It’s not that there aren’t female characters in mythology. It’s just that they’re often getting abducted (Persephone), blamed (Pandora), lusted after (Aphrodite) or all three (Hello, Helen). Not really role models for our students.
Luckily, pop culture has started to come around with female heroes. Frozen and Moana both have female protagonists who do something more than fall in love. Katniss kicks ass through the whole Hunger Games trilogy. Meg is finally getting some well-deserved attention in A Wrinkle in Time. And the remake of Wonder Woman is a pretty awesome display of female power. But your students have probably seen those, so what other female hero stories can we use in class?
Two quick notes before we get started. I dislike the word heroine because I don’t like marking words as feminine and because some students can’t handle hearing it in class without commenting on its homophone, heroin. I’m going to call them female heroes. And I’ve usually found that students already have their own ideas about gender differences in hero characters and hero stories. I start by having them brainstorm and then we test their ideas in these stories. But if you’re looking for some foundational theory on female heroes, this article is interesting.
Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Spirited Away is well-known in Japan, but less so in America. Chihiro is a very young and struggling female hero who’s easy for students to get behind. Especially interesting to pair with The Odyssey.
Another movie from a different culture with a young female protagonist, Rabbit-Proof Fence is based on a true story of girls who run away from a resettlement camp for mixed race Aborigine children. Definitely a journey story, but also interesting for talking about how real life obstacles can be seen through the lens of the hero cycle.
“Rules of the Game”
Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club has 16 stories that alternate between women who emigrated from China and their American born daughters. Many of the mothers’ stories have elements of journey and escape, but I’ve found that students, especially those that are first generation themselves, have an easier time relating to the daughters’ stories. “Rules of the Game” tells the story of Waverly’s rise as a chess champion and works especially well on its own as a short story. Interesting topics include who are Waverly’s real opponents, what rules does she have to live by, and the loneliness of the champion.
“A Walk to the Jetty”
I love Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John and I wish it got more attention in the high school curriculum. It’s not a hero story, but a touching coming of age story filled with the discontents of youth and the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship. Plus it’s short and brings Antigua to life.
But you’re here for hero stories, which is where the last chapter “A Walk to the Jetty” comes in. “A Walk to the Jetty” would make a great mentor text for personal journey narratives. Rather than focusing on her daunting journey to another continent, Annie John narrates her walk across the island and all of the memories it brings up.
“A Worn Path”
This frequently anthologized short story by Eudora Welty works well in a unit of hero stories. Phoenix Jackson clearly has a quest and a difficult journey, but she’s not the highly admired, larger than life character that we usually think of as a hero.
The Wizard of Oz
Yes, they’ve seen it. But in my experience, kids have no idea that The Wizard of Oz is often interpreted as an allegory. Finding these layers can pique their interest in literary symbolism. If you’ve got some time (and possibly an American history teaching partner), you might want to dig in. This article from the Smithsonian is a good place to start.
If your students are anything like mine, what they know about Middle Eastern mythology begins and ends with Disney’s Aladdin. And if you’re anything like me, you love an opportunity to fill them in on what they’re missing (see also Confronting Students’ Misconceptions).
Aladdin comes from the classic 1001 Nights, but leaves out the frame story of Scheherazade telling stories to save her life. And in doing so, leaves out an opportunity to talk about one of the great female heroes of folklore. This article is a nice informational text to introduce her importance. I’ve never taught I Am Malala, but I’m guessing they would make a nice pair and I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done it.
“The Lipstick Tree”
Since Story magazine folded, this short story is a bit hard to track down (it’s in this anthology and there’s a Kindle version here), but so worth it. It tells the story of Eva’s initiation into Western culture and her eventual escape from her tribe. Both literary and cultural, with just enough adventure (and cannibalism!) to keep students entertained. It pairs well with other stories about cultural conflicts, journeys, and coming of age, especially Whale Rider.
An accessible feel-good movie that’s rated PG-13 and would be fine for middle school kids, but can still spark good conversation in high school. Makes a nice culminating activity since students should be able to compare and contrast Paikea’s struggles with other heroes, both female and male.
This is a topic that’s important to me as both a teacher and a mom, so I hope these suggestions help you fight the good fight.