The Hero and the Innocent: Narratives That Taught Girls to Fear Failure
We open on the Innocent in the tower, suspended in a strange developmental vacuum where she is nourished on a steady diet of fear and wonder. Her purpose is to preserve the perfection of a moment that has been promised to her - some day my prince will come. She might as well be trying to sweep the tide. Her narrative cannot move forward in confinement, it hangs frozen like a perfect drop of water, waiting to be absorbed into the stream of another. All these trapped princesses, these trapped girls, have an innate sense of the swelling importance of their rescue. Their public identity will be suddenly soldered together in the heat of discovery. The metamorphosis that occurs as the princess moves from her private realm into the public sphere is poignant, immense. Every Innocent senses that when she finally appears before the world, she must be faultless.
When the Hero embarks on his journey across kingdoms, he must quickly acclimatise to the discomforts of public experimentation. Whilst the Innocent waits hopefully, the Hero is undertaking a series of challenges; overcoming adversaries, solving problems, growing, developing. The Hero’s journey is messy and meandering - setbacks, failures are accommodated comfortably within the quest narrative. What is a quest without adversity? What is more heroic than the ability to get back up and keep going? When allowed free play in an environment with a high tolerance for failure, the Hero can develop coping mechanisms to help him process experimentation as a necessary part of achievement. The agile ‘fail-fast-learn-fast’ model so revered by tech companies today is a maxim that men have been helpfully absorbing through the quest narrative for years.
As a young girl brought up on Snow White and Sleeping Beauty the Innocent flows through my veins. I was taught that a woman’s failure was binary and irreversible, and a man’s was acceptable. At school I was shown how to experiment in private, on paper, rather than loudly and publicly in the classroom. I was taught to incubate and perfect my thoughts behind closed doors - because everything that touched the light would become suddenly untouchable, unchangeable - permanent and potentially incriminating. When it comes to creative expression, I have not been taught how to quest, how to experiment in a public arena. As I prepare to put something of myself out into the world, I feel the diverging paths of the Innocent and the Hero more keenly than ever - ours is not a journey but a single, terrifying step into the light. Boys have been happily tripping, falling and getting back up for years - try-fail-try-again is woven into the DNA of the Hero. They do not fear stepping into the light because they grew up in its glare. Their eyes have acclimatised, their pulse steadied.
Girls - this is the narrative that flows through their veins. This is what we’re up against.
We need to stop being Innocents and start being Heroes. Because the creative industry is full of people who just did it. They started producing - prolifically, continuously. They had no more artistic right than anyone else to introduce their voice to the world, but they weren’t afraid. They had been taught how to quest, that setbacks were a permissible part of their narrative. Creative work first has to exist - out there - before it can be good, bad, or perfect. The act of creation, of getting it out into the light is terrifying, but fundamental.
We need to inhabit the Hero in order to wire our brains up to a different set of associations and expectations, and unlock a new environment for our work. One where we give ourselves breathing space to mess around, fuck up, talk and find the voices we robbed ourselves of.
Don’t be the talented, silent girl - the frozen girl forever finishing her perfect manuscript, sweeping the tide over and over. Free it from the prison of perfection and introduce it to the world. To borrow from the infamous words of Nike - the most famous brand to identify with the Hero archetype - just do it.
Written by Jess Bird
Illustrated by Ines Tesiath