50 Shades of…Myth?

My Facebook is a-twitter (see what I did there?) with articles and responses to 50 Shades of Grey. While I did once read the Twilight series (and have since come to my senses about it), I refuse to read 50 Shades. One of my friends, posted this article, which perfectly captures why. But reading the article, and commenting on his post, has left me feeling something. The such of something that’s preventing me from grading student responses, or reading my book while I wait for a training meeting. I can only identify this feeling as anger? frustration? gas? So, I’m turning to the blogosphere to hash this one out, so this post may be kind of stream-of-consciousnessy. Here’s the reply I posted:

This is so much of why I just can’t condone 50 Shades. Now, I’m not one to blame society’s ills on a single piece of pop culture (I am a Disney Defender after all), and I see 50 Shades as an extreme example of so many wrong things in our society. What concerns me more is that there aren’t counter-myths being played on the same stage. Sure, there are stories about love and romance, but they aren’t on the same viral level of 50 Shades and Twilight. And it concerns me that people see these as good… But looking at it from an Aristotelian perspective, these series have helped bring the conversation about women’s roles to the national, mainstream conversation. They have raised awareness through their warped attempt at catharsis. From a mythic perspective, I would hope this would help usher a new era, but my fear for the media-saturated generations is that their complacency will lead to our downfall–Hellenistic America, perhaps.

Like I said, I’m not one to blame the ills of society on one piece of popular culture. I’ve posted here a few times about why I can’t blame Disney Princesses for America’s warped relationship with itself. They are one cog in a larger problem, a problem that manifests in all areas of media. We *want* a media-savvy society that equally respects all of the various differences people have, but we don’t want to *live* that equal society. For example, if Disney constructs a utopian, populist kingdom that celebrates people for playing to their strengths, they aren’t being diverse enough in their portrayal (and when they are diverse, they do it wrong. Can’t have it both ways, people!). Similarly, the waves of feminism over the last several years have advocated for a certain image of Woman in media, which is all well and good…until the new generations decide they want to be a different kind of woman. We’re in a phase of feminism that seems to want to strike a balance between perfect women who can be both June Cleaver AND Hillary Clinton at the same time, which is causing massive amounts of burn-out among young women. We’re in a phase of hyper-media in which users have developed a disconnect between the permanence of technology and the fleeting moment of “Feels.”

As I become ever more a “Fuddy-Duddy,” I find myself looking down my nose at young women. Don’t they know that pictures last forever on the Internet, so keep your boobs in your shirt? Don’t they know that Edward Cullen and Christian Grey are exemplars of the kind of boyfriend you DON’T want?

The greater problem I see with this current generational divide is that there is SO MUCH media to sift through. How can we expect any one to grow up media-savvy? What means “media-savvy” anyway? Sounds kind of like an adultism–something the “grups” would say–to me.

It occurs to me that stories like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey are epic tragedies. They are epics because of the extent to which they communicate cultural norms setting a larger-than-life character against a mere mortal, reminding us of our place as lesser-beings. They are tragedies, because they certainly aren’t comedies. They focus on the bringing down of the female protagonist, not on her elevation.

So, here’s a thought. Are these stories more shocking because they are written from the perspective of the submissee as opposed to the dominant character?

A friend of mine posted THIS post on her blog, and I fully agree. I wrote about Twilight and “Cupid and Psyche” while I was at Pacifica, I am fascinated by the seductive power of the Demon Lover. What is it about us today that we even need a Demon Lover? What is so unfulfilled about us that we are trying to find thrilling experience from stories that promote the wholesale mistreatment of women? There’s some serious shadow stuff being worked through in this culture. I wish I could offer solution, but maybe the best solution is to ride it out? To teach our children the counter-myths to the stories that us Fuddy-Duddies think shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

It’s timely, then, that my friends just published the book based on her dissertation, in which she challenges the accepted model for the Heroine’s Journey (you can get her book HERE).

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Reshaping “Cupid and Psyche” into Twilight: Mythopoesis and the Demon Lover

In Interpretation of Fairy Tales, Marie-Louise von Franz makes a passing comment linking the myth of “Cupid and Psyche” to the fairy tale of “Beauty and the Beast,” citing that they both have the same archetypal story of the extremely beautiful girl who gains the attention of a forbidden figure, whom she is expected to love without ever properly beholding him. In the case of Psyche, the lover is a god, and she suffers tragically for sneaking a peek before finding divine forgiveness with Aphrodite, Cupid’s mother. For Beauty, or Belle, her lover is a beast who forbids her from her family until she learns to love him unconditionally, which helps him turn into a lovely prince and they live happily ever after. In contemporary literature, the fairy tale of “Beauty and the Beast” has morphed into the tales of vampire romance, such as, but not limited to, the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood and the young adult quartet by Stephenie Meyer, Twilight. It is the Twilight series I am going to focus on, because the series has gripped several readers to the point of obsession.

I first learned of the Twilight series from various Harry Potter fan sources. Twilight was heralded, prior to the release of the fourth book after which point I stopped paying attention, as the next Harry Potter; in other words, as the literary voice to fill the void left after the seventh and final Potter book was released. The mythic qualities of Potter are so strong and compelling that it left readers craving more. Twilight happened to be at the right place at the right time. Allow me to say, for the record, that there is nothing especially “mythic” about Twilight. In fact, it is, on the whole, poorly written and executed. Nonetheless, its cultural impact is essentially of mythic proportions and should not be ignored.

The story follows Bella, a new girl to a small Washington state community. She is not particularly beautiful, but she is new and novel, which quickly gains the attention of the boys and the disdain of the girls. She is a sophomore in high school. In Biology class, she is partnered with a moody and enigmatic guy, named Edward, who is a member of a family that keeps mostly to themselves and are shunned by their classmates for their outward displays of wealth and apparent perfectness. Bella and Edward slowly form an attraction to each other, after a lot of bickering akin to the Elizabeth/Darcy relationship in Price & Prejudice, which borders on obsessive magnetism. Bella learns that he is a vampire – and I am staying away from the author’s redux of vampire lore – and she becomes fully attached to him, while he, meanwhile, moans about how dangerous it is to love him while constantly stalking her to protect her from harm.

Mythopoesis is understood to be the creation of myth and it occurs when the reader interacts with the narrative. It is not when the author writes it down because the relationship between the author and a work is like that of a parent to a child. The author simply brings the narrative into being. A good author will be able to let it go intermingle in the world as it organically must, rather than force it upon others or stringently restrict others from using the narrative in their own projects. It is the reader who brings about the mythopoesis. Every reader will have a different reaction to a narrative – for instance, I love “Cupid and Psyche” but dislike Twilight – and every reader will experience a different connection to the story than others. A successful narrative will lend itself to multiple interpretations, including those of future generations. A narrative that limits itself to one interpretation is essentially escapist fiction, but this does not preclude the possibility of a mythopoetic moment.

Often mythopoesis occurs is when the reader encounters an element of the story and immediately and forcefully finds him- or herself inextricably connected to the moment. For fans of Twilight, this moment occurs (repeatedly) whenever Bella and Edward run into a revelation. For example, as Bella falls in love with Edward she realizes he is more than he seems, as when he rushes across the parking lot to save her from an inevitable car accident, or when he takes her racing through the woods. Both events reveal his supernatural power. Other points of mythopoesis are the times when Edward displays his love and affection for Bella, an ordinary girl who is not exceptionally beautiful. In the years since Pride and Prejudice, hardly any girl does not hope to win the attention of the gorgeous, wealthy man when she herself is ordinary. In reality, this is not common, but the stories provide a fantastical outlet.

A work of literature does not have to be outwardly “mythical” if the reaction it incites in the reader is to move beyond a level of passivity to the point of near obsession. It induces imaginative interactions and desperate needs to either re-read the story or create new interactions. The power of myth lies in the inducement of projections from the reader. Some aspects of the psyche finds fulfillment within the narrative and is therefore triggered. The reader can identify with a character or characters and find some degree of satisfaction and fulfillment within the narrative structure.

Furthermore, given its linear nature, the narrative structure has the ability to lure in the reader gradually, versus having the need to grab the reader during first contact or risk losing him or her forever, through major events or the introduction of compelling characters. This is due in large part to the fact that the narrative form is the primary external mode of the psyche, demonstrated by the universal appeal, both ancient and modern, of storytelling. It has been suggested by numerous theorists that the emergence of the novel during the Enlightenment effectively killed the storytelling form. Rather than make stories a communal event, they are now a solitary experience, and are without pictures. But it seems to me that the novel allows for a more complete process of imagination. Because the stories can go deeper, there are more levels and opportunities available for enjoyment.

Twilight demonstrates that the power of the myth does not lie simply in its reshaping. The stories are mediocre and the presentation is terrible. The real power lies in the ability of the myth to communicate, and the only genuine way to track this is through the popular reaction. Book sales and theatrical ticket sales are fairly arbitrary. Different venues sell products for different prices and the overall sales can be affected by inflation. The real testament these days is found online. Fan websites exist for every topic imaginable, and the more there are is often an indicator of popularity. Furthermore, websites have launched designed primarily as news websites, tracking all news and people associated with the books and films. This has come out of the Harry Potter phenomenon. These websites become safe havens for like-minded conversation, and it is possible to track the number of visits a site receives on a daily basis.

I am fairly confident that readers of Twilight do not consider the parallels between these books and previous myths, certainly not “Cupid and Psyche.” I would even further suggest that the author did not write the series with “Cupid and Psyche” in mind at all. To Meyer, the story just needed to get written, regardless of her inspirations. Clearly the story itself is very powerful, which also attests to the variations that have appeared through the ages. The pervasive message is the degree to which two people can love each other without knowing the true nature of one lover. For example, Psyche is in love with Cupid, but initially has no idea what he looks like. She is convinced by her sisters that he is a beast until she sees him in the light. Beast appears to Beauty as an outwardly beast, and she has to discover his true nature before she can bring herself to love him. Bella learns about Edward’s vampire nature early, and it is the knowledge of this secret that binds the two together.