April 11, 2012

If I see another blurb comparing Bella to Hermione to Katniss…

OK, well, I probably won’t do a thing. But I’m tired of reading about how Bella is weak compared to Hermione, who keeps going even when Ron has abandoned her, and compared to Katniss, who wields a bow and must fight to the death to keep her little sister in food.

Since when does Bella have to be like someone else? I suppose what I really mean is since when must all protagonists embody the same level of will and strength? I allude to three widely loved stories above—stories that share some of the same fans. Yet, except for the Young Adult classification, I doubt most people would claim these stories are similar. Besides differing in plot and theme, they differ in scope. They serve different purposes for their readers.

And the Twilight series is at its heart a romance. For a successful romance, at the base level, all you need is for the heroine or hero to fall madly in love with a desirable other (I think the madly is as important as the desirable) and to be thwarted in pursuing that love by some internal or external force—either permanently or temporarily, depending on whether the story is a tragedy or a comedy. Twilight hits “romance” on the nose for a lot of readers. And despite being desperate and somewhat annoying as she moons for Edward, Bella is believable as a teenage, lovesick romantic heroine. This is not to say that all teenagers are prone to desperate lovesickness, but some of them are, and Twilight happens to be about one such teenager.

You might point out that the Twilight story involves more than just romantic love and complain that Bella is often a bystander in the events that shape her own life. (I’ve heard this complaint before, although I’d have to give it more thought before I could say whether I agree or disagree with it.) Well doesn’t the crux of the whole series, in that regard, rely on the fact that, in the end, Bella is stronger than she believes herself to be throughout much of the story? That she is, in fact, a very useful person, even though she’s always thought herself a nobody?  Whether or not you like how she becomes strong in the end (and personally, I was rooting for it to happen a different way), the climax of the story would be much less dramatic if she were to appear on page one with a perfect sense of her own strength and purpose.

I’ll admit that I found Bella’s self-loathing and extreme heartsickness, well, sickening much of the time, but I think that’s OK. Yes, it’s OK if I want to shake some sense into a character. Sometimes, people need a good, hard shakin’. Sometimes I do. I probably wouldn’t rank high on the badass scale compared to Hermione or Katniss, but I’m still a character. And there is room in the world of books for all sorts of characters, whether or not they measure up to Hermione and Katniss in some assembly line of capable heroines. Whether or not they make role models. Lord, if fiction were populated entirely by stamp-approved, strong role models… well, I think it’d get repetitive and start repeating itself over and over.

I know, I know. I have a daughter. Don’t I see what books like Twilight do? Don’t I want her to grow up knowing that infatuated, romantic love shouldn’t be the culmination of her wildest dreams? Yes, I do. But I know there’s more to life than achingly, unbearable romantic heartache, and I went through some boy-crazy days in my youth—days when I thought of little else but some guy and how he might love me one day next week if I could figure out how to speak in his presence or simply bend him to my will with my drab and baggy grunge-era clothing.

The truth is, I want my daughter to read and think about many things, but if she turns out to be a girl who dwells heavily in dreams of la-la-love during her teenage years, I doubt there’s much I can do about it. Her disposition and interests are her own. (And on an aside, I’m not sure the opposite side of the coin is much better—that going through one’s teenage years with a disdain and distrust of romantic feeling is desirable either.) But I can encourage her to seek out as many types of stories as she can and trust that, being my daughter, she’s the kind of girl who will want to anyway. I believe seeking out story after story is important. In addition to entertaining us, stories reflect and express the wide array of human experience for those of us who can’t experience it all ourselves. And that’s everybody, right?

Anyway, I’m well aware that many people hate Twilight, and I don’t presume to ask them not to hate it. (Aaaagh! Meyer morphed the vampire archetype into a fraking emo sparkler!) Personally, I enjoyed it. It isn’t the best thing I’ve read, and I have qualms with the way the story resolves, but it kept me turning pages at a faster pace than I usually do. It stirred up memories of my own girlhood crushings in a more visceral way than other stories have, and I’m not even sure why, since as far as I know, I never crushed on a brooding, sparkly vampire. In short, reading Twilight was a fun and intense experience.

As far as the other two stories go—The Harry Potter series is set like a jewel in my reading heart, and The Hunger Games is one of the most freshly toned and compelling novels I’ve encountered. It felt like clean air to me while I read it. My wish is not to compare these two to the Twilight series. My wish is to point out that there’s room for all.

(And one last point. Would you really want page-one-Bella to wield a bow and arrow?)

Writing about role models has made me wonder if nowadays some readers get up in arms wanting their protagonists to serve as role models only when those protagonists are girls or women. Do we accept more widely male protagonists who are self-deprecating fools or scaredy-cats? This article discusses this issue, although I’m not sure its author uses the term “role model.” I found it via this post by one of my favorite writer/podcasters, Mur Lafferty, which also addresses “strong female characters.”



I do remember la-la-love crushes, and how absorbing they are, and how foolishly-behaved I was. (Let’s not discuss how much past adolescence I continue to have these crushes. Um–I mean ‘continued’. Past tense. Really…) I’m fine with those, and, frankly, sympathize enormously with the overly-romantic-minded. I entirely appreciate the desire to find an escape from the difficulties of ordinary life. And I honestly prefer a less-than-extraordinary heroine. None of that’s why I actively & vocally dislike the Twilight series.

I have no problem with the whole sparkly thing. It’s a tricky thing, making a blood-sucking killer romantic; sparkly isn’t any worse than a number of other techniques, and better than many. I’ve also read romances (mostly regencies & historicals) since high school, so I’m happy to go along with a story whose main purpose to have two characters end up together. I have some pet peeves (badly researched history; romanticized abuse; characters who are too perfect), but overall I like the genre.

I do find Twilight to be a mediocre example of both supernatural fantasy AND romance. A couple of supernatural stud muffins & a chick whose ONLY goal is to have a TRUE LOVE (insert hearts & curlicues)? Puh-lease. So part of the reason I roll my eyes is the sheer cheese of it all.

But mostly, it’s because I find the characters & the situations to be icky, insidious, and scary–and not because of the gory bits. The whole thing sets me on edge. I got as far as skimming the 2nd & 3rd novels when they were first released, and STILL feel like I need a good mental cleaning.

Edward may be an enlightened bloodsucker, he’s a stalker & a controller. Jacob’s better, but I still see control issues. A story which romanticizes potentially abusive behavior? This is a big throw-the-book-against-the-wall trigger for me.

And then there’s Bella. I really don’t like Bella. Actually, I can’t stand Bella. Never mind comparing her to anyone else; I don’t like HER. This is not an intellectual good-female-role-model reaction; it’s a gut reaction. I found her, from the beginning, to be incredibly, unendingly self-absorbed. Slapping her upside the head doesn’t even begin to cover it. She has the kind of never-ending self-absorption that you expect to see in mass murderers. The deal-breaker for me is her willingness to put her parents through the misery of thinking her dead. No attempt to think about a way around the problem, no consideration that she could maybe trust her parents with a fraction of the truth. No real consideration of ANY emotional consequences for anyone else, except to work around inconveniences. She comes across to me (and, based on comments I’ve heard, to others as well) as a scary combination of obsessive & functionally amoral.

(And, ye gods, her character is one-dimensional. No interests, no hobbies, no goals. I mean, what did she do with herself, before she met Edward? Did she ever, you know, have the faintest personality? I don’t see her at all as a believable teenager. I’ve never known any real teenager to be that…nothing. Angst-ridden, self-focused, feeling isolated, uncertain of their purpose–sure. But not NOTHING.)

So that’s a general explanation of why I bash on Twilight. My reaction is certainly subjective (because every reader has their own set of experience that color what they read). But I don’t think I’m alone.

by Dawn A. on April 11, 2012 at 11:14 pm. #

Hi Dawn—Well, I certainly see why you dislike Twilight if this is the way it makes you feel. And I don’t really mean for this post to be a defense of Twilight, although I suppose it sort of comes across that way. If a reader doesn’t like a book or a character, whether for gut reasons or intellectual, principled reasons—for whatever reasons—that’s his or her prerogative. And I must say that I agree with you on a few points about Bella. I especially hate how she decides so easily to cast her parents aside. And she is rather one-dimensional, although I must not have been too bothered by that as I read the books. The story might be more meaningful and realistic if Bella were to have a real life outside of Edward, but I still managed to enjoy the experience of reading Twilight and, personally, did not question Bella as a character. (And certainly, if you perceive Edward’s and Jacob’s extreme and at times annoying protectiveness of Bella as abusive, I can understand even more why you don’t like the books. Perhaps I’m naive or inhibited by my own set of blinders, but my perception of their behavior in this regard does not go that dark.)

Really, I just found myself getting irritated by all the holding up of Bella against the mirrors of Hermione and Katniss Everdeen on various social networks that I’ve seen lately. Hermione and Katniss are two characters I adore and admire, characters whom I hope many readers admire, but the insinuation of the pins and posts that have been annoying me is that the only female characters worth reading about are those who find it natural to act heroically. Personally, I buy Bella as a character, even though I don’t believe all lovesick girls are as one-sided and self-absorbed as she is. I also believe in Hermione and Katniss as wonderfully grand heroines, but that doesn’t mean that every character needs to be as willful and strong as they are.

(And I very well may be blowing these Bella-Hermione-Katniss comparisons out of proportion. People should be able to pin and post what they want, right? And so it follows, I should be able to to blow things out of proportion on my blog, even when I feel a bit silly doing so. Sigh. Maybe I should just quit Pinterest—the site on which I first encountered this trend. But being able to crystalize my window shopping is so much fun!)

Anyway–Thanks for the comment. It’s great to have some discussion on my blog!

by wendy on April 12, 2012 at 1:09 am. #

We all do read through the filters of our own experience. And, unfortunately, I’ve seen first-hand several of the sly techniques that apparently come naturally to the manipulative and/or emotionally abusive – and the results. So that colors my reaction. (I’ve also known suicidally depressed young adults. It is NOT the same as love-sickness, by a long shot. Although love-sickness might be a trigger for the depression…. Anyway, suicidal behavior portrayed as acceptable romantic grief is appalling.)

As for the comparisons between characters – that is an entirely different issue. I happen to agree with you that it is unreasonable to compare the three. One of the key differences between them is that they were each thrown into entirely different situations. Part of the reason that Hermione & Katniss come across as grand heroines is that they were put in situations needing heroes.

That’s one of the tropes in the fantasy genre (and others as well) – that there’s a driving force threatening Life As Our Characters Know It, and so Our Hero must rise to the occasion. Arguably, it’s the occasion that makes the hero.

It’s much rarer to have (and probably more difficult to write) a grand, sweeping story whose main plot complication only affects the immediate characters (and maybe their friends & neighbors). Mind you, I still think Bella handled her situation badly, and that the author promoted too many potentially very dangerous behaviors as ‘romantic’. (Ick. ICK.) But comparing the trials of daily life with life-or-death situations is rather apples & oranges.

by Dawn A. on April 12, 2012 at 11:20 am. #