Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Stephenie Meyer's Twilight: A Fantasy of Helplessness

This is the promised review of Twilight, everybody. I did all I could to suffer through it. Now I'm due for some good reading because I feel like my brain has been polluted by the horrible writing in this book.

The genre of female coming-of-age stories, to which Meyer's Twilight obviously belongs, underwent a profound transformation in the recent decades. Since the inception of the genre in the 18th century, the central idea of female novels of growth and development was a conflict between the female protagonist and the repressive patriarchal society that strives to stunt her growth and infantilize her. The heroine struggles valiantly against the patriarchal authority that prevents her from developing into a fully grown individual in every sense of the word. Often, however, she loses in this struggle and either dies or consents to being transformed into a perennial child at the mercy of a husband, a father, a family member, etc.

When the women's liberation movement made huge advances in its feminist struggle, everybody expected female coming-of-age stories to reflect the changes in the position of women in society. Finally, we were to read female Bildungsromane where the protagonist takes on the world, grows, develops, and uses her newfound freedom to become a complete and fulfilled adult who does not permit others to stunt her growth. Finally.

These expectations, however, were not fulfilled by the works of literature created by female writers who live in this new, liberated reality. I initially observed this phenomenon in the contemporary Spanish literature but Twilight demonstrates that this tendency also exists in other countries that have made important feminist advances. The tendency I'm talking about consists of the appearance of a huge number of female coming-of-age stories where the female protagonist goes to incredible lengths to infantilize herself. No oppressive patriarchal society persecutes these heroines trying to stunt their growth. Just the opposite, the female characters of contemporary female Bildungsromane often have a lot more freedom than most actual women of that age.

Take Bella Swan, for example. She finds herself in a situation where her divorced parents remove themselves almost completely from the task of supervising her. Bella could use this freedom to explore different facets of growing up, experiment, develop in a variety of directions. However, just like so many female protagonists of such novels she chooses to hand the authority over her life to a male protector/savior and his clan. Bella infantilizes herself in a society where nobody demands that from her. She goes to extreme lengths to become a perennial child coddled and protected by the Cullens.

In this sense, Bella does not stray far from her mother whom she describes as lost and useless without male protection. This is how Bella talks about her mother:
I felt a spasm of panic as I stared at her wide, childlike eyes. How could I leave my loving, erratic, harebrained mother to fend for herself? Of course she had Phil now, so the bills would probably get paid, there would be food in the refrigerator, gas in her car, and someone to call when she got lost, but still . . .
However, those protagonists of today's female Bildungsromane whose mothers are passionately feminist are as likely as Bella to stunt their own growth and infantilize themselves. Much has been said about the nature of Bella's relationship with Edward Cullen. While I was reading the novel, however, I couldn't help noticing how much their relationship resemble that between a very small child and her parent. She pesters him with questions (and if you have ever spent any time in the company of a three year old, you can't fail to see the resemblance), he watches over her as she sleeps, he is always there to protect her from the big, menacing world she does not comprehend.

Twilight is a particularly badly written representative of a powerful trend within the genre of female coming-of-age stories of our feminist era. Women are now in a position where they have to confront things that their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers never had to. Fantasies of helplessness, such as the Twilight Saga, allow female readers to imagine a world where they do not have to shoulder these new responsibilities. They can imagine themselves as eternal children supervised, protected and watched over by supernaturally strong and powerful men.

Now I have a few questions for my readers. The ideas I explore here are the ones that I developed in my doctoral dissertation. I want to spend this summer reworking it into a book. Did you find this post interesting? Easy to understand? Would you like to hear more on this subject? Any feedback will be welcome. Harsh criticisms will also be useful. 


Pagan Topologist said...

I hope you will look at Nnedi Okorafor's books. She has three coming-of-age stories that break this mold pretty decisively.

This post is interesting; but I would not have read the books anyway.

Clarissa said...

Please don't read this book! Save yourself the aggravation. I'm now even afraid that my own writing style has been contaminated with the way Meyer tortures the English language.

If Okorafor writes about Africa, it makes sense that her Bildungsromane would be more like traditional female novels of development rather than the contemporary ones. I still can't overcome my fear of the word "fantasy", though. :-) :-)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this recreation of patriarchy as a fantasy is just because the grass seems greener always on the other side.

Now that women have more freedom, perhaps the perceived lack of responsibility is appealing, similar to all those people who claim to wish they'd lived in the Middle Ages, imagining they'd all be lords and ladies when statistically speaking they would've been destitute serfs.


Pen said...

I found this post interesting, especially because you have a genuine reason for not liking the book. I'd love to read more on this subject--literary analysis is always interesting to read and think about, at least for me. This subject in particular is applicable to what we're currently working on in English, too, so I suppose the clear connections formed by my classwork are helping my enthusiasm.

Though I have to say, I like it for reasons that have much to do with my own writing. The third paragraph in particular gave me an idea regarding the characterization of key female characters in the story I am currently working on.

The only hangup I have with this particular post was its vagueness, especially toward the end. I would have liked to see more elaboration--but it might have been just because I read it too fast at first, because I can't remember exactly what I would have liked to see elaborated.

el said...

Since you wrote dissertation with connection to the topic and now intend to write a book, I would recommend 2 enlightening to me posts:

1) Amanda Marcotte's analysis at Pandagon (famous feminist; you know her, right?):
Usually the comments are worth reading too. Glanced at them now and f.e. comment #79 surprised me.

2) Here is the unbroken link Amanda gives to stoney321, "an ex-Mormon who's very knowledgeable about his former religion, and read the books"
I was surprised how much Twilight was influenced by Meyer's religious believes and the posts are very funny too.

el said...

Today I read this post about the value of romances:

And you reminded me of [bold is mine]:
married women with hefty household incomes are the majority of romance consumers ... middle class stay-at-home mothers and professionals in demanding, high-paying jobs. ... the one thing they both have in common is their stress levels. Engaging, non-complicated erotic escapism is precisely what many tense, distracted, “disembodied” women in these situations need. It’s therapy.

Those women professionals hardly live dependent, anti-feminist lives, yet enjoy reading about Dames in Distress rescued by "princes". If they use romances as therapy, why not suppose many teens do so too? Hugo Schwyzer, who has been mentoring teens for years, writes about the tremendous pressure they rightly feel. Among other reasons, I believe parents see the economic situation and fear their children being thrown away from the middle class into poverty, if they don't f.e. do "right" extracurricular activities to get into right college.

Btw, I've never heard about colleges demanding extra activities in USSR (were they?) or Israel, and googling the term angered me. Why should colleges look at them? Of course, as a loner, I would be disadvantaged. Why should one be forced to join student council or do volunteer work in the rat race for university education (=middle class job)? Have you written about the topic? I am not against volunteer work, only against being forced into it.

Cultural-exchange moment: In Israel every 10-grade student (12 grades here, with school starting at age 6) has to do ~60 hours of community service of his choice during the school year: visit residents of old age homes, help at the local library, help children with homework in special centre, etc. I did it and am 100% OK with the requirement since universities aren't interested in what you did and everybody has to rather than students being frightened into the "right" after-school activities to get a normal job in the future. Seems to me the same thing as committees you complain about, which have nothing to do with your job as an academic. Or like a boss requiring everybody go together to a restaurant every week / month in their free time on their money to improve "team spirit" (of course, officially you don't have to *wink* *wink*)

Returning to the topic, I believe Hugo and think for some fans Twilight-like novels provide mental rest, thus producing for some a positive effect in their overstressed lives. I read somewhere somebody saying that many girls at Twilight movies came with friends, with eyeliner and with ironic approach to all this. I believe many young women aren't dumb and some indeed see it for what it is and enjoy the phenomenon ironically. You could say there are better books, but:
a) For deep rest serious literature isn't very suitable;
b) I was in HP fandom and got more enjoinment from discussing the books with interesting people than from reading them. If Twilight becomes well-known, you can discuss it with friends (including laughing at it), go to movies to shriek at handsome actor together and ironically enjoy the experience.
(Don't worry, serious literature gets discussed at school and the book club they visit to add 1 more good-sounding extra-activity.)

Since you search good reading, Julia recommends Michel Faber's "The Crimson Petal and the White" [A fascinating novel about the way Victorian attitudes toward sex ruined individual lives and warped the entire society]
I haven't read it myself, so don't know how good it really is, but it sounds interesting. Her review:

Canukistani said...

“the central idea of female novels of growth and development was a conflict between the female protagonist and the repressive patriarchal society that strives to stunt her growth and infantilize her.”

Right now there is a conflict in Toronto. A policeman told a group of law students in a forum on rape at Osgood Hall law school that if women don’t want to be raped then they shouldn’t dress like sluts. Sounds like that Russian Orthodox priest about which you wrote a while ago. On the coming Sunday there will be an organized protest named Slutwalk. For more information:

el said...

My theory gets support from Pandagon commenter, who mentioned backslash when later books became more misogynic.

Another often-mentioned on Internet aspect explaining the book's attraction, which you didn't speak of, was in its' presentation of woman's desire. Here at last girls saw the heroine giving freedom to her feelings of lust, throwing herself at this handsome boy. The traditional roles are reversed when Edward is the gatekeeper, the one who refuses. Since teens (naturally at the age of 13) find sex frightening the combination is doubly attractive: all the lust with zero dangerous sex.

Other analyses mentioned materialism, the incessant dwelling on how rich Edward's family is. And many people love reading about the lives of the rich and love imagining themselves rising in the world. What could average, anti-social (read that she doesn't seem to like people) Bella do herself to rise to such riches? Nothing.

I wanted to strongly recommend my favorite female Bildungsromane and very good, funny books in general: L.M. Montgomery's Emily series. She is known for "Anne of Green Gables", but I found Emily superior: her sarcastic sense of humor, her struggle to get education and succeed as a poetess, that we don't see her becoming only wife and mother like Anne, that she has many suitors but marries her soul mate, rejecting a lover, who felt jealous of her work. Her best female friend is more ambitious and interesting than Anne's best friend too. The 3 books are called: "Emily of New Moon","Emily Climbs" and "Emily's Quest".

If you'll try HP, I would recommend the third novel, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban". Would be interesting what you would think about it.

Anonymous said...

I like your thoughts.

Clarissa said...

" I believe parents see the economic situation and fear their children being thrown away from the middle class into poverty"

-As I said in the post, such female Bildungsromane have been immensely popular for a couple of decades in different countries. Connecting the success of one of them to an American economic crisis of recent origins makes no sense to me.

As for professional women reading harlequin novels, that's obviously not true. Why discuss such useless, silly articles?

Clarissa said...

"Another often-mentioned on Internet aspect explaining the book's attraction, which you didn't speak of, was in its' presentation of woman's desire. Here at last girls saw the heroine giving freedom to her feelings of lust, throwing herself at this handsome boy."

-We live in 2011 in a country where the age of first sexual activities is lower than 15. If you've spent any time with 10-12 year old girls recently, you'll see that they have no problem throwing themselves at boys in any way imaginable. These feminists you quote rely on some extremely antiquated stereotypes.

Have they seen how teenagers dress themselves starting at 7? Bella is 17 and extremely much more shy and awkward with boys than the majority of today's eight year olds.

el said...

Did you find this post ... Easy to understand?
I can't believe you thought your readers would find it otherwise. ;)

Would you like to hear more on this subject?
Yes! I mean about Bildungsromane, not Twilight specifically. F.e. I would be interested to hear whether male Bildungsromane underwent any significant changes and why. What about contemporary female Bildungsromane in Russian literature?

Could you recommend good Bildungsromane novels (male and female) in English and Russian?

Clarissa said...

Male Bildungsroman kind of died in the recent years. I don't know if it will ever be revived. :-)

Contemporary Russian literature unfortunately does not exist. I was a judge at a prose contest a couple of years ago and I can't begin to tell you how sad things are. Nobody is writing anything worth reading in Russia today. That's just my opinion.

el said...

Clarissa, but you talked at length about American sexual repression yourself:
- that young woman at Girls Gone Wild, who "dresses herself", even rises shirt, yet proudly claims to be a virgin.
- numerous children from conservative families with very strict upbringing.
- abstinence only sex-ed that compares not virgin girls to lollypops or gum that somebody else chewed.
- being both sexualized and constantly shamed for being sexual in media, at school sex ed lessons, in the circle of family, almost definitely at church.

It can't go together with all teens being unashamed and unafraid of their sexuality. If somebody has sex, it doesn't mean they are ready or even that they truly feel themselves ready.

Have there been numerous female Bildungsromane heroines, who threw themselves at a boy and practically begged for sex like Bella?

I guess there are different groups of teens: some are sexual and unashamed, some are sexual & ashamed even if outwardly hide it, some aren't sexual and are ashamed, others proudly wear "waiting for husband" rings or used to wear them, had sex, yet continue to wear and lie from fear of relatives.

Clarissa said...

Sexual repression nowadays is not about women guarding their virginity until marriage. Only extremely religious people do that any more. Nowadays, sexual repression for women includes them throwing themselves at boys (men) because it's prestigious to have a boyfriend (husband) and because it's the only way to receive legitimate social fulfillment. Which is precisely what Bella Swan does. This novel is extremely sexually repressive in that it sees female sexuality is instrumental and closely linked to marriage/babies as the only legitimate goal of female existence.

Clarissa said...

I wonder what lies behind the attempts to present these books as remotely feminist.

NancyP said...

You do realize that Stephanie Meyer, the Twilight author, is a Mormon (Latter Day Saints) member in good standing? Current and former Mormon readers have commented that the relationship between Bella and Edward(vampire) is an idealized version of correct LDS courtship and marriage.These are considered to be books "suitable for young (unmarried) ladies" in conservative LDS and fundamentalist / evangelical Christian circles.

Okorafor's books are African-flavored fantasy/science fiction, often with teenage girl protagonists.

You need to read Joanna Russ' books on women and writing, eg. How to Suppress Women's Writing (1983) and To Write Like a Woman (1995). Among other things, the genre market favors books that feature active male protagonists with passive female characters, based on the belief (and observation) that boys and men won't read books with active female protagonists and less central male characters.

Pagan Topologist said...

Nancy Drew books had a strong female central character and males who were not quite as smart. I have heard people express the opinion that Nancy Drew was the founder of the modern-day feminist movement. I enjoyed them as a child, but I have no idea how many other boys read them.

el said...

I don't think the books are feminist. The author is as anti-feminist as one can get, practically. Trying to find out why badly written books with such ideology became so popular, I read several reviews and found interesting the ideas of materialism (long descriptions of the vampires' wealth) and Bella's sexual feelings. The idea was that while in reality many have sex, YA sf usually doesn't dwell that long on heroine's sexuality.

In case you search more recent YA novels for your book, I heard that "Hush, hush" and its' continuation "Crescendo" by Becca Fitzpatrick are much more disturbing than Twilight.
and her review of the second book:

J. said...

PT, have you read any of the newer incarnations of Nancy Drew?

Very different. She's sexually active, she dumped Ned, WAY not the gutsy action heroine I grew up with.

Clarissa, I thought this was really interesting--I'd love to hear your take on other books and young women's fiction in general on this general topic. I personally find the Twilight books to be so badly written that they're not worth the trouble, but hey, that's up to you. :-) (I would be interested in your take on the Harry Potter books, though...)

Pagan Topologist said...

Wow! No, I have not read any Nancy Drew in decades.

Pagan Topologist said...

I am puzzled. The main page of your blog says that there are 23 commento on this post. Nevertheless, when I click to see the comments I find only 21, with no eveidence that two have been removed. This has happened a few times on earlier posts. What is going on??

Clarissa said...

You are right. I never noticed this before. This is very weird. I know that no comments have been removed from this thread by me. And I don't think anybody removed their own comments.

This is very weird.