Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Book Thoughts: Are objections to Twilight paternalistic?

Twilight SagaImage via Wikipedia
I really wish I no longer felt the need to think/speak/write about the Twilight series, but the thing is such a huge cultural juggernaut still that it's impossible to avoid. Case in point: I had almost the exact same conversation about Twilight twice this weekend - first with my husband, based on an internet post he'd seen, and second with a friend over brunch on Saturday.

Essentially the conversation was whether getting overly worked up over girls reading Twilight (and watching the films, etc) smacked of condescension. We don't get worked up over boys' media consumption, but one of the primary arguments against girls reading Twilight is that it's giving them a warped sense of romance and relationships and is doing them irreparable, real life harm. The same group of people that tends to get worked up over girls reading Twilight is the same that says playing a game like Grand Theft Auto won't turn kids (usually boys in this discussion) into car thieves. Are we placing more faith in boys over girls?

I was, and still am, of the opinion that Twilight is poor reading material at best, and is giving a damaging example of romance at worst. I can't comment on the films because I haven't seen any of them, but I gather they're following the books pretty closely. I also don't think GTA is creating a generation of car thieves, so I am the exact sort of person who is accused of not trusting girls and women - ironic right? But here's my argument, in two parts: first, the reactions we see from media consumers is different for the books versus the video games. Second, we need to look at why boys and girls are choosing these fantasy elements.

First, while both boys and girls immerse themselves in different fantasy worlds, when they emerge only one of these groups is generally saying they wish it would be like real life. When a GTA player has finished stealing cars, killing cops and beating hookers, they aren't saying "I wish I could do that for real!" There's a lot of controversy about whether or not playing violent video games leads to an increase in violent behaviors, but it seems at best to be a correlation, not causation - and there are lots of arguments attacking the methodology and conclusions of the studies that point even to the correlations.

With Twilight, on the other hand, we know there are girls who finish the story and wish it were true. Girls who say they're looking for their Edward or Jacob, and I really doubt that most of them are looking to be bit by a vampire. Instead, it's the romance they say they wish to recreate. But really, the relationships described in Twilight are far from healthy.

As the most prominent examples of their genres, both GTA and Twilight generate more than their fair share of attention and criticism. However, as these two have not only become emblematic of their genres (action video games, YA paranormal romance novels), but of an entire medium in many ways (GTA comes up in most video game discussions, just as a conversation about YA lit can't be had without mentioning Twilight), the source of the fantasies are also fair for critique. What makes these things popular - and does critiquing the game/book become a short hand for critiquing that fantasy in our culture?

For GTA, the main fantasy seems to be playing the bad guy. Especially in America, we've long has a media fascination with outlaws - wild west stories about Billy the Kid and Depression-era folk heroes/outlaws Bonnie and Clyde come to mind. GTA is an extension of these narratives into the 21st century, allowing players to participate in the story in a way previous generations were never able to.

And that "bad boy" aspect is also at play to an extent in Twilight. Bella's relationships with Edward and Jacob have an element of the forbidden in them, because of the boys' dangerous natures. The vampire and werewolves are external trappings, creating conflicts outside of Bella's romances, but the primary focus is Bella and her love/lust for these two boys.

And this is where Twilight freaks me out, because I am unable to see any way in which Bell and Edward's relationship can be interpreted as healthy (I can't comment extensively on the Bella/Jacob side because I can't make myself read past the first book, where Jacob was a minor character). There is no way to get around the fact that Edward stalks Bella. His warnings that he could hurt her sound way too much like threats. He tries to  control who she can be friends with based on his own biases, steering her away from Jacob far before Jacob shows he has a dark side of his own.

And if Twilight was the only story out there promoting this deranged view of romance, even if it was incredibly popular, I think I could let it slide, because there would be other alternatives out there. However, as Jos at Feministing wrote yesterday (after I started composing this post), Twilight is just one story with similar themes reaching ridiculous heights of popularity. Even if you're a fairly savvy young media consumer, it's pretty darn hard to find alternative stories to satisfy a romantic craving. This is why I'm concerned over the outsized role Twilight has in young adult publishing - it's becoming harder and harder to find romances where the girl doesn't become some kind of doormat.

I think it's very easy to fall into paternalistic/condescending traps when discussing Twilight under the guise of wanting what's best for young women - that doesn't, however, mean all concerns can be easily dismissed. Young women are interacting with these books we haven't seen young men interact with other objectionable media, and that is why there's more hand-wringing going on over girls than boys.
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Rachel said...

I wonder if part of the appeal of Twilight -- and at this point, I've actually read the first three books, and I'm steeling myself to read the fourth -- is that it's the opposite of moralistic literature. This makes it the equivalent of GTA for boys, then: a way of living out fantasies that we consciously know are wrong.

In most supernatural/fantasy literature -- especially the ones where immortality is a gift offered -- the protagonist never, ever takes it, whether because it's morally wrong to take immortality, or whether because it's morally wrong to leave your family behind. Think of Tuck Everlasting, or Peter Pan, or His Dark Materials. The girl has to grow up eventually. She can't stay eternally young, even if she is in love. She must grow up, and have a family, and be responsible: that's the woman's job. She can't shorten her mortal life. We understand that family and growing up is more important than staying in a fantasy land. This is the moral.

Bella wants to be young and beautiful forever. She even says at one point, "it's every woman's fantasy." She does not want to grow up. She doesn't care that she'll never be able to see her parents again after she's vamped. She refuses to see any negative consequences to her choice, and disparages Edward's argument that she'll no longer have a soul. (She also says, "if I have you, I don't need heaven." Very moral.) If Bella Swan had been sent to Hogwarts, she would have been elbowing Voldemort aside to get at the unicorn's blood. The half-life, the cursed life of slaughtering an innocent creature to get immortality -- this is not present in Twilight. There are no consequences. The one actual consequence that Bella faces -- that she'll never be able to have children -- is subverted. Though she never sees her mother again, and will watch her dad grow old and die, this means nothing to her.

(Actually, that may be why it appeals to teenage girls. They feel inspired by Bella, not so much by the romance, but because she drives her own car, cooks her own meals, and whenever she gets yelled at by her dad, tells him very calmly that she can move out at any time.)

Which is why I'm surprised by you, Ange, saying that the people that are concerned about GTA AREN'T the same people who are upset about Twilight. Morality isn't just about staying virgins until marriage, Moral Guardians. Twilight is telling your daughters that they don't need *you*. That's not an issue?

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