Monday, February 13, 2012

The Twilight Saga is the Monomyth for Women.

It seems I have been intemperate: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 is not actually the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I’ve reconsidered for two reasons: 1) someone called me on it, and 2) I saw this at the store today and was reminded of a memory I’d mercifully blacked out. 

People love to hate on Twilight, and there’s no shortage of targets for ire: the sparkles, the prose, the werewolf falling in love with a baby, the sparkles, Renesmee.  When my good friend, also a lawyer/mom, finally read the last book, she kept calling and texting: “Did that really just happen?”  “She did what now?” and so on, until finally I got a series of texts, that simply said, over and over “WTF?!”

The movie tones down the weirdness, tries to make it reasonable and well-grounded in the universe of the movies.  Which is why I was so disappointed with it.  BD1 is a decent movie, but Breaking Dawn, the book (certainly for the first half), is deeply, personally about me—WTF is the story of my life.  I think, perhaps, that it is the story of lots of other women's lives too.  

George Lucas is also full of WTF, but he had a manual.
It is really difficult to tell a woman's life story.  Campbell’s monomyth has a lovely shape, and it works well for men.  The example he uses is Oedipus, and the monomyth can accommodate his story from birth, through marriage and having children, to death.  I have tried to think of examples, and I can't think of any in which a woman's story is told in this shape, where immersive motherhood occurred right in the middle.  So Campbell's monomyth can tell the story of a person who happens to be female and doesn’t have children or focus on them.  Or, more typically, authors just tell monomyth stories around motherhood--typically as prologue--with marriage and baby at the end.  Motherhood screws up your narrative because it's both climax and termination of your old narrative universe in the same event.  It's tough to reconcile that into a pleasing narrative shape.   

Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories

So the Twilight Saga may not be narratively pleasurable, but I think they have resonance.  I think that the dead-on emotional truth in the Twilight books is the reason they never quite succeed on a narrative level (Catherine Hardwicke was commended on her direction of the first movie for creating a plot for the movie based on a largely plotless book).  But if you can get past the random weirdness, and the sparkles, Twilight nails exactly what it’s like for a girl the first time she falls in love, and New Moon nails exactly what it’s like the first time a girl gets dumped. Eclipse exactly gets the strangeness and ambivalence of choosing a lifetime commitment, even or especially to someone you love.  And Breaking Dawn is about having a baby and being a mom.  Critics focus on the limp-wristed sparkler, because Bella does, but really, he’s beside the point. 

The intrinsic weirdness of Breaking Dawn (book) is how the same characters stay the same, but the fact of the protagonist's pregnancy changes everything about the world they're in. 

The title, I think, is fair--dawn makes the world anew, which seems strange after three books in the dark (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse).  For three books, Edward is so central, that Bella's dad comments (Eclipse):
The way you move — you orient yourself around him without even thinking about it. When he moves, even a little bit, you adjust your position at the same time. Like magnets… or gravity. You’re like a… satellite, or something.
(What's so subversive about this is that the books treat this like “yep, that’s how it is.”  !!)  And then in Breaking Dawn, this so-intense relationship ceases to matter.  It makes no sense to the narrative to make Edward irrelevant. The former center of the universe now just drops in and out, rising and setting on the newly sideways axis on which the her world now rotates.  He is such an afterthought that Jacob, the scorned lover, narrates half the book.  Everything about Breaking Dawn is offensive to symmetry and narrative sense.

But I think that's why this series has so much resonance--life doesn't make narrative sense.  Motherhood doesn't make narrative sense. 

Also: what Breaking Dawn lacks in narrative cohesion, it makes up for in awesomeness.

What I expected from Breaking Dawn, Part 1.

For half the book, the half-vamp fetus nearly kills her in graphic detail.  The books go from teenage longing and a sweet honeymoon to full-on gruesome horror.  Baby kicks cause broken ribs.  And the birth--where Edward has to chew the baby out of her stomach, and what happens next. . . I had such high hopes for the movie's ability to show this rift: the birth scene is where the story severs the connection with everything that comes before, just like the birth trauma severs Bella’s spinal column. 

Every mother has a horror story in her.  And I do so wickedly love to horrify people with mine.  One nurse walked into the birthing suite wearing a full Hazmat suit, and the other one laughed.  “You really think that’s necessary.”  “Look at her chart.  It’s Dr. Miller,” she said.  The other nurse paled and ran out.  I didn’t start to panic until they started covering the equipment with plastic.  “He’s just a little messy,” they explained, like that was supposed to make me feel better.  Later: screaming, blood on the walls and ceiling somehow, and when Dr. Miller did arrive, he started screaming because Hazmat nurse, who at one point smacked B in the head (he deserved it), was standing there holding the baby he’d come to deliver.   

It was awesome.        

What it looked like after I gave birth, as I recall. 
Movies are supposed to give us heightened reality.  I wanted to see something that awesome for Bella onscreen. 

Because oh jeez, I have really, really high hopes for Breaking Dawn Part 2, out this fall.  The second half of that book has the most promising, most hopeful, most awesome depiction of the power of motherhood as anything I’ve ever read.  I loved reading it—I love thinking about it.  And I want to see it be as awesome as it already is on the page and in my head. 

Because fiction is hope, it’s uplift, I want to believe that Meyer gets it right about what comes next in this story we never hear.  In this case, I want to see story of how a weak, whiny, kind of boring girl is become Life, protector of worlds.

Plus this time, finally, she's the sparkly one. 


  1. > the book is deeply, personally about me—WTF is the story of my life. I think, perhaps, that it is the story of lots of other women's lives too.


    don't say that.

  2. Lol! Also, ouch! But it's only half right.

    But don’t feel bad – the part they get wrong is the part that men always get wrong about women. It’s decidedly not about the acquisitive interest in the hero (who is just as much a Lego brick, “perfect” isn’t a character). Gross. I did say “beside the point.”

    But don’t you ever wonder why so many people read something so widely acknowledged as garbage? Poor characters, no plot, bad writing – why the phenomenon?

    1. Identification. Ok, fine: Guilty. Although isn’t that why people read lots of other things? I don’t see a problem in reading things solely for the identification (primarily nostalgic identification), so long as you don’t assume the set of “things I like” is that same set as “things that are good.” And so long as that comprises a small portion of what you read.

    2. I think Meyer has (wittingly or not) managed to capture some archetypical truth that is appealing. Not every poorly written novel appeals to such vast numbers of people. But perhaps it was easier for her to do that with cardboard characters. That helps explain the Disney princess phenomenon (this is the article that got me thinking about this within the last few weeks).

    I’m sure you have guilty pleasures of your own.

  3. > But don’t you ever wonder why so many people read something so widely acknowledged as garbage? Poor characters, no plot, bad writing – why the phenomenon?

    The fact that my response to this is "" suddenly makes me feel utterly uninquisitive. Ouch!

    > capture some archetypical truth that is appealing.

    This does sound like a good point.

    The one time I've payed attention to the whole "what is the female equivalent to the hero's quest" thing was in watching the movie Labrynth. Only after seeing it again as an adult did I realize "OHHHH ... this movie is entirely about a girl at the cusp of adulthood being both eager for and afraid of the responsibilities and new challenges".

    So, yes, I think this is a valuable approach to analyzing the novel (or, in general, novels).'s just that I've heard so much hugely negative about the books that I'm a bit cynical, and wonder how much of the appeal of Twilight is really the "male porn is women ready to put out at a moment's notice; female porn is a very very high status man willing to put up with infinite amounts of female insecurity".

    From what I've seen, the answer "yep, that explains 99% of it" is valid.

    I could be wrong, tho.

  4. In the end, story is about engendering an emotional response. The fact this steaming pile of vampire poo begat (no pun!) a positive response from DD (and a negative one from others, including me) means it is a success as a story.

  5. I think part of it is that you're a metalhead. Gore is entertaining; the off-putting flatness and weirdness of the background to the gore isn't a bug, it's a feature.

  6. @tjic:
    People read what they like and identify with characters they read. I think there's a spectrum between didactic allegory and pr0n, and I think we're arguing over where this particular work falls on the spectrum. Seems like a person would need to better define the limits of "legitimate vs. pr0n" and then have more familiarity with the source material in order to have that particular discussion, which would likely not be a good use of your/my time.

    Re: Labrynth - that's what I'm trying to get at. All the women stories stop when the women are still very young.

    Wouldn't it be nice to get such a response for one's own work? Just in terms of feedback.

    Lol-you're right.