Fury Road and the Evolution of the Hero

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the legalization of contraception in the U.S., and the release of a Mad Max sequel with a woman in the hero role. What do these things have in common?

The hero is a stock literary character: humans everywhere tell stories about heroes, from egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands to socially stratified kingdoms and states. Not to be confused with moral heroes such as Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi, the hero character is a physical hero–he risks death to combat a physical threat to his people. His most salient trait is that he fights, and fights well: he exhibits exceptional prowess, courage, and effectiveness in the face of a seemingly insurmountable force, and is praised by his people for doing so. My use of the male pronoun is intentional: until recently, the star of the hero show has almost always been male.

This pattern cannot be explained as an artifact of Western gender inequality, because it holds across cultures. Ten years ago, in a pioneering study, literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall tested the feminist claim that gender norms are socially constructed, and that European folktales perpetuate Western gender norms and patriarchal power systems. Reasoning that, if gender is socially constructed, we would expect it to be constructed differently in different cultures, he predicted that Western gender norms would be absent in non-Western cultures. To test this, he surveyed a sample of folktales from cultures differing widely in ecology, geographic location, race/ethnicity, political systems, religion, and complexity. Western gender norms were operationalized as strength, assertiveness, and courage in men, and beauty, passivity, and docility in women. His finding: cross-culturally, male protagonists outnumbered female protagonists three to one. When present, female protagonists were much more likely to be passive than their male counterparts (defined as simply —> Read More