the art of being a heroine




The word makes you think, maybe, of a damsel in distress: flinging hand to forehead, tied to a railroad track by a villain with impressive facial hair.

Heroines provide opportunities for the hero to prove his heroism. They serve and support by acting as the hero’s moral conscience, or by serving as his muse, or by dying prematurely so that he can go after the bad guys and seek vengeance in manly ways.

“In the whole mythological tradition,” Joseph Campbell is quoted as saying, “the woman is there.

She doesn’t need to go on any quest, because “All she has to do is to realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to. When a woman realizes what her wonderful character is, she’s not going to get messed up with the notion of being pseudo-male.”

I don’t buy it.

As a little girl, I wasn’t playing house or planning my dream wedding or decapitating Barbie dolls in increasingly creative ways.

I fantasized about being a female Jedi Knight.

I enacted entire scenarios in the family living room. I hungered for female action heroes like Ripley or Nikita or Sarah O’Conner: women who kicked ass but demonstrated a complex and full-blooded humanity (otherwise known as “being a three dimensional character”).

Buffy? We were starved for her.

It’s not that we didn’t care about cute boys and awesome clothes and best friends forever; we just knew that there was a world out there, and we wanted to explore it, dancing on a moonlit foreign beach to the rhythm of our own deepest natures. We heard the call of the times as fiercely as anyone. We, too, wanted to rise in answer, instead of watching from the sidelines and waiting

(so much waiting)

for the hero to come claim his reward.

But words like strong and powerful cut against the softness of traditional femininity. Adventurous and independent and bold get tagged as male characteristics.

If a woman demonstrates these traits, she is somehow not quite feminine.

She is “messed up with the notion of being pseudo-male.”

I don’t buy that, either.

If women get “messed up”, it’s because we absorb the message that in order to pursue worldly accomplishment, to take up public space, our femininity needs to pack itself away. We learn that our job as females is not to be heroic, but perfect.

Perfection involves whittling ourselves down to size.

In her poem “A Work of Artifice”, Marge Piercy argues that the quote-unquote “female role” is so restrictive that girls are shaped from birth in order not to outgrow it: “the bound feet/ the crippled brain/ the hair curlers/ the hands you/ love to touch.”

If you want to go big or go home, “femininity” becomes something a woman needs to suppress. We learn to mock ‘girly’ things like manicures and Lifetime movies. To declare: I hate the color pink. To declare: I prefer the company of men. To declare: I don’t trust other women.

We grow up steeped like tea bags in messages that convey something shameful about being in a female body: body hair and body fat, periods and appetites, desire. We must remove, monitor, conceal, repress, suppress, pare away, control.

We must be pure.

“I’d come to see….” writes Carol Lee Flinders, “that at critical junctures language regularly fails women for the simple reason that in male-centered cultures language just isn’t set up to speak for women or carry women’s meanings. This is one of the subtler aspects of the silencing of women.”

We’re silenced not because we’re forbidden to express ourselves; we’re silenced because the words we need either don’t ‘belong’ to us, or don’t exist.

In an earlier post, trying to stake out the ground between being traditionally, passively feminine and being “pseudo-male”, I identified the “creatrix”:

“…a woman who maintains strong relationships with others while cultivating her natural gifts and pursuing mastery, for however long it takes her. She actively uses her gifts in service of herself, her loved ones, and the world. She is grounded, sensual, and comfortable in her body. She recognizes her birthright to pleasure and play. She believes in interdependence and interbeing: she is her own person while knowing that we are at least partly defined by our relationships. She may or may not have kids. Chances are she tried the conventional thing, or came close – the wedding, the ‘safe’ job or career, the house in the suburbs – and it didn’t work out. So now she lives in the country/on the beach/in a loft downtown/in Thailand.

She is not afraid of power: standing up to it, speaking truth to it, or using it to advance her own agenda.

She is not afraid to have an agenda.”

Recently I came across this quote by Henry David Thoreau:

“One should be always on the trail of one’s own deepest nature. For it is the fearless living out of your own essential nature that connects you to the Divine. Finding and then embracing our calling helps bring us to our true self.”

That, I thought, is how to be heroic, for men and women both: to fearlessly live out your “own essential nature” in a way that connects you to meaning, your true self, a sense of the bigger picture; to be at home in the world.

To be whole.

Aug 13, 2014

9 comments · Add Yours

I certainly would be interested in your view of the badass life of Joan of Arc. She lived and died by the biases of the medieval times – hearer of the word of God on the one hand, and on the other a heretic (by accusation against a female doing badass things, of course).

Mark Twain utterly celebrated her life as the best person ever to live (or something like that) and he was a sort of badass himself who loved those who overturned heavy yokes of convention – and he also loved to write about cross-dressers not coincidentally.

She was real, and she made a big difference. And she was quite feminine (not that that’s the point). Whether by God’s lead or by positive and clairvoyant delusion, she made the big difference in France’s Hundred Years War.

Here’s an interesting clothing-as-heresy note in the wiki for her… (I am now reading Twain’s account of her):

“Heresy was a capital crime only for a repeat offense. Joan agreed to wear feminine clothing when she abjured. This created a problem. According to the later descriptions of some of the tribunal members, she had previously been wearing male (i.e. military) clothing in prison because it gave her the ability to fasten her hosen and tunic together into one piece, which deterred rape by making it difficult to pull her hosen off.[71][72] A woman’s dress offered no such protection. A few days after adopting a dress, she told a tribunal member that “a great English lord had entered her prison and tried to take her by force. [i.e. rape her]”[73] She resumed male attire either as a defense against molestation or, in the testimony of Jean Massieu, because her dress had been taken by the guards and she was left with nothing else to wear.[74] Her resumption of male military clothing was labeled a relapse into heresy”
(the ultimate cause of her execution…)


I like this topic soooooooooo much… it’s so important. THANK YOU. I want to show little girls that they can do so much more in the world beyond (or instead of) ‘getting married’. You said that it was a work of a larger piece.. so then I have a couple of suggestions: to edit tighter to come to the idea of women’s seize-the-world adventures.. sooner. And then the word ‘badass’. Is there an equally strong, but less overused, equivalent word you can use? My thesaurus is not helping me help you with this.. but I’ll think about it. Maybe your readers have some suggestions too.


I definitely posted that too quickly. I cleaned it up some. :)


The female mystics were amazing women. Inspiring. Joan, teresa, clare, julian…And as a little girl going to Sunday school, I learned absolutely nothing about them. Which is a shame, because that would have been a doorway into spirituality for me.


Super! I have in mind to use this for some little girls that I know.. :-)


I was so inspired by this post and, in particular, your description of the “Creatrix.” You described the woman that I’ve slowly and painfully become and it’s wonderful to have a word to validate this non-conforming type of life. Love your blog and you :)


I am guilty of being one of those pesudo-males. Contempt for anything that falls in the feminine camp. Hating pink, chick flicks, ect. I think because (up until recently) I considered myself sort of 3rd gender. I didn’t want to be a dude, but I didn’t want the rules of female-ness to apply to me either. Again, as you point out, there isn’t even language to support woman-as-main-character-of-story. I do love ‘Creatrix’, Executrix – something about that ‘trix’ sound gives it a fae, bewitching air that carries with it a power. And definitely not a male power.


Nicely stated…..impressive thought process.

“She is not afraid of power: standing up to it, speaking truth to it, or using it to advance her own agenda.” is such a powerful statement, well done!



I love you Justine. From the very first wolf whistle we get at 12-13 from a passing guy with his drivers licence, we learn that our looks, our object value, is the ‘most powerful thing we possess”. Whether we like it or not, as we reach adulthood, coming to view ourselves as objects (even to ourselves), is our passport to success. So of course we’re never going to be successful in our own minds unless we are Miranda Kerr or Megan Fox. I was labelled as ‘gifted’ at 12. I was the Dux of my School, the ‘most popular girl’, the best at sport. dancing, art, a friend and mentor to any ‘weaker’ girl or boy at my high school but society and my parents brought me up to feel that my object value was of much greater importance than any other inner gift I possessed. I consequently spent my teens starving myself and doing my own head in for not being perfect. The subject choices offered at school in the 80’s for girls were- grooming and deportment, sewing, home management and family living (this is where I learned to sew baby clothes!), cooking. This is Australia in the modern age. Guess what I did at 17? I had a baby, then 3 more by 26. Not the plan I had at 14….to change the world. Beauty is a curse in this world.


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