Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Twilight Saga: Beauty and the Beast Redux

I don't know about you, but I've been fascinated as to why Stephannie Meyer's books have been so phenomenally successful and I think I've got it.

In order to really appreciate the genius of her story, "Twilight" and its appeal, it should not be judged as a novel.  Rather, it's a fairy tale.  I think what the great American literary critic Leslie Fiedler said about James Fenimore Cooper can be applied to Stephannie Meyer. Cooper, wrote Fiedler, is our worst novelist, but our greatest mythologist.  Certainly, Meyer is not a great writer and she certainly is not in the same literary league as Fenimore Cooper. Nonetheless, she has been positively brilliant at reinventing the classic fairy tale  with all its camouflaged symbolism in such a way that appeals to a wide swathe of women, young and old alike, who identify with Meyer's teenage heroine, Bella.  And that is no mean accomplishment.  It requires great perceptive and intuitive prowess in order to mine the cultural psychic, so to speak.  Don't forget, that the inspiration for her saga came to Meyer in a dream.

I don't know if Meyer was consciously aware of her literary antecedents, but her role model for Bella is, of course, the literary fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast" (La Belle et la Bete). It's hard to believe that Meyer was not conscious of their striking similarity as her heroine, for starters is named Bella Swan. You not only have the semiotic nod to Beauty, but to the fairy tale of "The Ugly Duckling" as well as it is into a swan that the little duckling is transformed.  And Meyer's hero, the vampire Edward, joins the ranks of a long line of male fairy tale archetypes. In this instance, the 'beast bridegroom', who frequently appears as  a monster who awaits the love of a fair maiden to reverse his ill fortune, usually brought on by an evil fairy whom the prince/beast has betrayed.

Originally, "Beauty and the Beast" was written for the French aristocracy in the 18th century by a French noble woman, Madame Gabrielle de Villeneuve. Her rendering of the tale was derived from another French female aristocrat, Madame D'Aulnoy, who originally introduced the story to the French nobility.  In turn, Madame D'Aulnoy adapted her version of the story of Beauty and the Beast to literary form from French peasantry oral folk lore.  However, it is Madame de Villeneuve who established the temp plate for all future renditions of Beauty and the Beast, even to the watered-down and dismal Disney animated film of the same name.  It's important to understand that these French aristocratic ladies were not writing fairy tales for children, but rather for their female peers and young women of high rank.  Their intent was to instruct young women of noble birth in the socially acceptable mores and customs of the French court.  In short, what were the appropriate codes of conduct for a socially acceptable woman to adopt and practice.

Invariably, the covert or disguised message to these women was that self-denial and self-abnegation in a woman is a virtue and by exercising self-restraint and repression of her innate instincts and desires, she will emerge heroic.  And, best of all, she will succeed in attracting a desirable man who will elevate her on the social ladder of rank and prestige.  As the scholar extraordinaire Jack Zipes explains in his definitive book, "Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale", and from which I drew much of my source material on the origins and the cultural meaning of fairy tales, the code of Beauty and the Beast was to delude young women into believing and accepting without question that they would be realizing their goals in life by denying themselves. The irony, of course, is although Beauty and the Beast was penned by a woman, the cultural lesson it conveys was actually scripted by the prevailing male patriarchy.

Meyer adopts this same didactic lesson for Bella.  And even though her message first appeared in literature over three hundred years ago, its purpose remains the same.  Here is Meyer's Preface to "Twilight'.  Bella is speaking.  "I'd never given much thought to how I would die-though I'd had reason enough in the last few months-but even if I had, I would not imagined it like this.  Surely, it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I love. Noble, even. That ought to count for something."

And indeed it does!  It secures Bella's place in the pantheon of unwitting masochistic women who, through no fault of their own,  have sacrificed their hopes and reams and ambitions in order to maintain the male dominated status quo.

There is little doubt as to who sets the ground rules in Bella's life and world. She lives with her divorced father, who just happens to be the Police Chief of their hometown Forks, Washington.  You'd be hard pressed to come up with a better archetype to represent the gate keeper of societal law and order. Her own mother, although still alive, is remarried and conveniently living in Phoenix, AZ. Her absence in Bella's life sets up the story's necessary Oedipal relationship between Bella and her father which becomes strained and tested with the arrival of Edward, Bella's suitor, and her father's rival for his daughter's affections (on two different occasions, Bella's dad gives her pepper spray to use against Edward if he gets too frisky!).  And there is little doubt as to who's in charge of Bella's and Edward's courtship. Theirs is no level playing field. Edward is clearly calling the shots.  In fact, Edward's resistance to Bella's physical advances border on the sadistic.  His excuses for rebuffing her are seductively cloaked in what appears to be on the surface as chivalrous behavior.  He explains that he is trying to protect her because as a vampire he possesses extraordinary strength and may hurt or kill her accidentally. And, he adds,  he is old fashioned and traditional.  I'll say!  Edward's latent message decoded is "Submit to me no matter how painful and demeaning and I'll reward you with the ultimate prize, immortality, because if you are obedient and wait to have sex with me until we are married, I will turn you into a vampire and we can, indeed, 'live' happily ever after."

Of course, the cruel joke is on Bella because in order to obtain her immortality she must literally abandon her self-hood and 'kill' it off. She will live a 'living death' both spiritually and metaphorically speaking. In this way, too, Bella is the twin to Beauty who is blindly faithful to her widower father and, subsequently, to the Beast thus perpetuating male sovereignty.

Sadly, things don't appear to have changed all that much since Madame de Villneuve's time when it comes to young girls and women and their unconscious willingness to deny themselves in order to 'get their man', even if he is a 'beast'.  As a couple's therapist I see it time and time again e.g., women who stay with their 'beast bridegrooom' even if it's at a terrible emotional price, or in the case of physical abuse, their life.  But as Bella plaintively reflected at the beginning of her story and what ultimately becomes her raison d'etre, "Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. That ought to count for something'.  Ah, how hope dies hard.

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