Let me paint you a character. A man, one you associate with immeasurable strength, renowned for his valour and feats of immense bravery. He demonstrates great courage on countless occasions, and his comrades look to him for support and leadership. He is burnt but rises from the ashes, he is slain but returns from a flirtation with death – stronger than ever before. He leads his people through the darkest of times, ever seeking out the shining light and showing them the way.
He wields a weapon so powerful that no other can bear its burden. He has a massive iron hammer, he calls Mjölnir, and no other being may lift it for they are not worthy. He has a huge bow that is so heavy that no one else can pick it up, or string it, and he calls it Gandiva. He has a sword that no one else could pull from a rock, for they were not destined for greatness like he is, and its name is Excalibur. He has earrings and a breastplate that make him undefeatable, given to him by his father. He carries a staff that splits the ocean when he wields it to save his people. And once, his strength was in his hair, and they named him Samson.
He was not born with these attributes. He shied away from his duty to his people but was brought back to the path by one who is learned and wise, who he admires and who he learns about the ways of life from. One who shows him who he is and opens his eyes to his faults. This person becomes his mentor. We call this mentor Merlin, Odin, Krishna and once we called her Athena.
He does have a weakness, amongst his many strengths. Sometimes it is physical weakness. A part of him we never protected. His heel, his naval, or his neck. Sometimes it is his love, the one he confides his secret in. Sometimes it is his family or those he considered closest to him. Sometimes it is his strongest beliefs, in that which is right and wrong, in the betterment of his people. And this weakness is that which is used to get the better of him.
Let me tell you a story about this man. We find him in ordinary life. In his kingdom, where he lives in comfort or in poverty. But one day, something happens that changes everything and he is called to adventure. Life cannot be the same again. It is a challenge presented to him that he must fight to overcome. But alas! He is not ready to accept this challenge. He believes he is too weak, he has too much to lose, he has nothing yet to gain. In this moment of utter despair – he is presented with a mentor. One who guides him and shows him the way. Shows him what he needs to see – that he is a hero. That he may be a normal man in every respect except one. He possesses something that nobody else has and that makes him powerful. His eyes are opened and he takes his call to adventure because he has to – to protect his people. He takes the step he never took – he gives up something he never would have before, or he performs a task he could never have fathomed doing. He is now a hero in the making.
But he faces a foe! He faces challenges, one after the other. He makes friends – those he can trust and who believe in him. He begins to face challenges with rising stakes. The more victories he gains the more he has to lose. Finally, he is faced with a huge obstacle. There is no possible way that he will succeed. He is threatened with the loss of everything he knows and loves. His greatest weakness is exposed and he finds that he cannot overcome this hurdle. But he manages to, by the skin of his teeth, narrowly escape the entire destruction of his world. He fights back and he wins his goal, his reward, his success. He is now the true hero. He has achieved self-actualisation. But there is a final battle to come and he now implements all he has learnt and wins the ‘elixir’ or the prize, as a resurrected hero.
Does this story sound familiar? I have just told you the story of a male hero. His name is Thor. His name is Arjuna. His name is King Arthur. His name is Hercules, Karna, Moses, Samson, Odysseus, Jason, Robin Hood, Cú Chulainn and countless other mythological heroes.
The story is so common that there is a book written about it called A Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. In it, he writes about the ‘hero’s journey’, which talks about the elements of the story of a hero, cross-referencing myths of different cultures and ages that tell the same story. A male hero who finds himself, embraces who he is with the help of a mentor, collects allies and makes enemies and overcomes obstacles while gaining love in the journey, and finally a prize.
Sometimes the prize was love. Women played a supporting role in these stories – helping the hero, and the hero only being able to achieve true love, and happiness with his lover, by overcoming many hurdles. So his fight is not only one to save his people, but to be content with his lover – which is the actual true prize.
Although Campbell wrote about this template based on mythological stories, several scripts have followed it too. The story I have just told you is not just that of godly heroes but of characters we are enthralled with today. Iron Man, Superman, Batman, Logan, Harry Potter, Jon Snow of Game of Thrones, Frodo Baggins of Lord of the Rings, Luke Skywalker of Star Wars, Simba of Lion King, Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean – and countless others.
So we can sit in an environment of ‘enlightenment’, intellect, and academia, criticising narratives of old that hold beliefs that are deemed to not be relevant anymore. Stories that objectified women, making them the prize. We then return to the comfort of Netflix. Watch a movie where we have essentially exchanged mythological weapons with fancy shiny Batman or Iron-man machinery. We watch Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark fight Bane or Thanos to save Gotham or Earth with the underlying theme of living a life of happiness and love with Selina Kyle or Pepper Potts.
So let us rewrite the narrative. Let us instead exchange these powerful male characters with the values society considers masculine and instead add a female character with the values society considers masculine. Let us tell the stories of Harley Quinn and Wonder Woman and Lara Croft. Let us fit our female characters into this archetype that we have associated with male characters for centuries on end. Let us tell his story through her and convince ourselves we are truly telling her story.
Let us believe that this is the narrative when it comes to a story of a woman. We always find ourselves with female characters who aren’t accepted amongst their peers and in their world because they are too ‘masculine’. Let us tell the story of Disney’s Brave and believe we are empowering women because they too have ‘masculine’ traits – they too can be warriors and wield weapons of old. Let us fool ourselves into telling the same stories we have heard for years but replace traditional male heroes with female ones. Let us not acknowledge the struggles faced by women embodying the ideals of societal femininity and tell their stories – and consider those heroic journeys. Let us not tell the stories of struggling sexual exploration amongst young girls. Let us not tell the stories of mothers fighting with their families to understand that they too have battles that are beyond what we watch in today’s movies of providing food – that there are battles of passion, beyond their relation to the world of their motherly function.
We cannot rewrite the narrative for it is so deeply set into what we think a story is. We are accustomed to a kind of story that we have heard for centuries. We watch and read that story even today and are not aware of it. To change the narrative we must forget what we think a story ‘is’ and what a story should be. We must forget what we believe to be morals and narratives. We must watch a young woman stain her skirt and squirm in embarrassment and look for a clean bathroom where she can put on a pad and not deem it to be ‘boring’ without the necessary climatic moments and battles. Let us watch her and experience her and not label these stories ‘arthouse’ and scandalous.
Are we truly ever going to be ready to abandon what we believe a story to be? Are we ever going to be prepared to forget every story we have consumed? Are we ever going to rewrite the narrative?
Perhaps not today.
When not charging into battle, duelling knights, or saving damsels in distress and bachelors in a bind, Johann Vikram Singh occasionally writes. You can read his blog here.
Featured image credit: Fantasy Landscape/Llamareaper/CC BY-NC-SY 3.0