The heroine with… what are her thousand faces?

2009 December 21
by mchua

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 ErdÅ‘s; 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?

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This post was written by mchua.

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6 Responses
  1. Meg permalink
    December 21, 2009

    Interesting post; I don’t know that the question of adventure necessarily relies on having someone “back at home”. I mean, it’s a common theme, but less universal than the epic adventure story. Lord of the Rings, for example, had two women who might have fit that profile, but neither of them get as much page-time as the one woman who went out adventuring (they get nearly as much screen-time in the movie adaptation, though, which is one of my complaints). It can be something someone “trapped far from home” is fighting to get back to, since “home” is frequently associated with a person instead of a place or an ever-changing-community, but it’s not something required for the sword-wielding adventurer. In fact, it usually exists for reluctant adventurers, like Sam in the Lord of the Rings, rather than those who go forth seeking adventure, like Frodo or Bilbo.

    My thoughts on the last question:
    Privilege is only zero-sum in the presence of scarcity, where if one person has enough someone else is going without. I don’t think we actually live in that world; many people have more than they need, and some things, like ideas and information, are rapidly dropping to a marginal cost of zero.

    One the one hand, thinking about it as a zero-sum game can be a good way to get groups with privilege to realize they have it (like that 80% of men in open source). Most people don’t look at their life and think, “I have privilege,” but it’s a lot easier to get them to look at other people’s lives (often using the passive voice) and get them to realize that those people don’t. A professor at my college once pointed out that politicians were always talking about “under-privileged children”. “You never hear them talking about those over-privileged children,” he said, “it’s not like that privilege just disappears!” On the other hand, it suggests that in a more-equal society people would be worse off, which I don’t think is true. Would people with privilege really miss it if it was gone? Most of them don’t notice it exists now. Could they be enriched by living in a culture where their successes were their own and societal approval not contingent on things they have no control over? There is anecdotal evidence that privilege isn’t the answer to everything: the suicide rate among white men is significantly higher than other demographics, for example (though that clearly ignores other dimensions of intersectionality, or the personal nature of those tragedies.)

    I think there is an advantage for privileged people to see it as a zero-sum game, since it means they a) have a justification for wanting to keep it no matter how unfair it is and b) they aren’t challenged to define themselves in positive terms. I’m not going to explain this very well since I’m writing as I think, but I’ll take a stab anyway. For example, in the face of feminism masculinity (as a hegemonic institution) has become defensive, instead of asking what masculinity could be like, or pushing for men to be allowed to mop, raise children and wear a wide variety of fashion. Masculinity doesn’t have to be defined as “that stuff that’s not feminine”, but it is, and so it can encompass just about anything that isn’t specifically labeled as “feminine”. As long as feminism is fighting for women to have access to the privilege men have, no one is asking picking up the house isn’t a masculine activity (after all, under traditional stereotypes men are organized and logical, which is what putting things away is all about…), and there is the continued fear that if women do everything than there will be nothing left of masculinity, since it’s only identifying feature was “not those people over there.”

    I don’t know if any of that is what you were asking here.

    • Skud permalink*
      December 21, 2009

      Meg: your comment reminds me of this article I came across the other day:

      The context there is white privilege, but she has a good point about some things that are privileges that should be taken away (the ability to ignore bad stuff that happens to the unprivileged group) and rights that should be given to everyone (the ability to go through life without having that bad stuff happen to you.)

  2. Dorothea permalink
    December 21, 2009

    Great post! Thank you for writing it.

    Somewhere or other Ursula K. LeGuin talks a bit about this. My faulty memory turns up “One person cannot do the work of two, but two can do the work of three,” but that is probably a bad paraphrase.

    • Leigh Honeywell permalink*
      December 23, 2009

      From her Oregon Encyclopedia entry:

      “By 1958, the Le Guins had settled in Portland, where Charles took a teaching position at Portland State College (now Portland State University) and Ursula began her career as a writer. They raised three children. Ursula Le Guin once famously said: “One person cannot do two fulltime jobs, but two persons can do three fulltime jobs, if the work is honestly shared.”"

  3. Bruce Byfield permalink
    December 23, 2009

    Some years ago, I taught an upper level English course on the hero’s quest. The last two books were two opposing answers to the question of whether a female hero followed the same quest as a male one. In The Blue Sword, Robin McKinley answered that the quest was the same, while in Tehanu, Ursula K. LeGuin answered that gender changed the nature of the quest.

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