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The Good Guys Might Not Wear White Hats: Positing a Shift in the American Monomyth


The American Monomyth, first named and described by Lawrence and Jewett, has woven its way through American popular culture. This pervasive structure, with roots in Puritan captivity narratives, American westward expansion, and the creation and serialization of superhero comics and radio programs, has entertained generations of consumers and altered how they conceive of and interact with the world around them. But this structure has also had negative effects on audiences, and Jewett and Lawrence, after analyzing this monomythic framework and its effects in their 1977 and 2002 books, called for its replacement.

While they do not suggest a replacement, this dissertation proposes the Transitional Monomyth, a framework reflecting changes already taking place in American pop culture, and uses the long-running webcomic Girl Genius, by Phil and Kaja Foglio, as a case study in the application of the Transitional Monomyth and its corollaries. This framework notes the shift away from abstemious heroes, two-dimensional villains, and largely unassisted successes and toward flawed protagonists, understandable antagonists, and well-rounded secondary characters, while still allowing for the persistence of certain elements from the American Monomyth, including an emphasis on salvific impulses and the liminality of protagonists. While this framework is not the only one in operation in works of pop culture, it does appear to have gained in popularity, as reflected in a greater number of movies and television series with flawed protagonists or outright antiheroes.

The prevalence of this narrative framework may point to a shifting conception of the larger culture. The idea of flawless heroes who always emerge victorious against the villain may no longer be as appealing because reality is far more nuanced. This shift in popular culture might also be pointing away from older conceptions of American culture and historical heroes toward a more nuanced understanding of American history and religiosity—rather than sanitized narratives that have isolated and marginalized, a greater push is and has been well underway to re-build a more thorough and representative history that acknowledges, includes, and recognizes.

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