Heroine Quest, or The Fairytale Problem

My brain is all about the tangents lately. Thinking about how women are often not allowed to be the agents of their own destruction in horror movies, brought me to yet another pet peeve of mine, how they are not allowed to be the agents of their own greatness, either. Everyone knows the typical hero’s quest – young farm boy/peasant/seventh son of a seventh son has a Big Destiny of which he may or may not be aware. He goes on a journey where he faces Great Peril, receives Great Wisdom, Overcomes All Odds, and becomes the Mighty Warrior/Savior of his People/King he was always meant to be. It happened to Wart, it happened to Luke, and it happened to Peter Parker. If you happen to be young, male and in an epic fantasy or comic books, there’s a good chance it will happen to you, too. Sure someone close to you will likely have to die, but chances are, you’ll be okay. You’ll be offered a quest, and you’ll choose to accept, or, if you’re feeling particularly saucy, you might just strike out on your own to seek your fortune because it’s the right thing to do, or you were bored one day, or you tripped over a magical sword and thought what the hell.

If you’re a female in an epic fantasy (or sometimes a comic book, too) chances are, you’re escaping an abusive situation. Your mother hates you, your step-mother hates you, your father was seduced by an evil woman, your uncle/father/brother/boyfriend/random guy on the street wants to rape you/has raped you/almost raped you. You don’t set off on a whim, you run away because someone else has shaped your world for you. You run away because it’s a necessity. You become powerful because you want revenge. Girls don’t set out to seek their fortune on a lark. No one cares what number daughter of what number mother you are. If all went according to plan, you’d stay home, spin, weave, spit out a few babies, and die. Nothing went according to plan, so you face Great Peril and get rescued by a Prince, or possible a handsome woodsman, and marry him two seconds later without even knowing his name. Hooray! Maybe, if you’re lucky, you save a kingdom along the way, but not because you have a Big Destiny, or because it’s what you set out to do. You stumble into it back-asswards because you had to, because someone forced you to. Pretty little thing like you could never think of saving your people on your own.

Standard disclaimer: this is not universally true. But when it is, it bugs the holy fuck out of me. The truly irritating thing? I feel the need to blame fairy tales. Cinderella was abused by her stepmother, Donkeyskin’s father wanted to sleep with her, Snow White’s stepmother wanted to murder her, Rapunzel’s mother locked her away, and so on. A notable exception is Beauty (of and the Beast fame) who willing chooses to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner, and sees his inner goodness. Another example might be Red Riding Hood, who wanders off the path on her own, except in some versions where she’s seduced off the path by the wolf, and she does face the metaphorical threat of rape before the story’s end. I digress. The point is, positive examples are few and far between. And the abuse/rape/threat trope carries over into too much modern epic fantasy. When a female character goes on a quest and ends up having wonderful adventures and saving the world, she needs to be broken by that world first, and put in her place.

As I said, this is not universally true. A truly wonderful modern counter-point example is Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The heroine leaves because a fancy strikes her one day, not because of any horrid, dire need, not because anyone forces her. She does it because she wants to, faces Great Peril, receives Great Wisdom, and saves the day. Just a hero quest should be.

6 Comments

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6 Responses to Heroine Quest, or The Fairytale Problem

  1. I’m glad your brain’s going walkabout – this is good reading. Currently mulling over thoughts about fantasy/horror and strong female characters. Will decant shortly.

  2. I’m looking forward to the decantation. Is that a word? It should be.

  3. Suzanne Lucero

    This is an eye-opening ramble; I honestly never saw the heroine quest that way but you’re right. Most of the old fairy tales with female protagonists begin with a sweet but oppressed or plucky but threatened young girl. And they’re always young. So are the boys, for that matter. What is this, age discrimination in the hero business? (Going off-topic. Sorry.)

    In my current WIP, a contemporary science-fantasy, the MC (yes, a young female; I’m guilty of perpetuating the stereotype, too. So sue me.) comes from a loving family, but when strange things begin to happen to her she doesn’t go running to someone for help; she tries to figure things out for herself. I didn’t realize what a “guy” thing that was. She’s also a romantic, having read the old fairy tales and classic literature herself, and has set her heart on finding a “hero” who will fall in love with her. Ultimately, though, she saves a boy’s life–becomes a hero herself–by what she chooses to do. In the process she discovers there is a link between free will and fate, although I’m not sure at this point if she will retain the knowledge in the end.

    So, what do you think? Does my MC follow the hero-quest or the heroine-quest scenario?

    (PS, if you’d like to read a MG novel with a female MC who’s independent and querky, may I suggest THE MAPMAKER AND THE GHOST by Sarvenez Tash? It will be published next month.)

  4. It doesn’t sound like your MC is perpetuating the negative aspects of the heroine quest trope at all. She’s not passive, she takes matters into her own hands, and as the author, you’re subverting the tropes by having her be aware of the traditional fairytale quest, and ultimately growing beyond it. Hero/Heroine quests aren’t always a bad thing, like any other trope, it’s how the author uses them.

    Thanks for dropping by, good luck with the novel, and thanks for the book recommendation! I’ll have to check it out.

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