Hollywood Does Conflict Transformation

December 13, 2010 — Leave a comment

The conflict between shape-shifting Indian warrior Jake (shirtless) and the vampire Edward centers on their group identities -- and their competition to win Bella's heart.

I’ve been taking an amazing class at the Maxwell School this fall — Fundamentals of Conflict Studies with Pofessor Bruce Dayton. Among the requirements are two “external activity reports” that examine events of our choosing using the theory we learn in class.

I’ve attended several events recently that would make excellent fodder for conflict analysis, including a lecture by Ines Mergel that examined networks within organizations and how they can create and manage conflict.

However, perhaps recklessly and certainly in bad taste, I choose to focus on a movie – the spectacularly bad The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. The third-installment in this teenybopper, melodramatic, vampire-love series is remarkable in that its subtext seems ripped from the pages of a conflict resolution textbook.

The characters in the movie are all trapped in conflict. Many of the conflicts would be defined as group identity conflicts, a major component of conflict from a cognitive perspective.  The conflicts also end up being transformed via several conflict resolution mechanisms —increased contact among the parties, the rise of an effective mediator, increased costs of continuing the conflict, and, most importantly, the forging of a “super identity” via the rise of a common enemy.

A slide from one of Professor Bruce Dayton's presentations shows the four conflict analysis frames he teaches in Fundamentals of Conflict Study. The structural frame deals with conflicts that arise out of economic and social systems (think Marx); Interest-based deals with tangible interests such as money, status and safety; Cognitive focuses on the frames we develop that allow us to understand (and misunderstand) the world, including issues of individual and group identity; and the emotional frame deals with our emotional response to certain issues. Most conflicts, including those in the movie "Eclipse," involve multiple frames, yet it can be helpful to understand the primary driver of the conflict and the frame in which it operates. The conflicts in "Eclipse," for instance, are largely cognitive and center on groups with which the individual characters affiliate. The literature teaches us that the way to transform these types of conflict is to find opportunities for the divergent groups to work together and forge a new, shared identity -- exactly what happens in the movie.

The movie is set in a small, rural community a few hours outside of Seattle, Washington. The community is made up of three distinct groups – white community members, vampires known as the Cullen clan and a Native American tribe.

The white community members are portrayed as affable but clueless, except for one, Bella. The main character, Bella has fallen in love with one of the vampires, Edward, and she’s been given a glimpse into their world.

The local vampire clan is tied together by their most senior member, Dr. Cullen, who has trained them to control their thirst for human blood and to only feed off of animals. As such, they’ve been able to blend into the community to a certain extent, despite the fact that they have extraordinary powers of strength, speed, smell, sight and telepathy. They also have a sickly white complexion, no body heat or heart beat, and have eyes that change from black to yellow to red depending on their moods. Despite this, no whites other than Bella know they are vampires.

However, the local Indian tribe knows the truth. We learn that they have a long-standing hatred of vampires, who slaughtered members of their tribe centuries ago. The tribe has special powers as well. Some of its members, when threatened, have the ability to turn into giant wolves, who, although not quite the physical equal of the vampires, can still take them on in battle.

Complicating things, one of the shape-shifting Indians, Jake, is in love with Bella, and for personal and tribal reasons, he is determined to win Bella from Edward.

The dysfunctional inter-group dynamics, and their costs, are made apparent near the beginning of Eclipse. We know from one of the earlier movies that a vampire named Victoria wants to kill Bella. To protect the town where the movie is set, Edward killed her lover, who, like Victoria, did not share the Cullen clan’s restraint when it came to drinking the blood of humans. Edward is strong enough to kill Victoria, too, so Victoria decides to kill Bella to make Edward feel as bad as she does. When Victoria attacks, the Cullen-clan vampires are ready. They have her on the run when Victoria jumps a gorge and ends up in Indian wolf territory. The wolves give chase, and Victoria is forced to jump back to the other side. But both groups, despite their mutual goal of killing Victoria, are hampered by a treaty that prevents them from going on to each others’ territory. When Victoria jumps back on to the wolf side, a Cullen vampire ignores the treaty in the heat of pursuit. The wolves turn against him and Victoria gets away.

A short time later, an elder tribal member tells Bella the tribe’s core myths and stories, including the horrible slaughter of Indians by vampires. It becomes clear why the Indians have such a difficult time working with the rather civilized Cullen vampires, even in the face of the more destructive Victoria. Their opposition to the vampires is at the core of their identity. Their shape-shifting powers are a direct response to the vampires. Vampires, and their response to vampires, define the tribe to its core. It gives them their “abiding sense of self and of their relationship of self to the world” (Northrup, 1989).

Likewise, the Cullen vampires are highly sensitized to the Indians who have shape shifting powers. They have developed a set of tools for distinguishing them from others – mainly, their “stench.”

We see attribution issues going on as well, as the Indians take transgressions by individual vampires, even if they are not Cullen, as a reason to hate all vampires. Edward, meanwhile, can’t separate the role Jake plays in Bella’s life from the fact that he is a Indian wolf warrior.

We also see younger Indians displaying hatred toward the Cullens as a way of defining themselves and proving their daring. As Cuhader and Dayton (2010) write, “the human tendency to search for patterns naturally results in the creation of in-groups and out groups; categorizations of people who are ‘like me’ and people who are ‘unlike me’.”

Meanwhile, Victoria has hatched a new plan: She’s raising an army of newborn vampires to kill Bella and the Cullen clan. Newborns (recently transformed vampires) are particularly dangerous as they are excessively strong and vicious, driven by their new thirst.

Finally, the Cullen vampires are forced to work with the tribe, to save Bella and themselves. Distrust is high at first. But the two groups coordinate their actions to give Bella round-the-clock protection. The increased contact produces flare ups of antagonism, particularly between Edward and Jake. Yet Bella’s mediating influence, and the gravity of the situation, keeps things from escalating. As Bella says, “Edward hated the idea (of the wolves protecting her), but it wasn’t about rivalry anymore. It was about my safety, and, in the days that followed, I got them to at least try to work together.”

Eventually, the other Indians and vampires begin to develop more comfort around each other as the wolves see just how badly the Cullen’s want to destroy the invading vampires, something with which the Indians can fully relate.

On the eve of battle, Edward, Jake and Bella retreat to an isolated camp site to ensure Bella’s safety. It’s freezing, and Edward can’t keep her warm (he’s as cold as a corpse) and Bella ends up having to snuggle up against the hunky Jake. It’s another moment that almost flares into a fight, but everyone keeps their heads and acts respectfully. As Bella falls asleep, Edward and Jake have a heart-to-heart. They find a lot of common ground, and Edward states that “If you and I weren’t natural enemies, and if you weren’t trying to steal my reason for existing, I might actually like you.” They agree to respectfully vie for Bella’s affections and respect whatever choice she makes.

Meanwhile, when the battle ensues, wolves kill newborn vampires and Cullen vampires kill newborns, too. Wolves save Cullen members, and Cullen members save wolves. When Jake gets hurt, no one else can save him but Dr. Cullen, who is allowed into the heart of Indian territory, saves Jake and earns a handshake from the tribal chief.

Because we know installment number four is yet to come, because Edward and Jake are still vying for Bella, and because we know from our class that conflicts are rarely fully resolved, flare ups of this group identity conflict are sure to arise again.

But for now, the Cullen vampires and the wolf Indian warriors are at peace. At first, they were united by their common enemy and by necessity. But the ensuing contact has led to a deeper understanding and respect. As Rothman and Olson (2001) write, “when parties come to understand themselves and each other more fully … they may begin to discover new ways of defining themselves, each other and their relationship.”

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