The Princess’s Kiss & The Female Hero’s Journey

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If it’s true what the cognitive neuroscientists say that story and myths inform you about what to do when you don’t know what to do, then stories are fundamental to decision-making under uncertainty, and that the brain relies on micro-narratives to deal with combinatorially explosive complexity of everyday life, let alone chaos. And so, as they say, if you took all the stories of all the past heroes and plotted their stories on a graph, and then drew a line of best fit across all those stories, that would be the hero’s story – the hero of a thousand faces, the mono myth or the meta story. 

I was fascinated by those stories growing up: The Knights of the Round Table, The Hobbit (or ‘There and Back Again’), Robinson Crusoe … but these stories all usually have males characters, male heroes. 

It seems the hero’s journey is a typically (positive) masculine story – the high risk, high reward journey – going into the forest where it’s darkest and searching for the holy grail. Of the many that try, only the hero returns with the grail and can tell the tale.

But what about females. I pondered this because I was thinking about new stories to read to my daughter. Stories that hold the higher truths that transcend time. The stories that will have a deep archetypal impact which influence character, agency and how to respond in novel situations. The choice of stories I read to her is therefore important. I don’t want to read dumb stories to my daughter (like BumbleBear or Peppa Pig). I want her to tap into female characteristics at a subconscious level that will help her navigate the complexities of life.

The stories also need to be archetypal because that’s what they understand. So far, my daughter has spent half her life in this world, asleep, in a dreamykin land, “an island with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut going fast to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.”

But it’s a delicate topic. Of course, we want women to be independent and successful in their pursuits, but I don’t think we just want female versions of men – or women to be relying on male characteristics and archetypes to resolve the problems they face. Does it actually help if females contemplate, in the midst of uncertainty: “what would I do if I was Harvey Spectre” … or: “what would King Arthur do”. I don’t know if that actually helps them. Can you get away with doing things that these ‘heroes’ did? Can you deal with the subsequent repercussions of those actions? But who are the characters women draw on instead? 

As I asked around, people generally seemed to think that female stories aren’t as exciting or as popular to listen to, so we don’t hear as many of these stories, and people didn’t really seem to know either. I didn’t get too many answers.

Does the female ‘hero’s journey’ even exist I wondered?

Surely they do. I began to think about the role of the females in our world. Of course the most obvious aspect is the mother role, the mother archetype – which ultimately is the creation of something new, the next generation from the fertile primordial earthly waters that exist still in the womb of all females and the nurturing of this next generation till independence. Something out of nothing. But there are other aspects too and one that crossed my mind was also the aspect of converting energy, or converting a force of sorts … 

I thought about how important the female was to look after young but also to protect them. Often the protector role is held by males in humans and animals, but sometimes the good men aren’t always around to protect. Even amongst apex predators, at the top of the food chain, there are still threats or forces, and they often emanate from within the same species. Humans were predators and prey. 

The male animal rejected from the tribe, hungry, desperate and with nothing to lose who is now on the lookout. This is a force that could recklessly destroy. A force that takes away from instead of giving, negating. Thus a negative force. A threat that needs to be dealt with.

A mother bear needs to deal with that. And this force exists amongst humans too. So how do women deal with that when the good men aren’t about? And since we’re talking about story, I don’t think it’s just a physical force but also a metaphorical force – any type of negative force. We could be talking about ideas too.

My mind sprung to the 1,001 Arabian Nights. The Sultan, vengeful and bitter vows to chop Scheherazade’s head off, but every night she tells him a story. The story is so good that the Sultan is delighted and postpones the head chopping till the next morning, but day after day he is delighted by the new stories. At first the interpretation might be a superior female wit and cleverness, and sure, that’s one aspect- but I think it’s more than that – I think we have an example of a female who has created something so beautiful, magical and compelling that the negative force was diffused. It was converted. And I think there’s a clue there.

As I continued my thinking, my mind leapt to the fairy tale of the Frog King. In the olden days, when wishing still worked, lived a princess who had a golden ball as a play thing. She loses the ball in the well that has no bottom. The frog – the archetypal figure for rejection and the underworld – comes up from the depths of the subconscious with the golden ball, but wants the princess in return. The frog follows her back to the castle and bangs on the door demanding to be let in as promised by the princess. This is a situation the princess needs to resolve. The King can’t help – he didn’t notice the threat, and he even let the damned frog in through the front door. The princess must resolve this alone. In the story she kisses the frog and he turns him into a handsome prince. I never understood what the significance of the kiss was. Why does a kiss turn a frog into a handsome prince?

My interpretation now is the ability to turn something negative into something positive through the magic of female love and care. The ability to convert this energy.

Perhaps it’s a destructive masculine energy that’s gone astray (inverted) or gone foul in the bog in the forest, which can only be converted by the heroine (maximally female: so beautiful that even the sun smiled at her beauty). But don’t forget the prince was only turned into a frog by a spell from a wicked witch (so there’s a negative female energy to deal with too).

Interestingly, this story of the Frog King has two endings. In an alternative ending, the princess throws the frog against the wall and only then does he turn into a handsome prince. So although in our human species females tend to be physically weaker than men, it’s interesting to know that strong female force is not discounted from the ability to convert into something positive. 

As I continued my search I came across Jordan Peterson’s ‘Maps of Meaning’ series. He also draws on fairly tales (‘Snow White’) as well as adult female fantasy literature whereby the archetypal story is an innocent female who is confronted with male aggression and the mythology is her ability to tame it. How it is done, we find out in the stories. The male aggression is the ultimate state of chaos for a female. I think it goes beyond just taming. As I interpret it in the stories, the taming is still conversion – but also into something positive: the frog into a prince.

I suppose if this story is extrapolated to today’s business world, the hierarchical companies are often perceived to be the epitome of masculinity imposed upon the natural world, then I suppose that many of today’s women are attracted (and maybe there’s even a societal need for this to happen) to go into that environment and turn, let’s say, a mercenary masculine environment into something positive.

So for me, the female heroine story seems to be about converting energy, and creating something so magical that it converts something negative into something positive, life-giving. These negative forces could be all sorts: people, organisations, ideologies, approaches, and maybe even machines. What comes out, I don’t know. But, of course, how this is done (whether love, care, quick-wittedness, clever trickery, beauty-creation or even a whack on the nose) depends on the situation and the most appropriate micro-narrative to draw on. So these stories do exist. And I think if we dig around a bit, we might see more of these mythologies throughout history. But they’re cleverly hidden. And maybe there’s another clue there too: that many of these conversions were done so well and so cleverly, that we didn’t even notice. And that’s the whole point. And when I made that connection, I chuckled.

So what stories have we read so far:

  • The Frog King
  • The Minotaur (I wonder whether the daughter is actually the heroine in this story?)
  • Snow White
  • 1,001 Nights
  • What else? You tell me.