Book Review: Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2012)

September 28th, 2012 12:08 pm by Kelly Garbato

(Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

The Slayer Who Would Be Queen

four out of five stars

A newbie Buffy fan like myself, I was super-excited when copies of Valerie Estelle Frankel’s Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey: Vampire Slayer as Feminine Chosen One were offered up for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. At the time I was just finishing up Season Seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and picking up Season One of the comics, so the timing was perfect – fresh as the material was in my head.

Frankel didn’t discover the show until long after the final episode had aired; but, once she did, she was quick to devour it all: BtVS, Angel, and the comics. As she watched, she also worked on an impromptu, 100-page draft comparing Buffy’s trials and tribulations to the classic hero’s journey, as described by mythologist Joseph Campbell. Eventually her thesis grew into Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey.

A “monomyth” that can be found in the great epics of every culture (see, e.g., Hercules, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter), the Hero’s Journey takes a somewhat predictable path – beginning with the call to adventure and ending with the “freedom to live” – during the course of which the protagonist gains wisdom and self-knowledge and successfully grows into a fully integrated adult. Of course, many adventures are had along the way: the hero battles with (and triumphs over) a Dark Lord (his Shadow) who threatens the world; he meets his Princess, goddess of the forest and embodiment of the earth’s magic; and he battles monsters of all shapes and sizes. Perhaps he’s also accompanied by a trustworthy friend or two, who function as outward reflections of his inner self.

As articulated in a handy chart by Frankel, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey includes:

* World of Common Day
* Call to Adventure
* Refusal of The Call
* Supernatural Aid
* Crossing The First Threshold
* Belly of the Whale
* Road of Trials
* Meeting with The Goddess
* Woman as Temptress
* Atonement with The Father
* Apotheosis
* The Ultimate Boon
* The Refusal of the Return
* The Magic Flight
* Rescue from Within
* Return
* Master of Two Worlds
* Freedom to Live

In contrast, Frankel offers up a different – but oftentimes parallel – outline of The Heroine’s Journey:

* World of Common Day
* Call to Adventure: A Desire to Reconnect with the Feminine
* Refusal of The Call
* The Ruthless Mentor and the Bladeless Talisman
* Crossing the First Threshold: Opening One’s Senses
* Sidekicks, Trials, Adversaries
* Wedding the Animus
* Facing Bluebeard
* Sensitive Man as Completion
* Confronting the Powerless Father
* Descent into Darkness
* Atonement with the Mother
* Apotheosis through Accepting One’s Feminine Side
* Reward: Winning the Family
* Torn Desires
* The Magic Flight
* Reinstating the Family
* Power of Life and Death
* Ascension of the New Mother

As you can see, many of the points on these paths are quite similar, with nearly all of the differences hinging upon the hero’s gender. (Paging Captain Obvious!) For example, while the male hero has daddy issues (the mother being largely absent), the heroine is plagued with mommy problems – and a weak father (and/or father figure), to boot. Whereas the hero will be seduced by a woman (“Woman as Temptress”), the heroine must remain vigilant against intimate partner violence (“Facing Bluebeard”). The hero meets and falls in love with a mysterious princess/goddess who introduces him to the magic of nature, whereas the heroine must wed the animus – her dark, masculine Shadow Self.

Drawing upon the whole of Buffyverse canon – the 1992 film, seven seasons of Buffy, five seasons of Angel, and Seasons One and Eight of the comic – Frankel elucidates the ways in which Buffy’s journey functions as a “perfect example” (I’m paraphrasing) of The Heroine’s Journey. Xander (passionate, practical) and Willow (innocent, intelligent) can be read as aspects of Buffy’s self, manifested externally, which must be nurtured and protected at all costs. Giles is both a manly guardian of knowledge and a (physically) powerless father (figure; Buffy’s actual father is both powerless and largely absent from her life). Maggie Walsh and Glory are Terrible Mothers – destructive forces that Buffy must avoid succumbing to. Whereas Joyce vacillates between a Good Mother and a mother who is at best oblivious to her daughter’s needs, Tara acts as a surrogate Good Mother in the wake of Joyce’s death; after Tara is murdered, Buffy must integrate Tara’s goodness into her own psyche, so that she can care for her little sister/adopted daughter Dawn. As Buffy confronts and defeats increasingly disturbing and powerful opponents – absorbing their darkness into her Self – she matures. So do her weapons: from a common crossbow (which allows to her keep a relatively safe distance from vamps), to a masculine, army-issued rocket launcher, culminating in the ultra-powerful, ultra-ancient scythe, which helps to unleash the power of the feminine so that all women are potential slayers.

A common criticism I’ve seen in previous reviews is that Frankel’s Heroine’s Journey doesn’t differ significantly from Cambell’s Hero’s Journey – or at least not enough to merit a whole new model. Here, I have to agree – although I wonder if my limited knowledge of mythology might be at fault. Perhaps understandably (this is after all a book about Buffy!), Frankel only devotes one chapter to explaining Cambell’s model; unless you have prior knowledge of the model, all you’re left with is a bare bones sketch. Based on my limited understanding, Frankel’s model simply seems like a reflection of Cambell’s in which the gender of the hero (and, likewise, sidekicks, villains, parents, lovers, etc.) is flipped. Even so, it makes for an interesting framework from which to dissect Buffy’s journey.

This brings me to another issue with these models: they limit gender to two distinct polar opposites, thus erasing everyone who doesn’t identify as one or the other. In reality, gender (and sexuality; both models assume heterosexuality) is much more fluid than this. Why have a hero/heroine’s journey? Why not just one journey for everyone, one which recognizes that we all struggle with things like parents, adolescence, romantic relationships, finding one’s place in the world, etc.?

Likewise, many readers take issue with the deeply sexist nature of these models: for example, men are equated with science and rationality, while women are connected to the natural earth and the unexplainable magic found within. While identifying “Mother Nature” as a source of feminine power might seem feminist (yay girl power?), think again. What do we do with the earth: land, water, air? We colonize it. Exploit it. War over its resources. Pollute, waste, consume. Drill, mine, frack. We take and take until there’s nothing left – and then we discard it and move on.

By equating women – and, to a larger extent, nonhuman animals – with nature and the earth, we objectify them; position them as an object – an unsentient “it” – ripe for oppression and exploitation. The earth is not gendered; it’s no more female than it is male. To claim otherwise is to do a disservice to women everywhere.

And as for science and reason being the province of men? Please. Not even worth a rebuttal.

That said, I don’t think the sexism lies with the author (although it’s certainly possible that she believes these things; I don’t claim to know either way!), but with the models themselves. Based on centuries- (even millennia!) old stories, Cambell’s Hero’s Journey is bound to reflect existing gender biases; and, modeled as it is on Campbell’s outline, so is Frankel’s. Still, inasmuch as modern stories are influence by ancient myths and archetypes, these models persist as useful tools with which to examine contemporary pop culture narratives. Joss Whedon himself reports that he studied Cambell’s Hero’s Journey in school.

A rebuttal of the model’s sexist gender assumptions, however brief, would have been nice – but perhaps beyond the scope of this book.

If you can get around the “woman as nature, nature as woman” theme, grating as it is by chapter 13, Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey is an engaging and enjoyable read. While it is an academic text, the jargon is kept to a manageable minimum. (If you studied psychology in college, many of the Jungian terms will come flooding back to you. Jungian psychology: while it makes for an intriguing mythological discussion, an analytical psychologist is the last person I’d recommend to Buffy to help treat her depression. After a Freudian psychoanalyst, that is.) Prior experience with mythology and the Hero’s Journey is helpful, but not necessary. On a scale of Ben Bella’s Smart Pop series to The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series, I’d rate Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey somewhere in the middle in terms of difficulty.

Pro tip: If you haven’t yet read the comics but would like to, you can skip the book’s final chapter without detracting from your understanding of Frankel’s theory.

(This review is also posted on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined.)

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3 Responses to “Book Review: Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2012)”

  1. fuck yeah reading: 2012 books » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey: Vampire Slayer as Feminine Chosen One, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2012); reviewed here […]

  2. Book Review: Katniss the Cattail, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2012) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] Katniss the Cattail, Valerie Estelle Frankel – whose other 2012 release, Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey, I recently had the pleasure of reviewing through Library Thing – provides a kind of […]

  3. Book Review: The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2013) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] If you’re a voracious reader of THG criticism, you might already be familiar with the work of Valerie Estelle Frankel: in addition to a short guide to The Hunger Games (Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), Frankel also contributed an essay to the 2012 anthology, Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy (“Reflection in a Plastic Mirror”). I had the pleasure of reviewing each of these, as well as a study of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it relates to Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey (Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey: Vampire Slayer as Feminine Chosen One). […]

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