Possibilities of a Sheroic Shift: A Study of Select Texts

Rajeesh K.P.

                                                                                                 Ph. D Scholar
                                                                                       Department Of English
                                                                                          Pondicherry University

The nature of terms like ‘spokesman’, ‘chairman’ have been subjected to discussion in language studies with respect to the gender they signify. Have we ever thought about similar implications engendered by the term ‘Hero’ rendering it problematic? Feminists always complain about the patriarchal impulses contained within the English Language. Does the term ‘hero’ also encompass the idea of ‘heroine’ within it? It is true that new coinages like ‘She roes’ are in existence today. The paper tries to examine whether attempts to bring female heroes to the limelight are mere preaching. It also deals with how the conditions within society makes it difficult for aspirants to come up with women oriented movies and writings. The idea of ‘Superstardom’,  Female superheroes (both movies and comics), the ways in which female characters function as  mere adjuncts to male enterprises deprived of independent space and voice will also find space in the paper. This will be discussed in the context of select movies and other literary genres. Ideas in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces and Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey (A contrapuntal reading of the first text) will also be borrowed.

Keywords: Hero, Patriarchy, Superstardom, Superheroes, She roes, Feminism.

Possibilities of a Sheroic Shift: A Study of Select Texts
Language is an important arm of the culture of any society. It becomes a window to the politics, beliefs, and attitudes of people living within a society. Sociolinguists have accused the English language for the large degree of sexism it embodies. Children who learn through the medium of this language partake the patriarchal impulses hidden within it which manifests in their behaviour and other activities. This gender bias with regard to language begins with the idea that the word ‘woman’ is derived from the word ‘man’. Guimei He in her article ‘ An Analysis of Sexism in English’ truly observes that “ … the addition of a feminine suffix to masculine human agent nouns usually does more than simply change the gender reference of the word, it often attaches a meaning of triviality, of lesser status or dependence to the term. It shows that woman is affiliated to man, so it is a kind of linguistic discrimination against women”. (332). To specify, the word ‘governor’ means a ruler and ‘governess ‘refers to a woman in charge of teaching children. Words like ‘chairman’ and ‘Spokesman’ do not have a female equivalent. Similarly have we ever thought about similar implications in the word ‘Hero’ rendering it problematic? Does the term encompass the idea of heroine within it?
     Does the ‘he’ in ‘hero’ make it a male prerogative? There is a generally accepted view among the society that heroes are males. This can also be perceived in religions where male deities enjoy greater prestige than their female counterparts. A heroic act is described as one that involves risk taking and social service. The former converts this pro-social act into heroism. Selwyn W. Becker and Alice. H. Eagly in their essay ‘The Heroism of Men and Women’ state that “the essential themes of masculinity encompass the idealization of “reckless adventure, daring exploits, and bold excesses of all kinds” (164). In literature it all begins with Beowulf, saving the King of Hrothgar from the demon Grendel and meeting death at the hands of a dragon that he kills too. The unquenchable thirst of Ulysses for adventures and travel is explicit in the lines in Tennyson’s eponymous poem ‘I will drink life to the lees’ and ‘to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield. This formula also can be found in fairy tales where the seven dwarfs save Snow White from the Queen, Flynn Rider saves Rapunzel from Mother Gothel. Even in Superhero comics there were no remarkable women characters before the nineteen forties and those existing appeared as sidekicks to the male protagonists.
     Perhaps here there is a need to distinguish between ‘Superhero’, the genre and ‘super hero’   where ‘super’ is the adjective and hero is the noun .In the first case physical prowess becomes an important criteria, that is identified mainly with men. This term can be applied in the second sense to both men and women. God created mother because he cannot be present everywhere is an oft quoted comment that we come across. Another saying goes thus. The safest abode for us is in the mother’s womb. Isn’t our mother our greatest hero? She is the one who imparts us with the first lessons of life, one who laughs with us in our happiness and cries along with our sorrows. Her multitasking nature makes her a super hero.
              Florence Nightingale receiving a call from God took up the vow to revolutionise the world of nursing. Born to a rich British family, she decided to opt nursing. This decision was counter to the wishes of her close ones. The act was in fact heroic in the sense that she violated the code of conduct established for affluent British ladies. She took great pain to alleviate the humble conditions of the soldiers who were wounded in the Crimean war. She ensured that the supply of medicines were in full swing, proper hygiene was maintained and took steps to curtail infections. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem ‘Saint Philomena’  calls her ‘the  lady with the lamp’ and talks about how her solitary rounds along the hospital at night brings joy, satisfaction, and a feeling of indebtedness on their face. This brings us to the question of the role of altruism in the process of becoming a hero. Is it mandatory that a hero has to be selfless and disinterested? One can be truly generous. The patience shown by nurses at the King Edward Memorial Hospital, Mumbai in taking care of Aruna Shenbaug, a nurse who had to lead a prolonged vegetative existence for forty two years as a result of being sexually assaulted is a modern instance of altruism showcased by nurses. We can also find a class of heroes who put on a false face of being generous but in reality are not so. A closer examination of this issue can be done later.
     Joan of Arc’s journey from witchery to sainthood finds place in the annals of heroic stories of the world. Deprived of elementary education, Joan of Arc was deeply influenced by catholic ideals. Her efforts to reinstate Charles of Valois who had been thrown out of his position by the Anglo-Burgundians were commendable. She was determined to protect France from her its enemies. Disguised as a man, riding on a horse she fought with the Anglo Burgundians and drove them away. At the end she was accused of witchery, heresy and was burnt at the stake. She was canonised to the cult status of a saint and is celebrated in the world of art and literature.
     If we attempt to look for an Indian version of Joan of Arc, it would obviously be Rani Lakshmi Bhai, commonly known as ‘Jhansi Rani’. She represented bravery and patriotism and played a stunning role in the Revolt of 1857 against the British Raj. She was brought up in an unconventional way and was adept in the art of weaponry and in handling heroes and elephants at times of war. She had a very tough time when she lost her husband and her child at the springtime of her life. She fought tooth and nail against the efforts of Lord Dalhousie to annex Jhansi to the British Empire. She had to succumb to the sword of the British leaving a never fading stamp in the history of India.
  These are just a few instances of female heroism. History is replete with heroic female figures. Though certain acts may not suit women due to its physical demands, many of the heroic acts do not put forward these restrictions. It is thus misleading and senseless to associate heroism with a particular sex.  Heroism also emerges from the ability to show empathy to fellow beings, something that women are very much capable of. Selwyn W. Becker observes that 
      In fact, one of the reasons that we did not examine heroism in military or other dangerous occupational roles such as fire fighter is that the exclusion of women disallowed comparing the heroism of women and men in the same situations. The high visibility of men’s heroism in such roles has allowed courage and heroism to be ascribed more to men than to women and to become culturally elaborated as elements of desirable masculinity. Many of women’s heroic actions of, for example, hiding holocaust victims or giving a kidney to a family member are inherently quite private, known to few, and in the case of rescuing Jews,  very carefully hidden. Volunteering for the Peace Corps and Doctors of the World is surely public but lacks the high visibility of military heroism or rescuing in high stakes situations of sudden emergencies. (175).
Becker makes this observation in the context of discussing Carnegie Hero medals, instituted by the Carnegie hero fund commission to honour heroes in U.S.A and Canada who risks his or her own life while trying to save others and how the commission fails to give adequate recognition to the milestones achieved by women.
   The paper presenter would also invite the attention of the audience/readers to the idea of ‘femocracy’ an ideology that maintains that women have to be linked to men occupying in high political positions to scale heights in politics. Women in Zimbabwe are expected to toe the patriarchal positions compromising female political stands. Women who have every right to be treated as heroines are deliberately forgotten due to their lack of contact with men of high status. (Fake Heroines and the falsification of history in Zimbabwe (1980-2009)).
  It is crucial to bring into discussion a book by the name ‘The Heroine’s Journey’ by Maureen Murdock that is considered to be an alternative reading of Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. Campbell introduces the concept of a ‘Monomyth’ universal mythic patterns that could be found in play in all stories. He bases this study on Carl Jung’s concept of ‘Archetypes’ “constantly repeating characters that could be found occurring in the dreams of all people and myths of all culture.
 The hero is introduced in this ordinary world, where he receives the call to adventure. He is reluctant at first but is encouraged by the wise old man or woman to cross the first threshold, where he encounters tests and helpers. He reaches the innermost cave, where he endures the supreme ordeal. He seizes the sword or the treasure and is pursued on the road back to his world. He is resurrected and transformed by this experience. He returns to his ordinary world with a treasure, boon, elixir to benefit his world.  (Prometheus stealing fire from heaven, Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece.) (Campbell).
   Murdock felt that the book never addressed the heroine’s journey. It never did anything to heal the wounding of the feminine. When in 1981 Murdock discussed this issue with Campbell he replied thus “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological tradition the woman is there. They are the place that everyone is trying to get into”. (Murdock 2). This was shocking to Murdock. Though she agreed that feminine was the place people yearned to reach the fact was that most of the women were separated from the feminine. Her aim was to reclaim the feminine for the women community. The stages she divides the heroine’s journey are separation from the feminine, Identification with the masculine and gathering of allies, Road of trials, Finding the boon of success, Awakening to feelings of spiritual aridity, Initiation and descent to the goddess, An urgent yearning to reconnect with the feminine, healing the Mother/ Daughter split, healing the wounded masculine and finally Integration of the feminine and masculine.
     The father’s daughters, in their efforts to idealize the prominent masculine culture denigrate the values of the feminine culture. Here she rejects the positive qualities identified with the feminine such as nurturing, emotional expressiveness, creativity, intuition etc…In the ‘Road of Trials’ she tries to escalate the social/academic/corporate ladder, but later feels a sense of spiritual aridity when she realises that all the achievements had been at the cost of the soul.” Her relationship with the inner world is estranged”. She is in a dilemma with regard to what is to be done next. Murdock says that “When the heroine says no to the next heroic task, there is extreme discomfort.  When a woman stops doing she must learn how to simply be. Being is not a luxury. It is a discipline. The heroine must listen to her true inner voice. That means silencing the other voices anxious to tell her what to do. She must be willing to hold the tension until the new form emerges”. Then the descent into the goddess involves attempts to rejoin the dismembered self and a longing to reconnect with the feminine.  The journey is made up of elements of epiphany that provide her with moments of recognition/ awareness about things that had been lying dormant within her, waiting to erupt like a volcano. Later she tries to heal the wounds caused by this split by rectifying the errors that she had committed (avoiding her genuine feelings, refusing to focus on her unique experiences). The ultimate stage is the ‘sacred marriage of the masculine and feminine” where the two aspects of her nature are dovetailed. The newly emerged woman becomes a blend of female consciousness and masculine consciousness.
When you analyse the  Bollywood film ‘Queen” that was released in the year 2014 you can find the protagonist Rani Mehra (Kangana Ranaut) deciding to leave for Europe after her Fiancee gives her a shock treatment by confessing that he no longer wishes to marry her. Life abroad has changed his views and he can’t accept her for her conventional attitudes. She meets Vijayalakshmi, a woman with free values who turns to be the catalyst for her change. This journey to Europe could be considered to be (the descent stage) where she learns to look within herself and find a voice of her own. She also encounters trouble with the police and also a robber who tries to snatch away her bag. She takes a selfie wearing a modern outfit and sends it to Vijay by mistake. This fills Vijay with a sense of compunction and he starts hunting for her. Meanwhile she visits Amsterdam. There she shares a room with three boys with whom she becomes thick friends. All these experiences boost her confidence. She learns about the diversity of the world and the multiple meanings it has to offer her.  To end the movie she rejects repeated appeals on the part of Vijay to reconsider the relationship and says ‘no’ boldly and walks away by giving back the engagement ring. This is essentially a slap on the face of the patriarchal world which expects women to be a toy to act according to its whims and fancies.
          Today we find women in almost all the arenas of life, even in those fields which were exceptionally reserved for men. It’s not the magnanimity of the task that matters but the will and sincerity with which you do it that matters. Taking into account the achievements of women we can say that the possibilities are ripe for the world to witness a She-roic shift which has to be taken into account by the patriarchal society. It is high time that men shed their ego and represent women factually in their own right rather than adjuncts to male enterprises.     

Works Cited

Becker, Selwyn W. Alice. H Eagly, The Heroism of Women and Men. American Psychologist, Vol.59, No.3, 163-178, April 2004. Web
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. U.S.A: Pantheon Books, 1949. Print.
He, Guimei, An Analysis of Sexism in India. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, Vol.1, No.3, 332-335, 2010. Web.
Murdock, Maureen. The Heroine’s Journey. Colorado: Shambhala Publications, 1990. Print.
Queen. Dir. Vikas Bahl, October 2013. Web.


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