A Twi-Meh Comes to Bella Swan’s Defense

Can we stop with the Bella-bashing, already?

Don't hate me because my man sparkles.

Let me be clear: I’ve read three of the four “Twilight” books, but I didn’t love them. As my Twi-Hard friends know, I’ve got some problems with the co-dependent romance at the heart of the series. In the books, Bella Swan’s internal monologue eventually annoyed me so much that I passed on reading “Breaking Dawn.”

But though I’m less than enamored with Stephanie Meyer’s series, I’m over the constant stream of Bella-is-a-bad-role-model commentary that followed the release of the “New Moon” movie. Yes, the series is hugely popular, particularly with young women. But why does a character in a work of paranormal fiction have to be a role model for anyone? As writer Scott Mendelson pointed out, pop culture is filled with fictional male characters who make sketchy choices, but no one ever says they’re bad for boys. Bruce Wayne lives a double life and keeps even his adopted sons at arm’s length. Yeah, that’s healthy.

The series actually presents a good opportunity for parents to read the books along with their kids and, you know, communicate. A 12-year-old doesn’t know that love and obsession aren’t interchangeable concepts, but a 37-year-old parent is, presumably, equipped to explain the difference. When Bella plunges into a black depression after Edward leaves her in “New Moon,” that’s a great time to discuss the pitfalls of completely losing yourself in a romance — though that is what first love is like — and the healing power of friendship, as shown through Bella’s relationship with Jacob. (Though my husband made me laugh out loud with his assessment of Bella/Jacob: “I’m so through with her. She got dude all revved up, and then she’s all, [whiny voice] ‘I’m in love with a vampire.’)

There are certainly moments when Bella displays brave and commendable behavior, like racing back to Phoenix to rescue her mom when she believes she’s in danger. And as many, many others have mentioned, it’s nice in this day and age to see a portrayal of a passionate relationship that doesn’t immediately lead to the sack.

Stephanie Meyer’s bank account is proof that her saga tapped into something powerful, and millions of readers clearly see something in her moody heroine. If anything, she may have captured the endless navel-gazing of a teenager in love a little too well. But I think my friend J. summed it up best: “Women are kidding themselves if they think, at 17, they wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to be boo’d up with a hot vampire or a ripped werewolf.”

So let’s lay off Bella, and while we’re at it, let’s give young female readers credit for being able to appreciate “Twilight” for what it is: an entertaining fantasy. (By the way, my sources tell me that, in the end, Bella finds her strength and saves everybody. Sounds like a good movie to me.)

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13 thoughts on “A Twi-Meh Comes to Bella Swan’s Defense

  1. I do believe that many young female readers are capable of separating fantasy from the realities of love and life that surround them. However, I think concern regarding portrayals of young women as being weak before love is of valid concern, because it has been a very unsettling trend for many years now, that seems to be trending younger and younger. In the 1990’s, TV shows such as “Ally McBeal”, “Will & Grace”, and “Sex in the City”, portrayed women in their 30’s as desperate, superficial, and seemingly incapable of maintaining healthy relationships, other than co-depedent ones with equally screwed up gay men. Most unsettling of all is that these shows were held up and lauded by many female fans as harmless modern-day fairy tales. Compared with the female characters of shows of previous generations, such as “Murphy Brown”, “Rhoda”, and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, it definitely appeared that feminism had taken a severe hit. Now, you have a character such as Bella, displaying some similar characteristics to her ’90’s sisters, in a franchise aimed at very young girls, and it raises red flags for many feminists and psychologists. Does that mean the “Twilight” series is bad for girls to view? Not necessarily. Your advice that parents should be actively involved in reading and viewing this with their children is excellent. This conversation should be happening with all parents and their kids. This is the point of all art, to spark conversation, debate, and lead us to evaluate our own feelings, wants, needs, and beliefs.

    And for the record, most boys don’t want to be Batman after the age of 13. They may admire Batman but they don’t want to live that life. Bruce Wayne is sad, lonely, withdrawn, perhaps emotionally disturbed. Deep down, most men still want to be Superman. He’s superhuman, he can fly, he’s seemingly immortal, and most importantly, he gets the girl. Lois Lane tips the scale. Especially if she looks like Erica Durance.

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    • Thank you so much for reading, Ramon! I’ll be interested to see how these books stand the test of time. My daughter is 5, so I wonder if the series will be a considered must-read tween classics by the time she’s old enough to read them. For now, my 9-year-old son is only interested in the wolves-vs.-vampire subplot.

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    • It’s so funny that you mentioned “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. I was watching it this morning and in walks Ted’s agent, a sweet and elderly woman. Her name? Bella Swan. I chuckled and ran to Google to see if anyone else noticed and I found this article.

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  2. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Is life imitating art or is the art imitating life?

    Perhaps characters like Bella are byproducts of the psyche of our generation. A generation that exemplifies the near extinction of stable family life in society. Neglect, substance abuse, single parenthood, and co-dependence has become commonplace. Does that make it OK? No. But bashing the expression of these facets of our existence only propagate shame thus continuing the cycle.

    I was raised by a single mother with a fair weather father blowing in the wind along with a myriad of other circumstances. Somehow I managed to do well in school, participate in positive friendships, maintain my individuality, and hold true to my values.

    I admit, my Achilles Heal has always been “love.” Perhaps that is why I was enthralled by Bella. I could relate to her. I remember being THAT 17 year old girl. Many of the Twi-Hards are 30 year old women such as myself…and their daughters. Perhaps the world wide phenomenon of Twilight is a wake up call to just how wide spread the break down of the family actually is. So, here is the part where I agree with you wholeheartedly: “…the point of all art, to spark conversation, debate, and lead us to evaluate our own feelings, wants, needs, and beliefs.”

    This all makes me think of Carl Jung: “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” And there is another one, um, something about only when you accept yourself as you are, then you can change. Yada yada, waxing philosophy.

    I do not think that Meyer had any inclination that this would be the world wide phenom that it is. As a writer, she was creating characters and a story. I doubt the psycho-social impact of Isabella Swan’s personality was a bullet point in her outline.

    Now, having said that, can we please give my girl Bella some credit? She is an excellent student, she is responsible, has a job, helps around the house willingly, she’s an avid reader of the classics, she marches to the beat of her own drum, she is intuitive, intelligent, emotionally honest, and she’s certainly not a “plastic.” I defer back to the fact that this is a work of fantasy, and should be treated as such.

    Now pardon me while I continue to ignore human men as they will never be like Edward, and head to the gym to try to get a body like Wonder Woman.

    Kidding.

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  3. The disturbing thing is that 12-year-old girls look up to Edward as the perfect male. 12-year-olds can’t pick through the plot points and assess them like you can. And parents aren’t going to read through it with their kids. Edward doesn’t have to be a “role model” to influence anyone–the books are becoming part of our culture.

    I finally caved and read the first book. I don’t understand why everyone loves Edward Cullen. Why does Bella even like him? Because he pays attention to her? Really, I can’t find a reason. He’s moody, easily angered, and stalkerish. Why is this seen as the ideal man? Why are twentysomethings wishing their boyfriends were more like Edward?

    Not to mention the emotional abuse. http://kar3ning.livejournal.com/545639.html As a person who works with teenaged girls I find this disturbing.

    Sure, Bella’s not all bad as a character. But she’s a blank slate that any girl (well, not this one) can project herself onto. That’s just weak writing.

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    • Thanks for taking the time to read. Although I find that this is the same thing I hear over and over again – Edward is moody, stalkerish, and shows signs of an abusive boyfriend.

      Edward is a vampire. The book is fiction.

      “12-year-olds can’t pick through the plot points and assess them like you can. And parents aren’t going to read through it with their kids.”

      THAT is the problem, NOT the books. I read every single book with my daughter. We had a regular dialogue about it. She was clear on the fact that Edward was a vampire, that the behavior was that of a fictional monster, and she wasn’t all that impressed by him. Parents should take the time, I did. Stop blaming external sources for the unhealthy psyche of our youth.

      I read the link you posted in your reply, paralleling things from Twilight with abusive behavior. Many of the references listed from the book or movie were taken out of context or are just incorrect. I might be more receptive if the naysayers had correct information.

      Besides, there are much more serious things going on in this world – gun toting 8 year olds on the Gaza Strip, human trafficking, gay people being murdered for being gay, the crash of our financial system. And people are concerned about Twilight…seriously?

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  4. Anybody remember the “Flowers in the Attic” series? The writing was horrible and the running theme of brother/sister romance was outrageously wrong. They were hugely popular with girls when I was in middle school, me included. I was a sensitive and impressionable kid, but did the books make me think that it was OK, even desirable, to make out with a male relative? Or that the book had anything to do with real life? No. I know quite a few moms who HAVE read the books with their girls. (My 9-year-old son and I are reading the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series together. It’s not “Twilight,” but I do feel a responsibility to be aware of what he’s internalizing.) I totally appreciate the concern about the dynamic of Edward and Bella’s relationship, but I also wish we’d give young women a little more credit for being able to think and discern. Plus, there’s a lot worse out there.

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  5. Vanessa G. :
    Besides, there are much more serious things going on in this world – gun toting 8 year olds on the Gaza Strip, human trafficking, gay people being murdered for being gay, the crash of our financial system. And people are concerned about Twilight…seriously?

    Deflecting from the initial argument doesn’t solve the issue….

    “Stop blaming external sources for the unhealthy psyche of our youth.”

    I’m not. But external sources are in the background and they raise our collective tolerance for certain negatives. To give an example, violence. The more violence we see, the more numb we become to it. Kind of like what you just said with all the horrible stuff happening on the news–eventually we–and children–become numb to it all, and a news report about a guy getting murdered on the local news doesn’t have the impact it would’ve in the past. To have a book become so wildly popular with a quasi-emotional abusive male lead and for people not even to see him as a poor example of a great guy…well, then I think we’re so used to this kind of behavior it just seems normal. I think by citing an example from the news you proved my point.

    Also, it’s commendable that you’ve read the series with your daughter. But 99.9% of the girls who read Twilight don’t have parental guidance. And to answer E. Peterman, no, for the most part they aren’t that discerning. I work in a school library that owns multiple copies of the Twilight saga (that I ordered for the library myself), and it was so wildly popular last year because of the fourth book. Girls were too busy debating the merits of either Team Jacob or Team Edward to even stop to think critically about the behaviors of each in the book. They just don’t read that much into it. Sure, there were a few girls who roll their eyes at the whole Twilight phenomenon, but I can only think of three students off the top of my head.

    Sure, lots of jerks were great literary characters. Heathcliff and Catherine–treated each other something awful. But that book didn’t have a happy ending and there’s a reason for that. So what if it’s fiction? Edward is the picture in the minds of many young women of the guy they want to someday meet. Fiction influences. Just like the nightly news does. And if that article I cited is a little off in its facts, I can show you four more articles from four different sources.

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  6. I did not mean to “deflect” from your point, only to put the importance of the “Twilight Saga” in perspective to other things. I just happen to think there are other things more worthy of our raising awareness efforts.

    I actually agree with: “external sources are in the background and they raise our collective tolerance for certain negatives.” Something along the lines of sensory adaptation. I get it. But IF Twilight is having the negative affect on the human psyche like you claim, it is far too widespread at this point to go back. All we can do is talk about it with our kids, and provide them with context.

    I don’t think Stephenie Meyer knew that this would happen when she penned the story. Are all creators to be censored, just in case their work becomes a success?

    Also, as far allegories for and literal abusive treatment of women goes – it is a problem that has existed for hundreds of years prior to Twilight.

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