The Hairpin just ran a great piece by Sarah Blackwood about Twilight, Bella, feminism, and “strong female characters”:
And, as Part One of Breaking Dawn arrives in theaters this week, we all get to revisit just how very much Bella Swan is not “a strong heroine.” Spending a lot of time in bed, on couches, and being carried around by burly boys, Bella is passive to the point of immobility. Her great love Edward is a controlling stalker, and the novels appear to extol the virtues of abstinence, teen marriage, and feminine “purity.” Yet the Twilight Saga, I would argue, has the potential to revitalize a number of our larger conversations about feminism, especially those related to sex, pregnancy, desire, and autonomy.
She talks a lot about Twilight‘s portrayal of pregnancy and childbirth and how underneath the vampire parts, there’s actually a core of emotional truth there. I really recommend the piece. She ends by arguing that, if Twilight doesn’t show a lot of interest in challenging gender, it does do an awfully good job at explaining what it’s like to have a gender, and leaves feminism (obviously feminism isn’t a monolith, but I’m guessing she’s talking about the standard white American feminism of “actualization”) with some interesting questions:
If, as feminists, we believe in girls’ and womens’ autonomy, how do we understand the autonomy-shattering power of desire? Do we determine that some desires (to be dominated? to be beautiful? to get married?) are bad and others good? Because we want very much for girls not to get pregnant too young, do we bar them from even imagining what it would be like and what it would mean?
I confess to not having read the Twilight books. While I have a nearly endless appetite for trashy TV and movies, I just don’t have a lot of patience for trashy novels. I did like the movies and have written about that in the past.
I find the argument that Twilight is bad for teenage girls because it portrays Bella as really passive and to be really spurious, because I remember being a teenage girl and being able to think critically. I’m not saying I was a feminism expert, but like, I remember basically understanding the concepts of being able to think critically about books and movies. And you know, understanding they aren’t real life or models of how to live my life. For instance, when I was in high school, I always found the girl who was into the brooding, mysterious guy storyline (like early Buffy and Angel) really tedious. But I do think that it works wonderfully as fantasy because while on its face the whole thing is ludicrous, it’s emotionally really true, if that makes sense, about teenagers and desire and how they’re kind of constantly told it’s wrong from all angles. Certainly it took me right back to the simultaneous desire and fear and guilt I felt about sex when I was a teenager.
I generally find myself feeling a bit cautious when conversations about feminism shift to desire and the pursuit of pleasure – not because I think it’s wrong for feminism to acknowledge that women have desires and those desires aren’t always politically correct – but more because I don’t think we can really totally separate our desires from the cultural. We grow up in patriarchy, of course our desires reflect that. (I’m sure someone will tell me it’s biology, but just because our bodies respond to something doesn’t mean that it’s completely separate from our minds or thoughts, which are inextricably linked to the culture we learned to think in, and sure, there’s some biology but it’s probably a complex interaction whose causes are beyond our current comprehension.) So while it’s not exactly breaking the glass ceiling to admit we just sometimes want a sparkling man to carry us around and insist we marry him, it’s probably important that we talk about it without apologizing or treating it as a personal failure.
This is really easy to say but surprisingly hard to do.