Even if it’s not always referred to by name, almost everyone who has ever watched a film or television show, or read a book, is aware of the “hero’s journey.” Within the context of pop culture, heroes like Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker follow the steps within this narrative pattern from beginning to end. But what is refreshing recently in the realm of pop culture is that more and more women have been stepping into the roles typically occupied by men.
And though women still have to fight through the muck and mire in order to garner the respect that their male counterparts would easily obtain, more female heroes (and anti-heroes) are being written well on television these days. They’re characters who are redefining what it means to be a hero and breaking some stereotypes within the narrative context of the hero’s journey.
Here are twelve women who are redefining what it means to be a hero.
12. Carol Peletier (The Walking Dead)
Carol’s (Melissa McBride) arc in The Walking Dead is one of the most interesting “hero’s journey” developments on the series. She began the series timid, afraid, and meek, and has since evolved into a character who has hardened herself to the world. Carol is not cold – she still maintains emotional connections with others – but she is logical.
Characters generally move from a place of emotional distance to a place of warmth and gentleness throughout the hero’s journey. Carol, on the other hand, moves from places of fear to places of power. She is cunning, utilizing the perception of herself by others in order to gain the upper hand against them. While a lot of the traditional hero’s journey is spent learning how to rely on others, Carol transitions from relying on others and allowing them to manipulate her, to relying on herself.
11. Trish Walker (Jessica Jones)
When the audience meets Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) in Netflix’s Jessica Jones, they are conditioned to see her as the sum of her assets – she’s pretty and blonde and enjoys her job. But Trish is much more than that, and this show doesn’t hesitate to remind audiences of that fact. Not only is Trish resilient and tough, but she’s also extremely loyal and loving. She’s able to take care of herself, and she doesn’t play “sidekick” to the hero of the story, Jessica.
Moreover, Trish defines her own narrative and does not allow anyone – not even people she cares about – to define that for her. Trish is not the main character of this series, so she doesn’t immediately embark on a journey. There are not many typical “hero’s journey” tropes here – no necessary “call to adventure” or subsequent “refusal of the call.”
10. Iris West (The Flash)
Not every hero faces a direct call to heroism, nor do they always have a mentor to advise them. In The Flash, Iris West (Candice Patton) asserts this when she tells the titular superhero: “A girl’s gotta be her own hero every now and again.” And that’s precisely the reason Iris is a hero without ever needing to don a mask or a costume. In spite of the often uneven writing of Iris’ character – and the decision on the part of the show’s characters to keep her in the dark about Barry Allen’s (Grant Gustin) superhero alter ego – the writers of the show recognize that a hero’s journey isn’t necessarily one that follows strict progression or the cause-and-effect patterns so often portrayed in pop culture.
Instead of heeding a call to put on a mask because of personal tragedy, Iris West wages her own heroic crusade every day by hunting down leads and typing up stories. Her hero’s journey is one that has progressed from being kept in the dark to fighting bad guys in the light.
9. Felicity Smoak (Arrow)
When Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) debuted on Arrow, she was a bubbly, babbly IT girl. But over the years, the show has progressed her character from one who assists the team from the outside to a woman who uses her skills to become a hero in her own right.
Recently, Felicity and Oliver (Stephen Amell) broke off their engagement. It was Felicity who called it off, after finding out about a child that Oliver kept secret from her. As a result, Felicity has begun to embark on her own alteration of the hero’s journey narrative. Though she will never be the main character of the series or the main focus, her arc appears to be one sprung out of “the ordeal” phase of the narrative. After Felicity’s brief paralyzation and break-up with Oliver, she has begun to realign herself around a central purpose. “The ordeal” phase of the narrative includes this phrase: “Out of the moment of death comes new life.”
8. Peggy Carter (Agent Carter)
Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is a character who is quoted as saying: “I know my value.” As a female character within a realm of male and female superheroes, Peggy Carter is just as heroic. And what’s interesting about her particular hero’s journey is that one of the pillars of a hero’s journey is leaving the normal world in order to be in the fantastical.
What’s admirable about Peggy Carter as a character and why she shakes up this hero’s journey is because she never gives up what she is good at in order to pursue the extraordinary. It is because she is a woman who refuses to be pushed around or dismissed by men that she is revered as a character and a hero. Peggy does make sacrifices – no doubt about it – but she chooses to remain in her circumstances and change them from the inside out. That is heroic.
7. Alex Parrish (Quantico)
In Quantico, Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) has been a part of an unconventional hero’s journey. Rather than beginning the series in a state of potential heroism, Alex begins the series as a potential villain, being suspected as a terrorist by nearly everyone around her. And yet, Alex is still a hero.
She’s flipping the typical narrative on its head and re-ordering the steps. Because Alex’s story begins with her trying to clear her name – with her presumed guilt, not her innocence. Everything that follows is a desperate attempt at survival and at remaining one step ahead of those who are trying to harm her. In fact, Alex’s narrative is one in which she is nearly immediately immersed in adventure and thrown headfirst into chaos.
In spite of the fact that her journey is not one that perfectly parallels the stereotypical hero’s journey, Alex constantly believes in others and fights for justice. She is self-sacrificing and kind, genuinely caring about those around her. She’s vulnerable and unapologetic in expressing her emotions. Alex is, by all definitions, a hero.
6. Emma Swan (Once Upon A Time)
In Once Upon A Time, Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) begins the series as a non-believer: a woman who is grounded in logic, reason, and – most importantly – pain. Emma has been hurt by past loves, by her family, and by the world, and she isn’t very quick to trust or let others in. Extremely guarded, Emma doesn’t begin the series as someone desperate to escape her world and trade it in for the fantastical. When Henry (Jared Gilmore), the young son she gave up for adoption, approaches her with fairytales, she rebuffs him.
Elements of the hero’s journey play heavily into Emma’s life in Storybrooke and her eventual role as the town’s savior – “refusal of the call” being a part of the story that Emma weaves for herself frequently. But it is in Emma’s constant shifting and emotional growth that she becomes the hero she was always meant to be. And what’s so refreshing is that Once Upon A Time fixates on the fact that heroes are not meant to journey alone. It is Emma’s constantly growing trust in others that is one of her most heroic traits.
5. Kara Danvers/Supergirl (Supergirl)
Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) is, by all accounts, a normal young woman working at CatCo media. But her secret identity is that of Supergirl, a woman with incredible strength and the ability to fly. In the first season of the CBS series, Kara has embarked on a journey to discover who she is – both with and without her powers. The duality of identity is something superheroes struggle with and Kara knows this all too well. In spite of all of that – or perhaps because of it – Kara has embarked on her own hero’s journey. She has no mentor, necessarily, to guide her. At the beginning of the series, that role was partially filled by Superman’s advice.
But what Supergirl has done as a series is remind the audience that Kara doesn’t need constant reassurance or aid from her superhero cousin. Kara relies on others for help and occasionally for advice, but she is her own guiding force. And that aspect of her journey has allowed Kara to become more relatable and more well-rounded as both a hero and a woman.
4. Clarke Griffin (The 100)
There is nothing very typical about Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor), a teenaged survivor, commander, and compassionate leader. Clarke hasn’t always longed for adventure, though, nor has she longed for heroism. She has simply longed to keep her people alive. That is what Clarke cares most about. She is a woman who deeply loves, and love is occasionally her weakness. In terms of the hero’s journey narrative, Clarke embarking on a journey to earth would be considered her fulfillment of the “crossing the threshold.”
But instead of facing one arc or journey, Clarke is constantly bombarded with decisions that define her as a hero. She is forced to make tough calls – decisions that would make even adults with years of tactical and military experience pause – and makes these calls with the best interests of her people constantly at the forefront of her mind. Though she does not always make the perfect decisions or even the right ones, Clarke’s heroism stems from self-sacrifice: she is willing to bear the burden of guilt for horrible things so that those she loves will not have to.
This dark and gritty element is what makes her such an intriguing female character and hero. As more and more of pop culture is beginning to embrace atypical heroines – ones who break molds and who serve larger, more integral purposes apart from just being pretty faces – Clarke Griffin is an example of a hero to model after.
3. Elektra (Daredevil)
In terms of a hero’s journey, Daredevil’s Elektra (Elodie Yung) falls more toward the side of “anti-hero” than anything else. When she is first introduced, it is as a seductive, talented assassin who would gladly sacrifice anyone and anything that stands between her and what she wants. She cares deeply about Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and vocalizes this later in the season, but she also enjoys luring him into her schemes, in spite of the fact that Matt knows they do not generally lead anywhere good. Elektra pushes Matt, both in the flashbacks and in the present-day, and the most complex thing about her is the fact that she’s not always good or noble. In fact, she rarely is – she chooses to lie or else evade the truth, and she gets a rush from killing. Elektra is a bit unhinged in many ways. So then why is she not a villain?
Because her character’s journey – though not always noble – is a spin on the hero’s journey narrative. Elektra is tested by Stick (Scott Glenn) and must make the choice to remain with Matt or return to the man who trained her. Elektra begins to believe there might be something good still within her, and the longer she spends with Matt, the more she dares to believe this is true. But there’s also this inner conflict, because at the same time Elektra wants to be good, she also doesn’t want to be. She doesn’t want to put people behind bars – she wants to bury them.
So while the typical tension in the hero’s journey focuses on a pull between two desires (the normal life vs. the extraordinary), Elektra’s pulls or darker, vaster, and more complex than that. Moreover, in the part of the journey where the hero has to sort out allegiances, Elektra has to sort out her internal allegiances rather than external ones. The fact that Elektra’s struggles are mostly inward and her biggest adversary is herself makes this character’s heroic journey toward self-sacrifice all the more interesting.
2. Sara Lance (Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow)
Sometimes, where we pick up a heroic journey isn’t at the beginning of the story, but the middle. When audiences are first truly introduced to Sara Lance (Caity Lotz), she is donning a black mask and wielding a bo staff against enemies. Her alter ego – the Canary – is filled with pain and darkness. Sara’s journey may have begun on a boat, but her hero’s journey began when she returned to Starling City. After spending time training in the League of Assassins, Sara began to harness her inner pain and use it as a weapon against others. The more Sara fought and killed, the more she sunk into the pain within her own heart.
And that’s precisely what makes Sara Lance’s journey so refreshing. Because in spite of the fact that she does not believe she is a hero, Sara is one. Her journey is unlike most – she begins big, pivotal moments of Arrow in the “resurrection” phase of the traditional narrative – and darker than most as well. Rather than donning a costume to hide her identity from others, Sara dons one to hide from herself. It’s this self-deprecation that is not as common in the hero’s journey but that adds an extremely interesting layer of complexity to Sara as a hero.
It is only when Sara begins to embrace the goodness within and around her that she begins to see herself worthy enough to be deemed “heroic.” She was a hero in the beginning – saving the life of a woman who was being attacked by a group of men – but on Legends of Tomorrow, Sara has begun to more fully embrace the lightness that her soul still has. A hero’s journey typically bridges the ordinary with the extraordinary, peppering darkness in like a seasoning: in small doses and with little pungency.
1. Jessica Jones (Jessica Jones)
Brash, dark, and perpetually drinking, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is the kind of character no one would suspect to be a hero. And truly, what is impressive about the Netflix series is its refusal to sugarcoat Jessica’s character or her tragedy. This is a woman who begins the series in massive pain, seeking only to survive. She has no hope of anything outside of merely existing. But then, hope (both literal and figurative) is introduced into her life, and Jessica is changed. A hero’s journey typically begins with a tension between a life they know and a life they desire. And through Hope’s (Erin Moriarty) pain and abuse at the hands of Kilgrave (David Tennant), Jessica is catapulted back into her own pain.
There is dark parallelism present in Jessica Jones, because though the titular character appears to be the exact opposite of what one might consider “heroic,” she is a hero no less. Jessica doesn’t follow the hero’s journey exactly, but important pieces (like “the resurrection” phase in which there is a final sacrifice to be made, for example) are prevalent. Not all hero’s journeys are full of light and easy solutions. Though Jessica eventually completes the cyclical journey of a hero by defeating the man who abused her and breaking others free as well, that doesn’t mean her journey is full of light. Jessica Jones, as a series, is dark and filled with heaviness. It stands to reason then that Jessica’s journey toward heroism would be similar.
What other female characters have you seen break traditional heroic roles in pop culture?
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