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De-Gendering the Hero’s Journey?

Updated: Jul 8

Still from HBO's Watchmen (2019)

That’s a good question.

One of the recurrent themes in Campbell’s work is the idea that our inherited mythology was created to put humans into relationship with a world that no longer exists. Looked at from today's experience of gender, the original stages in the Hero’s Journey seem to bear this out. When he wrote Hero with a Thousand Faces, the material from which he elicited the monomyth described journeys undertaken by a hero, rather than a heroine. For most of the past four thousand years, these narratives of psychological development were crafted around the experience of men and not women. (Still, it is always worth remembering that one of the original “heroes” in Western mythology was the Goddess Inanna. Ahem. But let’s save that for another day.)

So does that mean a heroic life’s journey can only describe the experience of men and not women?

I assume everyone is okay with “NO.”

But it does raise some interesting questions. Let’s consider some options.

  • We could just stick with the historical view (and stick our heads in the sand) and argue that if women are essentially different from men, then perhaps women can’t be heroes at allthat such gender differences mean only men can be heroes.

Safe to say, 1) this understanding of gender grounds most of the historically sourced mythology bundled together in Hero with a Thousand Faces, and 2) nobody today is likely to think this is reasonable.

  • Or we could argue that, if the biological differences between men and women give rise to entirely different ways of experiencing the world, then women’s experience needs to be reflected in a heroine’s journey, distinct from any male version.

Which seems more likely.

  • But, there’s a “but.” The world we live in doesn’t look like this any more either. These kinds of binary presuppositions are increasingly problematic, and the intersectionalities of biology and gender tend to sabotage what seemed obvious a thousand years ago. The world we live in contains a spectrum of gender-related experience.

Everyone is different and therefore, if  we follow this logic, we’d require as many journeys as there are humans.

Goodbye, monomyth (?) 

Hmm. So, what to do?

Well, it is obviously true that every person is on a journey specific to their own lived experience, and this begs the question: can a single bit of mythological scaffolding still provide meaning for all human beings? Surely some psychological continuities remain among humans, regardless of their personal circumstancesand if that’s true, can we still imagine the possibility of a general narrative to provide context and meaningfulness to those experiences?

Can a single bit of mythological scaffolding still provide meaning for all human beings?

I don’t have a definite answer, but I have some ideas. 

A few years ago my colleague Chris Yogerst and I wrote up a book chapter applying Campbell to HBO’s Watchmen seriesin which the hero was a woman. You can find the full details here [After Midnight: Watchmen after Watchmen (University Press Of Mississippi, 2022)], but let me pass along an outline of our working hypothesis.

We wondered whether it might be possible to reframe the stages of the hero’s journey operationally: by looking at the social and psychological function these stages describe, regardless of gender preference or identity.

For practical purposes, we found that the stages belonging to Separation and Return seem to stand up to today’s evolved understanding of gender, but when you get to Initiation (i.e.“Meeting with the Goddess,” “Temptation,” “Atonement with the Father,”) gender just kicks in the door and says, “Excuse me, what??” 

Start by considering the function of Separation

To become who we really are, humans have to separate and distinguish themselves psychologically from the socially sanctioned roles they’ve been assigned by parents, society, the ambient culture, etc. 

So far, so good.

Once underway, each of us moves through stages of Initiation that strip off the masks we’ve been taught to wear, the internalized, socially constructed identities that condition and often occlude our self-understanding. That’s the main order of business if we wish to discover our true natureswhatever those happen to beand this idea allows us to translate Campbell’s gender-saturated stages into operationally defined and gender-neutral language.

Here are some of the details:

Meeting with the goddess (and the “sacred marriage”)

Looked at as a psychological process, Campbell's historically based metaphor can be reframed as describing that moment when a person embraces amor fati, the love of one’s own fateunderstood as their authentic selfhood. At that point, once separated from their past, a person kind of wakes up and says, “Huh, this is who I might be? This is who I really am?” 

Everyone can experience this, regardless of gender.


For those who have embraced a fate truly their own, independent from socially sanctioned authorities (parents, the culture, etc.), the Temptation to fall back into the role society had planned for you (accountant instead of artist, lawyer instead of teacher, etc.) always remains a challenge. Let’s face it, the path of social acceptance and reward is more tempting (and easier) than, as the Knights of the Round Table did, plunging into the woods where it was darkest and there was no path – the only path to the Grail.

Again, there’s nothing gender specific here.

And one more.

Atonement with the father:

It’s not enough, psychologically speaking, to embrace the path toward authentic selfhood and then endure the temptations of socially sanctioned (and socially rewarded) roles: anyone who’s taken this adventure seriously knows that, eventually, they’ll have to live with the anxiety, and the paradox, of walking along the razor’s edge between the two. Atonement means, finally, to be at-one-with both the need to follow our path while living with the daily pressures to cave in or to turn, as it were, to The Dark Side.

From here on, the remainder of Campbell’s stages (Apotheosis, the Ultimate Boon, the Return, etc.) seem to proceed without trying to fit the round pegs of contemporary lived experience into the square holes of a now-fossilized tradition. Moreover, the usefulness of reframing the stages of Initiation as we have, suggests that the gender described in the history of mythological narrative is, after all, just an accident of birth.

Something to consider.

Thanks for musing along.

MythBlast authored by:

Mark C.E. Peterson, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Washington County and past president of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture ( Philosopher, gadfly, poet, cook, writing along the watermargins of nature, myth, and culture. A practitioner of taijiquan and kundalini yoga for over 40 years, Dr. Peterson is also a happy member of the Ukulele World Congress.

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 6, and The Hero with a Thousand Faces


Latest Podcast

In this episode entitled, "Mythologies of Quest and Illumination", Campbell discusses the four functions of myth, love, and discovering one's own authentic life. Host, Bradley Olson introduces the episode and gives commentary after the lecture.


This Week's Highlights

A picture of Joseph Campbell, a white man in a brown suit.

"In northeast Siberia and in many parts of North and South America, the call of the shaman involves a transvestite life. That is, the person is to live the life of the opposite sex. What this means is that the person has transcended the powers of his or her original gender, and so women live as men and men live as women. These transvestite shamans play a very large role in the Indian mythology in the Southwest—the Hopi, the Pueblo, the Navaho, and the Apache—and also among the Sioux Indians and many others."

-- Joseph Campbell



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