With the latest shooting spree by a young, sexually frustrated white male, the idea that the media is responsible for men’s unrealistic romantic expectations has arisen again as a topic of debate.
A lot has been said about privilege, about romantic comedy tropes, about gender representation in Hollywood – and I think all of those are valid points, but I think on some level the problem is essentially Joseph Campbell-related.
I’ve written before about how the Hero’s Journey has taken over storytelling in Hollywood – this is amply documented, there are shelves upon shelves of screenwriting books and articles that basically say that every movie can be mapped onto the Monomyth template. Cannes Film Festival fare may occasionally deviate from this rule, but rarely do these films even appear as a blip on the cultural landscape.
The thing is, the Hero’s Journey is never a tale of two people. It always orbits around a single protagonist who faces seemingly insurmountable challenges, learns something, and saves the day.
I have seen many, many great plays and movies about human relationships, but they are seldom about Heroes. I would say they generally fall into two categories: the classic screwball comedy or the complex, emotional drama. The dramas are often family stories – about people who are already in relationships and have a lot of history together, often involving kids, in-laws, exes. The screwball comedies are often (maybe usually) of the meet-cute variety: I’m thinking Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, but also Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.
The screwball comedy is about two deeply flawed but redeemable characters finding one another, and salvation. The emotional drama is about deeply flawed characters struggling to find a way to stay together in spite of everything that stands between them, and often failing.
But there’s a subtle difference between either of these and a Hero’s Journey story – the Hero is a flawed protagonist, for sure, but his challenges are presented along an axis of internal / external. Internally speaking, he has to become a better man, and externally, there are circumstances in his life that must be overcome. Sometimes, in romantic comedies, these involve the girl he’s interested in having a boyfriend, fiancee, etc..
The protagonist in these cases is often a “he,” though I’m pretty sure there are cases where the Hero is female – movies like, say, My Best Friend’s Wedding, starring Julia Roberts.
I would say that movies in the classic screwball comedy and emotional drama categories pretty successfully avoid having a clear protagonist – Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn are equally matched, though a case could be made that she’s the protagonist in Bringing Up Baby. Same with Harry and Sally. I think it’s him, based on the final scene at the New Year’s party, but it’s hard to be sure.
When you give up the fundamental duality of structure, necessarily, one of the members of the couple gives up their interiority, their own Hero-ness; their ability to make choices motivated by what they want and need. They cease to have agency, to be people who might say no for legitimate reasons – they become someone who needs to be convinced.
When real humans in the world try to model their relationships upon the Hero’s Journey, it can be a disaster – if I’m the Hero and the person I know I’m in love with is resisting my attempts to woo her – that’s merely a bigger challenge for me to overcome. Because I know the way my movie is supposed to end – us together, happily ever after.
I’ve seen this up close, and it’s painful to watch, and sometimes scary – if you’re convinced that you were meant to be together, you can play out a brilliant love story in your head – which, from an external point of view, is the very definition of stalking. But the Hero’s Journey doesn’t allow for an external point of view because it’s totally devoted to the perspective of the protagonist.
The Hero has to die – I mean, we all have to die, but it’s striking how profoundly true this is, in these failed romantic situations. In healthier and more resilient cases this “death” is a metaphor, an analogy, and it just means depression and grieving, a few months or years spent in the basement, numb (buried, I guess). In pathological cases like the guy in Isla Vista, the climax of the inner conflict is literally, horrifically deadly, but this can happen on any level – the Hero dies, no matter what. He (or she) learns, finally, that the other person doesn’t want to be in their movie, and the (symbolic) death can be epic and pyrrhic, taking down families and long-term friendships with it, or, I guess, noble, quiet, and mostly internal.
The Hero, as I’ve said before, is ultimately an adolescent archetype – it’s okay for adolescents to feel like they’re at the center of the universe, and of course the end of an adolescent romance isn’t pretty. We’ve all seen the aftermath of these bloody battles, certainly in our teens, probably also in college and into our twenties.
And that adolescent sensibility is still there, it seems, in a lot of failed marriages of people in their 30s, 40s, 50s – it’s okay, I suppose, if it takes a decade or two to fully play out – people are busy, they have kids, everyone’s on their own schedule in life as far as figuring these things out.
And absolutely, in this day and age, gender dynamics play a huge role in who has the unrealistic expectations – men are taught to take, to overcome challenges, to exert their will over the world.
All of that said, I think there is something fundamentally irresponsible and immature about proposing a Romantic Hero narrative about adults, to adults – whether that hero is male or female. It doesn’t reflect the way the world works, which is plenty interesting and compelling in and of itself, in all of its complexity and nuance. The Hero’s Journey has its place – it’s a valuable archetypal narrative – but artists and cultural producers have a responsibility, as adults, to get past their Hero fixation and, you know, grow up a little.
Plus, there’s got to be money in it. Bringing Up Baby is just plain brilliant, and ridiculous, and far more sophisticated than most of the relationship stories that are being made today. The more we can let the Hero go, the more we can move on to those types of grown-up stories, and, bonus, healthier human relationships.