Ulterior Motifs: Introducing an alternative resource for the creation and analysis of popular cultural texts.
The study of folklore and popular film and television, although frequently ignored by folkloristics and film scholars alike, has produced a number of articles and paradigms which not only inform its own study, but also other disciplines (Koven 2003: 176).
In 2003 Mikel J. Koven recognised that there were aspects of folkloristics that scholars of folklore and film studies could adopt in order to analyse popular cultural texts from a new perspective. Koven’s comprehensive survey of the field explored the usage of folkloristics in the analysis of cinema and its audiences. He was responding to the scholars Paul Smith and Bruce Jackson who “bemoan theabsence of systematic analysis of popular film and television for the discourses of folkloristics” (190). Through his research, Koven supplies evidence that Smith and Jackson’s claims were incorrect and that scholars were applying folkloristics to film and TV in numerous innovative ways. However, Koven concluded, this was still an area of research in which we have barely scratched the surface, ripe for further discussion and, in turn, application (190).
In 2019 it might seem - at least at first glance - that Koven’s call for film theorists to embrace folkloristics fell on deaf ears. Watch shows on-demand, read Rotten Tomato reviews, or visit the screenwriting section of Amazon, and one recognizes that it is not folkloristics but rather another field altogether that dominates the discourse of contemporary cinema and TV amongst film students, academics and creators: comparative mythology.
In my own practice as a screenwriter I have noticed the impact Joseph Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, has had on my clients and the way in which screenplays are written. Without question, every film or TV script I have worked on professionally has at one stage or another been compared by a director, script editor, commissioner or producer to the “monomyth” (Campbell 2008: 1). If my story has strayed too far from Campbell’s model, my script has been pulled back into line.
In a world where one could argue that the monopoly of the monomyth has rendered Campbell’s theories self-serving, his universal story now the universal influencer, I began to investigate other fields which analyse stories in different ways. This led me to folkloristics, and later Koven’s article.
In this essay and the accompanying illustration (see Figure 1) - itself, I hope, a helpful resource for storytellers - I aim to acknowledge and critique the dominant, comparative mythology resources available to those who wish to study or create popular cultural texts, introducing a folkloristic alternative. I will dig down to the narrative roots of a case study – the film Working Girl (Nichols 1988) - in order to unearth the treasures of the psyche that lay dormant within. My primary objective is to learn if Koven was on to something: to answer his call, sixteen years on. What does a folkloristic approach to the divination of a text’s origin and meaning illustrate and illuminate that comparative mythology cannot?
Campbell’s monomythic structure has had a profound impact on the writing and editing of popular cultural texts such as films, games and TV shows. It is common for contestants participating in TV reality shows such as Love Island (ITV), American Idol (ABC) or Big Brother (Channel 5) to refer to the ‘journey’ they have undertaken during their time on a show, often presented with a recap video of the trials they have encountered when they leave the competition. One will rise victorious as hero, successfully retrieving the “ultimate boon” (Campbell 2008: 148) they have sought in their quest; asignificant sum of money, a recording contract, or finding their “perfect match”.
When the story of Working Girl is illustrated in parallel to Campbell’s monomythic structure (see Figure 1), the two plots are arguably a perfect match too. Tess shape-shifts from a secretary who men see only as a sexual object into a respected businesswoman, shattering the glass ceiling that has forever domed her life. Her character eventually emerges at her journey’s end with a promotion, an office and a secretary of her own. Her former colleagues – female secretaries – cheer her on, for Tess has proved the impossible is within reach: she has become a hero, disrupted the status quo, and changed the ordinary world she started out from forever.
Campbell would argue that Tess and the aforementioned reality TV contestants share the same journey; that popular cultural texts as diverse as Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck 2019), Shadow of the Tomb Raider (Square Enix 2018) and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix) all feature female protagonists in heroic roles on monomythic arcs. Campbell maintains the archetypes described in his theory, largely appropriated from Carl Jung’s scholarship (Jung 1991), can be either gender. However, this and other elements of Campbell’s theory proved problematic for some academics.
Robert Segal aptly sums up the criticism the monomyth has received in spite of its popularity: “As fetching as Campbell’s theory of myth is, it is flawed [...] Campbell operates dogmatically, asserting rather than proving his theory.” (Segal 1999: 138). He illustrates how Campbell often contradicts himself when explaining the meaning, function and origin of any given myth. In fact, Campbell’s approach to providing evidence to justify his theories, or the lack thereof, is a common thread in Segal’s criticism; that Campbell is like a “Christian fundamentalist who urges everyone to accept the bible because it is true” (140). So high is his esteem for the monomyth that Campbell presents his theory as self-validating without much need for psychological, sociological or historical contextual analysis. He is incredibly bias to universalities, choosing to ignore the glaring differences between myths that occur; he ultimately dismisses differences as “trivial”, concurs that Western and Eastern myths are essentially undistinguishable, and that when the masks of individuality are removed a shared myth becomes “transparent”.
I think that within the current discourse of diversity and inequality in popular cultural texts, many would disagree with Campbell’s notion that the monomyth is universally relatable. The #ownvoices movement across social media platforms pushes for more stories about BAME, disabled, LGBTQI+, or working-class characters to be authored by persons who identify as minorities themselves. The authenticity of an author’s voice is becoming valued and respected, and publishers and producers alike are starting to realise that not all audiences relate to so-called universal stories in the same way. A gay, working class woman does not experience the story of a straight, middle class male character on screen in the way that a straight, middle class man would; for her the experience may be completely alien and impersonal, but for him it may be highly relatable, authentic and emotionally engaging. Campbell’s collective writings do not adhere to this principle, and instead project his own romantic idyll: that in essence we are all the same, because we all share internal psychological traits as illustrated by a limiting list of archetypes, or psychological profiles. He insists we all universally relate to the hero’s journey, but he doesn’t actually survey audiences cross-culturally to assess whether they experience this monomyth in the same way.
The success of Black Panther (Coogler 2018), authored by a black director (who also co-wrote the screenplay) was not due simply to its representation of a heroic black lead in a popular cultural text and the inclusion of a predominantly black cast of supporting characters. On the surface, here exists a compelling story about a prince learning how to be a king after the death of his father. However, the underlying subtext of this modern myth, and how it is portrayed using metaphor, symbolism, costume design, language, ritual and music, poetically illustrates themes relating to the black experience itself. Creating popular cultural texts in this authored way helps foster an understanding amongst the general cinema-going audience that the experience of what it is to be a minority is very personal, unique, and not, actually, universally comprehensible.
Disregarding diverse authorship, themes, stories and characterization as trivial masks is a dangerous premise, and Segal supports this when he mentions Campbell’s complete indifference to any given hero’s individual point of view (1999: 141). It is not just a narrative structure but how it is told, and by whom, that is important when creating popular cultural texts that are inclusive of, and relatable to, minorities as well as the dominant white, middle class, male audience. Ignoring point of view was an aspect of Campbell’s theory that repelled Kim Hudson whilst studying his work as a film student in Vancouver, and she sought to redress the balance.
Virgin and Hero stories explore the theme of knowing yourself as an individual [...] The Virgin frees herself from dependency on her family of origin by connecting to her inner world. She expands her values to include her personal choice by developing her sensuality, creativity, and spirituality in a drive towards joy. The Hero achieves a sense of his ability to exist in the larger world by travelling to a strange land without anyone to provide food, shelter and safety for him and by challenging evil. He is learning to be brave, clever, skilled, strong, and rugged in a drive to overcome his fear of death (Hudson 2010: 20).
Hudson’s response to Campbell in essence argues that although the word ‘hero’ is interchangeable between characters of different genders, the archetype cannot be substituted for both male and female points of view. Instead, she developed her own monomythic arc to mirror Campbell’s, creating her own Jungian archetypes (2010: 12) that better illustrate a woman’s perspective. The virgin’s journey, she explains, is different to the hero’s in one fundamental way. A hero is able to leave the ordinary world and venture away from his kingdom in order to seek out knowledge with which to return and thus change the kingdom for the better. However, “the Virgin story is that she must follow her dream or authentic nature despite the wishes of others” (2010: 29).
As a gay man with a disability, Hudson’s theory immediately struck a chord with me. The references she uses throughout her book to illustrate her theory, which include Working Girl as well as Strictly Ballroom (Luhrmann 1992), Billy Elliot (Daldry 2000), and Legally Blonde (Luketic 2001), were some of my favourite movies. Coincidence perhaps, but Hudson helped me recognize there were definitely similarities between these narratives that resonated with me personally, and emotionally. These are stories about people who are trapped in a “dependent world” (Hudson 2010:30) and unable to break free. These were stories that provoked an emotional reaction in me where other stories did not, for example crying during a film’s - usually happy - resolution. These were stories I could relate to.
In stark contrast to the hero of Campbell’s monomyth, the virgin is initially unable to leave the ordinary world in which she is imprisoned; unlike Frodo in The Lord of the Rings (Jackson 2001), her story will not involve her leaving the Shire to go on a physical journey. Her journey is specifically internal; her only choice to either stay the same or find a way in which to change within her constraints, and in so doing, affect change in the world around her. Hudson had developed a narrative structure that spoke to all minorities, not just women.
When applied to Working Girl (see Figure 1) the virgin’s journey better illustrates the film’s themes than the hero’s. Tess’s psychological and physical metamorphosis is revealed in much greater clarity, which is key to the overall experience of this movie and why we connect to her character on an emotional level (or at least I do). The emphasis in a virgin story is less on defeating evil – although that is part of it – and more about conquering and embracing oneself. Whilst the hero’s journey is about self-sacrifice, the virgin’s is one of self-fulfillment. It is an incredibly empowering narrative structure. However, it’s important to acknowledge that Hudson’s theory is just as romantic as Campbell’s and ultimately serves to support his work because she believes that although the hero and virgin journeys are polar opposites, they form two halves of the same monomyth (Hudson 2010: 20).
Campbell’s collective works deserve to be celebrated because they have popularised the study of mythology and created a renewed interest in why and how we tell stories (Segal 1999: 141). Certainly, a seismic shift would have to happen for writers in particular to abandon the monomyth structure as they plot their stories for an Industry that largely expects its inclusion in any given screenplay. Is there an alternative?
For centuries, folklorists have endured the painstaking task of cataloguing every known oral and written story from folktales, ballads, myths, fables, Mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest- books, and local legends in every ethnic culture in the world. Over the course of the last Century, the folkloristic methodology has been fine-tuned. Originally published in 1910 as Verzeichnis der Märchentypen, Antti Aarne developed a historical and geographic indexing system to compare and classify folklore based on identifying motifs. The system (Uther 2011) has since been revised and updated in order to acknowledge criticisms and extend its scope beyond traditional European tales to an international range; first by Stith Thompson in 1928 and later 1961, and more recently in 2004 by Hans-Jörg Uther. Accrediting those who have compiled it, the system is now known as the Aarne-Thompson-Uther indexing system, or ATU.
Motifs are repeated narrative ideas that occur in traditional stories, for example a cunning fox or a princess imprisoned in a tower. When a number of similar motifs occur in different folktales, the texts are grouped together and numerically coded. The ATU system catalogues thousands of ‘tale- types’ (plots) in this way. Folkloristics, though not a science, enables researchers to locate factual information such as the known historical and geographic origin of a story. In addition to the ATU, the Motif Index (Thompson 1961) further classifies motifs themselves.
For both creators and analysts of popular cultural texts, these are invaluable resources that tell us many things comparative mythology cannot. For example (see Figure 1), by identifying motifs that occur in Working Girl (Jack as prince, a flight from a party to hide her identity, the lost pocketbook, mistreatment by her cruel step-sister of a boss and the lie that Tess’ idea is her own) I was able to define a specific tale-type: Cinderella (Uther 2011: Vol 1, 293).
510A Cinderella. (Cenerentola, Cendrillon, Aschenputtel.) A young woman is mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters [S31, L55] and has to live in the ashes as a servant. When the sisters and the stepmother go to a ball (church), they give Cinderella an impossible task (e.g. sorting peas from ashes), which she accomplishes with the help of birds [B450]. She obtains beautiful clothing from a supernatural being [D1050.1, N815] or a tree that grows on the grave of her deceased mother [D815.1, D842.1, E323.2] and goes unknown to the ball. A prince falls in love with her [N711.6, N711.4], but she has to leave the ball early [C761.3]. The same thing happens on the next evening, but on the third evening, she loses one of her shoes [R221, F823.2]. The prince will marry only the woman whom the shoe fits [H36.1]. The stepsisters cut pieces off their feet in order to make them fit into the shoe [K19184.108.40.206], but a bird calls attention to this deceit. Cinderella who had been first hidden from the prince, tries on the shoe and it fits her. The prince marries her.
Using the ATU, I learnt that an early variant of the Cinderella story similar to the one we know in the West today was documented in the 17th Century by the Italian poet Giambattista Basile in his Pentamerone collection of fairy tales (294). However, the Index also refers to the research of Nai- tung Ting (294) and his book The Cinderella Cycle in China and Indo-China which reveals that the earliest known Cinderella tale-type may be that of Ye Xian, first published in 850 by Duan Chengshi in Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang. The ATU lead me to the origin of the Working Girl story and that of Cinderella itself.
In addition to finding information about variants of a story and texts for further research, by cross referencing this tale-type with Thompson’s Motif-Index I realised I was drawn to stories featuring motifs catalogued as “Reversal of Fortune” types (Thompson 1961: vol 5, L, 6). Like Working Girl,Billy Elliot, Legally Blonde, and Strictly Ballroom are stories about reversals of fortune. Folkloristics wasn’t just teaching me about the origin of stories – it was awakening my understanding of my own psychology.
In this essay, an introduction to further research into folkloristics, I have observed a movie from different perspectives. Campbell’s point of view taught me that Working Girl is a hero’s journey; yet I began to question whether the archetype of ‘the hero’ was one we all universally connected with. Through Hudson’s eyes I saw that I was interested in stories about self-fulfilment; but her theory didn’t challenge or disrupt the monomyth’s monopoly in the way I expected it to.
Folkloristics didn’t provide an alternative model to the monomyth on which storytellers could build a universal narrative; instead, it lead me to hundreds of templates for stories which have categorically proved popular on a global scale. I discovered the origins of the Working Girl narrative in a historical and geographical context, as I assumed I might from such a logical approach. What I wasn’t prepared for was that using the ATU system and the Motif-Index as resources, looking up numerical codes in dusty volumes of old books and deciphering stories in such a clinical, unromantic way, would be so illuminating; about the different kinds of stories we connect to emotionally as diverse, unique individuals, and not as a collective, unconscious mind.
List of Figures
Figure 1. Pete Jordi WOOD. 2019. Working Girl’s Monomyth and Motifs. [Digital Illustration]
American Idol, ABC [TV Series].
Big Brother, Channel 5 [TV Series].
BODEN, Anna and Ryan FLECK. 2019. Captain Marvel [Film].
CAMPBELL, Joseph. 2008. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Mumbai: Yogi Impressions [3rd Edition, Originally published in the USA by New World Library].
COOGLER, Ryan. 2018. Black Panther [Film]. DALDRY, Stephen. 2000. Billy Elliot [Film].
HUDSON, Kim. 2010. The Virgin’s Promise: writing stories of feminine creative, spiritual, and sexualawakening. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions.
JACKSON, Peter. 2001. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring [Film].
JUNG, Carl G. 1991. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. London: Routledge.
KOVEN, Mikel J. 2003. “Folklore Studies and Popular Film and Television: A Necessary Critical Survey” in The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 116, no. 460, pp. 176–195. Available at JSTOR,www.jstor.org/stable/4137897 [accessed: 2019].
Love Island, ITV [TV Series].
LUHRMANN, BAZ. 1992. Strictly Ballroom [Film].
LUKETIC, Robert. 2001. Legally Blonde [Film].
NICHOLS, Mike. 1988. Working Girl [Film].
SEGAL, Robert A. 1999. “The Romantic Appeal of Joseph Campbell” in Theorizing About Myth, pp. 135-141. Boston: University of Massachusetts.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider. 2018. Eidos Montréal, Crystal Dynamics for Square Enix [Game].The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Netflix [TV Series].
THOMPSON, Stith. 1961 [Revised Edition]. Motif-Index of Folk Literature, vol. 5: L-Z. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
UTHER, Hans-Jörg. 2011. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography, vol. 1-3. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica & Folklore Fellows’ Communications.