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: