The Bella Swan Saga: A Perspective

Twilight first came to my attention when I heard cries of, “Move over Harry Potter!” One was not amused. I’m part of the Harry Potter Generation and, well, I heart Harry. So I picked up Twilight in early 2009, wanting to see what the fuss was all about, and found myself ordering the other three books of The Twilight Saga within a couple of days.

It is worth getting a couple of points out of the way now: Twilight has definite technical and storytelling problems. Talking of Meyer’s style, I remember one discussion of which the opinions on her style could be delicately summarised as thesaurus assault.

By the time I discovered Twilight, I had hit my twenties, so I was just outside the target audience. But still, I found myself tearing through these books. They were no Harry Potter, they weren’t a fraction of the awesomeness that is Harry Potter. However, there is something engrossing about Meyer’s story. In part, this may be the supernatural theme, which has an increasing presence in young adult fiction. In part, it may also be that the traditional themes portrayed are intriguing. Bear with me here. For the target audience of Twilight, there is little experience of what many people fought against, which in this instance is tied up in a heady romance. I may not be the target audience, but I am on the fringes of it, and so I am one of those who have lived in a time of “Choice! Choice!” rather than “Give us a choice! Give us a choice!” Sure, we can learn about what happened before us, but I think it does have a bearing on how Twilight may be viewed.

While I was thinking about doing this article, I asked an old friend what he thought of Twilight. There is so much discussion among women about Bella, and I wondered what guys thought. It says something that the friend in question is the only man I know who has read the book, and even then, it was for university. One of the first points to come up was that the behaviour of both Bella and Edward doesn’t seem so out of place in a supernatural context as it does in a real context. The importance of this, he pointed out, is that from his recollection of our teenage years, boys are exposed to far more supernatural fiction than girls are. The end result being that girls perhaps only see Bella and Edward, instead of a whole cast of characters. He suggested that by seeing a range of behaviours, we can come to see what’s right and what isn’t. This is perhaps where concern about Bella and Edward began to feel more reasonable to me. I’m fortunate to have an older brother who made sure there was always the likes of Terry Pratchett around, as well as fiction aimed primarily at girls. And that’s where Twilight needn’t be detrimental in influencing young women, so long as it is one of many or a gateway to other books, rather than the one and only. The Edward Cullen of literature, say.

The conversation progressed after a minor detour via Plato, caves and Byron, and we–let’s call the friend Mr. Granger–agreed that Bella and Edward are stereotypes of teenagers, but to an extreme degree. One of the words Mr. Granger kept bringing up was angst. He has never been a teenage girl, but he couldn’t get over the way Bella felt about herself. Without any other significant female characters, Bella’s angst doesn’t find balance and in that, could girls feel that Bella is the closest to what they feel and so put more faith in her choices?

If there is one danger in particular, it seems to be when Bella is considered a heroine. She isn’t. Mr. Granger was happy, to say the least, that Hermoine is a heroine. As a protagonist, Bella may to some extent be a character that girls can relate to but that doesn’t make her a heroine or someone to look up to. Rowling created amazing heroines (and heroes) in the Harry Potter books; Meyer created an archaic protagonist in jeans. Heroines can inspire, whereas a protagonist like Bella runs the risk of inducing complacency.

Bella does make choices, though. Several of which have been contentious.

But is it Bella’s choices that are wrong, or is it Meyer’s portrayal and the surrounding circumstances? I’ve seen Bella condemned for the choices she makes, and the conclusion (to quote Bart Simpson) ickso fatso, is that her choices are wrong for all young women. What is the fear here? That girls will make the same choice as Bella? Or that girls will make a choice based on Bella? Have we lost faith in girls to make choices for themselves? The world has not been overrun by copycat horrors inspired by Stephen King, yet there seems to be this feeling that if Bella is not thwarted in her takeover of girls’ bookshelves, that there will be a pandemic of decisions inspired solely by a fictional character.

From where I am, I can see Bella’s choices as real choices. I don’t see marriage at eighteen as an inherently Bad Thing. What does seem detrimental is to tell girls that Bella’s choice is wrong. In other words, perhaps Bella was wrong to make that choice, but it doesn’t make that choice itself wrong. I can’t help but feel that it needs to remain a choice, instead of going backwards and letting Twilight bring back black and white thinking.

The idea of Bella’s choice on marriage as being one of many, rather than a bad choice, leads me to think of another event for which Bella has been condemned. In the second installment, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Edward dumps Bella. Bella ends up in a very dark place as a result. This reaction, and Meyer’s portrayal came across–to me, at least–as very feasible. I’ve seen many friends go through break-ups and react in very similar ways. It doesn’t have to have been with The One to do this, either. Break-ups suck. Everyone reacts differently and I find it a strange message to send to girls that Bella’s reaction isn’t right. Bella, dear goodness, Bella needs girlfriends and the hope would be that with good girlfriends, Bella wouldn’t have found herself in that situation to begin with but that aside, does it really help to invalidate a reaction to a relationship ending at an age when life is kind of crazy to begin with? The other  criticism of Bella comes by comparison to Hermione (and more recently, Katniss, of The Hunger Games). Hermione is fantastic, and I loved growing up with her, but I wouldn’t tell one friend to get a grip over her break-up because another of our friends was kicking-ass (though I might suggest we tag along and try letting off steam by saving the world, if she felt like it).

To quote Dumbledore: “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” Okay, so I’m not suggesting Bella is a name to necessarily be feared but I think some people do. So instead of fearing Bella, maybe it’s time to think of Hermione and take her lead. To head off to the library and do some research on the discussions Bella sparks, and if the library isn’t sufficient, to head out there and tackle the ideas head on and remember that girls are amazing, capable and strong in their own right.

Having quoted Dumbledore already, I’m going to go with award-winning young adult author John Green for some final words:

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Juniper

Rarely to be found without herbal tea nearby. Team Unicorn. Often in pyjamas. Also: TEAM KATNISS!

31 thoughts on “The Bella Swan Saga: A Perspective”

  1. Why do we always have to compare Twilight with Harry Potter and now the Hunger Games. Are these just the only young adult books that adults are supposed to be aware of? I love Harry Potter and the Hunger Games but I would never compare them. If a friend who was a Potter nerd was looking for a similarly themed book, I would not bring Katniss into the conversation. I don’t understand this at all. If anyone has any theories or explanations, please please please enlighten me so that I can stop complaining about it.

  2. Ah, hello! Just wanted to leave a quick note to say: am really enjoying the responses and it’s certainly giving cause for even more thought! But have had exceptionally grouchy four-and-a-half-year-old for the past few nights and have found it nigh on impossible to do more than grab a few minutes and read the replies. Am hoping to be able to give them more time and thought before very long!

  3. I haven’t read the books (still debating it) but I recently watched all the movies and similarly found myself sucked in to the story line. I decided to watch them after all my friends declared they were a literary abomination and here’s what I concluded: it’s a teenage movie about angsty teenagers who act like teenagers and make choices like teenagers. It’s not great literature nor is it great film, so I don’t think we should compare it to the greats. But if we compare it to other teenage girly movies, we might find that Edward isn’t so different from other male love interests–emotional, selfish and controlling. I kind of like the story and I find aspects of it intriguing. Someone mentioned escapism and I think that accurately sums up why I keep watching. For people who really are afraid of what might happen to teenagers who love this series, just remember that their attention spans are short and the Twighlight series seems to already be loosing steam. Besides, The Hunger Games are the new big series and there’s a movie coming out soon–I’m sure that all things Twighlight will soon be forgotten and forever cataloged next to old yearbooks.

    1. It will certainly be interesting to see who Twilight stands up to the test of time. That’s a really interesting point about comparing it to other ‘teenage girly films’. If it is common place in that instance, it is somewhat concerning to consider what teens are being exposed to on a frequent basis.

  4. My main problem with Twilight is that there’s no substance to Bella and Edward’s relationship.  All they talk about is the very fact that they’re together.  We never get to see what their dynamic is when the relationship is allowed to settle.  We never get clued in to what they’re actually fighting for.

    I’m not going to condemn a modern flimsy romance any more than I would Jane Austin (come on, increased quality aside, it’s still fluff).  I do wish that Meyer hadn’t dropped the cool bits about Jasper’s mob connections.  Twilight is a wish-fulfilment fantasy for insecure girls who hope they’re prettier than they think they are.  They want people to find them interesting without taking the emotional risk of opening up.  If you haven’t been that girl, you won’t get Twilight.

  5. I agree with you that it’s a little unfair to condemn the character of Bella because she’s insecure, ‘angsty’ and even a little melodramatic. As you say, that’s not a terribly inaccurate depiction of life for many teenage girls. I’ve also seen a lot of people contrasting Bella with Katniss, but this misses the fairly major point that – spoilers ahoy – Katniss basically has a complete psychological breakdown in the third book, and far from overcoming her traumas by being kickass and saving the world, she winds up living a low-key life with PTSD that never fully heals. I know a lot of readers found that very problematic and hated the book as a result, but I actually thought it was a brave decision by the writer, and one consistent with the character of Katniss (who never, from the beginning of the series onward, actually had a political agenda – she always just wanted to survive and protect her loved ones).

    Having said all of that, I still find Bella a deeply problematic character, for two reasons: first because Bella is a Mary Sue rather than a fully-formed character, and second because Meyer vindicates, indeed lionises and rewards, Bella’s obsessive dedication to a borderline-abusive relationship. Of course not all stories need to be morality plays teaching young women how to behave. Plenty of the most beloved ‘strong’ female caracters are deeply flawed, making bad mistakes and sometimes indulging in angst galore (ref: all of Buffy Season 6). But Bella isn’t a character with fully realised, if sometimes unlikeable, personality traits (like the cold, brittle Katniss, competitive Hermione or self-centred Buffy); she’s a reader stand-in whose entire personality revolves around her abusive lover. Her flaws are treated as virtues and her actions don’t have negative consequences; instead she just floats along in the story, never really taking any action (at least, any action unrelated to Edward) but instead reacting to the events around her. Hell, even her desire to become a vampire is only fulfilled because she’s dying and there’s no other choice. So Bella gets exactly what she wants and learns nothing along the way; she’s vindicated completely (all the people who didn’t understand their love sure are sorry at the end when they live happily ever after and even Jacob gets his child-bride as compensation!!). Her story arc is pure adolescent wish-fulfillment. And while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, and helps to explain why so many people love the story so much – because who doesn’t enjoy a little escapist wish-fulfillment? - it certainly doesn’t make for a compelling chraacter or a good message for teenage girls imo.

    1. That’s really interesting to see what you thought of Mockingjay, because it did seem to upset a lot of people. I thought Collins wrote a very … honest ending for Katniss.

      Bella’s character doesn’t necessarily make for a good message, no, but it’s where i’m inclined to feel that she doesn’t make for a bad message, either. A case (I feel, anyway) for a book that can be enjoyed, so long as it’s not treated as a guide.

    2. Rah29 said everything I wanted to say in response to this. However, I do want to reiterate the point that Edward is abusive. Sure, you can enjoy the story, but for those of us who recognize how dangerous this relationship would be in the real world, touting it as a magical romance that will transcend the ages is not acceptable. Meyer is glorifying the signs of abuse that should be recognized for what they are.

      It’s not about Bella’s choices, for me, because quite honestly I don’t feel that she had choices. As someone who was stuck in a psychologically abusive relationship for two years, I did convince myself that I loved the guy and cared about what he thought because I had to in order to survive. I had an ultimatum, not a choice; stay with this guy and be miserable, but try to make the best of it – or leave him, knowing that he will carry out his threats to kill himself if I do.

      Part of the reason I didn’t accept that I was in an abusive relationship until much later is because I WAS a teenager (ironically, I was in this relationship when I read the Twilight series) and because nobody had ever taught me the signs to look for. Nobody had ever explained to me that you could be raped by someone you trusted; it was all about protecting yourself in dark alleys and saying “no” at parties. When I got older I realized that the signs had been there all along, but nobody pointed them out to me. Because we were teenagers and we didn’t know.

      Defending this as something teenagers can enjoy just makes it seem more dangerous to me. We’re telling teenage girls (who probably don’t already know the signs of abuse – even though they should) that this “romance” is something that can be enjoyed, even ‘just’ as escapism. If a reader of the Twilight books fell into a similarly abusive relationship she might be able to justify it by convincing herself it’s just like Bella and Edward. She might have to just to make it through. Whereas if she knew from the start why Bella and Edward’s relationship was problematic, she could have avoided that situation for herself in the first place. Does this make sense?

      I don’t care if adults enjoy this series as long as you can acknowledge that there are heavily problematic aspects of these books, and I don’t mean with Meyer’s atrocious grammar. But I do take offense to the idea that other people – particularly, teenage girls, who it was sort of mentioned are vulnerable – should also enjoy it. Keep it personal if it’s going to be that way. Maybe ‘it’s fun escapism’ is the #1 reason to like Twilight, but uh… to each their own. All I’m asking is don’t act like there’s nothing wrong with telling teenage girls that abuse is fun and adorable.

      1. This x 1000! I have two teenage daughters, and it terrifies me to think what this series teaches girls in their formative years, especially in terms of the concerns that Chelsea has outlined. Yes, my daughters and I have talked about these concerns, but the messaging can still sneak into their subconsciousness. (For example, who among us, even understanding its tricks and gimmicks and problematics, has not fallen victim to the influence of marketing at some point?) I truly fear for the girls who have no one to guide them through a critical analysis of this series.

        1. Thank you! I’m glad to hear you’ve talked about this stuff with your daughters, as well. You’re absolutely right; even as someone who tries to be observant of that type of thing, I know I’ve certainly succumbed to the tricks of marketing, and as I mentioned, even I was not immune to the allure of Twilight at first (however, the suspension of disbelief got me until about 3/4 of the way through the 4th book. When Jacob fell in love with the baby I said to myself “Are you fucking kidding me?” and immediately returned the book without finishing it. Just saying. Even I might have liked it… but she pushed it just a little too far).

      2. I do appreciate that you’re coming at this from a different place than I am, in that I haven’t been in an abusive relationship. The abusive elements of Bella and Edward’s relationship don’t however feel like a reason to discourage girls from reading Twilight, it feels like a reason to increase information and discussion (as I suggested in the article) on abusive relationships.  Abuse in (teen) relationships was around before Twilight and will be around for years to come, and as I said in the article, so long as Twilight is one of many, I don’t see why a teenage girl shouldn’t read the story. I would also add, that having re-read the article several times, I can’t see where I’ve glorified and endorsed Bella and Edward’s relationship.

  6. There are a ton of messages I don’t agree with in Meyer’s writing, not to mention a ton of shit I don’t agree with when it comes to Meyer as an author overall, but when I first read the books (in my 30s) they transported me back to my teenage self.

    I was full of angst with little to no confidence in myself as a burgeoning woman. I GOT that complete loss of herself that Bella seemed to be living.

    And to be honest, reading that was cathartic for me because I could look back on it with different eyes and make peace with it and with the teenage self that I still loathed quite a bit.

    Would I recommend the books to any teen girl (or guy)? No, I really wouldn’t. I wouldn’t because I think they could easily be used to reinforce those negativities…especially for girls who don’t have anyone in their lives to counteract them.

    But I would recommend them to anyone who needs an outlet to revisit their youth and see it from a different angle…and maybe, just maybe, get over and through it. Or more importantly, to forgive themselves because really, how can we hold our teen selves at fault for emotions that we don’t know how to control?

    1. Exactly! I remember reading Twilight and thinking that Meyer had taken the obsessive and insecure teenage girl, a phase that LOTS of us go through, and told her readers to run with that. Because if you keep being your obsessive and insecure self, you will be rewarded with a magical, sparkly, alabaster Adonis. It glorified the fantasies, without encouraging any personal growth.

      And Juniper, you make a lot of good points. I can totally see how Bella came to her decisions. It is all very feasible, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with her character.

    2. When I read the first book, I instantly got why it was so popular — that sense of 1st Love and how dramatic and consuming and life-or-death it can be. I recognized it immediately. But there’s a lot of problematic elements in the book — the part where Edward dismantles her engine so she can’t go visit Jacob is a big one — most of which could be sorta excused away under the guise of teenagers-being-absorbed-in-teenagerdom.

      If the books had ended there, I don’t think there would have been as much of a backlash. As the series goes on, the narrative decisions become more questionable and Bella becomes less of a person and more of a Mary Sue.

      Interestingly, I had a similar reaction that you did with Twilight when I re-read Catcher in the Rye. I just felt a lot of sadness and empathy for Holden, who was someone I deeply identified with as a teenager.

  7. Honestly, I went into this post assuming I wouldn’t like it. But now I find myself agreeing. The circumstances are far more worrisome than Bella herself, and Edward’s actions are flat-out scary. I don’t worry that girls will read Twilight and go out making the same choices she did; I worry that the views and circumstances presented will be normalized.

    1. Mr. Granger and I did spend quite a bit of time talking about Edward and certainly, his actions are not (should not) be the norm. The concern of what’s in Twilight being normalised is where I really feel it’s important that Twilight be a gateway to other books, rather than the one and only.

  8. Bella does make choices, though. Several of which have been contentious.

    But is it Bella’s choices that are wrong, or is it Meyer’s portrayal and the surrounding circumstances? I’ve seen Bella condemned for the choices she makes, and the conclusion (to quote Bart Simpson) ickso fatso, is that her choices are wrong for all young women. What is the fear here? That girls will make the same choice as Bella? Or that girls will make a choice based on Bella? Have we lost faith in girls to make choices for themselves? The world has not been overrun by copycat horrors inspired by Stephen King, yet there seems to be this feeling that if Bella is not thwarted in her takeover of girls’ bookshelves, that there will be a pandemic of decisions inspired solely by a fictional character.

    I would actually argue that Bella doesn’t make choices. She is completely buffeted along by the events of the story. Aside from being attracted to Edward, which I wouldn’t clarify as a choice, she kinda just stays the course, and any turns are dictated by outside forces in the novel. She doesn’t want to get married, but gets forced into it. She doesn’t choose between Edward and Jacob — that’s magically taken care of for her by the end of the series. She doesn’t want to go to college, but Edward forces her hand in the matter. (Not that she ends up having to go.) She doesn’t want kids, but gets pregnant, and then the pregnancy progresses so fast there’s barely time to deal with it. Even though she says she wants to keep the baby even if its killing her, there’s plenty of evidence in the books that she’s being influenced by the fetus mystically.  Alice picks her clothes, Edward picks her cars, the Cullens pick her house. In the end, she doesn’t even get to dictate how she becomes a vampire — the one thing she expresses a great deal of desire for.

    That being said, most readers of the series I’ve spoken to have never really expressed any admiration for Bella, but they get caught up in the romance — which is thinly veiled as abusive and controlling, and that’s really where I have problem with the texts. Perhaps in the hands of a more experienced writer, this kind of tricky read of their relationship would have been handled better, but I find it deeply problematic.

     

    Thank you so much for such a detailed and thoughtful post! I love hearing what people are thinking about their reading.

    1.  Aside from being attracted to Edward, which I wouldn’t clarify as a choice, she kinda just stays the course, and any turns are dictated by outside forces in the novel. She doesn’t want to get married, but gets forced into it. She doesn’t choose between Edward and Jacob — that’s magically taken care of for her by the end of the series. She doesn’t want to go to college, but Edward forces her hand in the matter. (Not that she ends up having to go.) She doesn’t want kids, but gets pregnant, and then the pregnancy progresses so fast there’s barely time to deal with it. Even though she says she wants to keep the baby even if its killing her, there’s plenty of evidence in the books that she’s being influenced by the fetus mystically.  Alice picks her clothes, Edward picks her cars, the Cullens pick her house. In the end, she doesn’t even get to dictate how she becomes a vampire — the one thing she expresses a great deal of desire for.

      Exactly this.

    2. This is a really interesting stance, and perhaps why, when writing this I became aware of how few choices (as I see them, anyway!) Bella makes. A different writer could have made a massive difference to the story and so often, it’s not what’s written about but how it’s written.

  9. Hermione is fantastic, and I loved growing up with her, but I wouldn’t tell one friend to get a grip over her break-up because another of our friends was kicking-ass (though I might suggest we tag along and try letting off steam by saving the world, if she felt like it).

    I think this is a great point, but I think things would be different if it was a sister or daughter.  I think I would say “hey, look at so-and-so, she isn’t locking herself up in her room because her boyfriend left, let’s go dancing or for a walk and talk.”

    I agree that certain choices aren’t inherently bad, like getting married at 18. It could work.  But I think that the concerns about how this book influences young women are valid, in the same way the concerns about how Disney Princesses or Barbie affects young women are valid.

    1. I keep saying ‘interesting’ but there really are so many interesting points and the comparison to Disney Princesses and Barbie is certainly one I hadn’t considered before, but will be keeping in mind. It’s also interesting to see the difference between say, a friend and a sister, and how to approach it.

  10. I agree that Bella is not the problem far as being a role model for girls. The larger issue is the romanticization of abuse that appears throughout the books. And Bella is the victim there, not the perpetrator, so I can’t say that I hold anything against her.

    I think the real character that parents should be afraid of their children reading about is Edward. He is abusive towards Bella. Full stop. But their relationship is still played out as a fantasy and they are still depicted as soul mates.  I don’t think that people go out and imitate what they see in these books directly per say. I am far more worried about the impact that this romanticization of abuse can have subconsciously on young girls.

    1. Thinking of another comment further up, it seems that Twilight may not be the only book/film that has the potential to affect young girls and their views of romance and abuse (interestingly, John Green makes the point of not ‘conflating obsession with love’).

  11. There are lots of reasons why I have trouble with Bella, and they don’t really have to do with her choices.  The first is her willingness (okay, I guess this is a choice) to put herself in danger for a mate.  I think that this is a terribly, terribly romanticized version of abuse, and I shudder that it is put in a role model-ish way.  The second is something small, but it falls into that same old trope: the way Bella interacts with other females in the book was so stereotypically women-are-catty-and-vapid. Actually, that kind of goes along with the abusive relationship, as well – whenever what’s-his-face is around, she can’t stand her old friends, and they all seem to be jealous of her and can’t possibly understand.  I don’t care for heroines that don’t care for other women.

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