Fury Road and the Evolution of the Hero

06/19/2015 04:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the legalization of contraception in the U.S., and the release of a Mad Max sequel with a woman in the hero role. What do these things have in common?

The hero is a stock literary character: humans everywhere tell stories about heroes, from egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands to socially stratified kingdoms and states. Not to be confused with moral heroes such as Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi, the hero character is a physical hero--he risks death to combat a physical threat to his people. His most salient trait is that he fights, and fights well: he exhibits exceptional prowess, courage, and effectiveness in the face of a seemingly insurmountable force, and is praised by his people for doing so. My use of the male pronoun is intentional: until recently, the star of the hero show has almost always been male.

This pattern cannot be explained as an artifact of Western gender inequality, because it holds across cultures. Ten years ago, in a pioneering study, literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall tested the feminist claim that gender norms are socially constructed, and that European folktales perpetuate Western gender norms and patriarchal power systems. Reasoning that, if gender is socially constructed, we would expect it to be constructed differently in different cultures, he predicted that Western gender norms would be absent in non-Western cultures. To test this, he surveyed a sample of folktales from cultures differing widely in ecology, geographic location, race/ethnicity, political systems, religion, and complexity. Western gender norms were operationalized as strength, assertiveness, and courage in men, and beauty, passivity, and docility in women. His finding: cross-culturally, male protagonists outnumbered female protagonists three to one. When present, female protagonists were much more likely to be passive than their male counterparts (defined as simply enduring their problems or taking little/no action to accomplish their goals), and were much less likely to accomplish their goals through feats of physical heroism.

How to account for this pattern? The answer may lie deep in our past, in the problems of animal and human predation. If modern hunter-gatherers are any indication, our ancestors had periodic run-ins with an assortment of formidable carnivores, including lions, leopards, and crocodiles. They also faced human predators: warfare is an ugly fact of human life. Both situations may require self-defense, but some people--e.g., the young, elderly, or sick--are less able to perform this task than others. Thus, human societies have long needed individuals who were willing and able to protect their weaker members against physical attack. This is exactly what the hero does: be it Beowulf, Luke Skywalker, or Harry Potter, the hero typically combats enemy groups or voracious man-eating monsters. Although the problem of animal predation has largely disappeared in developed nations, human aggression is still very much with us. Thus, the genre's continued appeal makes sense: as long as intergroup violence exists, humans will need heroes.

But this doesn't explain why, universally, the hero tends to be male. Both sexes were vulnerable to predation throughout human evolution, so both needed to defend themselves. One would expect, then, that ancestral humans told stories about female as well as male heroes. However, this does not appear to be the case. Although there is no way of investigating this question directly, in more recent forager groups, story heroes are overwhelmingly male. This brings us to Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 Supreme Court case that made it illegal to deny married women access to contraception: the preponderance of male heroes across the ages may be attributable, in part, to lack of fertility control.

Once again, our hunting-and-gathering past sheds light on the situation. Forager populations lack access to contraception, and girls are typically married when they reach menarche. Consequently, forager women spend the majority of their reproductive lifespan either pregnant or nursing, both of which are calorically demanding. Hunting and warfare are also energetically expensive, often involving several days' travel in pursuit of the target. Compared to Western fare, forager diets are very lean, and simply cannot supply enough calories for a woman to perform all of these tasks. Moreover, engaging in high-risk activities such as big-game hunting and warfare would jeopardize the life of the mother and her unborn or unweaned child, as well as the success of the hunt or raid. Since females are the sex that bears children, in forager populations, other high-energy and high-risk tasks typically fall to males. Since most opportunities for physical heroism in forager life occur in the context of hunting or warfare, and these are primarily male spheres of activity, forager women tend to have fewer encounters with physical threats than men do. Fewer opportunities for heroism means fewer stories about female heroes.

Although the history of birth control is complex, with attitudes and practices varying across time and cultures, pregnancy and lactation continued to constrain women's energy budgets and spheres of activity until well into the 20th century. Not surprisingly, the predominance of male heroes continued as well. But what would happen if these constraints were lifted--if women could control whether and when they had children, and how many children they had? This is precisely what has happened in the U.S. over the last fifty years. One prediction we might make is that, as control of fertility has opened up new opportunities for women, female heroes have become more common. Tellingly, since the 1970s, women have increasingly been cast as physical heroes in American popular storytelling media: from Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor to Kara "Starbuck" Thrace and Katniss Everdeen, it is no longer unusual to see female characters engaged in high-risk occupations, dealing with life-threatening forces and situations, exhibiting martial prowess and courage, and protecting or leading their people. The box office success of Fury Road in the American market attests to this trend, which is neatly encapsulated in the film's final scene: Imperator Furiosa rising, having defeated the warlord and freed his sex slaves, to the praise and rejoicing of her people.