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Hit and myth: how old tales shape modern perceptions of women

It is important for women and men that there be heroic women as role models
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

In a land far in the future, it is women who walk the streets freely and without fear, and men who are locked up at home. Welcome to Ladyland, a sci-fi utopia contained in the story Sultana’s Dream, written by an Indian Muslim woman, Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain, and published in a 1905 edition of the Indian Ladies Magazine.

In the mythic Ladyland of Sultana’s Dream, men failed to defend the kingdom from invasion, so the women stepped in to do so. The condition was that men had to be confined to their homes for honour and liberty. Thinking there was no hope of the women’s success, the men did so without protest. The women approached the battlefield with mirrors and concentrated sun-rays on the enemy, who found the heat unbearable and fled. And since then, the men remained indoors.

A hundred years later, as the world celebrates International Women’s Day, the story of Ladyland continues to unsettle us. Its heroes are female, women form the standard of acceptability and success, and men are simply adjuncts to salvation and safety.

We’re not used to female heroes. Our grand myths – the ones whose narratives shape our societies and cultures – are in general framed by the male archetype. Myths help us to make sense of the world, and more importantly of our place in it. Hidden within the often supernatural events are the values on which we have constructed our social order. The heroic characters that inhabit the mythical worlds help to reconcile us to our realities, and establish the patterns for our lives.

In 1949, Joseph Campbell argued in a seminal work that hero stories across cultures and histories are essentially the same story with the hero passing through the same 17 stages. His theory of the “monomyth” was titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The theory of the archetypal hero’s journey has gained huge traction among modern-day story writers and literary analysts. George Lucas is the most famous proponent, using it as the basis for Star Wars.

However, Campbell’s monomyth of the male hero has come in for criticism, with complaints that it whitewashes the female hero from its description of our grand archetypes. But supporters of the male monomyth claim that since the great myths stem from history when men were dominant, it is natural that the stories will focus on men. Women only exist in the 17-stage hero’s journey as temptresses or goddesses.

When a rare female hero occurs, she is overshadowed by the grand male narrative. Occasionally, female heroes are allowed to exist, but only within limited spheres. They can be mothers, they can be concerned about homes and children. Their stories can be about marriage, love, romance and fashion. The heroines must be svelte, beautiful, softly spoken and kind. Think of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Even as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, a seeming exception to the rule about heroes being male and that women seek husbands and love, and in their failure to achieve this turn into tragic figures. Their “superpowers” are beauty, romance and chastity.

Even when a rare female hero arises, she is often sidelined as an example only for women, not for men. Female stories gain traction as fairy tales, trivialised and dismissed as stories for children, not grand enough to be part of the canon.

Why should we care about whether abstract myths are centred on male or female heroes?

We need to care because myths shape what we see as “normal”. They tell us who is significant – men – and who is dispensable – women. They give us guides to navigate our world, and a map drawn without women makes them invisible. They show us the received wisdom on which our society is built, and the received wisdom of myths is that men matter, and women are obstacles. They give licence to men to challenge society, and for women to be hidden. Most importantly, they filter down into our day-to-day policies and behaviours, establishing the male as the norm.

Hollywood reflects the idea instilled in us by myths that male ­heroes are for everyone, and female heroes are just for women. Women are not given grand heroic roles that can be embedded into our social psyche. On the rare occasion that they are, and they become successful, there is shock. Thelma and Louise is one of the rare – and successful – examples of the female journey, both metaphoric and real.

Overturning myths can unsettle our ideas of what is normally accepted as “right”. Sultana’s Dream challenges notions of where intelligence lies, or who should own the public space and why.

Gloria Steinem’s notorious piece on “If men could menstruate” subverts the prevailing norm that the standard body is male and women’s bodies are an aberration. At the same time as tackling the stigma of periods, her subversion addresses the stereotype of women’s complaining nature, and makes an important point about who gets to allocate resources and how day-to-day policy is set. Men, she quips, would brag about their periods. Periods wouldn’t be considered unnatural and dirty. Sanitary supplies would be free. Women would be excluded from complicated fields of study such as philosophy and maths unable to comprehend them without the innate sense of rhythm men would have from their menstrual cycles.

Funny, of course, but consider a more real and fatal example of this. Heart disease is seen as a man’s problem. But the biggest threat to women in a country such as the United States is also heart disease, but gender bias means aggressive treatment is pushed for men more than women. Diagnosing symptoms is biased in favour of men. Men usually experience crushing chest pain during a heart attack. Women may have a tendency for pain just under the breastbone, or complain of abdominal pain, indigestion, difficulty breathing, nausea and unexplained fatigue. Misinterpretation of women’s symptoms means women remain undiagnosed, meaning their first heart attack is often fatal.

We need to normalise the female journey by having more female ­heroes. We need to equip young men and women with an understanding that authority, knowledge, quest, bravery and wayfaring can be learnt and practised by both men and women. Our heroic archetypes must encompass women so that the daily struggles of women can be considered ‘normal’, and treated with respect, and the challenges can be addressed in an equal way to those of men.

There is frantic activity all around the world attempting to backfill the missing female heroes from our collective histories. Recovering the lost stories of powerful, inspiring and iconic women is a crucial first step. In recognition of International Women’s Day in particular, there will be lists of powerful and influential women published to highlight women’s achievements and to inspire upcoming women to take their place on the platform of heroes.

Our modern-day stories told to us in books and films must be braver in casting female protagonists. Writers and producers must take responsibility for stories aimed at both men and women about the heroic female and her journey.

Our myths tell the story of who we are, and we are not a world that can tolerate any longer the invisibility of women. Our grand myths need to stop eradicating and start celebrating women.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk

Updated: March 8, 2014 04:00 AM

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