I have my ear to the ground for midlife discussions. Twice lately, I’ve heard women in the space refer to menopause as a “hero’s journey.” And each time, I instinctively cringed.
I’ve dived deep into literature on midlife written by both men and women. I’ve been especially interested in the symbolic meaning of the transition and the way cultural definitions of womanhood impede us. The hero’s journey is a structure used for many beloved stories. Every superhero movie, boxing movie, underdog-gets-the-prize movie follow this story structure. Even when the main character is female—The Wizard of Oz, for example—the story follows a masculine tale of triumph.
I’m a decades-long fan of Joseph Campbell, the mythologist credited with defining the hero’s journey framework, distilled from his research of myths from around the world. He discovered a universal story arc in spoken myths passed down from disparate and unrelated cultures.
Myths embody the masculine
But the hero in these stories, Campbell says, is a man. The hero sets out on a journey, away from what is familiar, to conquer challenges along the way, and eventually returns home with the hard-won elixir of new understanding. The hero will face battles and be tested in the physical, emotional, and sometimes spiritual realms.
While I love stories of quest, testing, and triumph, relating the hero’s journey to menopause feels off to me. Campbell himself, when asked about women’s roles in myths offered little, saying, “All of the great mythologies and much of the mythic storytelling of the world are from the male point of view.” While writing his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell wanted to include “female heroes,” but said that he had to go to fairytales to find them. In the ancient myths that Campbell studied, men triumph while women are sidelined or silent.
Perhaps you see where I’m going with this. Today menopause is notably under-studied and doctors are not often sure how to treat women’s symptoms. Though women make up half the population, money spent on women’s health research is a fraction of what’s spent on men’s health. Add to this a cultural narrative that values female youth and fertility ahead of female experience (of any age) and I think it’s safe to say that the ancients are not the only ones sidelining women.
Menopause is female
So what is the feminine counterpart to the hero’s journey?
It’s still being written, or perhaps remembered. In midlife, I see a circular journey for women, not unlike the lunar cycles that we experience for nearly 40 years. I see a returning to an inner-knowing and confidence that girls possess before menarche. I see nurturing—of oneself and others—instead of warring. I see truth telling and justice seeking. I don’t see a journey of traverse as much as an inner journey into the chambers of one’s own heart, conscience, and soul.
I’m not suggesting that women can’t be heroes like the ones Campbell describes. Unlike ancient times (or well 50 years ago), we can pursue traditional male roles freely. But is this still a one-sided story?
The heroine’s journey
Harvard research professor Maria Tatar responded to Campbell’s work with a book titled The Heroine with 1,001 Faces. She recounts the fairytales that feature women and girls, passed down from women to women, and to children. She says that while the hero’s journey heralds a particular kind of power, it disregards stories that require “resilience, persistence, and the forging of alliances.” These are a heroine’s superpowers, along with the use of language as powerful weapon. In fairytales, heroines speak truth that enables them to escape death, persuade others, change culture, and achieve justice.
In a nutshell, while heroes engage in war, heroines focus on mission.
There are also popular movies that follow this story arc—Doubt with Meryl Streep and Viola Davis is one. Norma Rae with Sally Field is another.
In writing this, I don’t wish to diminish Joseph Campbell’s work. I’m simply craving the feminine dimension that he admits is missing. I want to bring forward the heroine’s power of truth telling as mission.
And this is what many women in the menopause and midlife space are doing—using spoken and written language to connect, educate, and inspire women, and to move our culture forward. This is the power of the pen, not the sword.
🌿 🌙 🌿
If these words strike a chord with you, would you consider sharing them with friends?I write for midlife women and so appreciate your support in sharing my work.