Monday, May 15, 2017

The Structure of the Hero and the Princess

I've been trying to make sense of the Hero and Princess style of story, and boy-oh-boy, is it a hot mess of messiness.

The basic structure goes like this:

- Villain/Monster kidnaps person. Totally socially inappropriate.
- Hero goes through socially approved conventions to get girl.
- Hero overcomes villain.
- Happily ever after (HEA)

This seems simple, but there's a few caveats.

"Socially approved" matches to HEA. "Socially approved" is a prerequisite to HEA. They're linked. "Socially approved" is, by definition, the right and proper way to do things. "Socially disapproved" is associated with monsters and villains. People who kidnap and force women are villains and monsters, and proper society will deal with them as such. The lesson is is: if you do such things, you'll be labeled as a villain and a monster. If you do things right, you'll be lauded a hero and welcomed into the family.

Note that "socially approved" is dependent on its time and place. So, if a time and place of the "socially approved" is sexist, then the story's going to be sexist. You can't avoid that. This is the true genesis of sexism in these stories. This is also the core of the story's flexibility. If you make sure that the hero does all the socially appropriate non-sexist things, then the HEA won't be sexist. In this case, if the hero has a prior relationship with the princess where they have a love, a promise, then when the hero rides off to save the heroine, he's finalizing their mutual relationship. You'll recognize this story because it's used all over the place, such as in "The Princess Bride."

So as you can see from the structure, this story is intended to teach that, 1) if you kidnap women, you will be branded a villain, and 2) if you follow proper social conventions, you'll be lauded as a hero and have an HEA.

One of the reasons that I used Hero and Villain is so that I can change genders.

- The Villain does what's socially wrong.
- The Heroine does what's socially right.
- The Heroine overcomes villain
- HEA

The female version of this tale comes with the usual caveat that what's socially right is likely sexist. However, you should be able to recognize elements of Snow White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. There's differences between the male and female versions because what's socially acceptable for each gender is different, but the structure is remarkably similar.

What of trophy women? Or men? The romantic certainty of this structure isn't a bug, it's a feature. If we remove the romantic certainty, we change the underlying message of the structure.

Revision: Villain seizes princess, hero gets social approval, then overcomes villain, but there's no HEA.

This scenario would teach any young man that if you do all the right things, then you'll come out with negative results. That is not a good lesson to teach.

Revision: Villain seizes princess, hero gets social approval, then overcomes villain, then maybe he gets the HEA if the girl wants it after courting.

This scenario teach any young man that if you do all the right things, then you'll be no better off than you were before. That is not a good lesson to teach. Risking your life for a woman counts as nothing. Once you come to a proper arrangement, it will be changed as one side can't honor it's contracts.

This revision also makes clear the hero hasn't done all the socially appropriate things to get the girl, undermining the exact premise of the structure. Adding requirements later on moves the goalpost. (People who do that in such stories are also shown as villains, or at least horrible.) Changing requirements at the last minute is not a satisfying end to a story.

So, if you change the structure to end with a less certain outcome, you make the outcome worse according to feminist standards because the listener goes on to learn the wrong lessons. The certainty of the outcome is a necessary feature of this story.

What of this structure's sexist payload? I know of no literary criticism that has successfully staked itself as the one and true form of literary criticism that bars all others from existing. They've each tried and failed. While I accept that feminist criticism has things to say about this structure, this criticism is in no more definitive than any other style of criticism. I am still free to interpret this as best as I can according to my literary skills. As a result, I disagree with feminist interpretation. This is how literary arguments are born, and God bless 'em all. Where would we be without literary arguments? We are richer for multiple, well-demonstrated points of view because our literature is not one-dimensional.