The Importance of Women Story-Tellers to American Myth
For when scrutinized in terms not of what it is but of how it functions, of how it has served mankind in the past, of how it may serve today, mythology shows itself to be as amenable as life itself to the obsessions and requirements of the individual, the race, the age. – Joseph Campbell, The Hero of a Thousand Faces
American MythJoseph Campbell, one of the most influential scholars in the twentieth century, spent his life pouring over ancient myths in order to find enlightenment. He believed the metaphors within myths gave sociological, psychological, metaphysical, and cosmological guidance to anyone willing to interpret them as such. The fundamental structure found in what he called the monomyth particularly interested Campbell with its perennial philosophy that contained universal truths and insights to human nature. The journeys of Hercules, Rama, Jesus Christ, King Arthur, and plethora of other great men follow the monomythic path: challenging society’s beliefs and introducing new, enlightened concepts. (Campbell, 1949)
Movies convey the same “world-historical, macrocosmic triumphs” of a hero who “brings back from his adventure the means for the regeneration of his society as a whole” (Campbell, 30) as any ancient myth. America’s silver screen heroes retrace the hero’s path to impart new knowledge on today’s captivated audiences. Luke Skywalker in George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy remains the most famous conscious use of the monomyth, but even more recently Peter Parker (The Amazing Spider-Man, 2012), Tony Stark (Iron Man, 2008), and Bruce Wayne (Batman Begins, 2005) each “venture forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Campbell, 23). Even Stu from the 2009 movie The Hangover stumbles through a hero’s (mis)adventure to come upon his own life-altering enlightenment: living safely does not always guarantee happiness.
The Problem with American MythAmericans look to the silver screen for guidance on how we should live and what the world is like (Behm-Morawitz and Mastro) (Escholz et al) (Taylor and Setters) (Tylka and Calogero), but when they do the hero archetype remains archaically male. Sara Nicholson proposes in her feminist critique of Campbell that in ancient myth females exist only as a symbol “in contrast or relation to the active hero” (191). Unfortunately, such symbolism quickly decays into stereotyping that perpetuates a patriarchal society that “subsume women as subtext, a bracketed subspecies of Man” (Nicholson, 187). Martha Lauzen’s analysis of recent block-buster films movies confirms this notion: even though half the population call themselves female (US Census Bureau, 2011) only a third of the characters in the top 100 grossing films of 2011 were female (2012).
Clearly the film industry needs to change something, and not just the heroes’ gender. Again, Campbell provides us an answer which Nicholson structures as such: “As part of the mythological system of framing, ordering and control, the ideas shaping gender images in mythology are limited by recourse to the time and location of their conjuring.” (192) That is, the story tellers morph the monomyth to reflect or challenge their society’s values and beliefs. Hollywood needs new story-tellers.
Lauzen’s statistics again back the theory with numbers: women held only 18% of major behind-the-scenes positions in the top 250 grossing domestic films of 2011. Only 14% of writers were women in the films, and, most deplorably, only 5% of directors. (Lauzen, 2012) What’s more, given similar budgets in the top 100 grossing worldwide films of 2007, the gender of the filmmaker or protagonist did not correlate with any significant monetary success or failure of the film (Lauzen, 2008). Only when gender and race demographics in Hollywood accurately reflect America’s population will the film industry be able to honestly portray American ideals.
The Story-Teller and MythThe story-teller, namely the director and writer, imparts social and personal nuances to the tale to make it relevant, thought-provoking, and inspiring to the audience. Without conscious, purposefully adjustments to the story, the female heroine becomes a stereotyped, secondary characterization rather than a strong, memorable personality. Rapunzel in Disney’s 2011 animated movie Tangled suffers from such short comings. Although entertaining, financially successful, and different than previous Disney Princess movies, Tangled failed emphasize the ‘girl power’ message it so desperately wanted to impart. The male directors Nathan Greno and Bryon Howard with male writer Dan Fogelman fell back on conventional gender roles and downplayed Rapunzel’s heroic journey. The movie is even told from the male protagonist’s perspective and opens with Flynn Rider narrating “This is the story of how I died. Don’t worry! ... The truth is it isn’t even mine, this is the story of a girl” (0:00) The lack of feminine and feminist insight behind the camera prevented Tangled from shaking off Disney’s sexist reputation. A woman director or writer could have imparted her own experiences of becoming an independent adult through the movies cinematography, dialogue, tone, etc.
Vicky Jenson did just that when she co-directed Dreamworks’ Shrek in 2001. Her outspoken opinions at the early stages of the film got her promoted to co-head of the story team and then to director. In an Life After Film School interview, Jenson describes insisting to the producers “you gotta go this way! The louder I got the more people listened” (8:37). ‘This way’ being towards a quirky and unique children’s comedy rather than a rehashed adventure story. Although the movie centers around Shrek, the female protagonist, Princess Fiona holds her own as a character and, arguably, goes through a more meaningful psychological transformation than her male counterpart. Shrek remains one of the landmark animations that generations of children and filmmakers will look to for moral and professional guidance.
Princess Fiona and Rapunzel have a lot in common; stuck in a tower for an extended period, honing fighting skills like karate, wanting to return to civilization, and of course falling in love with their rescuers. The difference between the characters is that Fiona, despite not being the main character, goes through her own heroic journey that is distinctly separate from Shrek’s. Greno and Howard paint Rapunzel as the “spunky sidekick” relation to the “swashbuckling” man (Cowden, Lafever, Viders, 2000). Tangled fails to ‘regenerate’ society’s views on women’s roles, but instead remains a patriarchal myth that perpetuates male supremacy. (Eve Bit First, 2011) Jenson, however, shaped the monomyth in Shrek to successfully challenge social norms for both Shrek and Fiona, namely the one that urges individuals to follow prescribed stereotypes in order to fit in.
Strong female leads like Rapunzel fall short of breaking the social norms due to producers failing to choose women directors or writers throughout the film industry. Examples
span across genres: from the dishonest framing of loss in Richard LaGravenese’s P.S. I Love You (2007) to the antediluvian themes of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) and the blatant stereotyping of Madea in Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman. These films attempt to bring strong women to the silver screen, but just fall short especially when compared to strong women characters directed by strong women directors, i.e. Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2011), Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are Alright, Nora Emphron’s Julie & Julia (2009).
A Path for New Story-TellersHow will the film industry change their demographics? Certainly not by themselves, and we can’t expect aspiring young women to endure it alone. To encourage more women to pursue careers behind the camera, I propose a multifaceted movement that actively targets and supports both girls and women. Girls will be 1) initiated into the film industry through toys, 2) encouraged to think about messages the media sends her, 3) exposed to career opportunities through broadcast interviews of and awards for women behind the camera, 4) given the opportunity to participate in camps and workshops focused on film making. Women actively pursuing need a support system that incorporates 5) scholarships and mentorships.
Imagine, a young girl unwraps a present at her ninth birthday party. How thrilled would she be to see her very own Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games, 2012) doll. Of course this would add to her collection that’s already populated by Storm (XMen, 2000), Hermione (Harry Potter, 2001), and Neytiri (Avatar, 2009). She and her friends will play with them while donning costumes inspired by The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, and The Help. Although some of the parents balk at the idea of giving the young girl merchandise inspired by movies rated PG-13, few bat their eyes at her twin brother receiving Avenger’s costumes, Star Wars Legos, or Transformer figurines.1) Presently the majority of media-marketed toys marketed to girl come from G-Rated franchises or from television. The message that current media themed toys give, besides the “associations with physical attractiveness, nurturance, and domestic skill,” (Blakemore) is that young girls are somehow unworthy of participating in the mature and complex world of film. Marketing more feminine toys using mature movies initiates girls’ interest in the film culture. Because they are made to hook children into franchises, the toys are sure to have a lasting influence on the girl
Assuming Mockingjay, the third installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, comes out two years after the first movie, the fictional young girl will be 11 when it comes out. Her parents give in to her pleads and let her watch the series on DVD and take her to the movie. Because girls mature earlier that boys (Klimstra), she handles the violence, love, and other mature themes better than her brother does at The Avengers 2. What is more, the girl is more likely to reflect on the movie’s themes in relation to her life (Burwell & Shirk).2) Organizations like Women’s Media Center should encourage parents to watch mature films with their daughters and discuss it afterwards. Providing pamphlets to guide parents through a discussion will help insure the girl understands the themes and messages in the movie. This will help girls, and their brothers, become more media literate and critically think about the role of media plays in their lives.
After the movie, the girl becomes enthralled with the heroine Katniss and researches her online. In her investigations she runs across the other popular adolescent feminine movie- Twilight. Perhaps, as girls do, the girl fosters a crush on one of the characters, and starts watching videos of the cast. She runs across an interview with Catherine Hardwicke, the director of the first Twilight film. In this moment, the girl realizes ‘Whoa, I can have a handsome actor in my house, tell him what to do, and people will pay me big bucks for it!’3) Off-camera women in the film-industry should make a point to move in front of the camera and make their presence known. They can give more interviews and participate in youth geared media. For example, television programs like the MTV Movie Awards or the Kids Choice Awards could add categories like best director, writer and give professionals like Hardwicke the opportunity to expose young people to their world and foster aspirations that go beyond the glamorous lifestyles of stars.
Through Middle and High School, the girl goes to as many film classes, workshops, and camps that she can so as to learn all the aspects to creating movies. Her parents send her to local workshops like Femme Film Texas, Sprout Media by Kids, and Real Girls, Reel Change. She comes back excited to show them all the writing, storyboarding, casting, acting, and directing she’s done.4) Although many organizations exist to promote women in the film industry or inform girls about the media’s messaging, few exist that encourage young girls to actually learn how to make their own films. Organizations like Movies By Women, Women’s Media Center, and Women in Film Los Angeles should strive to offer film-making workshops, promote their causes, and provide scholarships to promising young girls.
Suppose the girl, now a young woman, goes film school on one of these scholarships. She’s made it right? Although she’s a confident individual, the stress and pressure of succeeding in this male dominated field makes her waiver. Luckily she finds an organization that connects her to other women in the film industry. They support each other’s endeavors while giving helpful tips, encouraging thoughts, and potential opportunities.5) Women in other male-dominated fields have expressed feelings of “isolation and inadequacy” (Antony and Cudd, 1) that lead to dropping out or transferring to another major. Corporations such as Texas Instruments, AT&T, and Lockheed Martin recognized this problem and began supporting the website MentorNet. It matches professionals with students in engineering and science and is geared particularly for women and persons of color. People in the film industry, big name or small, need to start a similar program that targets college students and young professionals. Not only would this help a young woman deal with cocky peers, chauvinist professors, or the simple challenges of getting through school, but it will also jumpstart her on the all-important task of networking.
As a driven, confident, knowledgeable, and supported woman, this director works her way to the top of Hollywood. She crafts movies with such bravado that the whole world becomes enamored with her. In casting she disregards gender, allowing men and women try out for any role. Actors rave about her ability show them how to feel their characters’ passion. Audiences forget they’re in a theater when watching her films. Most importantly, she directs films in order to challenge social structure and provide models of a greater reality.
She knows her influence reaches beyond the movie theater. Advocating for women, she invests time and money into programs that helped her when she was young including film camps for girls, televised interviews and lectures, a scholarship fund for aspiring filmmakers, and a mentorship with student at the American Film Institute. She also fights discrimination within the industry by declining a jury position at the Cannes Film Festival when none of the nominated films are directed by women and publicly points out her colleague’s pointlessly undimensional female charter as stereotyped. And, when her adventure movie releases, she insures that any toys marketed highlight the intellectual abilities of girls, not the physical impossibilities.
∞Campbell describes a particular dreamer as a “distinguished operatic artist” who follows “not the safely marked general highways of the day, but the adventure of the special… that comes to those ears are open… to make her way alone through the difficulties not commonly encounter.” (Campbell, 16) Woman’s journey to equality in the film industry can be likened to this dreamer’s. Although unorthodox and arduous, a woman’s career in behind-the-camera Hollywood gives her the ability to frame America’s myths in new perspectives that challenge the patriarchal system we live in today. Any woman or girl entering into such a whale’s belly of a task deserves a strong supportive community of allies so that she can return to society the boons of freedom and equality.
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