Heroine With a Thousand Faces: The Rise of the Female Savior
Hard times were made for heroes. In the face of oppression, it’s natural to want a savior – an intermediary to carry our hopes and dreams of overturning The System. From the wreckage of the Great Depression, a slew of caped crusaders rose, like Superman, corruption-busting Batman, Captain America, and The Shadow, who knew “what evil lurks in the hearts of men.”
Male heroes abound in our culture, virile figures who dazzle us with their wits and brawn. But lately, they just don’t seem to be getting the job done. The cowboy is looking ragged. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action hero turned governor, turns out to be a run-of-the-mill womanizer and cheat. Far from battling global financiers, Barack Obama bends to the will of bankers. As a network of lawless capitalists and their political puppets squeezes and starves the world’s citizens from Cairo to California, Superman seems to have fled the scene.
Somebody else has leapt onstage. And she’s not wearing a codpiece.
In the most familiar dramas, epics and action stories, women play a small part -- usually as idols, temptresses and servants. But the phenomenal success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, with their ass-kicking female protagonists, raises the question: Has the era of the female hero arrived? If so, why now? And what is she trying to tell us?
Birth of the Shero
As Joseph Campbell described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the archetypal male hero appears in a wondrous array of guises throughout the world’s mythologies. The tale is pretty much the same: A young man ventures forth from the common realm to battle evil forces and wins a decisive victory, sharing the fruits with humanity.
The stories, of course, were usually set down by men. Campbell himself noted this difficulty, and turned to fairy tales to find female heroes because such stories were often passed down from women to children and were more likely to carry the female perspective. In fairy tales, women must rely more on brains and subversive activity than brawn to survive, as the clever Persian queen Scheherazade did when she beguiled a murderous king with her storytelling for a thousand and one nights.
In the 1990s, anthologist Kathleen Ragan got frustrated when she discovered that Victorian folklorists had tended to downplay and excise strong women when they set down the traditional oral tales in print collections. In Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters, she uncovered a treasure trove of stories starring female heroes, including an early version of Red Riding Hood in which the girl enters the woods a second time, meets another Big Bad Wolf, and dispatches him single-handedly.
In American cultural productions, the female hero first moves from subplot to plot in the post-World War II era, reflecting societal changes as women entered the labor force in large numbers. Witness Wonder Woman, an Amazon princess patriotically protecting America in her star-spangled panties, easily defeating villains and rescuing her male love interest from evildoers. But her eye-candy curves and erotic accoutrements (that kinky, submission-inducing golden lasso!) mark her as a creature of male fantasy, and her defense of The System neutralizes her threatening qualities. Wonder Woman supports, rather than upsets, the dominant order.
After Wonder Woman, the female superhero gets more or less stuck in Comicbookland. With a few notable exceptions including the indelible Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the Alien franchise, she stumbles around in stiletto heels, more sexual fantasy than role model. This tradition culminated with Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider franchise, a female Indiana Jones endowed with pneumatic boobs designed to please male video game audiences.
But as Jolie’s star rose, the shero began to undergo modifications. The actress’s box office success and unconventional qualities – the wild tattoos, the casual acknowledgement of bisexuality -- intrigued the public. Phillip Noyce, the director of Salt, eventually enlisted her to play a part originally written for Tom Cruise. The protagonist of a new spy thriller, Edwin Salt, became Evelyn Salt.
In the film, Jolie is a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy who kung fus her way through swarms of male foes and hints at something subversive and ambivalent: Is she inside The System or isn’t she? Jolie’s icy stare is as mysterious as it is disconcerting, and we’re not certain that she doesn’t despise everyone she encounters, no matter which side they’re on. Jolie, a defector from conventional mores in real life, suggests a defection not only from the masculine patriotism of the CIA, but from the entire tradition of the male-centered action genre in the Salt franchise.
When a group begins to gain power and enlarge the scope of its activities, cultural products reflect the shift. In the 21st century, the 2008 global financial crisis -- fueled by testosterone-soaked Wall Street -- accelerated a society-wide shift in which women play an increasingly important role in determining the world’s economic, cultural and political trajectory.
In the U.S., the Great Recession created a gap between male and female unemployment rates unseen since 1948, casting large numbers of women into the role of sole breadwinner for the first time. The economic crisis has generated interest in female leaders and the traits of forethought, resourcefulness, collaboration, empathy, and careful risk management associated with them. Leaders like Elizabeth Warren, SEC chair Mary Shapiro, former FDIC chairwoman Shelia Bair, and attorney Brooksley Born, who served on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, have challenged Wall Street and led the charge to move the country past dangerous breaches of ethics and restraint. Their cultural impact was hailed in a 2010 Time magazine cover story, “The New Sheriffs of Wall Street,” which depicted Warren, Bair and Shapiro as steely-eyed avatars with the grit required to take on the planet’s most entrenched powers. Along with the likes of Susan Webber, the take-no-prisoners founder of the influential Naked Capitalism blog, whose pen name Yves Smith suggests a subversive Eve-in-the-garden figure, these women confront the breakdown of traditional human values and set themselves to restoring sanity to a world ensnared by financial criminals.
Women’s perspectives and input have become part of an ongoing values recalibration. As the world’s citizens confront a financialized monster, it’s no wonder they would turn to the very opposite of the hyper-masculine hustlers of Wall Street and their swaggering political enablers to rescue them from despair. In Wired magazine, Angela Watercutter discusses the cultural impact of the female leadership of women like Asmaa Mahfouz, whose call to young women to protest Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt last year helped topple the dictator. In the 21st century, the hero is emerging in literature and film as a distinctly female force who faces a world of soul-destroying bleakness. Two wildly successful fiction series and their film progeny depict worlds where dreams are betrayed, human values are abandoned and women lead the charge to combat evil.
Filling the Void
The traditional presentation of the Young Girl in literature can be summed up in the formula She-Who-Waits. Between childhood and adulthood, the young woman must wait for a male liberator to save her from evil. The male is endowed with riches, power, connections, and moral authority, and it is in the best interests of the girl to become his apprentice or love interest.
But what if there aren’t any male heroes to wait for?
The new narratives presented in the Millennium trilogy and The Hunger Games present apocalyptic realms where grief and rage haunt a population crushed by wealthy and malevolent forces. Men in authority positions are mostly corrupt, and the good men have been shorn of their power. Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist is a down-and-out, middle-aged journalist who has been framed by a powerful financier. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s male reality-show partner Peeta, with his diminutive name, is a beaten-down teenage boy with scant confidence in his physical prowess and mental acumen.
The stories partly reflect a widespread male identity crisis in which the social and economic foundations of male prestige have been threatened. The service economies that have replaced the industrial order of the 20th century have upset the gender norms of the workplace, providing fewer places for the traditional male worker to inhabit his role as builder, physical laborer, chief, and subordinator of women (Bethany Moreton captures this phenomenon in her book To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise). They speak to a void in which even the good men are too powerless or compromised to fulfill the obligations of the hero. The attention thus turns to the Young Girl, the outsider who has not yet been co-opted and whose future is not yet determined.
The Young Girl must be transformed if she is to carry the hero’s burden. Larsson’s Lisbeth Salandar is far less a creature of the male gaze than her predecessors. Defiant, gaunt and sporting a spiky mohawk and prickly Goth accessories, she is an open challenge to the fantasy of soft curves and patriarchal expectations of feminine compliance. A computer hacker, she is resistance incarnate. The psychologically complex Lisbeth echoes the resourcefulness and survival instinct of fairy tale women, who often achieve their ends through masquerade and dissimulation.
Lisbeth’s purpose is not only to survive, but to challenge corporate wealth amassed at the expense of the common good. A victim of rapists, she becomes a superhero, a female Robin Hood who plunders plutocrats and outwits corrupt bureaucrats and policemen.
In Larsson we have a male left-wing author preoccupied by the ruthless abuse of women by men and the decay of Sweden's social democratic state. The title of Larsson’s first Millennium novel, published posthumously in Sweden in 2005, was originally Men Who Hate Women (in English, the title was changed to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Larsson was deeply involved in leftist politics and journalism, spending part of 1977 in Eritrea training a squadron of female Eritrean People's Liberation Front guerrillas to use grenade launchers. After illness forced him from the battle zone, he retuned to Sweden, where, in the 1990s, the country endured one of the granddaddies of financial crises. This upheaval, along with the rollback of social reforms, constitutes the backdrop of his fictional exploration of global corruption and the sinister side of the Swedish state. For Larsson, women, with their outsider position in society, represent the possibility of resistance and hope against these destructive forces.
Like Lisbeth Salander, Suzanne Collins’ Katniss Everdeen faces a world in which the state has become corrupted and the people are perceived merely as sources of wealth extraction for elites. Collins, a television writer, is not an overtly political figure in the mold of Larsson, but she has expressed the impact of her father’s service in Vietnam on her view of the brutality and absurdity of war, and she cites his experience of the privations of the Great Depression as inspiration for the survival themes in her books. The Hunger Games appeals to anxieties about government corruption on both the left and the right, manifested in fears of surveillance and a hunger for revolt.
Armed with her Mockingjay emblem -- a bird symbol of rebellion that suggests a satirical, subversive stance toward The System – Katniss is tasked with surviving a state-sponsored reality show killing match in which she must rely on both her physical skill and intellect in order to return to her impoverished coal-mining district. Only when Katniss pantomimes compliance before the television camera does she conform to conventional expectations of feminine eroticism. For her, the femininity of curls and frilly dresses is pure artifice -- a mask of survival. Her romantic entanglements are equally ambiguous: her life depends on enacting a love affair with Peeta, but while she cares for the hapless boy, she is no lovestruck teenage girl. When she is released into the woods, Katniss is outfitted as Artemis, the hunter-- as likely to slay men as to love them.
Both Lisbeth and Katniss extend the limits of what is possible in the stifling worlds they inhabit. Notably, both women display violence – they show, through their physical aggression, the ultimate proof of their subjectivity. They are committed to their own survival -- quite the opposite of the martyrdom and physical sacrifice traditionally demanded of female saviors. But they also show openness to collaboration with both men and women that points to the limitations of the lone-cowboy-hero model and the traditional gender dynamic of male dominance/female servitude.
For these female characters, the waiting game of young womanhood is supplanted by active conquest, and the path is opened for independent, strong-willed and admirable heroines. The ethical, intelligent, fearless female becomes the preeminent challenge to sinister, intangible forces. Mold-breaking female protagonists subvert the rules of a rigged game in a way that is all the more thrilling and cathartic for their break with tradition.
As women continue to gain power and influence, they will be tested as heroes, and many, no doubt, will fail and turn to corruption and compliance, just as their male predecessors have done. But for the moment, the female superhero may be our last hope.
If not her, who?