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Gender Roles and Hero Myths: Can Gender Inequality Ever Be Justified?

Updated on May 30, 2017


Throughout history, cultures have defined gender roles and behavioral expectations for both sexes. In recent times, feminists champion a movement of self-declared acceptance, equality, and open-mindedness. They praise those that rebel against imposed molds. Likewise, belief in fluidity of gender—suggesting diversity and complexity of gender and sex—is gaining momentum. Even so, society finds itself embracing the age-long definition of gender. Many continue to view gender and gender roles as being rigid and without question.

Gender roles exist in more than social interactions, though. These expectations encourage female stereotypes and have made their way into popular culture. The roles given to women in both ancient and modern literature share many similarities, and they contrast with those given to men. Literature reflects the views and beliefs of the civilization and culture of its time. This difference in presence of these roles reflects the lack of gender equality that makes up most societies. It is in these situations that there is both a difference in capability and in opportunity for women. It is a result of this imbalance in importance that male characters become heroes of their stories, a position that is rarely ever granted to women. Still, this is not to say that women are incapable of of heroism. Western literature has centered on the abilities and successes of men—and the weakness and dependence of women. Yet, the impossibility of a woman as a hero is not because of their own shortcomings, but from the fact a feminine hero has never been properly portrayed.

Overarching Themes of Heroics and Gender

Though The Odyssey and Paradise Lost were penned in separate time periods, the two share many themes and subject matters. One of the most defining elements of an epic work is the Hero’s Journey, also known as the monomyth. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Campbell 23). Heroes can come in a variety of forms, and if one observes, he or she may see a hero in those characters whom readers might not consider as such. Odysseus gave a look into Greece’s paragon of heroism and admired features in their culture. In contrast, Satan personified an anti-hero with his lack of typical heroic qualities. Even so, these two—and a majority of other protagonists in classic literature—share one major similarity: gender.

Many will agree that men and women are different in fundamental ways. Literature in the past even focuses almost only on their contrasting ways. Regardless, recent movements in gender question the foundation and justification of these portrayals. Through the analysis of two of the most defining works of western literature, one notices the recurrent role of women. Their roles, though crucial, often pale in comparison to their male counterparts. Depending on whether they are male or female, individuals display certain traits. This depiction is oftentimes a reflection of upheld cultural standards, norms, or aspirations. Modern societies may allow for more flexibility in gender roles, expectations, and expression. Still, civilizations of the past believed in a strict following of the traditional roles of the two genders. Their emphasis is seen in their a male-dominated history, patriarchy over matriarchy. In both The Odyssey and Paradise Lost, this conformation is evident in the depiction of the male and female characters. Stereotypes prevail through which characters are heroes and which are not.

Inference of Gender

In classical literature, men and women have clear, defined traits, mirroring expectations of their time. As a result, there are distinct characteristics and behaviors that appear throughout stories. From these common distinctions and traditional portrayals, gender stereotypes have arisen. These stereotypes, in turn, influence gender roles and the parts given to characters in different works.

Both The Odyssey and Paradise Lost provide their readers with an excess of complex characters to uncover and explore. As the stories unravel, one is able to look deeper into the characters. Different individuals will act and feel in different ways among themselves. This is especially true between males and females, particularly in classical literature. Their very nature has an influence, and is influenced, by the general portrayal of gender. Even so, there are underlying parallels, referencing standard images of gender and characteristics. Rarely were the unvoiced rules of gender roles ever broken.

The two referenced works present classical characters that defined both the male and female guideline. These stories offer traditional male characters with distinct personalities and behaviors. It is their depiction that distinguish them from their female counterparts. These distinctions allow them to fill the determined roles and fit within the niche created almost for them. Most male characters, though, embody one major, overlapping commonality, and thus, stereotype. In The Odyssey and Paradise Lost, an idea that appears is the belief that men, as heroes, should reveal masculine characteristics. Their display should be in all areas: in physicality, capability, relations, mentality, and emotions.

In these two works, though not only confined to literature, the males—Odysseus, Telemachus, Satan, and Adam—act in the ways required of their gender. In physicality, capability, mentality, and relations, men tend to lean more towards the positive extreme. In physicality, they must own immense strength. When it comes to capability, they should be skillful in battle and able to provide for others—e.g. their family. Relationally, men must take on roles of leadership and adopt a dominant attitude. With mentality, they think situations through and focus more on logic than on intuition or emotion. It is of the latter that stereotypical men lean towards the negative extreme. Men rarely express any sort of emotion, for fear of judgement towards their manliness. Vulnerability of any kind is a weakness, inexcusable in the world of men.

In The Odyssey and Paradise Lost, as well as oftentimes in the real world, women act in the ways believed to be befitting of their gender. As such, they should have certain “feminine” character traits. Though women’s roles are sometimes as prominent as men’s in a work of literature, their portrayal still leaves much to desire. To many, the issue is not the presence of women but their representation. As a result, females have become defined by certain stereotyped qualities, contrasting men's. In physicality, capability, relations, and mentality, women lean more towards the negative extreme. With physicality, most see women as the weaker sex, unable to compare with men in strength. In the case of capability, the only skills they need are the ones required for homemaking or pleasing their male counterparts. Mentally, though they may find recognition for their intelligence, women are often not required to be as cunning as men, nor expected to be. As a result, they are less known for being logical, believed instead to be the more emotional, and irrational, of the two. It is with emotions that stereotypical women lean towards the positive extreme. While society looks down upon men for displaying vulnerability, this is what defines a woman. These required feminine traits usually result in women taking more subservient roles to men, and rarely ever being in a position of power. It is different with believed male traits: strength, prowess, authority, rationality, and objectivity. These characteristics are the forces that drive heroism. The linking to both men and to heroes may be why the male characters in literature are more often than not the heroes of their story.

Relation and Reason of Stereotypes and Gender Portrayals

A debate, though, exists on the reason behind the differentiation between the two genders. As a result, one may question the foundation of the automatic appointment of expected gender roles. It may be asked if men are destined to always be the hero, and women to always be by their sides. In response, one should not ignore the importance and impact of nature itself. Differences of this immensity are rarely unfounded and without origin.

Due to the believed contrasts in men and women, heroic roles rarely intertwine with the women in the stories. Instead, a woman will find herself as a supporting character, whose sole focus is the hero in some way—most often as a love interest. “Women are delicate, and they are timid; they fulfill their destiny by serving others in the domestic sphere [...]; and they are unsuited for independent, active lives in public affairs” (Karst 450). This view has not changed much, even across differences in civilizations and societies. It could be assumed that this is due to gender depictions carrying over, from one time to another. The shift would account for the number of similarities in the portrayal of men and women, spanning centuries. But, one must consider the mass amount of stereotypes and believed gender differences. One should also question if this could result from only a self-perpetuating, improper education or culture. As a result, one should consider there is more than gender roles being an immortalized misconception. There is a possibility that these stereotypes hold an amount of truth. While it may not apply to certain outliers, the stereotypes do influence the majority. It is then that gender roles are no longer built upon projections. It is then that there is not only support from a confirmation bias, validating one’s existing beliefs. The typecasting that plagues men and women starts from definite differences between the two. The pressure to fit into society’s conventional gender standards are not enough on their own to cause the majority to think and act in such ways.

Even in a time alongside new movements of gender equality, many still recognize a distinction between men and women. It becomes difficult then to credit, or rather blame, society and upbringing for one’s representation of their gender. “These traits [...] place men and women at the opposite ends of a dimension variously labeled as instrumental versus expressive, as agentic versus communal orientation, or as individualistic versus interpersonal orientation” (Nunner-Winkler et al. 43). These accepted differences become less of a result of circumstance and preconceived beliefs. they may instead come from a natural dissimilarity.

As such, the contrast between men and women found in literature may be a result of an existing contrast in the natural world. Odysseus, Telemachus, Satan and Adam are the characters they are, not because of baseless typecasting. It is because their creation was to represent the reality of the male gender. The same is true of Penelope and Eve. From this reality of difference, one could then assume that, men cannot take over the role played by their women. Likewise, the women in turn do not suit the role of the heroes in their stories, because it is not within their nature to think and act as men do. Yet, this is only true to an extent, with many examples proving that women can, and have, taken up such a role of heroism.

Though there is much support that gender roles are a result of biological differences, one should also consider the opposite. It is possible men and women have adopted specific roles in response to their environment. There are recent studies that point to the differences that appear at birth, and thus represent a neurological difference. In the same way, evidence exists for the idea of “brain plasticity: the capacity of the nervous system to change its organization and function over time. As the brain develops, certain synapses form and stabilize, whereas others are pruned and removed” (Hyde 262).

It is in this situation that the argument turns towards the age long debate of the importance and influence of nature vs. nurture. Recent works point to the possibility that “brain plasticity can be affected by many factors [...]. For example, a repeated experience that results in the activation of a particular set of synapses can lead to long-term potentiation (or alternately, depression) of the activity of those synapses” (Hyde 262). Such influencing factors may be one’s treatment in society. Thus, the projection of a specific gender may actually influence the development of an individual. The confirming response from those around will also play a part. In turn, gender roles are also affected as a result.

It also exists that “the final irony is, of course, that Nature often imitates art” (Wolff 207). This idea lends credence to the reality of the cycle of stereotypes and portrayals. Such as the case of all causality dilemmas, it is difficult to say for sure where the cycle begins. The existence of a female stereotype influences the standards held by women. In turn, their own image, personality, and actions are influenced—and then vise versa. The cycle then forms new stereotypes and further reinforces existing ones. This dilemma is also true in the case of men; their depiction in society reacts to their own cycle of stereotypes and portrayals. As a result, the enforced image of the conventional woman and man may form from society, and the laws and limitations within.


Through literature, people can glimpse into the realities of the past, as well as the potential of the future. The Odyssey and Paradise Lost reveal the history that has influenced society and its foundations. The two also offer a glimpse into their influence on the concept of gender and the roles of individuals.

The clear distinctions and roles of both men and women remain unchanged throughout history. The constancy supports the permanence of gender differences. As such, the men are characterized by their strength and capability, and the women by their gentleness and vulnerability. This undeniable difference between genders survives in their biology. Their nature becomes an unchangeable factor that binds them to their labeled role in society and to one another. The inherent female qualities prevail as the reason men will continue to be hailed as heroes, with their women destined to be content by their side. Femininity becomes defined by their compliance to never be the hero. Even so, the inability of heroism to be a part of femininity is blamed on the women themselves, on their nature.

Still, when noting the “nurture” factors, the idea of a relation between femininity and heroes becomes more of a possibility. As a result, the problem is less the idea that women are incapable of taking on the roles common to men, and more the lack of gender equality. In this case, gender equality is not the idea that women and men are of an equal ability, but rather that women and men have a right to the same opportunities. Many argue, though, that heroic roles do not suit women, that their very being prevents it. Yet, it is the uncommon examples of heroism that disprove this. It is in the stories of such women as “Boudicca and Jeanne d'Arc [who] donned armor to rescue their nations or to die in the attempt” that the existence of female heroes become a reality (Morgan 3).

From the presence of these female heroes, though, another issue arises. Often, " ‘female heroes’ of this ilk cease to be distinctly female, except for the basic fact of their anatomies” (Morgan 4). In most instances, the adoption of heroism comes at the price of rejecting what makes them women in the first place. It is then that the women become nothing more than “merely repressed men in skirts” (Morgan 4). The fact is that in the majority of instances, women, as heroes, begin to act as if they were men. It could suggest that they can only be the traditional hero when they present themselves as the opposite gender. “The broader implication here is that, both in laboratory experiments and in real life, an individual's gender acts as a stimulus that influences people's responses to the person” (Hyde 261). Women are thus unable to be heroes as those around them will not treat them as such, unless they sacrifice their femininity. With her femininity, she cannot be considered a hero unless she is also labeled as a female one. The reality that she is a women colors all interactions she faces. She is unable to be a hero because of her inability for achievement, stemming not from personal obstacles but social ones. Women cannot be heroes when society is unable to change its preconceived ideas of gender. The demonstration of the heroic qualities from women often have little affect. Women are not heroes because their history does not allow them to be.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008. PDF.

Homer, and E. V. Rieu. The Odyssey. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Hyde, Janet Shibley. “New Directions in the Study of Gender Similarities and Differences.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 16, no. 5, 2007, pp. 259-263.

Karst, Kenneth L. “Woman's Constitution.” Duke Law Journal, vol. 1984, no. 3, 1984, pp. 447-508.

Milton, John, and John Leonard. Paradise Lost. London: Penguin Classics, an Imprint of Penguin, 2014. Print.

Morgan, Gwendolyn. “In Search of the Not-One.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 4, no. 4 (16), 1991, pp. 3-8.

Nunner-Winkler, Gertrud et al. “Gender Differences in Moral Motivation.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1, 2007, pp. 26-52.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “A Mirror for Men: Stereotypes of Women in Literature.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 13, no. 1/2, 1972, pp. 205-218.


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