October 6, 2022 at 6:02 pm

The Female Trickster Hero in Contemporary Cinema

Presented by Jane Alexander Stewart, Ph.D.
for Aphrodite and Hermes Colloquium at the University of Alabama

Movies can be much more than entertainment. They can be modern day mythmakers activating new archetypal images in the culture. Together, sitting in the dark, we can change our lives and update ancient mythology. Mythic figures like Aphrodite and Hermes are not simply characters but psychic energies that come alive through the medium of film. For instance, when we go to the movies and identify with images of women appearing in film, we are not only observers but participants in the making of myths about the feminine sensibility we live by.

The feminine trickster hero in film is a female protagonist who plays her role in the liminal zone of creativity, going against the grain of convention to achieve a high purpose. She seduces her male consort and us – as her audience – with humor and feminine ingenuity into believing in her power and legitimacy as an enhancing figure in public life. I call her hero and not heroine because the designation of “hero” elevates her to a mythic status in our culture of one who makes a difference. As much as the hero’s journey of transformation is meant for women as well as men, it is still primarily envisioned in masculine form. Perhaps one day the feminine trickster will surprise us, changing the common meaning of “heroine” to be more than the main character in a story.

To my way of thinking, Aphrodite and Hermes have been vamping it up in the movies for the last hundred years, transforming the way we, as a culture, value what has traditionally been labeled “feminine”. The mythic beauty of Aphrodite, fascinating as both an individual character in film and in the nature of film itself, lures great numbers of people into movie theatres, seeming to be a radiance outside oneself. Then Hermes, mercurial to the core and a trickster completely at home in the liminal zone between self and other created by film, ignites everyone’s imagination. How talkative and expressive we feel as we walk out of the theatre infused by the light-footed Hermes teaming up with Aphrodite. Somehow, they’ve turned us around and turned us on to the beauty of the feminine that lies within.

In my presentation, I discuss and present clips from three award winning American movies – The African Queen, Marnie, and Erin Brockovich – showing women in the role of what I call the feminine trickster hero, changing the way we think and care about girls, women, and a feminine sensibility in everyday life.

Revisit Katharine Hepburn and see her as a trickster hero working her magic on Humphrey Bogart (and us) in The African Queen in 1951. As Rosie lures Charlie into believing they can actually blow up a German gun boat, his spirits rise against all odds during their treacherous journey. He gives up drinking, navigates to safety, and falls in love with Rosie. And we become convinced that feminine wiles deserve a great deal more credit than they usually get. But Rosie is a serious woman. She doesn’t just want love; she wants to save the world. What trickster’s slippery hand are we to believe is at work when the African Queen surfaces on its own, no one at the helm, and with its makeshift torpedo blows up the gun boat, releasing Rosie and Charlie from the hangman’s noose and setting them – and us – free to imagine a future in which the good guy wins?

Whether anticipating or participating – take your choice – in the creation of an unprecedented change of attitude toward the sexual abuse of girls that has been taking place in America, there’s Marnie, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film with a heroine of the same name. Marnie quite literally opens with Tippie Hedren bouncing a purse with a highly suggestive design on her hip, mesmerizing us into a story of how a young woman wounded by childhood trauma resorts to multiple identities to survive. Perhaps this is the feminine trickster hero at her best, awakening us to the significance of sexual abuse on girls and women. Marnie opened our eyes to a truth that was just coming of age. Today, the damaging effects on a young girl’s self-esteem and her ability to form healthy relationships seem obvious.

With eyes wide open, we celebrate a modern feminine trickster hero, Erin Brockovich, winning an Oscar in the hallmark year of 2000 as she turns the tables on a corporate Goliath. It’s hard to know where to put your attention, on the real woman or the actress. The big screen tells the story of a real woman’s groundbreaking accomplishment with America’s sweetheart, Julia Roberts, in the lead. Together, they pretty much bury the cultural stereotype of a beauty without brains, sending a clear message that women with stunning looks are not only bright and capable but awesome under pressure. It seems the heroine has crossed over. The Erin/Julia heroine who uses her cleavage to entice a male clerk into losing his good sense so she can gain access to Water and Power records could be the woman next door. We believe it. She parlays a single-minded determination into a seven-figure salary. And she furthers a lot of good causes while she’s at it. A woman using the power of sex appeal to get past a male gatekeeper may be as old as the hills but in 2000, the weapon’s legit. In film and real life, the feminine trickster hero has made her way to the new millennium.

Archetypes on the big screen come alive in society as audiences take them home. A feminine trickster hero like Rosie who steps forward and speaks up inspires achievement through risk-taking. One like Marnie whose pathological behavior is revealed as adaptive shakes loose old thinking. And Erin who honors a deep truth about feminine intent, hopefully furthering empathy in both men and women. When we watch a movie, identifying with a female protagonist and her dilemmas, the archetype is at work. As we’re enjoying the heroine, crying or laughing in the dark, we’re also taking her into our hearts and minds – and letting her change us. We feel smart, clever, and good. The next thing we know, she’s in our workplace, pulling the lever in our voting box, and making different choices down the street at the local store.

However, the feminine trickster hero faces an especially difficult task when she struts her stuff. Identifying with magical beings like Rosie, Marnie, or Erin who lure us into valuing the assertion of “feminine” values in public arenas arouses vulnerability as well as strength. While watching her, an audience feels an ambiguous fear – afraid for her and of her. She may be leading us down a wondrous path quite capable of inseminating new insights but we’re concerned that she may also be inviting trouble. She must counteract a knee-jerk reaction of fear when she steps out against convention. We worry that she’s going to get killed, reveal secrets best kept as secrets, or bring down house and home. Paradoxically, this is where her talents truly shine – in circumstances of ambiguity and complexity where a woman’s own life, and those of others that she loves may be in danger.

The feminine trickster hero aims high, often ignoring the disagreeable nature of uncharted territory. She envisions turning the tables one hundred and eighty degrees, making clear the absolute necessity, the terrible tragedy of excluding the wiles of the feminine in facing uncertainty. If she doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, she surely gives us the opportunity to make up the future as we go along.

  • The African Queen, Dir. John Huston; Perf. Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Fox, 1951
  • Marnie, Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock; Perf. Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. Universal, 1964
  • Erin Brockovich, Dir. Steven Soderbergh; Perf. Julia Roberts and Albert Finney. Universal, 2000
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