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Newsletter #65: The Missing Heroic Feminine
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A couple of weeks ago I shared a link to an article someone sent me in a new Substack called Kennaquhair. It was a really thought provoking piece on gender archetypes, specifically focusing on the idea of the “heroic feminine” and how this is underdeveloped in our society. I was able to get permission to repost it here, so I decided to interrupt my regularly scheduled newsletter in order to post it. Please consider subscribing to the Kennaquhair newsletter, which is free.
Please note: His description of Miriam draws heavily from extra-Biblical Rabbinic literature and is not intended to be a theological argument but rather to illustrate a female archetype.
There is a pervasive unease in the world; a lingering belief that we’re blind to the truth or it’s being hidden from us; that there is a world unseen. This is an increasingly common theme in narrative art. Whether it is the magical world of Harry Potter, invisible to mere “muggles,” or the nagging belief of “Mr. Anderson” that something is wrong with the world, the public is attracted to, even obsessed with this idea. Increasingly, this theme is extending beyond narrative and is particularly potent in conspiracy theories. The latter can perhaps be explained away as the paranoia of addled malcontents but what of the former? My proposition is that this feeling of unease is a genuine intimation of the truth. That we are in fact blind to a huge aspect of reality but not due to a conspiracy against the public but instead because we simply lack the language to articulate it and that once we do, it will appear like magic.
In 1949, literature professor Joseph Campbell published his seminal work “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” His thesis was that there existed a fundamental structure to the narrative stories that had endured across culture and time. This was the “monomyth,” which he termed “the hero’s journey.”
This concept was first developed seriously by the psychoanalysts Otto Rank and anthropologist Fitzroy Raglan, and Campbell himself drew heavily from Carl Jung and the folklorist Arnold Van Gennep. This idea, in the hands of Campbell, proved immensely popular and was immediately influential in the future development of narrative stories.
A criticism of the concept of the monomyth that naturally emerged was the idea that men and women would engage in the same journey. A student of Campbell’s, Maureen Murdock, wrote a self-help book using these themes and when it was shown to Campbell, he remarked that “Women don’t need to make the journey, they are the place that everyone is trying to get to.”
While it is true that men, historically, have a formal rite of passage (which is the ritualized expression of the hero’s journey) and women do not, there is lingering credibility to Murdock’s question. How can there be a monomyth if women don’t take part in it? Is there such a thing as the “heroine’s journey” and if so, why should we care?
This is an attempt to answer those questions. In short, rather than a monomyth, there must be two central myths, one for men and one for women, and thus there is a corresponding heroine’s journey. Finally, these narrative stories are not mere cultural relics of interest only to obscure academics. Rather, they serve as cognitive heuristics that help us understand and navigate a complex and ever changing world.
What we cannot name is the archetypal heroic feminine. Because we cannot name it, we’re at least partially blind to the corresponding social and political structures that have emerged from it. Identifying, clarifying, and developing this missing narrative concept would have been a logical function of feminism. However, due to its early Marxist influences, feminists largely ignored this in favor of a rigid ideological interpretation. The consequences of this error are manifest in the antagonistic gender dynamic that has emerged to dominate the modern world. I intend to articulate what the heroic feminine is and illustrate some of the behaviors and structures that correspond to it; hopefully establishing a basis to make genuine social progress.
Humans are natural storytellers. Our brains are so wired for narrative structure that storytelling is a central tradition in every human culture. We learn better when information is in a narrative form, and we simply like them. The most popular stories are those of the archetype, which is the critical narrative abstraction. Human cognition is predicated on observation and abstraction and we’re particularly adept at pattern recognition, especially those patterns that correspond to success or failure. That’s what an archetype is: the abstracted form of an observed successful or disastrous pattern of behavior.
Archetypal stories are distilled and refined, often over centuries or millennia, such that they’re intensely information dense. Jordan Peterson has spent many hours extracting information from the extremely short Biblical story of Cain and Abel to the delight of the millions of people who’ve watched his lectures.
Archetypal stories function as cognitive heuristics, i.e., they reduce complex concepts, often moral or social, into a manageable form. This is why if someone says “My boss is like Darth Vader,” you know instantly what he means. Just how much information that narrative reference conveys becomes apparent should you run into someone unfamiliar with “Star Wars” and then attempt to explain who Darth Vader is and what he’s like and what means in terms of describing your boss.
Because archetypal stories often serve as a means of teaching moral lessons, they have a necessary correspondence to reality. Simply put, stories don’t endure unless they’re archetypal and they’re not archetypal unless they contain sufficient truth to be useful. These archetypes derive from endless observation and abstraction, packaged into narrative form, and refined over and and over again until they’re reliably able to convey a useful truth. It is popular today to invert this order of operations and assume that someone crafted an archetype and then attempted to impose that onto the world, often for some nefarious reason. Modern gender theorists make this error in critiquing gender roles as a concept. They imagine that “masculine” and “feminine” were crafted as synonyms for “superior” and “inferior” and then arbitrarily imposed onto people. When in truth, the behaviors preceded the language. We observed patterns more common (not exclusive to) in men or women and then established language to describe that. Our language reflects a reality in regards to gender.
The classic hero story is a narrative designed to illustrate ideal behaviors at a particular time and place. Over time, even the particular time and place constraint is abstracted away and we’re left with stories that have a universal theme. This is what distinguishes an archetypal story. Anyone can write a story that informs how to behave but an archetypal story tells how to behave optimally.
Historically, communities are most naturally segregated by gender. Men and women are easy to distinguish biologically, which results in different social functions with corresponding obstacles and duties. Thus, they necessarily have different stories to help guide them. There must be archetypal stories for each. While the moral lessons in any archetypal story are universal, there necessarily must be stories primarily useful for each gender. This is where the monomyth breaks down. The “hero’s journey” that Campbell described isn’t really a monomyth so much as it is the masculine hero’s story.
The earliest stories and corresponding archetypes were fairly simple, primarily narratives about men pacifying nature and making it safe with women acting as support, tending to the family and community. As these stories were refined and the lessons they contained were more readily learned and applied, human communities flourished. This success opened up greater opportunities. People could now become merchants, poets, laborers, soldiers, and so on, though these greater opportunities were primarily capitalized on by men. Women remained largely constrained by biology and so their narrative stories were largely constrained to the "maiden, mother, matriarch" triad. Over the millennia, increasingly complex opportunities for men fueled the development of an increasingly complex set of masculine narratives, which in turn informed an increasingly sophisticated understanding of masculinity within the culture. We grew to understand what masculine leadership, struggle, sacrifice, virtue, et al., looked like, whereas understanding of the feminine was constrained (though it was not entirely neglected as our understanding of the constrained roles of women did grow in sophistication, leaving us with a broader understanding of masculinity and a deeper understanding of femininity, within those roles). This imbalance compounded over time, producing what could be considered a “patriarchal” structure in much of the world. This was not the product of any contrived malice so much as a result of simple biology.
This illustrated an interesting pattern of human understanding. Modern minds often think that our comprehension of the world comes from rigorous scientific evaluation but it is instead the product of a much more organic process. In essence, we largely engage in the world at what can be considered the level of "culture." Beneath that is the level of intellectual analysis (science) which feeds into it. But beneath that is the level of narrative and art. It is here that people attempt to express ideas which have not yet been formalized intellectually. This level is predicated on observation, mythology (mythology just being the residual remnant of an earlier artistic/narrative level), and revelation (religious truths). The level of culture consists of rituals, roles, institutions, habits, and so on, all serving as cognitive and social heuristics, and passed on through story.
Historically, violence is what dominated our lives, especially the violence of nature itself. As we gained control over nature, the threat of nature receded and the violence of humans became the primary concern. This corresponds roughly to when humans settled down to farm and cities grew, and lasted until very recently. The first 240,000 years of human history was us dealing with nature. The past 10,000 years or so was us dealing with each other. Only in the past 200 years did we finally, at least in the West, get a handle on violence. The United States can lay claim to adopting the most successful moral restraint on violence: Lockean Natural Rights. Because violence is primarily the domain of men (we both suffer more of it and are also more adept at it), natural rights was primarily a restraint on men. One of the results was the emergence of new opportunities and problems for women.
In the 19th century U.S., women grew ever more involved in the public domain, acting to bring the Christian morality of the home into the public sphere by way of civic organizations. This was a unique aspect of American culture. Women took over many of the duties that the Catholic church managed in continental Europe. What developed was a kind of parallel power structure to the traditional masculine power structure. This feminine structure enabled the radical limited government to function but it also increased the prominence and status of women. This, of course, suffered a backlash in the form of a moral panic (largely focused on the fear that women would neglect the home and children). Due to said panic, the Progressives pushed for government to take over many of the functions of the women's civic organizations, thus crippling this emerging power structure. What was happening was that women's roles in society were expanding and new archetypes were emerging (this is evidenced in the literature of the age) but it never quite matured, again due to the Progressive era.
Post WW2, as the civic organizations were finally dying off, an artificial prosperity emerged (due to the U.S. possessing more than 80% of the world's industrial capacity as a result of the war) and two things happened. The first is that a uniquely prosperous middle class emerged and the second was that we put the stories about this class on TV and so the patterns expressed became firmly embedded in the cultural consciousness. The problem was that this 1950s pattern was largely an illusion.
The skills and function of the feminine in the home diminished due to the outsourcing of parenting via public education and new technologies reduced the labor required to run a home. What resulted was a kind of boredom that helped give rise to feminism, which was then fully unleashed with birth control in the 1960s. It was under these conditions that the status of the traditional feminine patterns of behavior diminished and feminism was the backlash.
Rather than looking back into Western history to identify the nascent, underdeveloped patterns of "heroic" femininity, feminism took the Marxist oppression narrative and simply dismissed the feminine expression as the behavior of the voluntary oppressed, i.e., false consciousness. Thus, it dismissed the feminine half of our culture and drove everyone in the masculine patterns of behavior. The obvious problem being that said pattern doesn't reward men and women equally AND society needs a healthy feminine side (for men and women both). Feminism should have developed those patterns but didn't.
Why didn't feminism do the hard work of developing these underdeveloped patterns? My best guess is mere intellectual laziness and mental illness. The earliest of the second wave feminists were intellectually mediocre and often severely mentally ill. Their success is not due to their achievements but the dubious durability of the 1950's patterns of behavior and the power of the Marxist narrative that they borrowed.
So... the basic problem is that archetypal stories help us understand how to act in the world. Masculine archetypal stories were plentiful and diverse but feminine archetypal stories were limited. Men grew into their roles over millennia and had time to integrate new patterns slowly. Women went from zero to sixty pretty much overnight due to birth control. As a result, they didn’t have sufficient archetypal narratives to help them. Consequently, they defaulted either to masculine patterns or the ideological constructs of feminism, such as the "you can have it all" woman of the 1980s, which was an infamous cultural disaster, or the 1950’s faux traditionalism. What resulted is a severely increased "fail rate" for women (this was particularly brutal given that woman traditionally occupied a kind of “safe” middle ground. Their lows were not as low as for men but neither were the highs) and neither they nor society were well-equipped to handle it.
All of this sets up the central question: what is the archetypal heroic feminine and what are the underdeveloped patterns that correspond? For this, we must look at historical narratives, verified by modern research (when available). The best place to start that I’ve found is the Biblical figure of Miriam (I will be using primarily Jewish sources, particularly the Talmud).
Miriam was the older sister of Moses. As a child, Miriam's father (in order to save the lives of Jewish children via a technicality) decided to divorce his wife and have the other men follow suit. Miriam, as a young girl, challenged him and insisted that he needed to find another way because it was more important to preserve the family. He accepted her critique and did so. Later, through a clever ruse, she again saved the life of Moses. Much later, Moses famously led his people out of Egypt and , along with Miriam and Aaron, was a prophet. But Moses led his people where? Into a desert... where disaster awaited save for Miriam. It's described, essentially, as a kind of magic well but basically, because Miriam was favored by God, she was able to find water. Thus, Moses led them into the desert but Miriam kept them alive.
Miriam tended to the women and helped bind and maintain the community. This is a classic function of women, building and binding the community through social maintenance (this corresponds to women’s greater measured interest in people and as a consequence of how empathy works). However, something else was going on. This brings me to whales. Pilot and Orca whales are the only species other than humans that go through menopause. The question is why? Why cut short your procreative ability? Well, the evidence suggests that it's to ensure multi-generational success. It is not merely the idea of having fewer children and caring for them more. Rather, it is that the post-menopausal female represents a new biological category and corresponding function: the store of knowledge and bulwark against disaster. In normal times, there's no difference in the survival rate of pods with or without post-menopausal females (matriarchs) but during times of disaster, such as a change in food supplies, the pods with matriarchs perform much better. It would appear that the older female retains pertinent knowledge of alternative food supplies or similar. Interestingly, what limited research exists has found similar outcomes in humans. Extended families with involved matriarchs have better multi-generational outcomes than those without. There is also speculative but incomplete research that suggests that matriarchal women have a similar effect on business and other organizations. This would be an immensely valuable area for social scientists to research.
And so Miriam's well is symbolic of her archetypal heroic feminine role as a store of wisdom and bulwark against disaster. This also, perhaps, relates to female cognitive differences in problem solving. In short, women's ability to solve problems looks a bit logarithmic over time, whereas men's looks more linear. Over a long enough period of time (which generally requires obsessive focus - there is evidence to suggest that male outlier performance doesn’t correspond to mental horsepower so much as obsessiveness), men tend to outperform women, but over a shorter duration, women are staggeringly more accurate. This has been speculated as being the reason for the notion of "women's intuition."
Miriam is a store of wisdom and bulwark against disaster but she also tends to the women of her community and ministers to them. She is engaging in the more familiar feminine behavior of building and binding communities. This last function is one of the core functions of social morality (see Jonathan Haidt - morality builds and binds). Thus, the feminine embodies one of the pragmatic purposes of morality: to build and bind communities.
Later, when Moses took and later divorced (? unclear) a Cushite wife, Miriam criticized him indirectly with Aaron and was punished for it by God... but why? Some speculate that it is racist, but this is a modern coloring because Cushite means a wider range of things than a mere ethnic identifier. Some also speculate that it was a status issue and maybe that's sound but I have another idea... I think God punished Miriam because she failed to challenge Moses directly. Every other time, Miriam challenged the masculine figure, she did so directly, this time she went through an indirect manner. Now, research on women's aggression shows that they use innuendo, gossip, and character assassination. I think Miriam was expressing a classic feminine vice and was punished for it. You see this archetypal pattern in a male (but still feminine) figure of Neville Longbottom in the first Harry Potter book when he challenges the heroic three and they blow him off. Later, Dumbledore notes that it takes courage to challenge your enemies but great courage to challenge your friends. He's acting out a heroic feminine. Miriam faltered in this moment by failing to challenge the masculine hero directly as she had so many times before.
God punishes Miriam’s transgression with leprosy and so she is removed from the tribe but they don't leave her as they would another. Because she is so revered and honored, the Jews wait. They wait with her for two weeks until Moses gets God to forgive her. This sets up a very interesting event when Miriam dies (though not by external causes as she was so holy but is instead called to Heaven). Upon her death, the Bible says "and then there was no more water." This is a key phrase because a two week delay isn't a big deal unless you're in the desert without water. Thus, Miriam's mistake cost the community primarily and expresses one of the defining concepts of heroic femininity: the relationship its actions have on the community.
When a hero goes to slay the dragon and he wanders into the cave, what is usually scattered on the ground? The bones of previous “heroes.” When a masculine hero fails, the consequence is usually death. He suffers directly and primarily. Perhaps then then dragon will go back to eating the occasional villager but the community suffers secondarily (the dragon doesn’t eat them all). When the feminine hero fails, she suffers secondarily (a couple of weeks with leprosy) whereas the community suffers primarily (two weeks in the desert without water). We can consider this more clearly with procreation. A society could (and has) function well even if 90% of the men refuse or are unable to procreate, but if 90% of women refuse or are unable to procreate, the society will collapse. The particular example of infertility has shown up in numerous films but the cause is usually neglected. These stories are incomplete as they fail to illustrate the idea that feminine choice has greater multigenerational efficacy than masculine. The consequences can be greater on society but removed from the individual. One can even speculate that this aligns with the traditional male-female dynamic in which the feminine gives up authority to the masculine so long as he also takes accountability.
This relates to the common motif of expressing nature itself as feminine. What does nature do? It selects. It decides who will live and who will die. It punishes transgressions ruthlessly. It is the medium of evolutionary selection. Human women do this via choice and on what basis select is reflected in the future. In a very real sense, if women are free to select then humanity literally reflects their judgment. It is perhaps no surprise then that many cultures have constrained female selection. It is quite the power.
And so we have the critical attributes of the archetypal heroic feminine:
1. The hero challenges the external threat and the heroine challenges the hero. The inverse of that is a figure we're all familiar with, namely Lady MacBeth who rather than challenging the hero to virtue, goads him into evil.
2. The heroine is a bulwark against disaster and a store of wisdom.
3. When the hero fails, the consequence is largely on him, i.e., he dies. The community also suffers but secondarily. The heroine is the inverse. When the heroine fails, the community suffers primarily.
4. The heroine binds and builds the community. See Jonathan Haidt's argument that morality binds and builds. Also Carol Gilligan's proposition that feminine morality is more akin to a web of inter-connectivity.
5. The feminine selects. It acts as moral judge: the essence of nature. This is seen most widely through the personification of nature and natural forces as feminine. The Greek mythological figures Nemesis, the Fates, Sirens, are particularly prominent but this is likely the most universal and widespread idea regarding femininity.
It is true that men and women both possess a masculine and feminine quality, though men tend towards being more masculine and women more feminine. This is, of course, definitional. Today, we aggressively encourage women into masculine patterns of behavior, and some are well-suited to it, but most are not, and this is causing great tension. Of late, we’ve also increasingly pressured men into more feminine patterns, but because those patterns are less well-understood, this is even more destructive. Without a proper understanding of femininity, its role in society, and the institutions and structures that emerge from it, we’re creating cultural chaos. We’re driving women into patterns of behavior that are reliably making them miserable and chaotic (see the increasing celebration of “girl as disaster” as if that is something to be proud of) but we’re also driving men into patterns that are ill-defined and equally poorly suited to most of them.
Consider Queen Elizabeth. She was a famed and effective leader but was she a feminine leader or merely a woman acting out a masculine pattern? What does feminine leadership look like as distinct from masculine? What would corresponding cultural and political structures look like? What could society look like if femininity is fully developed to complement masculinity? These are questions that are not asked today but are critical to solving our current tensions.
In conclusion, I want to present some other examples of these "heroic feminine" patterns:
1. Biblical (Talmudic) Miriam
2. Elizabeth Bennet from "Pride and Prejudice." In this story, Mr. Darcy asks to marry her and she refuses, brutally, and offers up her judgement of him. In response, he does something critical... he takes her judgement seriously. He doesn't disregard it nor does he subordinate himself to it. Rather, he rejects where he thinks she was wrong and improves where he thinks she was right. HOWEVER, he does this without expectation. He does not continue his pursuit of her. He only does so when evidence comes to him that she may have changed her mind. Not only is Elizabeth Bennet acting as a moral judge but their negotiated process is a good illustration of how men and women (masculine and feminine) relate.
3. Neville Longbottom in the first Harry Potter book, when he challenges the heroes at the end and how this action is rewarded.
4. Louise Banks from “Arrival.” She challenges the masculine authority and in a "masculine” film, she’d play second fiddle to Forrest Whitaker’s more traditional masculine lead. She engages in the very traditional heroic feminine behavior of having a child even though she knows the child will suffer. She also acts as a bulwark against disaster, a store of wisdom (she learns the language and is herself a specialist in the critical skill), and if she were to fail, the consequences would be minor on her but severe for the alien race.
5. Ripley from the Alien series. In the first story, she's acting out a very curious feminine role, specifically what happens when positive masculinity collapses. The men go out into the unknown and instead of bringing back treasure for the community, they bring back a monster which devours them, leaving her effectively alone. Thus, her home suddenly becomes unsafe as there is no masculine to protect it. She must take on the role of the masculine simultaneously with the feminine (this is shown by her carrying her cat) and the burden of that dual role is what makes the film a horror movie. She's constantly terrified in what should be her safe home and she must struggle merely to survive and flee.
However, in the second film, her role changes. During her long cyrosleep, she misses her daughter’s entire life. This is a core plot point to explain why she latches onto the child Newt. When the girl is taken, Ripley responds not as she did in the first film, where she was struggling merely to survive and was in fear. Rather, she dives right into far greater danger and confrontation in order to save her proxy daughter. She is not masculine at all in the second film... rather, she is a "mama bear," the most vicious of the feminine heroic expressions (a near perfect expression of how empathy works, i.e., categorizing the world as children versus threats to children)
I will be following this up by inviting discussion but also by exploring how this conceptual framework is useful politically, culturally, and even personally.
Thanks to Kennaquhair for allowing me to repost this. He also put up a follow-up post asking what the world could look like if we better understood femininity. Please check it out and consider subscribing. We’ll see where he takes this work.
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