The Feminine Journey, Part One
Narrative Analysis: The Basics
Like all good structures, Schmidt’s Feminine Journey begins by establishing the essentials: the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the story. These details come together to form what seems like the protagonist’s perfect world, but in reality, the perfection is an illusion. There’s something missing in the protagonist’s life; the problem is that they’re unwilling to accept it. In this stage, Schmidt says: “[The protagonist] may try hard to explain away the bad things that happen to her, but sooner or later, she’ll run out of excuses.”7 Running out of excuses will be what forces her out of her perfect world and onto the journey towards emotional growth. “She must endure her quest for something better throughout the story,” says Schmidt, “because it’s clear she can’t function in her current world.”8
Celeste begins by introducing the protagonist, a young woman named Madeline, and her illusion of a perfect world. Madeline is planning to climb a fictionalized version of Mount Celeste, a mountain in British Columbia. In Madeline’s perfect world, she will be able to reach the top without relying on others, which she demonstrates to the audience by ignoring an old woman’s advice. When the woman tells her that Mount Celeste is a ‘strange place,’ Madeline is openly hostile, telling her to ‘seek help.’ Madeline herself doesn’t need help, however; she’s determined to reach the peak by herself, even if no one believes in her.
Schmidt’s second step, Betrayal, roughly corresponds with the Three-Act Structure’s inciting incident. This is the moment when the heroine is dragged out of her ordinary world. The difference between the classical inciting incident and the feminine one is that in Schmidt’s betrayal moment, the heroine’s power is stolen. “Everything important to the hero is taken away,” says Schmidt, “and she is pushed to a fork in the road where she must make a choice between going out into the world to actively face her fears or staying where she is and becoming a passive victim.”9 To become a passive victim is to stagnate; to go out in the world is to grow. When given the choice, a woman on the heroine’s journey invariably chooses the latter, as her ordinary world is no longer enough for her.
In Celeste, Madeline is betrayed from within when she comes upon an ancient mirror and sees a dark reflection of herself. This reflection, nicknamed ‘Badeline’ by the fanbase, breaks free of the mirror and says she’s a part of Madeline, then accuses her of being reckless and unreasonable. In retaliation, Madeline calls Badeline lazy and weak, and reasserts her desire to reach the summit of Mount Celeste. The argument ends when Badeline chases Madeline out of the cave, at which point Madeline wakes up by a campfire. With no evidence of Badeline around, Madeline assumes she’s been dreaming and shrugs it off. She’s not willing to give up because of a nightmare, even if the nightmare did betray her by giving form to her insecurities.
The third stage of the feminine journey, Awakening, shows the protagonist’s reaction to the betrayal. In Schmidt’s view, the feminine protagonist can react in one of two ways: either she can return to being passive, blaming others and herself for her misfortune; or she can be active, taking the betrayal as a challenge.10 The passive response does not bring the story to a halt, however. “If she is lost in the passive response,” Schmidt explains, “another character can bring her back on track, but it’s her decision to act that creates a turning point, sets up the main goal, moves the story forward, and changes the hero’s life forever. She has decided to say “yes” to what she wants, and most importantly to say “no” to what she doesn’t want.”11 In other words, this is the heroine’s threshold, and only she can be the one to cross it.
In Celeste, Madeline experiences her moment of awakening when she meets up with Theo, a fellow climber she crossed paths with further down the mountain. Madeline takes the active route through the Awakening step and reiterates her desire to climb the mountain, saying: “I’m done breaking promises to myself.” Even though Theo isn’t planning to reach the summit like she is, he applauds her for having life goals and encourages her to keep going. Madeline isn’t completely confident, however; she still calls her mother after meeting with Theo and admits she’s feeling overwhelmed. Even though she’s saying ‘yes’ to what she wants, she’s beginning to realize that achieving it might be harder than she thought.
The fourth stage of the feminine journey, Descent, is where the Three-Act Structure has its Obstacles, and where Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet has its Fun and Games. Christopher Vogler had a name for this step in his Hero’s Journey, as well: Tests, Enemies, and Allies. What all of these plot points have in common is the expansion of the protagonist’s world, which grows as they meet new people, see new places, and try new things. While some of these changes are positive, many of them present unique challenges. As the Feminine Journey is an emotional one, the challenges in the Descent are based around confronting difficult emotions, like fear, grief, guilt, and shame. “This [feminine] hero must give up the path of resistance used by those on the masculine path,” says Schmidt, “the path that fights against the flow of things, and instead move into the path of allowance, going with the flow of events and taking each one in stride.”12
In Celeste, Madeline’s descent takes her to three new locations—the Celestial Resort, the Golden Ridge, and the Mirror Temple—and each one comes with emotional challenges. In the decrepit Celestial Resort, Madeline meets Mr. Oshiro, a ghostly innkeeper who’s desperate for customers. Although Madeline has no intention of staying in the resort, her guilt drives her to stick around and tidy up the place. Even though Theo warns her that Mr. Oshiro is too much for her to handle, Madeline is convinced she can help him turn his resort around. Unfortunately, Mr. Oshiro still begs her to stay once the cleaning is completed, and Madeline has to rely on Badeline to get her out. When Badeline appears, gives it to Mr. Oshiro straight: his resort is a dump, and no one would want to stay there. Although Madeline admonishes Badeline for being harsh, she has to admit that Badeline’s cruelty was what got them out of the resort. Had Madeline been alone, her guilt would have kept her there forever, and she would have failed to reach the summit.
The next emotional challenge, Golden Ridge, forces Madeline to confront her fears. When she and Theo try to take a gondola over a chasm, Badeline appears and shakes the wire from above. As a result, the gondola stalls, and Madeline has a panic attack. To help her calm down, Theo teaches her how to focus on her breathing. As soon as Madeline gains control over her fears, Badeline vanishes, and the gondola starts moving again.
The final emotional challenge occurs in the Mirror Temple, where Madeline is forced to confront her self-hatred. The Mirror Temple, an ancient ruin near the mountain’s peak, gives form to the internal struggles of the people who enter it. Madeline’s Mirror Temple is a violent place, full of glowing spikes and thorn-rich vines, and it quickly traps Theo in its depths. Madeline loathes herself for her role in endangering him, as her mind was responsible for the danger. Badeline reappears, tells Madeline that she deserves everything that’s happened to her, and demands she turn back. However, Theo’s still trapped, and Madeline has a goal to reach, so she pushes past both Badeline and her self-hatred to free Theo and keep climbing.
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