Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Heroine's Journey: Women and Myth, Technology and Storytelling

Joseph Campbell's Monomyth (seen above, click to enlarge) is an attempt to describe the Hero's Journey present across time and culture in mythology and storytelling.

Since I began writing this blog, I've been trying to find a gender-neutral illustration of this concept and finally, here it is.

In my search I was able to find "female hero's journeys" which are helpful (here & here) but I just couldn't bring myself to write about them and here's why:
While there are some differences between a hero's and a heroine's journey the core of the journey's progress is the same.
Sure, the differences are important to each specific story; but they are just as different from hero to hero as from hero to heroine. A narrative is not male or female, nor is a method of storytelling.

I've talked about this before, and frankly I think it's what I end up talking to people about the most: stories are not inherently gendered, the characters within them have genders. Girls in stories can kick ass and it be enjoyable for men and women to watch and not unnatural to the state of being a girl: fairies can be male or female: and creating a property for boys definitely doesn't mean that a female character will send your audience running for the hills.

I am a Transmedia Producer and have worked for 6 years at Starlight Runner Entertainment; often when approached by people new to the concept of Transmedia Storytelling I find myself answering questions about whether or not Transmedia Storytelling can be applied to girls' properties. This is a little like being asked if spoons can be used for lunch as well as dinner. The answer is a jubilant YES! if your franchise has a story it can tall that story across many platforms.

That story can have a male lead, female lead, be based on reality, be total fiction, be a documentary, be about humans, aliens or meerkats and if it is rich enough in story and setting to tell a few related tales you can have a successful Transmedia Franchise. There are obviously some intervening steps but that's the truth.

The innate barriers to creating franchises, films, games, etc... for women and girls are the same as creating franchises, films, games, etc... for men and boys: a compelling concept, a well-considered narrative, a rich story universe and the means to execute it.

I hear similar gripes from friends and colleagues in the Entertainment Industry (which to me includes video games, toys, online works...) and especially in younger industries like video games where there haven't been amazingly epic franchises built for women, or that really celebrated a more nuanced female character than Lara Croft, there is a perception that because there haven't been any really legendary projects for girls or women, for some reason there can't be.

So here is the take away: there is no greater reason that there shouldn't be more franchises for Girls and Women, ones that have different more interesting stories. The only reason there aren't more girls franchises out there, is because you and I haven't made them yet.


  1. "The only reason there aren't more girls franchises out there, is because you and I haven't made them yet."

    This is an old song -- one that women in the computer game development industry have been singing for over 15 years. It's not that we haven't tried. I've written many girl or gender-neutral franchise proposals, as have at least 20 of my female fellow writers. Some men have given it a shot, too. But the truth of the matter, as far as computer games are concerned, is that the development companies/publishers aren't convinced they can make money with a female-oriented project, and so they're not going to take the risk. I gave up and moved to print; others did the same or started writing boy's games. What we need is an independent house with the financial backing to take the risk (combined, of course, with killer product). If you ever find one, let me know. I've got some cool ideas just gathering dust in the filing cabinet.

  2. Coming up from the ARG tradition, it's bewildering to me that anyone would even ask, "But can you do it for girls, too?" We've always had strong women in our games (as creators and as characters) and in our communities as players and participants, too.

    Caitlin, I'm delighted to have found your blog. I think we have a lot in common. ^_^

  3. house-draven:

    There are certainly barriers to entry, but there are also inroads that are just coming into vogue that are capable of proving marketability to less amenable groups. Transmedia implementations are fascinating ways to prove a concept before taking on huge initial investment. I'd love to see some of your projects and help figure out how they might get off the ground. (contact me via my profile if you're interested)

    Right now is especially interesting when looking at how social media can influence investment on games, movies, narrative concepts of all kinds. Frankly, I'd love to hear about your experiences.

  4. Ohh, this is an excellent blog, and one I'll be following. Fascinating article!

  5. Strong insights, Caitlin. I think you're dead-on re: the appetite amongst girls and young women for more immersive entertainment. Just imagine if Twilight had been launched as a true transmedia property from the outset? With a strategic, layered approach to the storytelling that spread across books, movies, games, ARGs, webseries, etc.? Hard not to believe it would be even bigger than it is (a scary thought, that). On Valemont (our original transmedia project for MTV) we discovered that by catering to the exact audience you're delineating we were able to quickly establish a robust and dynamic online community which, I believe, is the life's blood for any transmedia property. Hopefully others will take our lead and recognize the value of this vast, untapped "girl power."

  6. Ditto to what Brent said!

    Also, it's shocking to me because online - where many transmedia properties live and breathe - has a HUGE, INVOLVED, COMMITTED female audience. Mommybloggers. Etsy. BlogHer. &Etc.

    Hopefully that question will go from "can you do it for girls?" "WHEN can you do it?"

    But I agree with Draven - in the past I've attempted to pitch female-centric projects (mostly tween, animated, etc.) and have been told to make it more "boy" or been told "girls don't do that." /headdesk

  7. Slackmistress- "Hopefully that question will go from 'can you do it for girls?' to 'WHEN can you do it?"

    I'm quoting you to death on that, be aware. There's a reason you're a famous author. =)

    The most interesting thing about boys properties I've worked on in the past several years has been fighting the idea that "girls are yucky" that the people in charge were afraid of challenging. The funniest part was that when we pointed out that they were actually the ones in charge of their properties and could put in as many girl characters as strongly as they wanted... they did.

    What I'm seeing is that as newer generations of folks are coming into those positions of decision making, there is a sea change. The remaining problem is that the established properties are primarily aimed at men and boys. This puts girls properties in the minority, but it also means there's room to experiment in the new channels, like Valemont, Blogs, etc... companies that are willing to experiment are going to see new media properties that are looking for that auidience are going to prosper.

    If Twilight has taught the world, it's that girls get as excited as boys about stories they love, often moreso. The fans are heavily internet savvy, and in the absence of new cannon material, they'll create their own.

  8. I'm curious, is Harry Potter considered a boy's franchise? Because my experience of the fandom is that it's at least gender-balanced, and probably leans heavy toward more girls.

  9. While Harry Potter is definitely a property that appeals to boys and girls; many successful properties are a mix of both, the real enemy is the idea that if you're creating a property it has to go out of its way to appeal to either gender and not consider the other.

    A boys property, one with male characters, traditionally male-directed storylines, and aiming for male market segments often takes the stance that girls will be interested in a boy-aimed universe, but the opposite, that boys would be interested in a female-centered or female-directed story universe is considered not true.

    To be fair, if all the female-directed universe is doing is telling an overly simple story, painting it pink and sprinkling glitter on it, it's not going to appeal. At the same time, it's not going to be as successful as a Harry Potter and it's not going to appeal to as wide a swath of girls either.

    Fandom is certainly a place where women and girls exist and have power, but knowing that intellectually is often disconnected from the end products created and directed at fans, again, girls will play with the boys toys...

    Extending narrative across platforms can really help the percieved gender gap for several reasons, the product can be more nuanced and it creates more diagetic elements to draw from for products and experiences directed at fans. By exploring the universe of a story, there's greater potential to appeal to wider market segments without alienating one or the other.

    The more consideration and depth one gives to one's story and characters, the more appealing it will be overall.

  10. *nodnod* I see, I see. Don't get me started on the pink and sparkles. (I have two little girls.) I guess the specific mechanics of building a *franchise* are a little foreign to me, because I come to transmedia from a more grassrootsy place.

    I addressed some similar things in my talk at SXSW, come to think of it. The prevailing mentality is that boy things are for girls and for boys, but girl things are just for girls (and that girl suck anyway, so no boy should want them.) Drives me bonkers.

  11. For some reason Blogger ate this comment:

    Andrea said...

    *nodnod* I see, I see. Don't get me started on the pink and sparkles. (I have two little girls.) I guess the specific mechanics of building a *franchise* are a little foreign to me, because I come to transmedia from a more grassrootsy place.

    I addressed some similar things in my talk at SXSW, come to think of it. The prevailing mentality is that boy things are for girls and for boys, but girl things are just for girls (and that girl suck anyway, so no boy should want them.) Drives me bonkers.

  12. When I started writing for television, a million and a half years ago, that old thinking dominated what TV shows got made: girls will watch shows with a male lead, but boys won't watch shows with a female lead. We had no series with female leads for kids for years. Then along came a franchise called Sailor Moon. It had girls in the lead roles and boys looooved the show. And that whole premise got blown out of the water.

    It's seriously shocking for me to hear that old thinking being pulled out in the digital space. Have they not heard of Dora the Explorer, the huge hit that kids are weened on, teaching them from their earliest days of media consumption that entertainments featuring female leads are great?

    Great blog by the way.

  13. jill380-

    Thanks so much for the compliment =)

    My experience with this concept is hardly purely digital; it's still embedded in the creation of many different platforms; ironically, as this nebulous entrenched ideology that must be fought against. Though I've observed it in different ways in different industry platforms; the difference between video games and publishing, vs film or marketing. The truth is it's a dogmatic idea that very few of the people I've heard saying it even really agreed with.

    As the prevailing attitude of many decades it's part of the history of entertainment production at this point. It's of course misguided. But the same people I've heard say such things have also been consistently receptive to solutions that better serve everyone. Though these are also the folks who want a transmedia producer to help plan their future narrative rollouts over the long term so that their stories are relevant and resonant =P

    There's always an idea that people who were making franchises in the past have some magic well-thought-through alchemy for success, rather than that they perhaps were writing and designing rollouts as they went along, like modern creators are. That kind of awe that these older franchises inspire tend towards dogmatic thinking, which can wall off thinking about development.

    My hope is to see more people spraypainting on those walls. The union between properties developed on social media platforms and developed in a distributed fashion is on its way, big companies want to have the kind of responses that nimble grassroots transmedia campaigns can yield and it's an ideal way for creators and companies to playtest original I.P.

    As experiences like Valemont and others that are just starting out evolve, they're going to cross fairly rapidly into the markets that traditionally were only available to entertainment conglomerates, it's a fascinating time to be in the industry.