I have been plumbing the depths of literary theory and analysis of hero tales and myths. This is part of my Masters degree – the last unit actually (HOORAH!), but is also quite useful background knowledge in writing a novel in which the protagonist is female, and a historically persecuted one at that. The theory is prompting me to consider what type of image of ‘girl’ I am projecting in the novel and what kind of image this gives prospective teen readers.
If we are not aware of the ideologies in which our identity is created, in which we create ourselves, then do we automatically create what is around us – eg: strive towards socially acceptable views of male and female? How can we redefine this for ourselves if we are not even aware of it? Can female heroes be anything other than traditionally beautiful if society can’t see beyond ideologies of beauty? First, I think, must come awareness – a making explicit of these ideologies.
I have found this subject so fascinating, I thought I’d share with you some draft ideas that will form part of my first assignment for this unit:
When we fail to challenge traditional gender roles found within myths; we maintain the ideological status quo present in traditional male hero that favours privileged males and renders women as subordinate, dangerous. Patriarchal ideologies are socially accepted systems of belief, politics, language, action, laws and power that have a basis in inequality, defining the masculine as dominant and the feminine as ‘other’, wherein the female embodies traits seen as undesirable and inferior to the masculine. The use of such ideologies within mythology serves as a tool of socialisation, as identified by feminist theory: “The representation of women in literature…was felt to be one of the most important forms of ‘socialisation’ since it provided the role models which indicated to women, and to men, what constituted acceptable versions of the ‘feminine’ and legitimate feminine goals and aspirations.” (Barry, 2009, chap. 6, sect. 1, para. 4). Within patriarchal ideologies, woman is in opposition or complimentary to man – just as Isis in ‘Isis and Osiris’ is the complimentary ‘other’ to Osiris, from a patriarchal view, woman is not whole and complete in her own right.
The traditional male hero tale favours privileges males. The hero’s mother is “a royal virgin” and “his father is a king”. (Raglan, 1965, pp. 145). This privilege can also be seen in the female hero tale: Isis is the daughter of a god and goddess; Psyche is the daughter of a king. Because the concepts of ‘male’, ‘masculine’, ‘hero’ are so steeped in patriarchal ideologies, in order to balance the gender disparities within myths, a gender role reversal is inadequate as this perpetuates gender oppositions, attributing ideologies of masculinity to the female hero and neither allowing for the representation of a female hero experience nor presenting a hero experience that is inclusive of all gender possibilities. The female hero’s primary recourse to autonomy and agency seems to be her awareness that she is different to men, an awareness of the limitations of her position as female – but this view maintains the idea of difference, continues to position ‘woman’ as ‘other’, and maintains the dichotomous oppositions of patriarchal ideologies associated with gender. What is needed to bring balance to stories that hold important elements of socialisation is a completely new model.
Poststructuralist feminist theory examines binary opposites, “…‘man/woman,’ in which ‘man’ is the favoured term…” and sees this opposition as perpetuated by other binaries, “…including masculine/feminine, good/evil, light/dark, positive/negative, culture/nature, etc.” (Klages, 2006, pp. 96). This theory exposes the feminine as ‘other’ with the view to deconstruct the inequities of such dichotomies. Moving toward a balanced hero paradigm, the labels ‘female’ and ‘male’ are no longer adequate descriptors of gender, but as feminist theorist Hélène Cixous says, “…we continue to say man and woman even if it doesn’t work. We are not made to reveal to what extent we are complex.” (2003, chapt.20, sect. 2, para. 1).
Barry, P, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, 3rd edn, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2009, [Kindle version], retrieved from Amazon.com.
Barry, R. M., ‘Language,’ in Bradshaw, D & K Dettmar (eds.), A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, United Kingdom, 2006, pp.113-122.
Frankel, V, ‘The Tale of Déirdre’, in From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, North Carolina, 2012, [Kindle version], retrieved from Amazon.com.
Frankel, V, ‘Isis and Osiris’, in From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, North Carolina, 2012, [Kindle version], retrieved from Amazon.com.
Klages, M, ‘Feminism’, in Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed, Continuum International Publishing Group, London, 2006, pp. 91-110.
Raglan, L, ‘The hero of tradition’ in A Dundes (ed.), The study of folklore, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1965, pp. 142-57.
Sellars, S (ed.), The Hélène Cixous Reader, Taylor and Francis e-Library, 2003, [Kindle version], retrieved from Amazon.com.
Stephens, J & R McCallum, Retelling stories, framing culture: traditional story and metanarratives in children’s literature, Garland Publishing, New York, 1998, [Kindle version], retrieved from Amazon.com.
Stephens, J & R McCallum, ‘Retelling the story of the hero: a female hero paradigm,’ Retelling stories, framing culture: traditional story and metanarratives in children’s literature, Garland Publishing, New York, 1998, pp. 117-25.