Kate Winter is a writer, artist, and ritualist originally from New England, now living in Eugene, Oregon where she runs Girls Underground, a blog about the Girls Underground archetype in mythology and popular culture. She is the author of Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored and Dwelling on the Threshold: Reflections of a Spirit-Worker and Devotional Polytheist and holds a degree in comparative mythology and ritual from Goddard College.
To kick off Paper Tape’s Underground issue, in this interview with Paper Tape editor Kristy Harding, we talk about what girl underground stories are, their roots in ancient myth, and Kate’s work researching Girls Underground.
PT: What are girl underground stories?
KW: “Girls Underground” is a name I came up with to identify I certain pattern, or archetype, I saw in various stories – as ancient as myth and folklore, and as modern as movies and YA fiction, however with the emphasis being on the more modern examples. The basic plot is that a girl – usually either fairly young, like 7, or a teenager, like 16 – with absent or distant parents, often dissatisfied with her life, makes a choice or wish (or mistake) which propels her on an adventure into another world unlike her own.
Sometimes this is a fantastical other dimension, but it can even be simply a dangerous and labyrinthine house. She always has companions – either ones she brings with her, or ones she acquires along the way, or both – and animals are often among them. Sometimes one of those companions betrays her toward the end of the story. There is an adversary – commonly female if the girl is younger and male (with a romantic subtext) if she is older – though she may interact more with the adversary’s evil minions until the story nears its climax. The girl will often spend some time during the middle where she forgets who she is or what her mission is, or wanders in some way. She will also often return home briefly, or encounter something or someone from her normal life. She may be simply trying to get home, or she may be rescuing a friend or relative, though sometimes she is on a larger quest to save the world. As she nears this goal, she is somehow separated from her companions, and must face off against the adversary alone. Whatever the reason for her journey, she is always transformed by the experience, and sometimes discovers that she was something greater than she ever imagined.
Not only are there dozens of examples (actually, I’ve documented 164 on my blog so far) that follow all these major plot points, but I’ve also noticed further trends of a much more specific nature common in at least a significant portion – for instance, talking doors or doorknobs, junk-filled rooms, a fraud concerning the adversary, etc. And of course, the frequency of journeys that literally go underground in some way.
PT: How do girl underground stories compare to the hero’s journey?
KW: While in some respects, one could say that this is a “heroine’s journey” archetype, it does not seem quite so simple. I mean, you could just switch all the genders in Joseph Campbell’s work and have a heroine’s journey story, and in fact there are plenty of wonderful stories with female protagonists that would fit such a general outline but would not be Girls Underground stories at all. The specificity involved in the plot points of Girls Underground stories, to me, qualify them as their own category, perhaps a sub-set of a more generic “hero’s journey” for girls. The fact, for instance, that so many Girls Underground begin their adventures in order to rescue a loved one, or the necessity of a group of companions, or the primacy of an adversary (without which a story no longer fits the pattern, and is noticeably not a Girls Underground example). These things designate a very particular journey, not necessarily common to all but true in some deep way that obviously resonates with a lot of authors and filmmakers.
PT: You say on your website that there are basic examples of girl underground stories in ancient mythology and a large part of your work is identifying new examples of the form today. How have Girls Underground stories evolved?
KW: Well when you look at the prototypes for Girls Underground in mythology, you get a much more stripped-down version of the story. There’s a girl, and there’s a journey to an otherworld (most often an underworld, actually, which is one of the reasons that the “underground” part of Girls Underground is so important), and some trials and a transformative experience. And an adversary of sorts, though the relationship can be complicated (see Persephone and Hades). But there are not usually companions, or a typical backstory, or the many little details that keep recurring in the modern examples (like being an orphan, or returning home in the middle of the journey).
Which makes sense to me, because myths are these primal sacred stories for entire cultures, they recount the most ancient and essential truths enacted by gods and heroes, and speak to the core of life…which, filtered through a lot of human history and society become more complex and modern books and films and art, while still holding onto this kernel of deeply ancient wisdom.
PT: One of the purposes of an archetype like this is to help us face challenges in our own lives. Who do you think stands to benefit the most from Girls Underground stories?
KW: This question is a bit more difficult… In fact, once I truly have a good answer to that, I might be ready to write a book on this! I’d say there are two levels. From a psychological standpoint, this is an important and empowering story archetype for young girls – a Girl Underground has much more volition than girls in many other stories (especially the unfortunate crop of supernatural romance that is so popular these days in the YA section). She usually sets the whole thing in motion, she is often on a very significant mission (rescuing someone, saving the world), and she alone must defeat her adversary. In fact, a lack of volition is a clear sign that a story is not Girls Underground.
From a spiritual standpoint, I think this pattern hints at a common but not much discussed phenomenon, where adolescent girls come into a certain amount of magical power but don’t know what to do with it. You’ll note a fascination with ouija boards, ghost-hunting, the ‘light as a feather, stiff as a board’ game, and other “supernatural” activities around this age, and I think it coincides with an increased otherworldly awareness at the onset of puberty. Not surprisingly, they can get themselves in a bit of trouble, dabbling around with things they don’t understand. A sensitive (and possibly bored) girl, with her friends, might encounter a hostile spirit, or find herself in a haunted house, or other situations which echo the Girls Underground story. I think a familiarity with this archetype, through seeing it described in various books and movies, could help guide someone in that position through some tricky territory. I know that I have, quite seriously, used lessons I learned from Alice in Wonderland, Labyrinth and other Girls Underground stories to navigate certain spiritual/magical experiences in my own life.
PT: How did you get interested in girl underground stories?
KW: It all began with the movie Labyrinth. I have loved Labyrinth since I saw it in the theatre when I was about nine years old. It was the first VHS tape I bought for myself (I had to special order it from a rental place, way back in the olden days!) and I’ve watched it literally hundreds of times. And the more I watched it, the more I noticed these little things about the plot, and how similar they were to parts of other stories I happened to love, including Alice in Wonderland but also a lot of young adult fantasy novels (and, interestingly, horror movies, the other most frequent genre in which you’ll find a Girls Underground plot). I’m sure I was also influenced by my studies at the time of comparative mythology and ritual, anthropology, folklore, etc. One day it all just clicked into place – I remember it, it was about 13 years ago now – and I came up with the name for it and started really defining the archetype I was seeing, and coming up with examples. My blog is the most current way I have shared the idea with others.
PT: What are you reading right now?
KW: Right now I am in the middle of Pig Tale by Verlyn Flieger – it has a lovely little pig as the main companion, but a surprisingly violent impetus for the girl’s journey. It is actually something I read many years ago as part of my Girls Underground research, but at the time I didn’t have the blog and didn’t always remember to take notes on what I was reading. This is the last of such books I have been re-reading in order to put on the blog. I have actually finally run out of potential Girls Underground books on my list, and will rely in the future on stumbling upon them at the library (I check often) and used bookstores, and suggestions from readers of my blog (which have been very helpful) – as well as finding ones in movies and television, which keeps happening without even looking for them.