Welcome to the Girls Underground website, in which I explore a specific archetype that I have identified – first emerging in mythology and fairytales, and further developed in many examples from literature and film – which chronicles a female protagonist’s initiatory journey.

I am no longer posting synopses of each example as I find them, but I will continue to make occasional posts to the blog here as warranted – I am always discovering new facets to this concept. In the meantime, I invite you to explore!

Many moons ago, I discovered – via the magic of Twitter – the existence of a “Girl Underground” tabletop role-playing game. The author was kind enough to send me a copy, and I’ve been sitting on this for much too long, but finally got a chance to look it over now that I’ve got more time on my hands! Turns out they were inspired by my work here, but did not realize I had been the one to identify the story archetype originally and coin the term Girls Underground; they thought it was already something known to academia, which to my mind means I’ve done something right.

Now this won’t be a proper review, because I have absolutely zero experience with or knowledge of RPGs and am really not qualified to comment on the construction of such. As much as I love Story, I have never felt myself to be a storyteller even in a collaborative or informal way. But I still enjoyed reading through the playbook and imagining how such a game might unfold.

“Inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Labyrinth, The Wizard of Oz, Spirited Away and similar tales, Girl Underground helps you tell the story of a curious girl and her strange companions as they travel through a wondrous world, complete a quest, and find the way back home. Throughout the journey, the Girl learns about herself, discovers the values that are important to her, and challenges the world around her.”

As the above quote shows, the game hits most of the major Girls Underground elements, including her growth and transformation as a part of the journey. But there are differences too (as there should be, since they have created their own expression based on the various source materials). I noted for instance that while antagonists can definitely be part of the play, there is no requirement to have one major Adversary, something that is pretty crucial to the archetype as I’ve defined it. I think this may be partly due to it being a PG-rated game with a very positive bent, so perhaps not wanting to dwell on some of the darker or harsher aspects – just like some GU stories are meant for kids or families, whereas others are in the horror genre.

I very much enjoyed the different types of companions they came up with, and can guess at some of the book/film inspirations for them. The locations were also great, including the evocative “Hall of Ten Thousand Masks,” and a bazaar which reminds me of the junk shop motif I’ve noticed in several GU stories. The Girl herself is 12 years old (though you can choose pretty much every other characteristic about her), and that’s prime GU age from my research. She encounters a selection of “Manners” that are basically societal rules of behavior for girls that she will challenge, making this game even more overtly feminist than the general archetype and, I’m sure, a very empowering experience especially for female players (or really, anyone who has had to confront restrictive cultural norms).

In the “Playbook Advice” section, one note for the Girl is: “When she pines for home, show how the wonders of the underground can fulfill her dreams. When she wants to stay, turn up the danger and highlight elements that make her miss home.” I love this as I feel it recognizes the internal conflict so many GUs go through on their journeys, being pulled between a longing for the home they left, and a love of the magical otherworld they have found. Most go home in the end, but will forever leave part of their heart behind in the underground.

You can buy the Girl Underground RPG here.

In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey is not a Girls Underground book. It is a story about a man who, having lost much, becomes obsessed with uncovering a mystery behind the author of a strange Victorian fantasy tale called, of course, In the Night Wood. And that story, the book-within-a-book, appears to be a Girls Underground story.

“What would she do now? she asked herself as the fell King spurred his horse into a gallop and hurtled down the corridor of trees. She recalled too late the words the Knight of Ice had imparted to her at the end of his Tale: When you come to the end of your own Story, he had said, you must remember the thing that you have forgotten. But how could you remember the thing you had forgotten when you had forgotten to remember it? she wondered.

And then the Horned King was upon her.”

As you can see from this excerpt from the book-within-a-book, there is also a deep awareness of The Power of Story running through these recursive tales, which also grabbed my interest. And then, of course, there’s the gorgeous, very GU cover:

nightwood

We don’t really get enough of the Victorian story to be 100% sure of its details, but there is a girl, and a journey into an otherworldly forest, and an Adversary. We get just enough tantalizing morsels to make me hope that Bailey will some day reveal the whole thing, much like Catherynne Valente spun out The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making after fans begged her to expand on its mention in another of her books.

Bailey’s book is well worth reading beyond any GU connection. It handles the intermingling of folklore and the everyday very deftly, with an understanding of how mythic reality can manifest subtly at first, starting in the caverns of the mind and slowly bleeding out to take physical form. And how terrible and bloody it can be.

I recently decided to do a little statistical analysis of the GU examples I have read or watched – almost 250 of them so far! Thought I would share some results here in case anyone else is interested.

I have listed 160 books, 73 movies and 12 TV shows/series (about a quarter of which I classified as Honorable Mentions). Books are obviously the primary GU medium, and as I already knew, most are in the young adult/middle grade fantasy category. About 75% were written by female authors. Well over half of the movies are in the horror genre. Looking through the titles across mediums, I found 31 examples with “titular girls” (name of the girl in the title) and 8 more that simply had the word “girl” in the title. (This is a good way to find potential GU examples when you’re looking for them; sometimes the Adversary’s name is in the title instead.)

The girl goes literally underground in at least a third of the stories (I didn’t always note this, especially early on, so I bet the percentage is even higher), and the story takes place entirely in an underground world in 11 of them. Twice as many as that take place mostly within a single house. While the archetype is based on the idea that the girl travels to another world, this is only technically true in little over a third of the examples – it’s almost as common for magic to bleed into this world, or for her to live in an already magical world (though in those cases, she often will still travel somewhere different within that world).

The girl is most often either a pre-teen (10-13) or teenager, though about 20% are adults, and a few are younger children. The Adversary is a male in 59% of the total examples, and female in 23% – the rest are either a group or ambiguous. But the ratio of male to female Adversaries is highest among older teens, and lowest among children and pre-teens.

There are a few names that are especially popular for the protagonists of Girls Underground stories. Alice is the most frequent, but this is probably due to the connection with Alice in Wonderland – a lot of GU authors are clearly aware of the archetype on some level, and the similarity of their work with the classics of the trope. Particularly exciting for me personally was finding that there are 5 Sarahs and 5 Kates (along with 3 Katherines) – which account for both my first and middle names! Laura/Laurie, Lily/Lilian, and Sophie/Sophia also make 5 showings each. And Claire/Clara, Lisa/Liza, Meg, Alex, Hannah and Heather have 3 or 4 each.

“It was cruel and cold and brutal and beautiful, and I would give anything to go back there. Maybe it broke me in some deep, intrinsic way that I am incapable of seeing….I don’t care. It was my home, and it finally let me be myself, and I hate it here.”

What happens to the Girl Underground after her adventure is over? Well, in a few glorious examples, she stays underground, but most of the time she ends up back in the “real world” either voluntarily (so many of them want so desperately to get home to their dull Kansas-like lands!) or as the natural conclusion to her journey. But what about those girls who never wanted to leave, and pine away for the magical world they left behind?

In Every Heart a Doorway, author Seanan McGuire introduces us to a boarding school made just for those girls (and a few boys) who stepped through a looking glass or went down an impossibly stairway inside a trunk, and ended up in a world they felt was truly “home” – only to get cast out again and be labeled “troubled” or even “insane” by confused parents.

Why mostly girls?

“Because ‘boys will be boys’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy…They’re too loud, on the whole, to be easily misplaced or overlooked; when they disappear from the home, parents send search parties to dredge them out of swamps and drag them away from frog ponds. It’s not innate. It’s learned. But it protects them from the doors, keeps them safe at home. Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.”

I don’t know that this is the full, true answer, but it may at least be part of it. Even more accurate, though, in my opinion, is her description of why the doors opened for these girls in the first place – and always into worlds that spoke to some deep, hidden part of themselves.

“Some doors really do appear only once, the consequence of some strange convergence that we can’t predict or re-create. They’re drawn by need and by sympathy. Not the emotion – the resonance of one thing to another. There’s a reason you were all pulled into worlds that suited you so well.”

She also speaks to how the journey changes a person. Those of us who understand the Power of Story and implement it in our lives will find this very familiar:

“The habit of narration, of crafting something miraculous out of the commonplace, was hard to break. Narration came naturally after a time spent in the company of talking scarecrows or disappearing cats; it was, in its own way, a method of keeping oneself grounded, connected to the thin thread of continuity that ran through all lives, no matter how strange they might become. Narrate the impossible things, turn them into a story, and they could be controlled.”

But no matter what they do, most of these girls won’t find their way back through their doors. Most Girls Underground return home and stay home, in the end. And for those who don’t want to, it must be excruciating. Especially as their memories and surety fade over time.

“My window is closing….Every day I wake up a little more linear, a little less lost, and one day I’ll be one of the women who says ‘I had the most charming dream,’ and I’ll mean it. [I’m] old enough to know what I’m losing in the process of being found.”

Every Heart a Doorway isn’t quite a Girls Underground story itself, but it cuts to the heart of this archetype in certain ways I’ve never seen before, and holds a lot of truth.

“Deliberately undertaken physical journeys into and back from an underground locale are apparent in a significant number of often highly celebrated works for young readers, and undergrounds as backdrops, other forms of subterranean journey, and more metaphorical forms of katabasis*, are present in many more.”

Came across an interesting book recently – Uncharted Depths: Descent Narratives in English and French Children’s Literature by Kiera Vaclavik. I read it hoping that it would cover some Girls Underground territory, but unfortunately there wasn’t much overlap, other than the inclusion of Alice in Wonderland. Vaclavik’s scope is somewhat too narrow for my interests – comparing a small selection of stories from the 19th century or earlier to the classic narratives of the Odyssey, Aeneid and Inferno. When, during a discussion of gender, she finally looks at the differences in the stories featuring specifically female protagonists (which fall under the fantasy/fairytale heading rather than adventure), the verdict is relatively grim. The girls still require courage and strength for their journeys, but they almost always set out on instruction from others, and exhibit passivity throughout (the notable exception being Alice herself). And, only young girls seem suitable for such stories, not older ones. But, at least they exist, considering the culture in which such stories were written.

“Always young and often dreaming, the female travellers are largely passive and their behaviour circumscribed. Nevertheless, to cast female figures in such a role at all is remarkable, and, given that adult literature would lag far behind in this respect, fantasy for young readers can be regarded as a privileged space in which to reconfigure or at least to rethink the gender roles and relations of traditional katabatic narratives.”

It would be interesting to see what Vaclavik would make of the many Girls Underground examples from more recent children’s and young adult literature. As my exhaustive coverage has shown, modern Girls Underground most definitely exhibit volition in their adventures – and indeed, can be any age. The one such example she does touch upon – the Philip Pullman series His Dark Materials – is on my list already.

*A katabasis is a journey to the underworld or underground. 

sarahAs long-time readers will know, this whole Girls Underground idea started with the movie Labyrinth – my favorite movie of all time, which I’ve seen hundreds of times. As I was watching it again recently, it occurred to me to write down some of the lessons from the Story, ones that are actually quite applicable to many spiritual and magical journeys. (Note: these were one of the inspirations for the Lessons cards in the Girls Underground Story Oracle.)

 

If that is the way it is done, then that is the way you must do it.

Say your right words.

The way forward is sometimes the way back.

You can’t look where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re going.

Quite often it seems like we’re not getting anywhere, when in fact we are.

You get a lot of [false alarms] in the labyrinth, especially when you’re on the right track.

You can’t take anything for granted.

No, it isn’t [fair], but that’s the way it is.

For over a decade now, I have traced the Girls Underground archetype as it appears again and again in literature, film, television, fairytales, comic books, art and mythology. This has revealed to me not only the power of this particular story, but the power of Story in general. This is not just a metaphor – I believe Story shapes reality itself. Not surprisingly, some of my favorite movies illustrate the sacred role of Story, and I have recently noted this trend and decided to share a brief list here with you all.

labyrinth

Labyrinth – the film that started the idea for Girls Underground begins with Sarah reading from a book (probably a play) called Labyrinth, the details of which (down to the dialogue) she then enacts when the real Goblin King comes for her brother.

neverending_story

The Neverending Story – Bastian is given a special book which turns out to be more than just a simple story. As he reads it, he becomes a part of it, and must save the storybook world from annihilation.

lady_water

Lady in the Water – a creature named Story arrives from a mythical world to help a writer achieve his destiny. To save her from danger and return her home, the man caring for her must learn the fairytale from which she comes, and find the right people to act out its sacred roles.

neverwas

Neverwas – Zach’s troubled father wrote a popular children’s book with him as the protagonist when he was younger. Now grown, he finds a delusional man who believes he is a character from the book, and thinks Zach will save his kingdom. However, there is more truth to the story than Zach ever imagined.

big_fish

Big Fish – Will’s dying father has told tall tales about his life as long as he can remember. But not only is there more truth to his wild stories than Will could have believed, it is the power of the story itself that will give his father the finale he deserves.

the_fall

The Fall – a little girl named Alexandria is recuperating at a hospital when she meets a man who begins to tell her a long tale. As her imagination bleeds story into reality, the man’s ulterior motives come to light. However, Alexandria wedges herself into the story, and eventually helps heal the man’s heart.

imaginarium

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – this is perhaps only an “honorable mention,” but during a flashback it is revealed that Doctor Parnassus was once part of a group of monks who ceaselessly told the stories that kept the world moving. When the devil tries to silence them, the world can survive only if people elsewhere are also telling stories.

And some Girls Underground books and movies that emphasize The Power of Story:

  • Storybound by Melissa Burt
  • Finding Serendipity by Angelica Banks
  • Unwritten by Tara Gilboy
  • The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet
  • The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
  • New Nightmare
  • Candyman
  • American Fable
  • The Dark Stranger
  • Inkheart

Reading Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings by Stefan Ekman, I came across the work of Farah Mendlesohn. In her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, Mendlesohn suggests all fantasy novels can be placed in one of four categories, based on how the fantastic is introduced into the story. As Ekman describes them:

“The portal-quest fantasy introduces the point-of-view character into a fantasy world, either from a version of our own world (through, for instance, a wardrobe) or from a place in the fantasy world that, like the reader’s world, is ‘small, safe and understood’ (such as the noneventful, comprehensible Shire). The story is told from this point of origin, and the reader learns about the alien world along with the main character(s). In immersive fantasy, the characters, unlike the reader, are at home in the strange world, and the world is described as if totally familiar; the reader has to puzzle out how it works from the clues that are given. Intrusive fantasy is set in a world (often our own) into which the fantastic intrudes, causing chaos and confusion. Neither protagonist nor reader is familiar with the fantastic intrusion, and the story is a process of coming to terms with it. The ghost story is a typical intrusion fantasy. In the final category, liminal fantasy, the reader’s expectations are used to create worlds where the commonplace comes across as strange and wonderful, and the alien is portrayed with an everyday triteness bordering on the blasé. These fantasies are stories in which stylistic manipulation is central to the experience of the fantastic.”

Girls Underground stories are almost all portal-quest fantasies. A crucial element of the archetype is the girl leaving behind her normal life for an adventure in a strange new land. Her volition in taking that first step across the threshold is key (and results in a quest with one of a limited set of common goals, such as rescue of a loved one). However, a smaller number of GU stories instead fit the intrusive fantasy category, where the otherness bleeds into her normal life and changes its course. To me, though, these are usually less effective examples.

While I came up with the concept of Girls Underground, I certainly am not the first person to notice similarities between some of these stories. Especially between any of them and Alice in Wonderland (which may account for the high number of Alice references in GU books – consciously or unconsciously, the authors know what type of story they’re telling). Here’s a great visual examination of some of the parallels between the movie Labyrinth (one of the primary inspirations for Girls Underground) and Disney’s Alice movie. It’s quite remarkable.

labyrinthalice

The Oracle


THE GIRLS UNDERGROUND STORY ORACLE - tapping into the Power of Story for guidance and insight. Learn more here.

Alice Days


Celebrate one of the primary inspirations for Girls Underground – Alice in Wonderland – with a holiday down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass! Check out the Alice Days page for party ideas, movie recommendations, and more.

Your Host

My name is Kate Winter. I am a writer, artist and ritualist living in the Pacific Northwest. I hold a degree in comparative mythology and ritual, and am the author of several books. If you have suggestions, story examples, questions, or anything else to share with me, please email me.

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