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Analysis: The heroine's journey
Analysis: The heroine's journey Exclusive
February 2, 2012 | By Emily Short

February 2, 2012 | By Emily Short
More: Console/PC, Indie, Exclusive, Design

Months ago I ran across a description of "the heroine's journey," a counterpart to the hero's journey, a concept summarized like this:

"The Heroine begins from a position of minimal privilege, but has some powerful goal or passion. She may then take on a mentor or helper to assist her in her attempt to escape her traditional role and do what she wants in life. Along the way, she rejects or loses a 'typical' romance with a man who wants to protect her but who would stifle her. She undergoes further trials in the attempt to establish herself; if she does marry/become romantically attached, itís much later in the story, after she's distinguished herself as an individual and met someone who is willing to regard her as an equal. Alternatively, sometimes she ends up alone but self-realized to some degree."

That story format resonated with me, but when I described it to one of my friends, he said, "I don't know. What I think of as heroic is sacrificing yourself for others." In other words, he suggested, the story I'd outlined was the story of selfishness, not heroism.

The Life of Sacrifice

Sometime back I wrote about Delicious Emily's Holiday Season, a time management game that featured a surprising amount of narrative content and a branching storyline.

Delicious Emily's True Love is a sequel to this story, and the creators were kind enough to send me a review copy, which, I have to say up front, I thoroughly enjoyed playing. True Love backs away from some of the most experimental aspects of this predecessor. There aren't any more open-ended questions for the player to type in, and the end of the story is foregone. But if it is less surprising than Holiday Season, True Love has a confidence, spark, and investment in its storytelling that makes it a standout in its genre.

As with Holiday Season, levels consistently feature mini-goals that tie into the narrative, especially by dramatizing the behavior and personalities of side characters. Even Emily's own quirks become a challenge, because sometimes she wants to be daydreaming or reading letters instead of serving tables, and the level goals require trying to meet both ends.

But mostly, the ludonarrative content of the game revolves around the same kind of humor: Emily is relentlessly taken for granted, pressured and bullied by the people around her. The customers are demanding. Her mother pesters her about her eventual grandchildren. Her younger sister is self-centered; her younger sister's boyfriend a boor who sits at the counter ordering free meals for turn after turn. The game pokes fun at how much Emily has to put up with these people, but it also offers her no way out of this pattern. There's no point at which she can stand up for herself.

Even when she goes abroad in search of a long-ago boyfriend, she meets one character after another on the road who puts her to work in a self-centered way. The French boyfriend in question turns out to be a philanderer, so Emily returns home to marry Patrick, the florist next door, and the one person in the narrative who is possibly even more passive than herself.

Don't get me wrong. This is one of the better stories in the time management genre. It achieves about the level of a television sitcom, and does so in a way that melds the story points with things the player actually has to do. Even when Emily, in an act worthy of Bridget Jones, sets off looking for a French boyfriend she met on an exchange program sixteen years previously, the story is told with enough nuance that we understand she's running as much away as to. Away from a bullying mother who wants grandkids as soon as possible; away from envy and annoyance at her sister's wedding, and the belief that the man she's interested in has a new girlfriend. What she finds in Paris can't make things worse, can it?

And so we almost approximate believing that a 32 year old business-owner would set off looking for the teenager lover she knew for two weeks half a lifetime previously.

Delicious Emily's True Love is not Tolstoy, or even The Big Bang Theory. But it's working within a genre in which it's the norm for characters to do somewhat foolish things in pursuit of love. My biggest gripe with its narrative structure is that Patrick, the true hero, is off stage for much of Emily's jaunt across Europe (where, surprisingly, she manages to spend something like a week in the Madrid airport, another week on a luxury train from Madrid to Paris (!), and then some similar number of days in Paris itself). When Patrick is shown, he's such a nice guy that he doesn't cause Emily any particular problems but also doesn't functionally help her most of the time either. Which means that he doesn't affect the level goals much. From a gameplay point of view, the hero is a non-entity.

Is Emily unheroic because she doesn't sacrifice enough? Hardly. Self-sacrifice is the warp and weft of her life. She hardly ever acts without acting for someone. She feeds, she cleans up after. She keeps her mouth shut about her sister's appalling boyfriend, who is too old, too loud, too stupid, and too crass. She helps her mother sew a new wedding dress even though it costs her time she can't spare. She stands back when someone else wants to catch the bouquet at a wedding, and only winds up with it by accident. She is self-effacing by instinct.

And this is not just an incidental feature of the character, but perhaps her core characteristic, and one she shares to varying degrees with other time management heroines: Flo, Quinn, the office manager of Miss Management. These are all games that invite and expect the player to empathize with the experience of being a bit imposed upon, and to respond with a genial competence and a willingness not to mind that it's unfair.

The Fantasy of Service

The fantasy is of being so good at picking up after other people that you're never forced to tell anyone you can't and that they should wash their own undies for once.

So many stories for little girls are stories about how to be a good servant. Cinderella, abused by her family, keeps polishing the grates until the Prince talent-scouts her for his palace. Snow White, driven from her mother's house, washes up for the dwarfs instead. Vasilisa the Beautiful gets bullied by her stepsisters into going into the woods alone looking for a light source; thanks to Baba Yaga's intervention, she comes back with magic glowing-eyed skulls that burn her entire step-family to death. (Not her fault, though. She didn't plan it that way.)

A Little Princess and Jane Eyre -- and buckets of other classic and semi-classic literature for young women -- revolve around the idea of patient, perennial self-sacrifice and obedience as a way of life, with the hope that one day, through good luck, the sacrifice will be recognized and the sufferer freed.

But from the outside. Always from the outside. Always because a prince came along, or Baba Yaga handed you a booby-trapped magic skull.


Then there's GlaDOS. Portal 2 gives GlaDOS an antiheroine's journey, a path from subservience to villainy.

Once her core personality belonged to an attractive but submissive secretary, Caroline. ("Sorry fellas, she's married. To Science.") Then she had her mind fed into the circuitry of Aperture's machine. She lost all semblance of physical or mental autonomy and was deconstructed and reconstructed countless times. Her madness is the result of the imperatives built into her artificial intelligence. Her willingness to sacrifice herself -- the fact that she made that sacrifice her way of life -- is what also made her a villain.

I have to say I cheered for GlaDOS when she rejected the Caroline module and claimed a self unencumbered by conscience. Not because I'm a fan of sociopaths, mind you -- but because GlaDOS is defined as a character by the fact that she escaped that kind of manipulation and subservience, and became the controller. Her vocation to test endlessly becomes her essential self. If she had been redeemed and learned to pity her test subjects, she would also have been personally lessened.

Instead she recognizes Chell as a kind of equal and sets her free, and that's as close to non-villainy as she can come. In doing so, she gives Chell what no one ever gave Caroline.

Heroine's Journey?

I don't know if there's really anything consistent or universal to that heroine's journey pattern I ran across months ago. Web-searching on the phrase "heroine's journey" has turned up a range of materials, from self-help books for women executives to life coaching guides. In the absence of an originating Joseph Campbell, no one seems to agree whether there is a pattern of a heroine's journey as distinct from a hero's, and if so, what exactly it would entail. So probably I simply latched on to the one I found most interesting.

But it has led me to think about the mechanics of choice and self-sacrifice in games, and the fact that those often play out in culturally gendered ways. For the lead character of Fallout 3 -- who can be played as female, but was rather transparently originally written as male -- sixty hours of shooting people in the head for three bottles of Nuka Cola can be triumphantly redeemed by a single self-immolation. For the lead females of many, many casual games, sacrifice and service are the only game there is.

If we can learn anything from GlaDOS and Chell, it's that letting someone else destroy you isn't doing them any favors. But the path from passively serving to living in healthy balance with your community is not necessarily easier than the path from egocentrism. I at least am comfortable calling it heroic.

(Disclosure: I played a copy of Portal 2 that I purchased at full price, and a copy of Delicious Emily's True Love that I received for free as a review copy.)

[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics.]

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Christopher Braithwaite
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It's interesting to consider the heroine's journey in as much as the genders assigned by society give rise to different experiences and therefore stories, but the concept of the hero's journey is gender neutral.

I also think the friend referred to has a very narrow view of heroism. Rejecting the typical role society has assigned and all the benefits that kind of life can bring requires tremendous courage and sacrifice. The boon provided to the community is to have blazed a trail that others can follow as a life pattern. What could be more heroic?

Kenneth Blaney
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As others have said, a heroine's journey can be very similar to a hero's journey. Many of the best characters, for instance, are not specifically male or female, but rather just generally male or female. That is, they are shaped by their experience and history, not their gender.

All that said, I think a good way to transmute a hero's journey into a heroine's journey is to change the motivation. For instance, instead of "village is burned down, get vengeance" replace it with "village is under attack, protect children" as protecting children is a trait associated with motherhood (the fatherhood equivalent being encouraging children and it being noted that, in this context, mother and father are not gender exclusive roles). With that in mind, Dead Rising 2 could have easily starred a female lead.

A narrative for a game that has been kicking around in my head for a while was given to me by Extra Creditz: The mother of 3 children his helping them escape from a war torn country... possibly a civil war where kidnapping children and pressing them into military service or sexual violence against women has become common place as it has in some areas of the modern world.

Christopher Engler
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I find it interesting that all us "men" have been telling this woman that there's no distinction between a male hero's and a female hero's journey. As a man who has never lived the life of a woman, I cannot say with any certainty if there are or aren't differences. (As a married man, I'm willing to guess there are, but it's only a guess.) As universal as Campbell can seem, he was still looking at these paradigms from a male point of view, and I'd welcome-- no, I'd invite-- a comprehensive female perspective on the subject. I think the differences or similarities we might find could help game developers write characters that could expand their appeal across the sexes.

Kenneth Blaney
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The hero's journey is the hero's journey. History is littered with women who meet these exact criteria and these women are often held up as feminist icons. Looking for a "female equivalent" of the hero's journey unfairly takes away the femininity of those heroic women. Beyond that, it runs the same risks that eventually ruined second wave feminism. Specifically defining what is and isn't and thus who is and isn't "feminist". A more third wave approach, that is feminism is what a character defines it to be is required here.

That is, which of these is the feminist: a woman who volunteers for the military and leads her nation to victory; a woman who rebels against standard female gender roles and seeks independence; or a woman who devotes her life to her children and protects them from the dangers of the world?

The answer, according to the third wave thought, is "yes". And all of these general narratives can fit into the establish the status quo, break from the status quo, encounter and persevere 3 act story arc.

Roger Tober
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The heroine's journey feels overused to me, whereas the hero's journey really doesn't. It has some kind of narrower application. When I see this type of movie or book description, I instantly don't want to view or read it because it's so formulaic, kind of like an action movie with chase scenes and burning cars. I think they are so busy catering to a woman's feeling of being suppressed that they almost don't care about a decent plot. They stink. A hero's journey could take place in any time, any place, and has other ideas that are pushing it.

Delegate Zero
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I find pretty enlightening that all comments here on how female are depicted in the heroic state of the art are male only. Very interesting gender biases - be them out of societal molds, ignorance, misconception - in a camaÔeu of subtlety.

Some personnal picks :

Chris Fisk : I honestly see no distinction between the Hero's Journey and the Heroine's Journey.[...]For every quandary of a possibly unfulfilled life women face, men face them, too.

Roger Tober : The heroine's journey feels overused to me, whereas the hero's journey really doesn't.[...]I think they are so busy catering to a woman's feeling of being suppressed that they almost don't care about a decent plot.

Very interesting read overall, which could be turned around and brought back to the simpler question : is the "bodybuilder hero" a strict cultural equivalent of the "pin-up heroin" ?

Does the heroine's journey really bring matters on a strict cultural equivalent with the hero's journey ?

Roger Tober
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I think mostly men read these articles, which is unfortunate. I still hate those stories, though. One of my favorite female characterizations is Dorothea in Middlemarch. That was written by a man also. I don't think I've ever wanted to be more like a character in a story than her, though. Being male or female really has nothing to do with it.

Harry Giles
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@Roger Tober

I'm afraid George Eliot was female. She assumed a male pseudonym so she could get published and taken seriously.

Very rarely does being male or female or anything else have nothing to do with it, whatever it may be.

Conrad Cook
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A "hero" is simply a person who is admired. Hero myths are *fictions* about people who come to be widely admired. They are not necessarily *true*.

Hollywood tells us that heroism means killing bad guys, in abundance, usually in rebellion to the established government. However, people who try to live this formula often find they are not, in fact, admired.

This is because a successful *fiction* about admiration taps into wish fulfillment. And wish fulfillment is a different creature entirely than effective pursuit of outcome. Never having understood the female psyche, I can't say how this may tap in to a feminine Heroine's Journey or Quest -- but note these are two distinct narrative types: a *Journey* is episodic and usually culminates in open-ended success, whereas a *Quest* is cyclical and culminates with a return home.

In my view, attempting to regender a male heroic story template does not necessarily make for good TV. The _Odyssey_ ends with a mass murder, as does the _Iliad_: Hollywood's idea of heroism has deep cultural cache.

However, looking more broadly at myth, and if we dare to reject Campbell's _Monomyth_ thesis (perhaps saying he does Jung poorly), we can indeed find remarkable stories that speak to gender roles -- as they exist in society; not necessarily as men or women would like them to exist. And this is perhaps the problem. The attempt to put myth in service to a program of social change in effect is the quest for propaganda.

Looking at myth more honestly, we do find patterns. Both Jason and Medea fulfill gruesomely the sacrifice inherent to pair bonding. Jason sews his wild oats in the form of dragon's teeth -- and then destroys them all. Medea betrays her brother to Jason, knowing Jason will kill him. The woman of Ancient Greece left her family to live with her husband, which was a sacrifice she no doubt felt keenly.

Ancient Greek storytellers probably did not write to a formula in the sense that modern storytellers seek. Rather, they had a kind of symbolic and emotional access to the pattern of life that they talked about frankly, which results in a kind of immediacy of narrative that we still value.

Amanda Lange
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The heroine's journey is absolutely different from a hero's journey. As the article points out, the heroine typically must wait on something outside herself to "rescue" her or move forward and act. Though a hero receives some kind of Boon near a critical point in his story, the classical heroine has no story before receiving this boon. It's possible she is simply born or created with special powers, or something outside gives these to her (like the Fairy Godmother). The training-montages and self-propelled actions undergone by male protagonists are not seen as appropriate for female protagonists most of the time.

Women are supposed to be more demure, caregiving, and passive. It is a masculine quality to want to "go forth and take" things. In a woman this is also seen as a villainous quality! Hence, GLaDOS is a great example here.

What I find interesting is when things are reversed. For example, Harry Potter starts out in a "girl's" story arc. He is rescued!

Conrad Cook
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Connor McLeod in the first _Highlander_ movie is rescued. Neo in _the Matrix_ is rescued. Luke Skywalker survives the slaughter of his family because he's chilling with Ben. That's actually a very common trope.

And all of these male heros had to wait until circumstances outside of themselves brought them to their quests. Being given a physical object is common. Luke gets a lightsaber.

This is often counterpointed with an indicator of native power. Ben tries to Jedi mind-control Luke into coming with him to Aldaraan, but Luke is too strong for him. Neo stands up to the Agents (unsuccessfully) in the interrogation room.

Action-adventure movies with women basically follow this template. In _Terminator_, Sarah Connor goes from hunted to hunter. She's rescued, trained, and her trainer sacrifices himself for her, as Ben does for Luke -- a convenient way to write them out. The final victory against the lethal robot is hers alone. And if we consider where that movie ends, the implication is that the character becomes proactive against the enemy.

She successfully will bear the new messiah to the world, raise him and train him. So she wins through violence and through motherhood. (Fatherhood is something usually left out of modern hero stories; it is replaced by sex. But it was a big part of the old myths.)

The Just Plain Folks storylines, like Cinderella, do not really serve as good counterpoints to hero cycles. The male analog to Cinderella is not the epic hero, but the prankster hero: the boy who learns to shudder; the tailor who kills seven flies with one blow; the guy with seven-league boots. Donkey-skin wins because she bakes a better cake than any other girl in the kingdom. Cinderella because she can wear cruel shoes -- so she can obey the Pumpkin Curfew and make a prince chase her.

People were still talking about the draft when I was a kid. The notion I'd be expected to kill people preyed on my mind while I grew up. And boys clearly are sold on the idea that killing people is heroism by hero myths. That was clear to me even as a kid.

Fairy tales have real lessons about how to actually get along in society. Hansel and Gretel: prepares a young wife in a strange household for the experience of her husband being absent and unable to help her, effectively enslaved by the family: she wins by out-cooking her foe. Little Red Riding Hood is a lesson that sleeps in the minds of children until they grow into the context where the lesson is relevant: not a bad way to do it.

Trying to find stories that are "good for children," that are wholesome, results in Hans Christian Andersoon type pseudo stories. Tales with morals. The red shoes.

I wish that storytellers would look to honestly into their lives and tell those stories that reflect the emotional realities and lessons they wished they had learned at a younger age.

Amanda Lange
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Yeah, Neo and Luke follow the very traditional arc. I know the difference is a little unclear, but, for Luke the idea is that the saber was something he needed to learn to use. Neo needed to learn to be the One. Etc.

I think Sarah Connor is a really interesting example and one I hadn't thought of at all. Her story really is about being a mother in the end and sacrificing for her baby, though. Action movies that star women either have this element (Aliens) or a woman who 'has power just 'cuz' and they use that for cool fight scenes. Most of the examples of the second thing I can think of aren't what you'd call good stories.

I always found with classical myths when there is fatherhood, it's because the story is about the young man standing up to his father, living in his shadow, or tricking him to assert his own masculinity. Zeus overthrows Cronus and then has other children who are also heroes and so-on. It's not about nurturing from parent to child the way heroine-mother stories are.

I think there are always counter-examples to these things, though.

Conrad Cook
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Interesting points. I hadn't thought of Ripley in this context. She's often seen as a _Last Girl_ (standing)... which it now occurs to me, with your comments, as a kind of blind spot in current criticism: a male character who wins against the monster is a hero, while a female character who wins against the monster is, at least to the critics, a Last Girl.

I want to be careful about overextending myself: Don't know Greek myth *that* well. But the stories of the gods may not be the place to go, as the gods tend to be id-beasts almost outside of the bounds of civilization.

OTOH, there is Odysseus, who tries to get out of the Trojan war by feigning madness. They find him out plowing his back yard. They place his infant son in front of the plow, and at the last minute he turns the plow aside. Okay, Odysseus, the gig's up -- you're drafted.

--Which is kind of interesting against the Bellefrost/Shakespeare tests of mad Hamlet, by seeing if he goes after an available woman.

Ten years later, we have Odysseus's homecoming and education of his 11 year old into the art of mass murder as a means of protecting the household. You COULD say. -- I suppose in most Greek myths, fatherhood is told of from the adult child's point of view. The emphasis on filial piety.

--Where do you see Sarah Connor sacrificing for her baby?

Amanda Lange
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Regarding Sarah, what I mean to say is, the value of Sarah Connor in the context of her story is that she is John's mother. She's a warrior in her own right, but the motherhood aspect is why she's in a story in the first place. That's what I was getting at, there, hope it clarifies.

Conrad Cook
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I understand. Now, what's your reaction to that?

Harry Giles
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Those arguing that there is no "heroine's journey" archetype, only female characters in "hero's journey" narratives, seem to be missing something. The hero's journey is an archetype developed from predominantly male characters: to argue that all analogous female archetypes are versions of the hero's journey is to say that only this archetypically male story is available to female characters -- that the only way female characters can be heroic is by fitting into a male narrative. If female characters can only have a hero's journey, female is again the marked or "other" gender -- as in Fallout 3. Women can only be heroes when dressed up as men [cf. Samus].

The argument would not be that male characters can only have hero's journeys and that female characters can only have heroine's journeys. Establishing an understanding of a valued heroine's journey archetype (rather than one devalued as "consumerist") makes different narratives available to different characters. Women are not just "just as good as a man" [Samus again], but can also be valued and celebrated in their own right. Gender equality means making the same options available to different genders, but also making different options available to different genders, recognising different experiences of the world.

I'd really like to see a male character undergo a heroine's journey.

Thinking about the heroine's journey Emily's article is working towards, it's also worth thinking about Sarah Lund [The Killing / Forbrydelsen], if you don't mind me switching media. The male detective is archetypically already a loner, committed to solving a mystery purely out of principle [cf. The Maltese Falcoln]. In The Killing, the lead male detective subordinates the mystery to the needs of his family and work life, while Sarah Lund pursues the mystery above all else. So far, so hero's journey. Except that Lund's increasing isolation occurs when others reject her, rather than the other way around -- her family reject her for not being motherly enough, her colleagues and bosses for not being subordinate enough. Her troubles come from refusing to fit into a female role. Her story is a kind of "heroine's tragedy". Maybe. It's complicated!

Jonathan Lawn
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Sarah Lund, Sarah Connor and Ripley have each been lauded precisely because they are stronger characters. I'd say that they are well known but well liked precisely because they are not typical.

It strikes me that the difference between the standard hero's and heroine's journey is generally that the hero becomes more truly himself because of his journey, whereas the herione's fight is often to remain truly herself.

I wonder therefore if Cool Hand Luke or Andy Dufresne (Shawshank Redemption) might be said to follow the heroine's path? Their role is stoicism, and never abandoning who they are until their moment comes (or not).

And perhaps what we lack are examples of heroines who appreciate what they've revealed themselves to be through their journey. (It strikes me that many action heroes get to revel in their power at some point.) Princess Fiona in Shrek?

Jonathan Lawn
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I've also found this, which suggests there's further reading available out there!'s_journey.htm#Heroine

Rikard Peterson
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Anyone thinking of using the Hero's Journey stuff for their writing should read Film Crit Hulk first:

Joshua Darlington
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Top down narratology is going to be more limited than bottom up dramatic pathways.

Binary gender is a social convention. If you take into consideration the variety of phenotype clusters, sexual preferences, and etc there can be a wide interpretation of human gender. I heard some John Khilstrom (social cog) lecture where he broke down 50 or so human genders - I assume it was a conservative list coming from a serious scientist and academic.

Malcolm Campbell
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I enjoyed this post a great deal--along with the comments. I suppose the ideal of gender-roles and differences, other than noting that biological differences can have an impact on thought processes regardless of the arbitrary roles for men and women asigned by society, is that both men and women will probably benefit from learning more and accepting more about the parts of themselves they ignore as belonging to the other gender.

That said, I take a point of view about the heroine's journey that's similar to that of author Maureen Murdock in her groundbreaking heroine's journey book. She is not alone in her assessment that the solar-oriented hero's journey and the lunar-oriented heroine's journey are not the same at all. In fact, many authors writing about the subject will tell you that asking women to take a male-oriented psychological is a concept born out of the rampant patriarchy in most of the world's cultures.