The heroine with… what are her thousand faces?
This is my first post on GF. I’m new to the idea of feminism and still have a hard time identifying with – even thinking about! – the subject, and sometimes envy the ease with which the other writers here seem to be able to address the topic. But I figure that perhaps there are some others in the same place. And so I’m trying to drum up the courage to write about my stumbles through this, in the hopes that it’ll help me learn, and maybe help other people learn as well.
Inspired by this post on Long story; short pier about Erdos.
As a high school math geek (being on the math team at IMSA – the math and science magnet for the state of Illinois – was sort of like being a football player at Notre Dame, except without the cheering crowds at meets), I loved the story of Paul Erdos. On more than one occasion, I decided this was how I wanted to live when I grew up. On more than one occasion, friends in high school, and later college, would tell me (without knowing I had been thinking about it) that this was what I should do when I grew up, too.
“He would not stay long in one place and traveled back and forth among mathematical institutions until his death. Possessions meant little to Erdős; most of his belongings would fit in a suitcase, as dictated by his itinerant lifestyle. Awards and other earnings were generally donated to people in need and various worthy causes. He spent most of his life as a vagabond, traveling between scientific conferences and the homes of colleagues all over the world. He would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open,” staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later.” –Wikipedia
Remember, this was the age (14-17) at which my love of fantasy and sci-fi was rising dramatically – I’d always loved the genres, but those years of geek-fueled adolescence sent that love explosively rocketing upwards. Erdos was a wandering adventurer whose magic was mathematics, whose innkeepers were research colleagues and their families, and whose boss fights were against tough problems. When he won, the enemy would drop a Scroll (which looked suspiciously like a published scholarly paper) and Erdos and his party for that fight would add the spell (the proof described therein) to their inventory. He was my hero of a thousand faces.
“A hero ventures 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.” –Joseph Campbell, from The Hero with a Thousand Faces
A hero ventures forth. He has to leave home, and the outward journey becomes a metaphor for that inner transformation and the mechanism by which a hero seeks and finds the experiences that help him grow. And of course one could be a heroine and go off and do exactly the same things – okay, it was less common, but the use of the masculine word was just historic and incidental, girls could grab a sword and sneak out the window and go off into the swashbuckling great beyond as well. No problem, never bothered me. Sure seemed a lot more fun than the alternative.
“In The Odyssey, you’ll see three journeys… the third is of Penelope herself, whose journey is… endurance. Out in Nantucket, you see all those cottages with the widow’s walk up on the roof: when my husband comes back from the sea. Two journeys [Odysseus and Telemachus] through space and one [Penelope] through time.” –Joseph Campbell
What did that tell me? Strong women wait? I knew I didn’t have the patience; I was young and a high-pass filter and wanted a sword now. Stories with quests and swords were celebrated; they sounded cool. Way cooler than the widows-walk adventure format. Walk a (metaphorical, in Penelope’s case) roof, raise a kid, fend off suitors trying to convince you that your husband’s dead. Big whoop – I didn’t want to walk a journey of endurance. I knew inside that it may be just as hard (or harder) or take just as much bravery (or more) to spend years pacing that widow’s walk than it does to spend those years on the high seas, avoiding sirens, blinding Cyclops, and the frequent application of the good old-fashioned “take your sword and stab things” tactic. But young people are high-pass filters, and I wanted (and still want!) to swing that sword.
And mostly, I kind of did. Being young and excited and extremely stubborn makes you unaware of a lot of things, especially the ones you’d rather already ignore. But now I wonder: does every Odysseus create a Penelope? If I become an Erdos, then who pays for my freedom other than me? Is privilege a zero-sum game?
And if it is, then who the heck am I supposed to follow?
That last line was originally the ending of this post. When I shared the draft, I didn’t feel like it was done; after some conversation, I was asked what I had hoped to get from asking that question, and the answer below was what I gave.
The example that pops to mind is the way I thought about… say, husband/wife relationships, a couple years ago. I’m from a pretty traditional Chinese Catholic family, and the only kind of marriage I’d seen was the type with a dominant breadwinner and a nondominant caretaker. Wonderful, loving relationships that both sides had consented to and all that – I don’t think my mom and aunts would have chosen any different, or if they could – you can’t choose something if you don’t know it exists, too.
I knew intellectually that more configurations must be out there, but I couldn’t really fathom what they were in anything except vague theoretical approximations that I knew to be unmapped against any sort of reality, because I’d just never seen them. I also knew I wanted to see more options before I started thinking about which, if any, I would maybe someday like to choose.
So when I went to college and met people – professors, older friends outside of school – who didn’t have a one-person-dominant other-person-not sort of relationship (I’d gotten the idea that those roles weren’t gender-specific, but they were still the same roles), it was one of those “oh, okay, that’s another way it could work” sort of moment.
Once I saw a few examples of things outside the paradigm that I was used to, I could think about it way more flexibly – these were different parameters you could set, and I’d just been exposed to one particular setting of parameters.
And with respect to the “is privilege a zero-sum game?” question, I’m looking for that kind of thing to happen again – I have a theoretical idea that other, non-zero sum configurations can exist, but… what are they?