I recently finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy, the immensely popular YA series by Suzanne Collins. Though I was exposed to its popularity over the summer while teaching and seeing some of the fandom for myself at Dragon*Con, it was the trailer for the film adaptation that gave me that final push to start reading. Once I did, I couldn’t stop.
Those familiar with my work might know that I have a big interest in character creation, especially when it comes to creating strong female characters. Strong, however, doesn’t mean writing basically a male character and putting them in a female body. Creating well-rounded characters, with both ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ traits is important whether that character is male or female. It doesn’t just provide better role models, it makes your characters more interesting and believable.
This brings me to the main character of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen. The nicknamed “Girl on Fire” is definitely and strong female lead; a talented hunter, survivor, and fighter. On the surface, she’s your typical bad-ass, tom-boy with few feminine characteristics, but with the point of view of the book being entirely from Katniss’ perspective, we get to experience what’s going on in her head, and it’s often a different story than what she is presenting outwardly to the story’s characters.
The readers are privy to her internal dialogue, which reveals a young woman with insecurities, emotional vulnerability, and depth of feeling that makes her seem more like a real teenage girl. I find that Katniss has captured part of what I think makes the Twilight series’ lead, Bella, so appealing to young girls and women–demonstrating character traits that are typically presented as a sign of weakness, unwanted–feeling grief, sadness, helplessness, love, emotional confusion, and desire. The fashion content that the wealthy Capitol city of The Hunger Games injects into the story provides a chance for our female lead to appreciate (though, it’s not always the case) things like doing your hair, makeup, and wearing extravagant dresses. It’s a nice balance between the relatable but useless (and poorly written) Bella, and your cliche stone-cold female bad-ass devoid of any feminine side.
My one concern with the film adaptation is that this balance may be difficult to convey without access to Katniss’ internal dialogue. In fact, often what Katniss does could be seen as quite cold-hearted and self-involved, from an outside perspective, without knowing the thought process that went into it. On the inside, she’s strong willed, tough, and determined, but not without going through self-doubt, emotional turmoil, and internal struggle.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the film version translates the novels–though, as a writer I try to keep in mind the “book was so much better” fallacy that can make us hyper-critical of book adaptations. One part of the movie’s marketing I’m enjoying is their official tumblr set up to appear like it’s run by the novel’s fictional government. Check out Captial Couture, for a glimpse into the lifestyle the author created for wealthy citizens of The Capitol.
Storytelling is a wonderful platform to share a message. Instead of making an argument through writing an essay, a story can place the reader in a scenario where they can empathize with characters and become emotionally involved in the message the author wants to convey. Entertainment is at its best when the story has meaning, but ever since Joseph Campbell and George Lucas hooked up to cross-promote each other’s work—Campbell using the popularity of Star Wars to boost his mono-myth theory of mythology and Lucas using the Hero’s Journey to lend a sense of intellectual credibility to his popcorn space adventure flicks—Hollywood has been obsessed with churning out cookie-cutter Campbellian scripts that follow the Hero’s Journey formula. The formula does more than just stifle creativity, it contains a framework which will nearly always produce the same message, one based in pre-Enlightenment thinking that hero’s are born not made, humans require rule from divinity, and problems can only be resolved through spiritual metamorphosis. I say it’s time to let go of this Eurocentric, often misogynistic writing formula and mystical view of the world and begin celebrating the humanist ideals from the age of reason through the art of storytelling.
Let’s compare the mono-myth poster child, Star Wars, with the ode to secular humanism that is Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. It should be said that I’m a big fan of both these series. But when Lucas and Campbell told us to take the Star Wars Saga seriously, as a means of finding deep truth, that’s when I become critical of the story. Star Wars is a great space adventure and highly entertaining, but when it comes to being a model for journeying through life, it’s a giant step back into the dark ages.
When you take a close look at the meaning behind the world of Star Wars, you quickly notice it is one rule by theocracy. Whether it’s the ‘dark side’ of the Sith or the ‘light side’ of the Jedi, those who rule do so by divine right. Luke Skywalker is our hero because it’s his birthright; he was born into the royal bloodline of the Knighthood. You can’t simply work hard to become a Jedi, you need to be born one. The purpose of the common man, like Han Solo, is to serve and protect those of royal blood, like Luke and Leia. Luke is our savior not because he practiced hard to become good with a targeting computer, but because he has privileged access to divine powers. This is all good fun when used simply as escapism, but as David Brin points out in “Star Wars despots vs. Star Trek populists” the message behind Star Wars is one of anti-democratic, elitist ideals.
Star Trek is great escapism too, but if you wish to draw greater meaning from it you’ll find a forward-facing philosophy based in secular humanism where all humans are created equal and their greatness is based on their own merits, free from dogma and the supernatural. James T. Kirk wasn’t given command of the Enterprise through birthright; he earned the title of Captain through his own talent and hard work. The Federation set out on its mission of exploration not by sending lone knights out into the galaxy, but by organizing into cooperative crews who rely on one another to succeed. Roddenberry’s vision for humanity was a future centered on democracy and rationality. This message is far more useful to modern life than the backward-looking theocracy of that galaxy far far away.
In addition to Star Wars, another saga often identified as an example of “modern myth” is J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But, again, the messages found in this tale are anything but helpful in creating a free, modern society. Instead of Jedi, the humans of Middle Earth are ruled by kings, and those kings are subject to the watchful eyes of wizards and immortals. The Ringwraths are the worst examples of how humans should behave; they desire the power of the ring, a man-made object which bestows power to mortal man. How dare they seek the knowledge to become equals with their divine rulers? I reference David Brin again as he points out in his article, “J.R.R. Tolkien – Enemy of Progress”, how the trilogy romanticizes monarchy and privileged knowledge:
“…pain and damnation await any mortal whose ambition aims too high. Don’t try putting on the trappings or emblems or powers that rightfully belong to your betters. Above all, don’t try to decipher and redistribute mysteries.”
There is, however, a more recent “modern-myth” fantasy saga which does indeed promote post-Enlightenment ways. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series uses modern day witches and wizards to go against the idea that a special class of elites is entitled to rule based on bloodlines. The protagonists fight for the idea that both non-magical humans (muggles), witches and wizards born in non-magical families (muggle-borns), and those who grew up completely in the magical world (pure-bloods) are all equal, against the antagonists who believing the pure-bloods deserve to rule over what they consider to be lower class people. There is an emphasis throughout the books that it takes more than supernatural ability to succeed, as is demonstrated in the first book when Hermione and Harry need to pass the sixth barrier to the Philosopher’s Stone. The barrier tests their ability to reason and not their ability to use magic, “’Brilliant,’ said Hermione. ‘This isn’t magic – it’s logic – a puzzle. A lot of the greatest wizards haven’t got an ounce of logic, they’d be stuck in here forever.’” This is far from the romanticizing of classism and divine power contained in the mythic journeys of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
The Harry Potter series is often analyzed as another example of the Hero’s Journey in action. However, I find that the series exposes the major weaknesses in the Hero’s Journey theory of storytelling. It reveals the model for what it is—-a series of generalizations so vague that it can be made to fit nearly any adventure story. The seven book series, with a combined 4000+ pages, has enough content that one could find almost any desired pattern in its over 900 000 words. You can find multiple examples in it from the list of Hero’s Journey ingredients, but so many as to become meaningless as a useful formula. Harry Potter contains trials, supernatural aid, many magical mentors, and many thresholds to be crossed because that’s what an adventure story is. The one element that the Hero’s Journey contains which makes it anything more than just a list of common adventure story traits is also the one element the Harry Potter series lacks; a spiritual metamorphosis. Harry doesn’t undergo any spiritual transcendence during his seven year journey through Hogwarts.
Harry’s core traits remain the same from beginning to end. He doesn’t transform himself or his beliefs in order to resolve the conflict of the series. From the very beginning and throughout all seven books, he is willing to sacrifice his life to protect those he loves. He never has to come to this through revelation. What prepares him for this purpose isn’t faith, in fact, he is inspired to set out to do what he was always willing to do—-give up his life—-not by taking a leap of faith but by learning the missing pieces of information in a puzzle and receiving evidence (Snape’s memories) that what he’s planning to do really is the right solution. In his world, with magical laws of physics, the removal of the piece of Voldemort’s soul from his own is no more a spiritual transformation than would be the surgical removal of unwanted growth. It doesn’t change him, it’s simply another physical task that needs to take place—-all the Horcruxes need to be destroyed, and Harry just happens to be one of several. When this is done, Harry’s spirit isn’t changed; he’s still the brave, self-sacrificing Gryffindor from the first book. The only changes are ‘physical’ traits (in the magical sense)…he’s no longer a Horcrux, he’s no longer a Parselmouth, and he no longer has a psychic connection with Voldermort. He never feared death and he never becomes master of two worlds. To apply the Hero’s Journey to Harry is to miss the real message of the series: how to deal with death.
Harry Potter is not a tale of a mystic warrior seeking union with the divine. It’s a story that makes an argument about the role of death in our lives and does so by illustrating the differences between the Potter family and the Riddle family. Harry and his parents are willing to accept death because they value life. Harry’s mother sacrifices her life out of love for her son so he can live. Voldermort, aka Tom Riddle, is left orphaned by his mother because she lets herself die over the grief that his father left them. This illustrates the important difference between Harry’s mother, willing to die for her son, and Tom’s mother, not willing to live for her son. The picture Rowling portrays through the story is that the good characters will risk death to protect the lives of others, while the evil ones risk the lives of others to protect themselves. It is Voldemort, not Harry, who seeks spiritual transcendence beyond the mortal world (by, you know…going on a murderous rampage to split his soul into seven pieces). As writer Jim Hull points out in “Not Everything Is A Hero’s Journey”,
“There can be nothing more destructive to the world of storytelling than this compulsion for spiritual metamorphosis. Stories are about solving problems. Sometimes, solving those problems require the centerpiece of a story, the Main Character, to undergo a major transformation in how they see the world. Sometimes they don’t.”
Harry doesn’t have to transform his worldview in order to complete his story.
Although Star Trek is one of the best examples of storytelling promoting secular humanist ideals—-ways of thinking which are critical to human flourishing—-you don’t have to confine yourself to science-fiction, as I believe Harry Potter demonstrates. Fantasy adventures, even if they have supernatural elements, can convey messages about humanism and critical thinking if the deeper meaning of the story isn’t preoccupied with mysticism. We hang onto to stories about heroes born ‘the chosen one’ and immortals with divine power because we yearn to feel special and to have the comfort of higher powers watching over us. It’s fine to have these tales to innocently escape to, but if we’re going use stories to help us create a map for living we need to grow up and look to forms of storytelling which teach us the values of reason, humanism, and secular thinking.
There’s plenty of discussion in the science-based and secular humanist movements about how to get more women interested in joining and participating in atheist and skeptic organizations. As a writer and artist, an important part of my work is creating stories that are appealing to girls and young women. I thought I’d share some of my influences and the mode of operation I like to call “The She-ra Approach” when it comes to creating a female-friendly atmosphere.
The medium I work in to tell my stories is sequential art, specifically, manga—-a form of comic book storytelling originating from Japan and made popular by its animated counterpart, anime. Some of the appealing characteristics of the manga industry are the prevalence of both female readers and creators; something which sets it apart from the traditional comic book industry. I find that when American comics, movies, and animation attempt to portray positive images of women, they tend to create female characters that are quite masculine. As a young girl, I remember equating “girliness” with weakness, because most examples of strong women didn’t care about things like pretty clothes, makeup, doing your hair, and owning cute things. That is, until I came across anime, and not only discovered main characters that were girly, but that there was an entire genre devoted to female readers: shoujo.
The first anime series I became I fan of was Fushigi Yuugi by a female mangaka named Watase Yuu. The main character of the series was a cute school girl, Miaka, with brown hair and big brown eyes, just like me! She was interested in boys, clothes, and cute hairdos. She could be whiny, clumsy, and require rescue, but somehow, when it came to really important responsibilities, she came through—-she could resolve the story’s conflict without having to be “tough”. She was a different kind of heroine; one that could cry, be love-sick, and need the help of others. Even though she definitely wasn’t a perfect role model, Miaka made me feel it was okay to be girly.
Anime is one of the few forms of entertainment that has a high percentage of stories with female leading characters; Characters that seem powerful because they’ll have special powers, or can wield magic (women in Western storytelling are typically evil witches if they can use magic) but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good role-models for girls—far from it. There’s plenty of garbage with horrible presentations of girls and women that make the Disney princesses look like feminists.
Luckily for me, I was born in the 80s! For a short time between 1983-86 there was He-Man and The Masters of the Universe and its spin-off, She-ra: The Princess of Power. Indeed, She-ra was the female version of He-man, but here’s why that didn’t make her simply a male character in a female body—-He-man wasn’t your stereotypical macho superhero. Because of concerns by parent groups over He-man’s hyper-macho appearance and the unusual action-based content of the cartoon for the time, He-man’s personality was written to balance his appearance. He was kind, empathetic, and demonstrated emotions and affection. I always got the feeling that his only motivation for being a hero was that he genuinely cared about others. Unlike most superheroes, who seem to need a rationale for using their powers, he didn’t need a justification for doing good, such as a sense of responsibility, a cause like justice, or a motivation like revenge. Being a caring person was reason enough.
The effect this had, when it came to creating He-man’s twin sister, was that a female character was being based off a male character that had traits which would typically be characterized as feminine. The result was a pair of equals who were well balanced human beings. As a small child, I grew up with two heroes who taught me that their traits—-bravery, empathy, strength, kindness—-weren’t exclusive to one gender or the other; these were the traits of good people. Period.
Masters of the Universe was one of the most successful cartoon franchises of all time, pioneering the production of animated series broadcasted daily, as opposed to the standard weekly Saturday morning schedule. When Mattel decided to create a spinoff geared towards a girl audience, the writers at Filmation approached the issue of expanding the He-man universe into one which appealed more to girls in a manner which has influenced not only my childhood, but my work as a storyteller as well. Although the aesthetics of the She-ra series clearly differs from Masters of the Universe with a more stereotypical “girl look” and its pastel palette (though MotU main character, Prince Adam, was dressed in a fabulous palette of light pink and purple) the content of the series kept what made Masters of the Universe popular: magic mixed with sci-fi action.
She-ra: Princess of Power had more female characters than Masters of the Universe but what’s most important is how they presented the higher ratio of women, the key ingredient to “The She-ra Approach”. The plot never drew any attention to the fact that She-ra, or any other female character, was a woman. She-ra was amazing for many reasons, but never because she was a woman. The lesson was never “Look, girls, She-ra saved the day and she’s a girl! She can do anything a boy can, and so can you!” I grew up knowing that women and men were equals because it never occurred to me to think otherwise.
Sure, She-ra was a series that looked more “girly” than Masters of the Universe. Many of She-ra’s friends were princesses, just like her. There was more emphasis on nature and magic than there was in He-man’s world. But, unlike most of the Disney princesses, She-ra (aka Princess Adora) and her friends were princesses because they were daughters of Queens, and not because they married a prince. When it came to the battle between Princess Adora’s nature-loving rebellion and Hordak’s destructive high-tech regime, there were men and women on both sides. Good and evil, caring or oppressive, these weren’t things that had any attachment to one gender over the other.
You don’t have to go out of your way to appeal to girls. I think there’s a danger in over-thinking what changes to make in order to have something be female-friendly. You run the risk of creating something that is so stereotypically feminine that it sends the message that girls can’t handle anything remotely masculine, or trying to stay away from stereotypically feminine traits so much as to give the message that anything feminine is undesirable.
There’s a short moment in the She-ra origin story, The Secret of the Sword (a film which is also the first five episodes of the series), which I find to be a good example of achieving this balance. Glimmer, the leader of The Great Rebellion, is introduced to Prince Adam for the first time (at about the 12:30 mark). She appears to be going over plans, but when Bow appears with Adam she takes the briefest moment to show her interest in seeing this new handsome friend, then immediately switches back to leader mode to check out the commotion going on outside, and even scolding Bow for causing a ruckus. I like this tiny detail because it shows that Glimmer is a leader, but isn’t stone-cold. Taking a moment to “Ooooh” over a cute guy isn’t associated with weakness.
The success of this approach is that the core contents of what was appealing about the franchise wasn’t changed just because they wanted to expand their product to girls. Boys loved He-man because it combined sword-fighting action with magic and space ships. There was no reason to take any of those things away when making She-ra. In fact, because the series didn’t alter that winning combination, the She-ra series had a strong following of boy fans tuning into the show as well. If you make something that’s good it won’t matter if it’s meant for boys or girls. As a little girl, the dark colour palette and castles shaped like giant skulls didn’t deter me from watching He-man, and She-ra proved boys would tune in to a show with a cast of women and scenery painted with pinks and pastels. The result was a franchise that not only gave girls good female role models, but exposed boys to them as well.
Some geeky side notes: Masters of the Universe had strong female characters as well. Teela was captain of the Royal Guard, Queen Marlena (He-man’s mom) was a talented pilot and astronaut from Earth, and The Sorceress ruled Castle Grayskull and constantly gave guidance to He-man. Before you point out that the women in both He-man and She-ra were scantily clad, it should be noted that nearly every character was. Only a few characters wore armor (like Man-at-Arms, but c’mon, that was his name!) and pantslessness was nearly universal. I can’t count how many random background characters are old men wearing tunics sans-pants. This probably was due to the characters being modeled after the template for the action figures the cartoon was based on.
Pictured: Pantsless tunics aren’t just for girls!
This is the sketchblog of Sara E. Mayhew--that's me! Nerdy ramblings on my favourite topics are combined with geek-a-licious manga artwork.
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By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out. — Richard Dawkins