It’s well known that George Lucas read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces before he made the original “Star Wars” movie (which years later became “Episode IV: A New Hope,” but to me, who saw it in the theater as a first-run movie, will forever be “Star Wars”). Lucas based most of his characters and the plot on Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Quest story: the orphan boy who leaves home to become the hero, guided by a wise old man who disappears before the critical event when the hero accomplishes the single marvelous act that saves the community.
Yet Lucas strayed a bit from the typical plot when he did not have Luke return “home” and take over as the leader of the rebel alliance after marrying the princess, as most heroes do. The princess turns out to be his sister, and she marries a sidekick character (although in Lucas’s mind, Han Solo is “the hero’s hero” so is also worthy, I suppose). That sister goes on to rule while Luke goes off on his own path.
This last part is more typical of the heroine journey story. Heroines – unless they are just female versions of the male hero – do not usually save the day through a single act and keep the community safe. Nor do they return home to rule. Instead, they keep moving on. They often do have a big effect on their communities, but they don’t save or preserve those communities; instead, what they do is transform the community (see my post on “Brave”). Luke starts to follow this path after the first movie. In the third he defeats Darth Vader not by force; instead he appeals to Darth’s own better nature and their relationship as father and son – a very feminine way of dealing with someone who’s being a problem!
In “The Force Awakens,” J.J. Abrams gives us a reboot of the original movie set a generation later. One can tick off all the tropes of the first movie that Abrams refashions: the orphan living on a desert planet who is more than s/he seems; the ‘droid with vital information; the cocky pilot who helps the hero/ine; the former Jedi gone bad, and so on and on. But this time the hero is a young woman, and the story merges even more of the heroine journey story with that of the heroic quest story.
For example, one difference is that while the hero seeks out the princess, often rescuing her from danger before bringing her home again, the heroine doesn’t do anything to find her prince. Instead, he comes to her in the form of a good man who recognizes her worth and chooses to follow her on her journey. Finn, who in an early, critical scene demonstrates his essential goodness to us, recognizes Rey’s worth almost as soon as he meets her and follows her into danger.
Another example is that the hero encounters his mentor through no doing of his own. Yes, Luke goes looking for Obi-Wan Kenobi, but not as a teacher; he is only trying to “return” the ‘droid R2D2 to him. It is Obi-Wan who recognizes who Luke really is and seeks to teach him. But the heroine usually goes into the wild on purpose to find her teacher, and in the last scene of the new movie, we see Rey climbing a lonely mountain in the middle of the sea to find Luke, the only person who can guide her in the use of the Force.
These are small shifts in the story, but I see them as significant. I believe that the hero and heroine stories are in the process of merging into one story as heroes and heroines become more like each other. We are in the midst of a transformative time when the old polarized ideas about masculine and feminine are breaking down, and people are becoming free to be themselves without such labels. There’s a long way to go yet, but as ever, popular culture is showing us where we are going.