Joseph Campbell’s Shiny Pedestal, Part 2

(Continued from Part 1.)

Something very brilliant followed the veneration of Joseph Campbell’s ideas about the hero’s journey. One of the steps Campbell identified as part of that journey influenced films and (eventually) television tremendously in the 1980’s: the supreme ordeal. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough for a hero to triumph: the hero had to be shattered into a thousand pieces by the trauma. And then he had to rebuild himself, ascend like the phoenix from the ashes, and emerge changed for the better, with the ability to triumph once and for all.

I say “he” because women characters were almost completely excluded from this revolution.

Why would women want to be included in the supreme ordeal? It involves pain, suffering, destruction – often blood, shame, grief and violation. Aren’t those exactly the things women would want to escape from when they go to see movies, seeking respite for a few hours from a world in which they are constantly being reminded that acts of brutality are just around every corner?

Let’s examine the supreme ordeal, as exemplified by Campbell accolyte George Lucas in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. In Empire, Luke rushes to face the villain before he’s truly prepared, and for his haste, Vader beats him to a pulp, slices off his hand, then informs him that Vader is the unknown father Luke’s based his identity upon. Luke’s identity is destroyed – something death alone could not have accomplished. Vader has personally tortured his friends, and now suddenly, Luke is a part of him. He’s changed forever.

In the end, he triumphs, not only saving the day but also recovering his father from the dark side, only to lose him in death. It’s a bittersweet ending. Luke stands off by himself at the victory celebration, no longer feeling quite a part of what he worked so hard to save. He has belonged in both worlds, however briefly: the life-affirming side of the Rebellion, and the dark destruction of Vader’s world. He can’t expect his friends to share his joy at Vader’s last-minute redemption. He is also set apart by his very accomplishments: his special abilities as a Jedi are now unique in the universe. He triumphed, but at great personal cost.

Why would we want to see women in a story arc like this one? First, we must answer why we would want to see a man in it. Why does Luke’s story hold such appeal?

The answer is simple: we relate. Anyone who’s ever struggled, who’s ever put doing the right thing ahead of satisfying personal needs, feels a bit like Luke. Life is traumatic, even when it’s relatively happy, because it’s always about changes and endings. Women certainly aren’t excluded from the reality of the supreme ordeal; why should they be excluded from the fictionalization?

In real life, even the triumph over the supreme ordeal is all-too-often ignored or regarded as failure. In fiction, it’s recognized as the ultimate test of character. Anyone who passes the test attains the status of hero, and the assurance that even if no one else ever knows what they did, they have left this world a little better for having been in it. At the very least, they’ve maintained one good soul against all the soul-eroding forces that acted upon it.

Men and women need to see female characters suffering the very same supreme ordeals that make characters undergo. Traumas that have been stereotypically assigned to women – rape, spousal abuse, prejudice – don’t count because they don’t engage the sensbilities of all the groups who have been trained not to think of themselves as potential rape, abuse or prejudice victims.

Continues with Part 3

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