Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Analysis: Stephenie Meyers' treatment of Twilight Saga's secondary female characters

Posting at ADifferentForest.com, Derdriu oFaolain tackles Twilight saga author Stephenie Meyer's treatment of secondary female characters.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Twilight canon (strange, no?) and something's been bothering me - Stephenie Meyer's treatment of her secondary female characters. We've all debated Bella's behavior (Is she too traditional? Is she too passive? etc. etc.), but I'd like to talk about some of Twilight's other lovely ladies.

There's SO much to discuss here, but I'd like to point out Meyer's obsession with fertility. In canon, so much of a woman's happiness is wrapped up in reproduction. Now, I'm not saying this isn't true for many real women, but it's such a pervasive theme in these books, that it does make one wonder.

Excellent topic.

There's a lot of layers to this onion. It's not as simple as it seems. (I confess to having thought about this issue for some time now, bear with me as I brain dump.)

Layer 1: Meyers' personal background

She's a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, attended Brigham Young University and says openly that she's "strait-laced." This is a person who is not going to range too widely from the traditional roles of womanhood in our western culture; she's probably pushed her comfort level with Bella's and Rosalie's human characters as it is. Writers are most comfortable when they write what they know, and this is what Meyers knows best -- traditionally proscribed female roles which are shaped by their reproductive status.

Layer 2: Meyers' unconscious

The use of vampires and werewolves/shape-shifters offers Meyers a convenient device to range more widely than the strictures of her chosen culture because these characters are non-humans. Humans in her world simply aren't permitted to go much farther than the bounds of the faith and society in which she lives. Meyers is said to have dreamed up the characters and plot of Twilight, which suggests her unconscious wanted to stretch the roles of humans, devising the non-human/superhuman/transhuman roles to do so more freely.

I note that Meyers has received less strident protests about her work than J.K. Rowling did about her Harry Potter series. Note, though, that wizards are still human, just endowed with knowledge that is not common to average humans -- rather like the eating of Eden's apple, the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Vampires aren't human and therefore didn't eat that fruit, having attributes which are innate to their kind and embedded in their genes according to Meyers' mythology. The werewolves/shape-shifters of Meyers' mythology also possess attributes that are embedded in Quileute cultural and religious framework as well as their genes, as if they were Creator-granted. Somewhere deep in the group consciousness of our society, we've agreed in this divide between humans with too much knowledge/power and Creator-granted attributes. Perhaps Meyers' unconscious has tapped into and gives expression to this divide.

Which of course shapes her secondary female characters -- they wrestle with conflicts between their inherent human/Creator-granted attributes and the loss of the same (ex. childbearing and its loss, a la Rosalie, memory and its loss a la Alice, motherhood and its loss a la Esme).

Layer 3: The feminine unconscious and energy centers

As in Layer 2, Meyers may have tapped into our collective group unconscious wherein we agree that non-humans can do what humans cannot in terms of exploration.

But our collective unconscious as women may also be expressed in Meyers' secondary characters. Eastern cultures, particularly in India and ayurvedic medicine, focus on energy centers called chakras. Women's reproductive health is in the second chakra; disturbances to this energy center can affect the following mental and emotional issues:

  • Balanced drives in the outer world toward sex, money and relationships;
  • Capacity to co-create with others;
  • Fertility and generativity
  • Relationship dynamics including: dependency vs. independence, giving and taking, defined boundaries vs. poor boundaries, assertiveness vs. passivity

[source: Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom by Christian Northrup M.D.]

We can see that each of the secondary characters has relationship issues directly related to the kind of reproductive damage, and that each of them must tackle these relationship issues in order to heal (not cure) the damage to their second chakra.

Alice is a special case in that the damage to her second chakra is not direct and not seen as big a challenge as the damage to her sixth and seventh chakras evinced in memory loss.

We see in these secondary characters a range of responses to damaged second chakras:

  • Esme sublimates and compensates by assuming a matriarchal role of vampire-mother;
  • Rosalie becomes a secondary childbearer by protecting Bella and Renesmee;
  • Leah comes to terms with the limitations of her fertility as she comes to terms with the limitations of her relations with the members of her family and tribe.

One key correlation in Eastern medicine is the link between creativity and women's reproductive health. Each of these secondary female characters in some way has had their inherent creativity threatened through damage to their second chakra. Meyers unconsciously finds ways for these women to develop alternative centers of creativity (ex. Rosalie's mechanical skills, Alice's manipulation of her powers of foresight*, Esme's interior decorating).

Layer 4: The role of women over time

Most of the secondary characters presents a critical issue in women's roles in our society.

  • Esme becomes a vampire roughly about the time women win the right to vote for the first time;
  • Alice's memory is wiped and her identity lost at a time when women are beginning to be seen as something other than chattel;
  • Rosalie is raped at a time when even a fiance is perceived as being within his rights to do whatever he wants without repercussion;
  • Renee is a free spirit born of the 1960s, making choices for herself independent of others, but with repercussions on others.

Bella is both blessed and cursed with the learnings and rights acquired by women over time; she is our proxy as we wrestle with the mixed blessings we share as women in contemporary culture. Meyers uses Bella to work out some of these issues when not fully addressed by the challenges the secondary characters have faced (ex. Bella negotiating compromise between her contemporary perceptions of marriage and person autonomy and Edward's traditional legacy perceptions of marriage and men's roles in the same).

Layer 5: The universal attribute shared by women

Let's face it: what makes women different from men is that we bear children. Meyers is using this universal attribute in a range of approaches to hit a broad spectrum of women where they live. We're fertile, we're infertile, we've had a child, we've lost a child, we've had our fertility stolen from us or had a difficult pregnancy or even faced the issue of terminating one -- each of us who identify with one of these statuses will be able to relate in some way to one of the female characters in the Twilight saga.

Whether Meyers has done so consciously is an interesting question, but the results are still the same.

~ o ~ O ~ o ~ O ~ o ~ O ~ o ~

I'm sure if I sat down and talked this analysis through with a few more Twi-hards that I'd see another couple layers to this onion. Ultimately I can't fault Meyers' treatment of secondary characters. Given her background, it's rather incredible she was able to find a way to create characters deep enough, archetypal enough to tackle a plethora of women's issues. She overcame some pretty tight boundaries by way of her feminine creativity to do so.

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* Damn, I realized after I hit publish that Alice not only expresses her feminine power in the alternate to reproduction through creative use of her foresight, but through her nurturing of both her mate Jasper and her enabling Edward (her collaborative application of foresight magnifies the impact of his mind reading skills).

Postscript --

And yet one more layer exists: every one of the female vampires and werewolves/shape-shifters has procreative ability. It's just not valued enough by Meyers to mention in any depth, or viewed negatively. All the female vampires can make more vampires - Victoria obviously does, Maria did, but this is cast in a negative light. Meyers appears to be wrestling internally with the fundamental question of dead/undead since she believes that vampires are genetically reproducible, but not alive in the sense that the spread of their genetic material is seen as creative. Leah as the lone female werewolf retains procreative powers, but she must give up phasing to restore them, and in reproduction will give birth to Quileute with the same shape-shifting potential. Again, this must not be valued as its not explored and fleshed out fully.

[cross-posted from FemmeMalheureuse.Posterous.com]

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