Transformative Media: From the Hero’s Journey to Our Collective Journey

The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost; for none now live who remember it.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings
~Lady Galadriel

Breaking Free of The Hero Myth

We humans and the way we interact with narrative, we’ve come a long way. We’ve evolved from the days of stories round a campfire, epic tales of heroes fighting monsters in far away lands, the gods playing tricks with the mortals, the hubris of humanity, and legends of beautiful and scary creatures who filled the oceans, forests, and skies.

Those ancient tales served as teaching tools for elders to explain the wonders and horrors of the world around them, to teach children what it takes to become an adult, and to perpetuate tribal legacy. The Hero’s Journey was a tool for adolescents to learn their role in the community and how to mature through use of metaphors such as quests, gods, monsters, and magic. The stories were most commonly circular—the journey away and the eventual return, echoing the cycles of life. It’s not surprising that mythologist Joseph Campbell saw variations of this universal story structure in nearly every culture he studied.

We can still easily recognize the same Hero’s Journey model in our 21st century mass media. The story line hasn’t evolved; it has been kept in its circular model. Hero leaves for the quest, learns from the mentor, fights the monsters, dies and resurrects, finds his power, returns with the elixir. Wash, rinse, repeat, ad infinitum.

Mass media has been stuck in an endless and simplified stage of the Hero’s Journey, striking all the familiar notes with blunt instruments and ever-improving digital effects, before fading into rolling credits. The mainstream is full of these narratives. From a plethora of superhero movies, television shows, and comic books, the narrative of the savior is alive and well. Our narrative sensibility—a reflection of our developmental stage as a civilization — remains mired in perpetual adolescence.

Mass communication drones on with the simplest form of the Hero’s Journey narrative—the masculine form—and perpetuates the drama triangle, an ever-present tension where characters take turns putting on certain masks (whether knowingly or through circumstance) of the Victim, the Persecutor, and the Hero/Savior. As an audience we have no choice but to identify with one of those three. The hero-savior archetype usually sacrifices something in order to save us all. And in our deep-seated expectation that a hero will rise to save us, we give our own power away. Someone who will make a difference always arrives in the nick of time, don’t they? In a world where we all need to roll up our sleeves and get to work on huge challenges ranging from runaway climate change to poverty and inequality, the paradigm of the hero-savior, endlessly repeated throughout the media, actually disempowers us. We need alternative narratives that show empowered and diverse people taking on the biggest challenges and coming together to transform a situation, not just ‘save the day.’

The Gendered Journey

As a first step on the journey to evolve the global narrative toward an inclusive one, let’s consider making room at the table for the Gendered Journey.

Joseph Campbell gave us an amazing model from which our journey can draw inspiration. Grandpa Joe realized that most ancient cultures shared similar narratives for coming-of-age tales and equipped us with an arc to create engaging stories that inspire us. But his model is not without fault. One of the criticisms of the Hero’s Journey is that it is a predominately male-centric model. The journey perpetuates masculine patterns within its steps: aggression, persistent conflict, linear thinking, violence, and the feminine depicted as either a temptress or goddess. Moreover, mass media interprets masculine traits in a myopic formula that almost never changes and is outmoded in the wake of the rise of female power in the world.

Over the past few millennia, the patriarchal narrative has been undoubtedly the ruling one. The male narrative has been so dominant that, I believe, it has lead us to the predicament we are in. The perpetuated narratives of man in conflict with an enemy or in conflict with nature are no longer serving us. There needs to be an awakening and understanding that we are strengthened by one another and that we are a positive manifestation of nature. It is time to evolve beyond a narrative that is overwhelmingly biased toward the masculine archetypes of the Hero/Savior.

artwork | ©Mark Goerner, Lucidity Festival
artwork | ©Mark Goerner, Lucidity Festival

There have been attempts to develop a heroine’s journey model, akin to Campbell, such as the one described in Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock or Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s model, which is featured in her book 45 Master Characters. The feminine journey is a journey in which the hero gathers the courage to face death and endure the transformation toward being reborn as a complete being in charge of her own life. Her journey starts by questioning authority, then gaining the courage to stand up for herself, and finally embodying the willingness to go it alone and face her own symbolic death.

But trying to rebuild the same circular hero’s journey and to apply it to the feminine might be missing the point. Yes, there are strong, new heroines’ voices appearing in the mainstream media—from Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter world, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer — but on the whole they follow the same varnished formula as their muscle-bound counterparts. All we have done is changed the gender.

The Heroine does not necessarily need to leave the old world; instead, she transforms the world—transforming the old world into its next evolution. The death and resurrection part of the Heroine’s Journey might be more like a supernova explosion that leads into the creation of new worlds: children, homes, projects, ideas, empowerment, and communities. Women do not need to go out and conquer; they don’t need to leave the nest and collect items to make the home or even hometown better. In the Gendered Journey, Dorothy could have gained insight from the people around her while she was awake, like how laws need to be changed about witches taking your dog!

When a strong female-centric character is involved, the narrative is circular, not linear. Women invite the tribe to be part of their journey and are empowering to the collective. The Gendered Journey is an emotional, not cerebral one; it’s a journey of transformation. The power of the feminine is about transforming nothing into something.

In mainstream narratives only recently have we started to look at women differently. Orange Is The New Black, with its ensemble cast of the most diverse women ever seen on the small screen, presents a powerful example of a gendered narrative. Piper the protagonist is not really the show’s heroine, but rather a point of entry for us into their collective. The women inmates don’t fight as a natural state of being; they nest, create communities, and organize.

An emergent narrative can be offered that is much more complex, nonlinear, networked, and exciting. The Gendered Journey can encompass the masculine, feminine, and two-spirited journey, which can be any of the straight and LGBTQAA — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual, ally—as well as those who experience the world as gender-neutral. These are journeys of coming out, waking up to how one truly defines oneself, and being proud and empowered by the journey. Why are we not open to tell their stories and struggles on a greater stage? Our media is full of superheroes with metaphorical secret identities, but only in recent years has mainstream media allowed these other real-life secret identity narratives to appear in the spotlight.

To tell these stories is subversive as they do not follow the narrative arc that we know. To tell these stories builds the foundation of a metanarrative. How can we ever create a thriving and balanced global civilization when our basic stories are outmoded, violent, unmindful, and needlessly one-sided? This is beyond a call to action—it’s a wakeup call!—to create more narratives with evolved archetypes that tell the story of the world we know is possible.

The Story of Humanity

Imagine this scenario. The human race has made its first contact with an intelligent alien civilization. You are the one chosen to go and represent humanity and the planet Earth as we make the first close encounter of the third kind with our new galactic neighbors.

What story will you tell? How do you synthesize a whole planet’s existence into a few sentences? The narrative of humanity and the Earth as one system can be referred to as the meta-narrative—the synthesis of all stories, experiences, history, ideas, and beliefs of all humanity. It is comprised of the narratives of all who ever lived, an intertwining of narratives reaching from the dawn of humanity and stretching to our destiny. It is the essence of what it means to be human.

Humanity is changing at a rapid pace. The old myths and journeys do not fit our modern ever-shifting realities. We live in a different world from our ancestors, facing very different challenges. Our civilization is moving towards a global reality. The old myths do not recount or prophesize how we engage humanity as a whole. We do not have a Hero’s Journey that tells the trials and tribulations of a collective of diverse peoples.

Long ago, in tribal times, we possessed a sense of oneness. Stories encompassed the whole group; all beings were part of the narrative and we had ways of being that ensured everyone had their roles and needs met. We told rite-of-passage stories to the young ones and creation myths to make sense of the world and its complexities. But as humanity moved away from the firelight, we ventured over millennia to evolve grand civilizations that rose and fell, bringing forth a great many mythologies, pantheons, and complexities. The ‘simple’ story no longer represented who we are as a people. Our modern civilization is very different, but the narrative is just starting to change.

The Collective Journey Rises

The Collective Journey is a nonlinear, multiplatform, physical and digital experience and story of several diverse people, groups, tribes, cultures, networks, coming together for a higher purpose and a common cause. In their journeys, they move beyond their own individual experiences to a cohesive collective that is both the sum of all individuals and also a new entity entirely. They move between physical interactions in real space to online digital interactions in cyberspace. Our journeys into outer space, technological advancement, mobile and urban lives, and the Internet have all created the circumstances for the rise of the Collective Journey.

On December 7, 1972, the Apollo 17 crew took the famous photo of the Earth dubbed “Blue Marble” from space. This was the first time we saw our planet from an outside perspective and in its entirety. It gave us our entry point to start considering the idea of a planetary society. No other ancient mythology could have given us this glimpse into who we are as a whole.

Similarly, the Collective Journey can help us move from the individual narrative into a far greater narrative with a global perspective of humanity. It can do that by bringing forward diverse voices, people, ways of being, and opinions—all while inherently supporting the individual’s own journey to reach his/her highest potential.

The idea of operating from the individual perspective while being part of a collective and the seamless behavior we are starting to experience as we lead lives online and offline can be described with the metaphor of superpositioning. In his book Humanity’s Global Era: A Dual Paradigm Change, Professor Shlomo Yishai uses the metaphor of superposition thinking to explain the way we are evolving as a species. Yishai suggests we no longer live a linear narrative but now have ongoing experiences simultaneously in the physical and virtual worlds. Digital natives intrinsically understand the dual existence of their real and digital selves, to the point where one is an extension of the other. Simply put, we can be in two places at the same time. This is an important step in the evolution of humans and of the Collective Journey.

Most of us have had the experience of sitting down for dinner, talking to our friends and loved ones who are physically there, while holding our phones and having another conversation on social media. Increasingly, we share ourselves with the people we are with and many we have never met through the Internet, which is becoming its own separate but concurrent universe. We are creating a new hybrid existence.

The World Wide Web has birthed the promise to fulfill Marshal McLuhan’s prophecy of the Global Village. Events that are happening halfway across the world can be experienced digitally across the globe, bringing us back to the feeling of a small village. We can connect with people around the world. Millions are arriving online daily; it’s the single largest mass migration of all time. We are evolving and moving beyond our individual, tribal, urban and nation-state selves into an actual global village—a digital interbeing that is both virtual and real. It is something new and is beyond us as individuals.

Stories have always been a part of what makes us human, and new narratives are important in times of great transformations. The ancient stories cannot contain and serve us as we are embarking on changes at a planetary level. We need The Collective Journey as a teaching tool for the masses to come together to work on our most pressing matters. The Collective Journey can become a tool for social movements, climate change groups, and empower groups to change political narratives in geographical areas. These are stories of empowerment that are accepting of all voices and can bring forth positive change.

We are still in the very early stages of this journey. We haven’t learned how to support and collaborate with each other, even in our most basic relationships. We don’t yet have the full vocabulary to tell this epic Collective Journey. This is where the potential of collective experimentation lies. Looking at what is happening at the fringes of society can shed a light on where the Collective Journey is starting to take hold.

A Model of the Collective Journey

The Collective Journey is the coming of age metaphor for humanity’s rise from adolescence to adulthood. As such, it cannot be a singular narrative. It must converge many voices of different genders, ethnicities, ages, and opinions in a nonlinear fashion. Glimpses are starting to show up in many countercultures around the world.

At Burning Man, the counterculture festival in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, the ideas of radical community and the gifting economy have hailed an event that feeds on massive collaboration.

p47 diagram

The event brings forward an experience that is shared not only by the 70,000 participants, but also transcends the physical into smaller events and multiplatform media worldwide. Participants build huge structures, sculptures, theme camps and villages, all while volunteering their own time, money and skills. The experience lives on in the millions of photos, videos, games, articles, and offshoot kindred events that are now year-round, creating an ongoing narrative.

The same dynamic is arising in startups, hackerspaces, makerspaces and collaborative co-working spaces popping up in major cities across the globe. People are creating new technologies, new social structures, new ways of working that differ from the hierarchal structures of the past. New collective mythologies are being created and remixed.

Even though collectives form in many ways, they all progress through a similar process to move from the individual Hero’s Journey to a cohesive collective, an assembly of different archetypes that come together at a certain moment in time, empowered by their own journey with each individual bringing their own personal gifts to a higher cause. Creating a fixed and linear model for such a fluid, multidimensional, ever-evolving complex system is not a simple task, but here is my attempt at a starting point for this model (see diagram). The model is a simplistic representation of the stages that may occur, told linearly as is the default when reading the page.

Starting with a decision, the process moves through stages: planning, crossing to a sense of the collective through shared experience, emerging conflicts, breakdowns leading to storming/chaos, eventually moving to cohesion when each finds their calling within the collective, and finally convergence. A new fully cohesive group has emerged—the collective. The group moves as one while still holding space for each individual to be fully expressed.

The collective now working together, superpositioned, and powerful, can serve a bigger cause or community and give their gifts to the world. In the diagram this is the external circle and small arrows coming from the diagram outwards, which symbolize the movement of the collective from their center to the world outside of them.

At times, the driving force for a collective to emerge is a shared vision, goal, and intention. Other times the chaos of reality throws different people together and focuses them to start on a journey of discovering their collective purpose together. There are only a few examples of the Collective Journey fully realized in mass media. For instance, the Wachowskis’ Sense8 Netflix drama is about a group of eight people waking up to being fully connected to one another across the globe: a collective of individuals realizing that they are profoundly interconnected. Each character is a different archetype, fully realized, but together they become one exponentially more powerful interbeing.

The digital interbeing that is the Internet can be a frightening place, where extremely angry and polarizing voices can be found. But if we look closely we can see a new narrative emerging through diverse groups. Virtual worlds, augmented worlds, massively multiplayer online games, and other immersive spaces and technologies will hail an era where more collective experiences can emerge. New forms of narratives will evolve to work within these spaces. We are at the very beginning of creating the playground for the Collective Journey to come to pass. How can we align the entire human race to powerfully choose a narrative that serves humanity as a whole? A narrative that invites each of us to take part in this wonderful, ever-evolving story.

We are more connected, aware of each other, and in communication than at any other time in human history. We are standing at the threshold of a future, which we can help forge because of the accessibility of digital communication. But to forge this future, we must deeply understand the collective approach in the same way that we have understood the individual heroic approach.

It’s time to start writing humanity’s epic story together!