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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The lies we choose to believe: Twilight edition

Great literature will teach you something about the human condition. Poor literature can only tell you about the people who read it. This makes the trashy stuff all the more fascinating, for despite all the ways it fails as a narrative, there will be hordes of people willing themselves to believe in it, like unwashed masses scratching their newest lottery ticket.

A great book stands on its own across centuries, a metaphysical pyramid of Egypt, even if time chipw away at certain elements like religion or sexual politics. Poor literature is fragile. The slightest bit of critical thinking topples it like a house of cards.

But I’m getting ahead of myself:

Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

You don’t have to recognize that quote*, or know when it was written or by whom for it to resonate. Great literature has meaning and resonance regardless of who is reading it and when.

Pulp fiction, on the other hand, gives its readers the choice to believe or not. I don’t mean this as a compliment. This means that the characters are so inconsistent, the plot twists so contrived, that for a reader to invest in it, they are choosing to believe the unbelievable.

Enough has been said about how god-awful the Twilight books are as works of literature (This is the place to go for anyone who still needs convincing), but not nearly enough has been said about why they are beloved best-sellers. The short answer is that they play into and play up the worst tendencies of insecure teenage girls, and the women they sometimes become.

Much has been made of how romantic lead Edward Cullen (the inspiration for Christian Gray, who we’ll get to in a later post) fits the abusive boyfriend profile perfectly. In Eclipse he even dismantles Bella’s car to keep her from seeing nice-guy Werewolf Jacob Black.

But that’s okay, because it turns out the adorable nice-guy Jacob from the first two books has become asshole attempted-rapist Jacob, so Edward was right to try and protect her. Adorable Jacob returns** in book four, just in time to fall in love with Bella and Edward’s infant daughter, conceived that magical night when Edward covered Bella in bruises. Jacob “imprints” on the newborn baby, meaning they are destined to be together forever. No one asks what the child thinks of this, because of course she is too young to speak. I like to think that when that when the time comes for that conversation, the words “How old in dog years?” will be uttered at least once.   

I have nothing against perverted love stories. I am an unabashed fan of Clive Barker. But Stephenie Meyer plays all this insanity as the most romantic quadrangle ever.

In short, the kid fell out of the tree house.

These characters don’t make any sense on their own terms, or in terms of the world we live in. But they are perfect for their audience. For those of you who never were an adolescent girl, allow me to explain:

In the real world, lived in by Meyers’ readers, young girls’ self esteem plummets when they hit puberty. This is because when a girl becomes a woman her body is no longer something to be celebrated. It is something to be dealt with. I’m not putting the blame on fashion models here. Boys have to deal with ridiculously proportioned role models too. But they don’t get periods. They don’t have to shave unless they want to.

The earlier menarche hits, the more likely a girl is to be insecure through her teen years. It isn’t just annoying. It’s shameful. It’s gross. We double bag our tampons and hide them at the back of the cupboard.

And then there’s the hair. Shave it! Wax it! Pluck It! Defend yourself against onslaught of follicles that will never stop their siege on your body. Strike them down and they will become more in-grown than you can possibly imagine.

A woman’s body is something that needs to be dealt with, not loved...or at least, not loved until it has been dealt with. I like to think most women grow out of this hysteria as they mature, or at least learn to keep it in perspective.

The rest read Twilight.

Stephanie Meyers’ series indulges every single adolescent insecurity. I’m not saying that it creates them. This book is not capable of sending a message. It can only cater to feelings that women already have: anxiety about sex, the need to feel desired, jealousy towards women who are desired, etcc...it’s all here.  That’s all pretty standard for the kind of young adult literature that sells a few copies and is forgotten after two weeks. Twilight plays into more than just conscious adolescent fantasies. It indulges more insidious feelings. For example,

This series is repulsed by the female body.

Bella is introduced as clumsy, pale and unattractive. Those are standard “Mary-Jane” traits that supposedly make her more relatable. But when I say clumsy I mean she is afraid of cutting her fingers off when she uses a kitchen knife.

It isn’t until after she’s married and becomes a vampire that Bella is cured of her clumsy ugliness. Of course, any woman who is attractive without being in a long term relationship is demonized. Literally. The evil Volturi lure tourists into their underground cavern using a sexy vampire in a short skirt: “She wasn’t just the fisherman,” Bella writes, “She was the bait.” Keep in mind, these tourists aren’t mere frat boys on a Europe trip. They are couples, families, and even an elderly woman clutching a rosary, with no qualms about following a scantily clad woman underground in a foreign country, believing her to be some kind of sexy “tour guide”. These ridiculous scenarios are not Meyer’s attempt to send a message. They are simply echoes of the worst feelings that vulnerable women already have: Only a man can redeem your feeble body. People will do anything an attractive woman tells them to do. Attractive women are evil. Or rather, attractive, unattached women are evil.

Even clumsy, pale Bella becomes a looker when she marries Edward. Prior to that Edward’s affection alone is enough to make her an object of envy. So says Rosalie, in Chapter 7 of Eclipse: “You see, at first, I was mostly jealous because he wanted you and not me.... I don't want Edward that way, Bella. I never did--I love him as a brother, but he's irritated me from the first moment I heard him speak. You have to understand, though...I was so used to people wanting me. And Edward wasn't the least bit interested. It frustrated me, even offended me in the beginning. But he never wanted anyone, so it didn't bother me long.”

The thing that sends Twilight over the top into Pulp Heaven is the combination of this wish fulfillment with the abject horror of being a teenage girl. The fantasy of a beautiful, sought-after man who won’t try to pressure you into intercourse is no doubt a popular one. Twilight pairs that fantasy with a healthy dollop of body horror: Edward refuses to make love to mortal Bella because he’s afraid his vampire strength will tear her to pieces.

Then he changes his mind. This is an EXACT QUOTE from page 617 of Eclipse. If you don’t believe me, please look it up:

“‘We're doing this your way. Because my way doesn't work. I call you stubborn, but look at what I've done. I've clung with such idiotic obstinacy to my idea of what's best for you, though it's only hurt you. Hurt you so deeply, time and time again.’” It almost looks like Edward Cullen is about to turn into a rational, relateable character, but then he keeps talking: “‘We're doing it your way, Bella. Tonight. Today. The sooner the better. I'll speak to Carlisle. I was thinking that maybe if we gave you enough morphine, it wouldn't be so bad. It's worth a try.’ He gritted his teeth.”

Morphine. Sex in this world is so painful that it requires morphine. The obvious solution, to anyone who isn’t living with medieval attitudes about gender, is that Edward ought to be tied down. Chain him up. Surely there is some way to restrain him so that Bella can mount his undead manhood without being torn to pieces? This would be practical and entertaining, but the thought never entered our author’s misogynistic little head, wherein the man is always on top and anything else is unthinkable.

It’s all par for the course, because I’m pretty sure Bella doesn’t even have a vagina. When she goes into labour, “Bella vomited a fountain of blood.” Now I’m no biologist, but I’m pretty sure that, when giving birth, the blood pours out of a different orifice, the same one it comes out of every month to the supreme embarrassment of young girls everywhere. Edward ends up chewing the baby out of her uterus with his teeth. That’s right ladies and gents: cannibalism is sexier than lady parts.

What other warped adolescent fantasies does Twilight cater to?

Well, to begin with, the popular kids are assholes....or rather, the kids that enjoy being popular are assholes. Let’s not beat around the bush. Everyone wants friends. In real life, especially in High School, popularity is a high priority. But of course, not everyone can be popular. Some people are moody, unattractive, passive-aggressive types that no one wants to be around.

Each of those adjectives could be used to describe Bella Swan, yet when Bella arrives in Forks, every boy, and I mean every boy falls for her...except for Edward Cullen, who avoids her for two straight months and even tries to switch classes to get away from her. But in the end, that’s just because he loves her so much.

Every high schooler dreams of being as undeservedly popular as Bella Swan. But that is not the fantasy Meyer is playing into. Because for every person who is as popular as Bella Swan, there are three who wish they were, and one who tells herself that that popular girl is just a shallow slut. Do I need to tell you which one Bella is, or should I just remind you of the sexy, scantily clad woman who lured tourists to their deaths in New Moon?

In that same book, Bella goes to a movie with Jessica, who supposedly is a vapid cheerleader but actually seems like she’d be way more fun to hang around (Maybe because she’s played by Anna Kendrick). At this point, Bella has spent months in bed, shutting out the world and harming herself because her boyfriend broke up with her. I would rather hang out with Jessica any day of the week, but the movie and the book makes it perfectly clear that Bella is way cooler than her. On her date with Jessica, Bella, without a word, decides to take a ride with a complete stranger on his motorbike. When she returns, she rolls her eyes at a frazzled Jessica and gives her an empty apology.

We’re supposed to laugh at vapid, annoying Jessica, because Bella is just so much cooler than her.  She’s so cool that the moment she moves to Forks there are boys asking her to the dance and girls like Jessica wanting to be her friend. She’s so cool that she doesn’t even want people to think she’s cool:

“Mike's puppy dog behavior and Eric's apparent rivalry with him were disconcerting. I wasn't sure if I didn't prefer being ignored.”

I’m not sure if I don’t prefer proper grammar to a double negative. But I’m probably just too shallow to appreciate her pain.

Bella’s disdain for the “popular” kids is the fantasy of every isolated egotist at your local high school—They’re only popular because they’re stupid. And you have no friends ‘cause your just so down to earth, right?

There is an even more disturbing corollary to this that girls with any memory of middle school ought to recognize. In every elementary school, there is (or was, when I was young) a girl who’s really just one of the guys. She plays sports. She rough-houses. And if there’s a guy you have a crush on, you can bet he’s friends with her.

In grade seven, this girl starts getting bullied. Other girls call her a slut, or some variation of that. It never happened to me. But it did happen to two close friends of mine. This mentality underpins a lot of Bella’s haughty self-satisfaction in the novels. It’s troubling enough that social butterfly Jessica is too vapid to deserve Bella’s friendship. How about villainous Victoria who recruits newborn vampires by seducing Riley? Or the aforementioned “fisherman and bait” vampire in Italy?  Indeed, evil-woman-who-uses-sex-to-get-what-she-wants is something of a recurring motif in these books.

This is a transcript from the third movie:

Edward Cullen: Stop trying to take your clothes off.

Bella Swan: You want to do that part?

Edward Cullen: Not tonight.

Bella Swan: You... You mean, you don't...That's fine.

Edward Cullen: Believe me, I want to.

Edward Cullen: I just want to be married to you first.

Bella Swan: You really make me feel like I'm some sort of, like, villain trying to steal your virtue or something.

Edward Cullen: It's not my virtue I'm concerned about.

             I know, it’s all very funny. But the next scene is what really made my jaw drop: In a dark and rainy night,  Victoria surveys the newborn vampires that boy toy Riley has created for her. The contrast between these two scenes is so striking it practically proclaims in all caps: POPULAR GIRLS ARE SLUTS.

             “Now that’s harsh,” you might be thinking, “After all,  you said yourself, Bella is extra super duper popular!”

             But she doesn’t want to be. She’s shy and clumsy and knows her proper place (hint: it’s in the arms of a man). She deserves that popularity. The other female characters, who go shopping and wear short skirts, are, at best, annoying and, at worst, vicious soul sucking harpies who must be stopped.

             Pulp fiction does not proclaim anything. It indulges what’s already there. It’s been established by pretty much every critic on the internet that this series is not well written. So what does it take to enjoy it anyway?

             Disgust with the female body

             Discomfort with premarital sex

             Disdain for people who are friendly

             Disdain for attractive, unattached women

             Disgust with people who, in reality, would be way more popular than you.


I hope we all learned something today.

*It’s Great Expectations

**By “adorable” I mean, “still an asshole but no longer a mouth-rapist”

Monday, 6 May 2013

Don't feed it after midnight!

There are gremlins in my system. I really do apologize. Part I of my Barbie doll study mysteriously vanished when I was trying to link it to Part II.But it's been recovered and all is well again. This leads me to believe that either (1) Stripe and the gang are up to something nasty, or (2) I really need to replace my dinosaur computer. I, for one, would rather face off against a thousand Spielbergian nightmares than enter the Apple Store, so here we are:

Part I: The Public Life of a Private Doll
Part II: The Private Life of a Public Icon