Let’s Hear It for the Boy! Masculinity and the Monomyth


This guest post by Morgan Faust appears as part of our theme week on Masculinity.


I had a professor who began our first writing class with a wonderful speech about how as writers we have the most important job in the world since we create the myths that inform and mold society and its expectations of itself. Granted, his job was to convince us grad school was worth $40,000 a year….but the idea that narratives have real power did stay with me (so I guess he proved his point). Our national cinema (by which I mean the big stuff that shows up in theaters and is sent out around the world) says a lot about who we, as a country, think we are.

To judge by last year’s overseas box office numbers, we are a nation of white boys and men who fight imaginary baddies…oh and Angelina Jolie. There are many things we could tease out about America’s self-assumed national identity from our cinematic persona with regard to race, heteronormativity, military prowess, but this is Bitch Flicks and the topic is masculinity, so for today, let’s stick to that. Notably, in those top ten movies we have (often in the form of a sequel, triquel, and I don’t even know where to begin counting the X-Men movies) the story of a scrawny, nerdy, outcast boy who goes on a journey and becomes the hero he was meant to be. This story is known to its friends as the monomyth. So what does this myth say about us? A whole heck of a lot! So come with me, oh humble reader, and you will be transformed!

[caption id="attachment_22291" align="aligncenter" width="500"]They’re softly lit, and ready for action. They’re softly lit, and ready for action.[/caption]

 

A fantastic, recent example of our everyman hero, monomyth affinity is The Lego Movie. This story has all the notes of the humble hero myth: the hero Emmet, a good-hearted nobody who is chosen by a higher power, Vitruvius, to be the “special,” is then supported by a team of talented people–Wild Style, Batman, and Unikitty–to try and conquer evil Mr. Business. He eventually discovers he had the power to defeat the big bad in him all along! (Sound familiar, Bilbo? Mr. Potter?) Lord and Miller know their stuff. They play craftily with the myth; it’s story structure (ultimately our characters are actually Legos, not people, and they represent the feelings of the boy that is playing with them. Therapists would have loved working with this kid). It has a great message about play and finding your own voice, and says we can all be heroes! Especially boys! Oh, right. While the message of the movie might be about everyone, the story is about an everyman. I am reminded of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” It represents all people, but it definitely says men.

[caption id="attachment_22292" align="aligncenter" width="310"]You could be me! Unless you’re, you know, not a straight, white, um, yellow dude! You could be me! Unless you’re, you know, not a straight, white, um, yellow dude![/caption]

 

So let’s dig into the component parts here. We have Emmet who is a good guy, friendly, upbeat, hardworking but unappreciated by his peers (calling Steve Rogers). All of these are traits you choose to have, rather than are born with, which fits in perfectly with the Alger Hiss American Dream we hold so dear: we are not a nation of fated success stories,  we are individuals formed by our choices. Monomyth heroes are often orphans, or at the very least unloved by their parents, so they are truly, self-made men. How to Train Your Dragon’s Hiccup is small, hardworking and big-hearted. Harry Potter, even though put upon by awful relatives, was still generally a good kid who tried his best. And Luke was, well let’s be honest, he was a brat, but he was supposed to be a good-hearted, ambitious kid, who wanted to get out and see the world. This is a particular vision of masculinity; it’s not the “right man for the job” skill set of Indiana Jones, Hercules, or James Bond, instead, these are highly attainable character traits.

For all these boys/men, at some point early in the story, someone or thing plucks them from their mundane existence to send them on their path to greatness. The Lego Movie has fun with this conceit by getting a bit meta and literally calling him “the special,” but it is still the familiar notion that through no action of his own, Emmet is lifted up and named the one person who can save the world; and while he doesn’t see it about himself yet, the powers that be have faith in him that he will one day be the hero they know he can be. Which leads us nicely to the next thing a humble hero needs: his team.

In The Lego Movie this is made up a of team of Master Builders, a group of elite builders with the ability to create anything from legos, a skill that Emmet notably lacks. And while this group has their doubts about him, they never abandon him, they listen, and they follow his leadership. Each is a different variation on Emmet, and a manifestation of a skill set he doesn’t have, which in this case, as in many movies, includes a token woman (in Lego there is a token woman, and a token female crazy pony). Despite their abilities, each of these characters are included in the story only so they can help the hero find his inner strength and attain the goal of defeating evil.

[caption id="attachment_22293" align="aligncenter" width="500"]We’re here for you! Here and slightly behind you! We’re here for you! Here and slightly behind you![/caption]

 

Which brings us to the final piece of the monomyth: the hero had the answer inside of him all along. Whether it be the hero’s discovery that in fact he is special, like with Harry Potter (not only am I a wizard, I’m a Horcrux!), or simply that some character trait that had been deemed worthless proves vital, like with Kung Fu Panda’s Po, his love and belief in his heroes proves to be the thing all heroes need to succeed. The journey has brought the hero to a crucial juncture, and in order to defeat the big bad, our man has to come to face-to-face with his true self and embrace his identity.

What a perfect ending to an American myth: we each have greatness inside of us, no matter who we are!

[caption id="attachment_22294" align="aligncenter" width="173"]Those aren’t noodles in there, I’m full of greatness! Those aren’t noodles in there, I’m full of greatness![/caption]

 

And it is, it’s a great story, maybe the greatest. In fact, most religions have some version of this very idea at the core of  their system (think how at the end of every yoga class the teacher ends saying Namaste or “the God within me greets the God within you”). So if this self-empowerment myth is limited only to men, what does that say about our culture? Well, we see its reflection in the XY domination of the White House. We see it again in Lily Ledbetter’s fight for equal pay. And we see it in the hiring practices of Hollywood (hey there Colin Treverrow!). We have a national love affair with underdog male success stories, a love affair that has not yet extended to women. And that is a damn shame.

But there is hope, a whole lot of it. Things are changing (Hillary!), and that myth is becoming more inclusive. On the one hand, we see that the traits our male heroes often embrace in order to defeat the big bad are becoming more traditionally feminine characteristics: kindness, generosity, self-sacrifice and teamwork. It’s not just about who’s the strongest or fiercest, it’s about love and respect for others. All good things. And we have Buffy, we have Katniss, and (coming this summer!) the return of Sarah Connor. There is a difference, however, between our female heroes and their male counterparts, and that is that they are fleshed out, full characters. They are not mirrors to reflect an improved image of the audience, they are women with families, feelings and flaws; they are people, not archetypes.

[caption id="attachment_22295" align="aligncenter" width="500"]These heroes are women, but they aren’t everywoman. These heroes are women, but they aren’t everywoman.[/caption]

 

As the monomyth evolves, the question is: will it evolve to include the “everywoman” hero archetype, or will the nature of myth itself change to embrace not just the messaging of individualization, but the representation of unique stories for unique people?

 


Morgan Faust is writer/director who works in LA with her creative partner and brother Max Isaacson. Together they form the duo BroSis. When they aren’t writing action films with kick-ass women heroes, they’re keeping it goofy over at FunnyorDie.com.  Click here to see what she means.

Twitter @morganfaust

Instagram @brosisgrams

 

 

7 Comments

  • adam smith
    Posted June 29, 2015 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    there is something called “CHOICES”, you’re not going to force everything to be 50%, like throwing out 40% women nurses to make man equally present in hospitals, if you force people to be something then you’re a dictature and a social engineer, don’t be driven by modern feminazis that gives false numbers and studies, young single unmarried and doesn’t have children women get payed 105% the salary of men in same conditions, but the feminazi are trying to say women get 73% of same work which is false because independent women stop progressing in revenue because they tend to work less to take care of kids but the men do the opposite but also for kids !!, this is their way to see things and it is called gender, but the ones that plays “professional victimization” what they really want is “male reduction” and cutting their dicks off which is total pure dangerous sexism that mustn’t be tolerated.

    • Brigit McCone
      Posted August 4, 2015 at 5:43 am | Permalink

      Women are around 50% of ticket purchasers. That is a fact. Therefore they deserve entertainment that reflects them with 50% heroines. That is not happening, therefore entertainment is ridiculously distorted. And sure, I’d like to see more male nurses too, but nobody is discouraging those guys.

      • adam smith
        Posted August 6, 2015 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        you see what is happening here ?
        you said : “i want an entertainment” like a little child crying for something, instead of creating your own entertainment.
        music industry is male dominant ? create your own studio, this is how boys did it.
        instagram has a strict nipple policy and you want to show your breast ? good, create your own apps.
        like it’s everybody’s job to think about you

        • Brigit McCone
          Posted August 11, 2015 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

          See what’s happening here? You’re commenting on successful female driven media about how women need to drive media instead of trying to piggyback on the success of… wait a second… *Mind* *BLOWN*

          • adam smith
            Posted August 16, 2015 at 2:00 am | Permalink

            kid, you said something about all media should give females 50% hero something, you’re talking about all existing media

          • Brigit McCone
            Posted August 16, 2015 at 11:50 am | Permalink

            kid, look up the word “should” in a bitching online dictionary. It’s a groovy concept.

  • pwlsax
    Posted October 18, 2015 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Male myths are never going to adapt to the idea of “the representation of unique stories for unique people.” One might argue that to do so would comport well with archetypally male quailties like reason and the embrace of reality.

    But the deep truth is that archetype is not myth, and does not have the power of myth. Individualism is a male archetype. But it is a male myth only insofar as it embraces self-reliance and, to a limited degree, self-determination.

    We think of a strong man as “a breed apart,” but he must still be one of a breed. Uniqueness is not manly, and it is not manly because it does not honor male myth.

    Men demand myths, self-justifying, limiting, irrational tho they may be. Not every adult male qualifies as a “man.” Manliness is not a state, but a status. It must be earned, re-earned, and is always subject to being revoked.

    Some of this status comes from men’s achievements in everyday reality, but much of it comes from myth. If manliness must be earned and re-earned, it must be kept always “above and beyond” that everyday reality. The ante must constantly be raised.

    Even men’s real-life accomplishments must take place securely within a mythic context. We need to mythologize the whole of what it means to be a man, or he is no longer a man. He is merely male.

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