Posted by: mzbitca | December 8, 2008

The Power of a Woman’s voice

I’ve just read a few more chapters in Twilight and it, as well as many things said by Ouyang Dan in this post and Anne, one of her commenters, has me thinking about Bella’s voice and actions.  

I have been reading the Harry Potter series concurrently with Twilight and I am also reading it slower and with more awareness and one thing has really been sticking out to me.  I have noticed J.K. Rowling’s tendency to allow the females be the ones to relay the big information.  Hermione’s smarts often are a precursor for her knowing what is going on when Harry and Ron are confused.  This creates the situation where the reader is learning about the Wizarding world from the mouth of a female.  Professor Trelawney is the one whose words were the catalyst for the entire story.  In the first book, Prof. McGonagal was the one who relayed the story of Lily and James death, albeit in the form of  a question.  

Unfortunately, Bella’s voice is often used in a passive way and the little aggression she shows is in relation to Edward.  We hear about Edward spending two days questioning Bella yet we rarely hear Bella’s answers.  Bella often uses her times of active talking as ways to seek out information about Edward, such as with Jacob Black and Angela.  She even uses her conversation with Jessica be a way to talk but not directly talk to/about Edward when she knows he will be listening to her friend’s mind. 

Bella’s voice, hell her personality, is gradually taken over by everything that is Edward.  She  does not like Forks yet forgets every one of her individual feelings about it because Edward is now there.  She is in love with him and it consumes her.  Now, I would agree that this is a very teenage way to react and that portraying Bella this way is not that far from the norm.  But here’s the catch,  should we be sending the message to our teenage girls that it’s okay to become so involved with a boy that your own personality disappears.  That you forget your views and friendships.  It is not a sign of the love to end all love.  It is the sign of the beginning of an obsession and those never end well.

Bella does attempt to make the relationship equal in some ways.  She is inquisitive into Edward’s nature and she is often rebuked by Edward who seems disgusted by her interest.  This is a natural part of his life and she is interested in seeing it and he is amazed and disconcerted.  I can’t help but see this as a “too pretty for that” example as my grandma would always say as a reason why she didn’t know why I worked in Prison teaching college classes or worked with convicted sex offenders.  

There has been the defending of Twilight by saying that Bella has a choice in this relationship.  She is repeatedly warned about Edward and makes the decision to put her life on the line.  She chooses to leave her normal friends behind and walk into danger territory.  There is only one issue here which you can’t ignore: Power, Edward has a lot of it and has no problem throwing it around.  There are reasons certain relationships worked on Buffy: Angel and Buffy were equals in many ways in relation to power and the same happened later with both Angel and Cordelia and Angel and the girl who was a werewolf.  There was also some level of equality which I appreciated.


Responses

  1. I see what you’re saying but disagree. We agree that Bella’s obsession isn’t far from the mark for a teenage girl, but to ask if this is the sort of example we should be setting for teenage girls is to say that we should only ever write about paragons of dignity, honor, ethics, and grace. All books being written about perfect people is boring (and I believe the unattainable standard of perfection could be as damaging to self-esteem as supermodels and magazines). There would be no drama because with all characters being perfect role models, there would be no conflict. Imperfection in characters creates drama, and just like in life, drama teaches. Girls can learn a lot from Bella, and the people warning her about her obsession. We should be teaching kids to learn from both people’s strengths and weaknesses.

    • I disagree, I believe you can have strong characters who have flaws that get them into trouble. My issue with Bella is that she (at this point in the book) just doens’t not seem to have any layers. Bella may have a dangerous obsession but in the end she gets the guy so there is no real lesson to be learned other than make your boyfriend your world and you’ll live happily ever after.

  2. Interesting. I think that writing a multifaceted character is neither like writing a fully layered person, nor like writing a simple cardboard-cutout character. A character can never show all of the facets and inner workings we percieve in ourselves, so belive exist in all people. We don’t find any one character exactly like us, but we do empathise with different aspects of different characters.

    A ‘good’ character isn’t one that is a paragon of virtue or strength, any more than a ‘strong female character’ is really an impossibly smart beautiful sex kitten who gets rescued by the guy at the end. Good characterisation is a complicated portrayal of motivations and emotions that show will have strengths and weaknesses, enough to make the reader empathise.

    And the problem here is that overall, female characters aren’t given as much depth as male characters, nor are they given as much power in the plot, something I think you pick up really well here. I hadn’t noticed that J. K Rowling passes power to her female characters subtly by having them control the progress of the plot via knowledge. Granted, there are other issues one might have with her works and female characters, and I’m not sure if this doesn’t play into the ‘women babysit the men’ stereotype, but it’s still better than the way mainstream plots often have female characters just sort of sitting idly by whilst the male characters make the decisions. Sure, they might complain occasionally, or do something to retaliate in being kept out of the loop, but if the net effect is that the female characters are often punished for not listening to the male characters, and always get into trouble for having a mind of their own, it says something about how deeply ingrained misogyny is in our society.

    I was wondering about Edward’s motivations in keeping her distant, and not wanting her to be a vampire, too. On the one hand, if he truly feels he puts her in danger, the only ‘noble’ thing to do would be to let her go, not put her in danger via being with her. Yet he kind of plays a game with her. Warns her constantly whilst deliberately drawing her in. It reminds me too much of people who mess with the feelings of someone they know is not in a healthy place to start a relationship, or feels far more deeply than them. It feels like he’s taking advantage, whilst pretending to be noble in warning her. If he really believes she doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into, and how dangerous he is, his continuing to encourage her to put herself in danger is problematic, selfish and manipulative on his part.

    Then there’s the vampire thing. If she is someone capable of making her own choices, who knows what she’s getting into, and if she wants to be a vampire so that she can have sex with Edward and be on a more equal footing and not need to be saved constantly, if she really knows what she’s gaining and giving up, then his refusal of her wish to be a vampire strikes me as controlling, again, because he always thinks he knows best. He denies her the chance to become equal to him and decrease the dangers she is in, both from him and everyone else. He knows that he can barely contain himself, yet he can’t bring himself to leave her so she will be safe, yet he will not allow her to take actions to empower herself.

    People read it as being ‘noble’ and ‘protection’, but to me, it’s the same kind of ‘protection’ that denies women the right to choose whether they want to have sex. I can’t help interpreting it as Edward wanting to have control over her. Whilst she’s human, she’s helpless, meek, easily bent to his will, and needs him for protection, to stay alive. Whilst she’s human, he gets to feel the thrill of wanting to kill her, gets to feel noble and powerful because her life is literally in his hands. That would all go away if she’s a vampire, and just like he fixates a lot on wanting to know her thoughts because he can’t, I don’t think he’d like the powerlessness that a more equal relationship would bring. It’s true that characters won’t be perfect people, and may well make bad or selfish choices, but these are not minor ones: they are life or death for Bella. And Edward’s choices are presented as right, and his motivations are never presented as selfish, only as being protective and loving, even when he’s acting purely selfishly.

    Were the book written in a more complex, nuanced manner, this interplay would be really interesting, because complicated, flawed and dare I say it, abusive relationships make interesting reading. People are complex, and have many reasons for acting as they do. The problem is, by presenting the relationship as an absolutely flawless romance, any detail or ethics behind the powerplay between them is stripped away, leaving only sparkles. As Mzbitca says, Bella’s obsession is validated because her choices, no matter how problematic they would be in real life, are presented as right in that she gets the guy, gets out alive, and ends up happily ever after.

  3. As Joss Whedon once said (and I am slightly paraphrasing), he shouldn’t be admired for writing strong women characters, b/c other people should have been doing it all along.

    The well rounded, strong female protagonist shouldn’t be a novel (no pun intended) concept. It is possible to have a SFP who is flawed, allowing the story to progress but still giving her some genuine agency over that story, especially if it is to be her story.

    And that is what we are told here, we are told this is Bella’s story. We are told this series of books is Bella’s from beginning to end, about what she wants and the journey she has to take to get it. From what I can see, now having finished the first book and rereading chapters to review for writing, it is a story about Edward from her POV. Telling a story from a 1st person POV can be a powerful tool, and I don’t think it was done well here. I have read that Meyer intentionally left Bella a little blank to allow a reader to fit into her, but beyond that, she developed no traits that made her part of the story, beyond being clumsy.

    We have a would be main character for whom the story is supposedly about who is painted horrifically ordinary in stark contrast to her amazingly perfect boyfriend, who isn’t just a vampire so better at everything a human could do, but better than all the vampires at what they do. C’mon. It would have been easy enough to give Bella some semblance of a self and still maintain a decent story. To say that by giving her agency and making her a well rounded character would delete the drama of the forbidden romance is to miss the point completely. You still have the angle where she is in love w/ a vampire who literally thirsts for her blood above all other human blood.

    And no one is saying that a SFP would be perfect w/o flaws. I can think of plenty of SFP who were flawed beyond belief but who made for incredible story telling (Buffy, naturally, comes to mind, and she, as mentioned, shared the balance of power, even sometimes, as Angel pointed out more than once, was more powerful than he). It can be done. IMO, Meyer failed to make this Bella’s story at all when she allowed Bella’s character to be completely swallowed up in this toxic relationship. The relationship is abusive, and (groan) can make good story telling, as even sometime good relationships can go through these periods and grow into good ones (I would also argue that the balance of power would have to exist, though, either through Bella getting her wish, or some other event evening the slant of power).

    That’s all I have for now. Great though on this topic, mzb!

    (PS, I never got your nickname until I restarted watching Buffy this week while packing stuff for our big move. Ha ha…she’s a bitca. LOLZ)

  4. >Bella’s voice, hell her personality, is gradually taken over by
    >everything that is Edward.

    I was under the impression that the appeal of vampire stories, was this “Oh you’re so strong and mysterious and I just want to die and be absorbed into your existence” sort of feeling. See: the huge popularity of Dracula, both the original, the dozens of movies, and all the derivatives, etc. The most common conception of vampires is a sort of a cross between the sweep-you-off-your-feet white knight fantasy, and the dark mysterious stranger fantasy. Even, say, the Blood series, which has a very strong female character still often suffers from this effect.

    Buffy, is the exception, of course. Those of us (myself included) who’s main exposure to vampire stories consists of Buffy, and Angel, and more Buffy, don’t see it that way. Buffy style vampires are rather different from most other vampires (Spike might have a bit of the appeal to some, but not for me, and certainly not much, anyway) Buffy is physically and mentally stronger than even the strongest vampires, so it just wouldn’t fit, and being a vampire is just *so* evil, that it stops being sexy. Angel is also less ‘strong and sexy’, and more ‘screwed up mess’.

    I guess I’m just saying, and judging from the people I know who really like it, the Twilight story seem to be a fantasy that depends on wanting to feel completely powerless, giving up your agency, and giving in to this great, powerful (but evilish) being. Wanting it to have a ‘strong female protagonist’ is to miss the point. It also means that I, for one, really can’t like it!

    At least, that’s my two cents, not having read more than 20 pages of the first Twilight book.

  5. I guess I’m just saying, and judging from the people I know who really like it, the Twilight story seem to be a fantasy that depends on wanting to feel completely powerless, giving up your agency, and giving in to this great, powerful (but evilish) being.

    I think that point is right on, in that it is a dangerous thing to allow young girls to absorb unchecked. It’s fine as long as we are talking to them about why this is not OK, and not healthy, and not a good representation of true romance, which is what this “story” is being sold as. All the fans are obsessed w/ this as being such a true romance story, and that is why I think we need better SFPs. I want young girls to think critically about why they want to feel this way. If that is what floats them, fine, but they need to think about it too.

    • Ouyang Dan
      I agree. There is something to the whole be absorbed by the other. especially the power of the vampire. However, I do feel there’s a difference between adults reading novels with that mantra and aiming it directly at preteen girls

  6. Mzb,

    Yup, the difference being that (hopefully) an adult will read that w/ a lens of reason, and know that she is being spoon fed an abusive relationship and told it is true love.

    I would let my daughter read this book, as long as I was reading it too, so that we could discuss it at length.

  7. That’s exactly it. I would hope that someone reading it would be aware that a fantasy (each to their own) is one thing everyone’s entitled to, but that we should be aware why such elements can be problematic outside of pure fantasy. It’s not an unusual fantasy for women brought up in a patriarchy where we are told in a million ways that we’d be so much happier if men took control, that we want to be dominated, and I can’t say I blame teenage girls for exploring their kinks. The thing is, I don’t think it’s being sold as a kink. It’s like the mainstream interpretation of BDSM leads to lots of men who think it’s all about dominating humiliating women, rather than it being about two or more partners enjoying themselves, where the submissive gets to call the shots, and there are safe words, etc.

    To me, Twilight is not pure fantasy, in that it’s not just a presentation of a situation, but an actual relationship lasting over several volumes, so has far more realism than a pure fantasy situation. I can get the allure a scenario might have, but it’s more than light roleplay. Which would be OK in the right context, and the right framing, aimed at the right audience.

    I would hope a reader with more experience would be better able to tell that it is not ideal as a relationship, and that those that do change their mind as they grow. We all look back on at least some thing we’ve liked and read and think ‘what was I thinking’, and I hope Twilight will be that for many women.

    I agree that reading and discussing with a daugher (or son) would be more constructive than banning them from reading it, or not talking about it, but I’d also encourage someone who reads it or likes the books to read other literature that might appeal. I agree with Adsoofmelk that the best thing to combat the ideas of a single book is for someone to read lots. It chimes with my experience that many girls who like the Twilight series don’t read much, and that having less exposure to different ideas makes the ones you are exposed to seem more appealing. Without wanting to be patronising, I think more reading would give teens a wider experience of what a female character can be, what a fictional relationship can be like, and what fantasy can be like when it is not Harry Potter or Twilight.

    So it’s not that girls are reading Twilight and liking the book that’s the problem. It’s that many teens don’t read much, and that whatever the reason, a portion of the fans are taking Twilight to be a representation of an ideal relationship, and not reading much else to counter the idea that this is all fantasy can be.

  8. […] the analyses of them is fascinating. From Gategrrl Stoney321 Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez of Racialicious Mz Bitca (She has a whole series on Twilight, but this is one of the […]

  9. Hi!
    First I want to congratulate you for addressing the issues you have with the novels on such a level headed way. As a fan we usually get a lot of unjustified attacks, insults and misinformation.
    About Bella’s life revolving around Edward. Well the series depicts this as a romantic but its not just an action of the females Edward’s life revolves about Bella too and pretty much vampires with mates are one body and flesh. You can make a case that its not healthy to have such couples so nsync but I guess is an idealized vision of marriage and one that might be popular because this are mates for eternity. Not messy divorces and custody battles.
    I think all the teen girls and boys that are reading this have enough exposure to other fictional characters on other media and in their own lives to be able to see other relationships. So this is a fantasy that its going to be replaced by other ones soon enough.

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