Who Needs A Hero? The Hero’s Journey & Cultural Imperialism

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I’ve just started reading Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers which takes a practical look at Joseph Campbell’s theories of the heroic monomyth laid out in The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It’s very well written and I can highly recommend it, especially if you find Campbell’s prose a bit heavy or convoluted. What I’ve found most interesting so far, however, is the disclaimer Vogler puts at the beginning.

Cultural Imperialism

I’ve mentioned this briefly before, but we tend to make a huge number of assumptions when discussing story theory. Mostly we don’t even notice we’re making them.

American values and the cultural assumptions of Western society threaten to smother the unique flavors of other cultures.   ~ Christopher Vogler

The dominance of Hollywood means that storytelling techniques risk becoming standardised around the world, because that’s what people learn to want / expect and therefore that’s what sells. Three-Act Structure, the heroic journey, Jungian archetypes, even the technical language that we use to describe storytelling are made and exported worldwide without even considering that they might not work in every single culture.

Because this book is looking exclusively at the heroic journey, Vogler only gives examples that differ from that particular ‘norm’ but they are pretty revealing. Obviously, when talking about whole cultures, major generalisations are going to be made so bear with me on this.

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  • AUSTRALIA: The idea of heroic behaviour has been ‘used to lure generations of young Australian males into fighting Britain’s battles.’ As such, what we would consider to be the traditional heroic figure is viewed with distrust. Australian heroes are portrayed as far more reluctant – way beyond the standard Refusing the Call – and far more unassuming. They don’t seek out the limelight and they get rid of responsibility as quickly as possible.
  • GERMANY: Off the back of the Nazi portrayal of heroism, which used it pretty strongly in the idealism of Aryanism, the traditional hero is viewed as tainted. Dispassionate anti-heroes and unsentimental realism is much safer.
  • EASTERN EUROPE: The idea that one man can change the world is generally viewed with deep cynicism in Eastern European countries, where the prevailing cultural view is that the world is as it is and attempts to change it are doomed to failure. Therefore, a traditional hero is basically a fool who is destined to fail.

The Heroine’s Journey

On the theme of assumptions, the heroic journey can be argued to make some fundamental assumptions on gender bias as well. Vogler talks about the heroic journey being linear, proceeding from one goal to the next, whereas the heroine’s journey is more of a spiral or series of concentric circles:

… the woman making a journey inward towards the center and then expanding out again. The masculine need to go out and overcome obstacles, to achieve, conquer and possess, may be replaced in the woman’s journey by the drives to preserve the family and the species, make a home, grapple with emotions, come to accord, or cultivate beauty.   ~ Christopher Vogler

To be honest, I’m a bit torn on this. The point of the Heroic Journey principle is that it should be flexible enough to account for both, otherwise you’d just end up with the same old stories over and over again. On the other hand, I do think there are fundamental differences in how heroes and heroines operate. This becomes even more pronounced when you look at how the roles of hero vs heroine have developed in stories over time. The journey of, say, Helen of Troy is very different to that of Achilles or Odysseus. It’s only comparatively recently that heroines have been able to play in the same arena as heroes, and that’s going to have left its mark.

What do you think?

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5 responses »

  1. I suspect that how this affects your view of the classic hero’s journey depends on how you look at these formulas. If you’re inclined to give them credit then you can argue for how they’re actually not that rigid and fit a bunch of different approaches. If you find them constricting then you may want to say ‘no, look, nothing fits!’

    Hollywood and its simplified approach to this stuff clearly does encourage a homogeneous approach, but those different approaches to heroes in different regions point towards another truth – that we can use the power of story to warp and undermine cultural colonialism, to empower ourselves and take control. Whether the hero’s journey helps you to express something different or squeezes you into a conformist box largely depends upon how you use it.

  2. Pick up a book of translated folk tales from non-Western cultures, and you’ll find many similar elements to the Hero’s Journey. Can the journey be abused for cultural imperialism? Can it result in boring stories that don’t account for gender or cultural differences, or promote oppression? Of course. Absolutely. But I think it would be hard to argue there’s not some merit in the similarities Campbell found across cultures … even if they’ve resulted in a formula-izing we’d rather like to abolish.

    I’ve read Vogler’s book half a dozen times. I used to think it was pretty formulaic. But then, I started noticing how much he talks about mixing up the points on the journey, expanding one portion of the journey “disproportionately,” and doing other things to make the journey uniquely your own. (Your Australian reluctance is a great example.) I’ve come to view his views as less formulaic than I first thought. Just my two cents.

    • I’ve only just got past the introduction, where all this is mentioned. I do subscribe to the idea of the monomyth, and archetypes, and I agree with you that there’s masses of flexibility once you get past the idea of a formula. I look forward to reading the rest of the book!

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