that people are trying to get to”, he may even have imagined he was expressing admiration. But it’s worth noting he taught at Sarah Lawrence College from 1934-72. Until 1969, it was a women’s college. To this day, the college maintains a structure that emphasizes mentorship relations between teachers and students over grades and other quantifiable measures of achievement. This man who spent 35 years mentoring women believed it “pseudo-male” and worthless for his students to quest for self-improvement, or to rescue themselves from abuse or hardship.

That’s a disturbing thought.

Putting women on a pedestal is not that different from putting them under a glass ceiling. Telling us we can’t save ourselves, or that we’re fine as we are when we know we’re being limited, is misogynistic, plain and simple. And the writers, male and female, who have devoted themselves to following his example are perpetuating misogyny, no matter their intent.

(Continued.)

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