Sexism And Joseph Campbell

Thanks to all the people who came to this morning’s first assembly of the mythological discussion group. I enjoyed hearing people explore many deep mythological concepts reacting to each other’s insights to build new understanding.

One of the most meaningful discussions for me came after the group had formally adjourned, however. One of the people in attendance approached me afterwards, and pointed to Joseph Campbell’s structure of the Hero’s Journey, saying, “I think some of that up there is sexist.”

You know, I agree with her. It’s clear to me that Joseph Campbell was earnest in attempting to understand the human experience from a universal perspective, but it’s equally clear to me that Campbell sometimes failed in that attempt. I’ve found several instances of sexist ideas from Campbell – his opposition to the integration of gender-segregated elitist social clubs, for example.

I chose Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth as the structure around which to create a mythological discussion group at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca because Campbell had skill in bringing together many powerful concepts about mythology in a way that was accessible to people from many different backgrounds, academic and non-academic. Campbell had skill, but that doesn’t mean he always came to reasonable conclusions.

This mythological discussion group is using Joseph Campbell as a starting point, not as a destination in himself. I’m excited by many of the ideas that Campbell represents, but I have no interest in revering him.

If you’re participating in the discussion group and hear something from Campbell that doesn’t seem right to you, please speak up about it. Probably, other people share that feeling, and we can use it to go forward with a mythological vision of our own that fits with our values.

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4 responses to “Sexism And Joseph Campbell”

  1. Barbara N says :

    Just an observation. While I’m not going to say Campbell is not sexist (I did not react to the material presented that way–but I can see what might prompt that), I think we need to bear in mind that so was much of his material That is, heroines were rare on the ground in much of mythology.

    Yes, there were goddesses, but in the Classical tradition I am most familiar with, they generally represented/stood for fairly typical female roles: sex object, mother, marriage, birth, farming (which was originally a woman’s task), weaving, etc. (Please bear in mind I don’t think all of these need to be women’s tasks alone, nor do I think that women should reject such tasks because they have been traditionally assigned to women.)

    There are exceptions. But the human females who may be interpreted as “heroes” are so mostly because they are taking on male roles or behaving in an unwomanly way–and both are seen by the culture as unnatural.

    • ithacamyth says :

      Good points, Barbara. You’re helping us to avoid idealizing the past cultures from which much mythology has arisen. Though present day cultures have descended from classic civilizations and traditional tribal influences, we have much more freedom to take what still feels relevant from older mythologies, but to recast the stories, as has always been done, to suit our times and our values.

  2. Robin Cisne says :

    As a life-long lover and student of literature, mythology and Joseph Campbell used to interest me (this is not unimportant); but I had not thought about those issues in many years. Jonathan, your starting this discussion, and posting this material, made me think about it again.

    While I’ve always been grateful to Campbell for his marvelously insightful analysis of literature (i.e., there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey; or, a stranger comes to town), Campbell’s gender bias is like a heavy, dead, silencing hand on my heart and head, which is probably why a consideration of mythology feels so irrelevant to me. I do not think his paradigm accounts for women’s lives; or indeed for any of us, who for whatever reasons, cannot inhabit an heroic role.

    As a student of literature, let me suggest the following: the high literary tradition in the West is grounded in the epic (i.e., Homer, Virgil, Norse eddas, Dante, Boccaccio, Milton, Camoens, et al.). Even those of us who are not personally familiar with these texts have received the impact of their cultural imprint, whether we are aware of it or not. Certainly, every educated writer has. The epic is grounded in traditional mythology, and is the source of Campbell’s analysis of the two stories.

    However, historically, something else happened: the novel. I would argue that, structurally speaking, novels are in opposition to the epic. (an aside — It would be really nice to have a literary scholar around about now to bounce these ideas off!) Unlike the epic, which is pretty much a known quantity with a formula, boundaries, etc., the novel is an untamed, sometimes experimental beast: the epic is, by definition, linear; as can be the novel, but not necessarily.

    Since the beginning of the novel, which arose in a couple of different places around the world, novels have been been taken up by women — read by them and from the very start, written by them — with an enthusiasm women have not extended to the epic. And this has made many men, from the very beginning of the novel, uncomfortable (viz. Jonathan Franzen and Oprah, not so many years ago).

    And this is why I think women read novels, and why men don’t, so much: while the epic is mythological, and entirely centered on the masculine experience, novels are elastic enough to make room for women — indeed, anybody.

    At this point, I do not have an answer for why few men read even thoroughly masculine novels (to the continual dismay of many ambitiously literary gentleman novelists), preferring non-fiction. Perhaps because non-fiction reflects their lives as culturally dominant (or at least, aspirationally dominant) figures, better. Perhaps the novel is psychologically riskier than epic, and therefore, riskier than myth? A reader begins an epic knowing the hero will prevail. This assurance is not guaranteed to the reader of a novel.

    Seriously, I wonder if the rise of the novel these last 500 years, and the concomitant decline of the epic (can you name an indelible one since Milton?), doesn’t mark a shift in the significance of myth to modern humans.

    After you’re done talking about myth, maybe we could imagine what structures meaning might take in a post-mythological consciousness.

    • ithacamyth says :

      Robin, I’m glad to see that you’re reacting against Joseph Campbell. An opposition can be as valuable as a celebration, and there’s plenty to oppose in Campbell. I agree that he tends to simplify feminine, though he does so with the masculine as well, I think. In the normative version of traditional societies, this applied to some extent more than in our current society, but I don’t think that even in the traditional societies gender roles were as simple, or as biologically-trapped, as Campbell states. Anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner, who worked in Ithaca for a while, documented rites of passage for females in Africa that were much more complex than what Campbell accounted for.

      I’m curious about what you think distinguishes literature from epic from mythology. I tend to think of literature of a subset, and epic as a subset, of a larger figurative tradition which might be, in its largest sense, given the name mythology.

      I wonder, have you studied the Mahabharata – an epic of India? There are many fascinating female characters in that epic.

      I have an identical twin brother, and when we were boys, he read mostly novels, and I read mostly non-fiction. I wonder, from this experience, if propensity for reading novels is really biologically based.

      Would you like to lead an adult religious education session on your concepts of the novel and epic?

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