As a woman, I'm keenly aware of how female characters get shunted to the same kinds of roles in the same kinds of movie plots. It makes it so hard to imagine yourself as anything other than the archetypes sprayed across the silver screen. I had no idea it was the same for men. I'm really into how Colin Stokes explains it.
If you're impatient, you can skip to 5:20. But give it a shot — the setup makes the payoff so much better.
Narrator: You are the chosen one. That's right, you, yeah. No, not the person standing next to you. Actually, you know what, you are too. Everybody in this room is the chosen one, the one that the prophecy foretold and I'm here to call you on an adventure to a new world.
Yeah, you're going to have a lot of great adventures, and they're going to last about an hour and a half and then, you're going to face your nemesis alone. He's going to have a British accent and a tragic back story. I'm going to call on you to summon all of your star power and special effects to defeat evil and set up the sequel.
This is the message that I got from the multiplex throughout the '80s when I was growing up. I don't know about you, but I was intrigued. Then, my English teacher showed a video of this guy, Joseph Campbell. He's the mythology guru, and he had a lot of books behind him, and he showed clips from "Star Wars." He talked about the hero's journey. I thought it was just spaceships and dragons.
No, there was a diagram. I took notes. I clearly possessed all of the necessary characteristics to be a universal hero. I made wise cracks, I was often bored and whiny. I had special knowledge and skills that nobody else understood. I was already in the middle of one of the milestones, the belly of the whale, also known as middle school.
I also, although I didn't realize how important this was at the time, had some other things going for me. I was white, and male and straight, and able bodied just like everyone that I saw in the movies. I could easily imagine myself doing all the things that the movie heroes did, especially with all the hair I had then.
Now, spoiler alert. I did not defeat evil. I don't have a nemesis that I know of. I no longer have hair but, I did go on a journey of some significance about nine years ago. I crossed a threshold into a strange, new world and many of you may be on this quest too. It's called, parenthood. Now, my rudimentary Joseph Campbell training had totally not prepared me for this plot twist. I don't remember a single hero journey about changing diapers.
In fact, I had to give up everything that the movies taught me to care about, my goals, my hygiene, in order to pay attention to these other characters, these small people and their journeys. That is the strangest thing about this hero journey to me, this quest. I am not the protagonist at all. At the very best, I'm like obee one can obee [sp] dispensing advice before they go off on their spaceship and before too long, I'll be the back story. I'm off the diagram.
Out here, I am realizing that I took the hero's journey a little too literally. I think I thought that other people would be archetypes, and they'd serve their purpose in my story and then get off the screen. I don't think I was trained to be a hero as much as I was trained to be a narcissist.
For instance, all through my adolescence, I focused a lot on the part of the quest where I should find a female classmate in need of rescuing. The problem was, all of the damsels that I knew were functioning pretty well, I didn't know what I could offer them. I spent a lot of 7th grade holding the door open for girls, John Williams music playing in my head.
Then, it all changed because, in college, a woman pursued me.Great, right? Except I was confused. I'm the chosen one, how can I also be a prize in somebody else's journey? I was evidently a pretty disappointing one while I tried to figure out what role I could play in her many heroic quests.
But, I'm happy to say, it's been 20 years since that day and we have established a successful franchise. In fact, we went on the quest of parenthood together, and our favorite thing to do, when we can get a sitter, is go to the movies. Now, this year, we have seen a lot of amazing hero journeys, some of them based on real life, that are very different from the ones that I saw growing up and they have had a big impact in my relationship to the hero's journey.
This year, we routed for Jackie Robinson, we went on a quest with Solomon Northup. We identified with the journey of Oscar Grant and Cecil Gaines and his family. Now, it is an unusual sensation for me to see stories where the white guys are not the pratagonists. I have gotten used to being demoted from hero to love interest and even further to dad but I am not used to being an antagonist.
I think this is a big deal. I think if you're a white male, you are shown a lot of images throughout your life that tell you that you're the good guy, even in movies where the plot is explicitly about how many lousy things white people have done in history. A white person somehow gets in the middle there and goes on a journey of redemption, and sometimes a white gal does the same thing.
This sinks in, and it shapes our lives. Did you read the study this year that said that TV watching raises kids self-esteem if you're a white boy? If you're a white girl, or a black child, your self-esteem is going to go down. I can imagine why. You're not going to see yourself talking many hero journeys.
In 2012, how many US movie ticket buyers were non white? 44%. When those 44% went to the movie theater, they chose from a line up of movies in which how many of the speaking characters were white? 76%. Of the top 100 movies of all time, how many do you think star heroes who were not white? Eight, by my count, and five of them were Will Smith.
Now, I don't really know what it's like to be excluded from stories because I see myself reflected everywhere. I have been taught that I can feel important. Good for me but, I do have a track record of narcissism, and I know that there is a small step from "I am important" to "People like me are important."
I've been fascinated into this research into bias. We judge instantly by a name on a résumé, or a piece of clothing. Is this a person like me, or not? Is this person qualified for this job, are they going to be a fit? Do they belong in this fancy department store? Should I be afraid of them? We learn this stuff really early, and these biases add up to a whole lot of people excluded from all kinds of journeys, a whole lot of people off the diagram, not getting speaking roles in pivotal scenes like corporate boardrooms and jury boxes, and the halls of our democracy, newsrooms, where we choose what stories we're going to share, the executive suites in Hollywood.
That's why it's so amazing that these movies have been made this year. These artists, and all of the people who supported their production are amplifying some of those voices. When white people, like me, go to "Twelve Years of Slave," and "The Butler," you might feel excluded, you might even feel antagonized. That's probably a good thing, at least, it has been for me.
It's one of those moments where I've been jolted off the mono-myth into real life, where I've had to protagonize someone else, and ease up a little on the heroism, and grow up. This might be the real message of Joseph Campbell, that you might face your nemesis alone and he might have a British accent but, usually, we are all supporting actors in all the stories going on around us and sometimes, we're the bad guy.
This is what I urgently want to teach my little protagonists before they take off on the spaceship to Planet Bias that protagonize everyone you meet, especially those people you've been taught to ignore. Ask yourself, always, "What role are you playing in their story?" Because, that way, every relationship is a call to adventure on the threshold to a new and better world.