Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Safe explorations

Yesterday I pulled together several critiques of the Twilight series. Because of the reasons describe there, I don't enjoy the series. However, I think it is important to acknowledge the appeal of the books for young female fans.

It is important not to dismiss the enjoyment that young girls who love the books and who feel swept up by the characters. We already too easily dismiss nascent feelings of love that girls grapple in the process of becoming adults. I think we've all heard older people tell young people that they "don't know what love is". Heather Corinna of Scarleteen writes about this dismissal of a young person's experience of love: "You felt the double-whammy of having what you know to be the truth of your feelings discounted and of being deeply patronized all at once." I feel sometimes the criticism of Twilight becomes criticism of its fans and I don't want this to be so.

Personally, if I were 12 when the Twilight books became popular, I think I would have liked them too, if not fanatically, at least partly. I don't like the books, but I still feel very close to the feelings Bella has, to the feelings the fans of Twilight have about the characters. I know the giddy feeling of having crush, even if its directed toward a fictional character or an actor playing the fictional character. These feelings that 12 year-olds have aren't the same love that a 21 year-old or a 41 or 71 year old woman would feel. But when you are (and when I was) 12 that is as close to romantic love as we have known. I've felt those feelings before, so I very much empathize with fans at the same time that I'm critical of the gender and race in the Twilight-verse. I see the appeal of Twilight, but I can't get past its treatment of a lot of other things.

(On a similar note, I see the appeal of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita as a masterpiece of modern literature, but I just can't get past the icky-ness of pedophilia and into the novel.)

The reason I empathize with Twilight fans, the reason I would have liked Twilight as a girl, is correctly identified by Neesha Meminger as the need for girls to safely explore their burgeoning sexuality. She writes:
Stephanie Meyer has capitalized on the one niche that Disney and women’s romance novels left open: the hunger for teen girls (and their mothers) for a safe place to explore the wonder and excitement of their own sexuality.
The key here is safety. There is good reason to take refuge in Twilight. The sexual exploitation of women and images of women is pervasive. We see them everyday: scantily-clad women on TV, women peddling cosmetics, weight-loss treatments, and ways to keep our men satisfied in bed.

Safety and security become difficult in adulthood have but we still desire and deserve it. When we're little, it was easy to be safe and to be protected. And as we grow up, the world opens up its possibilities but also its risks. I want to explore new places, new people, and new feelings but I still want to be held and to be cuddled. And it's okay normal to want that.

Meminger writes:
The final scene, with Edward lifting Bella onto his feet and dancing under the lights of the gazebo at her prom, is the ultimate little-girl-in-daddy’s-arms fantasy — safe, protected, cherished…still innocent.
Yes. Enter Edward. While Edward carries a persistent undercurrent of danger, the readers also know that he won't bite (or have sex with) Bella. There's a paradoxically safe and controlled sense of danger, like the weightlessness of being in roller coaster all the while the bar is firmly across your lap. Bella's virginity and "innocence" is not actually in danger, but the reader is allowed the temporary vertigo of intense infatuation. Twilight provides its readers with a safe universe in which to swoon over a really good-looking boy. The character of Bella is criticized for being ... really bland but her lack of distinguishing traits facilitates connection with the reader because the reader easily inserting herself into the story as Bella. A blank canvas of a character isn't a writing classes teach to build character, but it makes a lot of girls feel like they are Bella.

Now about the older fans of Twilight, the young adult women, the moms of tweens:

The desire for safety never goes away. Relationships are tricky at any age. Sometimes it's nice to take refuge somewhere where the rules are clear and there's a happy ending waiting. I sometimes think it's rather nice to be in middle school where everyone seemed to know the rules of "going out". It meant telling someone you liked them, "going out", and dancing with each other at Fun Night.

And nor should it. Girls and women at any age confront challenges to their safe space. For college-aged women, it can be the sexual coercion at parties from strangers, acquaintances, and friends. Or it can be just figuring out what you want, which is still really confusing!

The popularity of Twilight doesn't spell the doom feminism, even though the critiques may seem like that. The girls on Team Edward or Team Jacob can grow up to be on Team Feminism. When I was little, I did all the girly things. I pretended to be a princess, dressed my dolls, watched Disney movies and was swept away by the prince charmings. Twilight won't become the model relationship for most its readers just as I don't  believe in Disney movies anymore. As we grow up, we'll inevitably be exposed to different relationships, different kinds of love. Twilight will not be the only model on which to base our relationships.

My hope for the Twilight books, and by extension for crushes, infatuations, relationships that never get off the ground, and boyfriends is that they allow girls to explore their budding sexuality, to grapple with some really confusing feelings in a safe and healthy way.


A note from me:

I've been blogging prolifically of late, a new post almost every day for the past two weeks. I put much time and thought into blogging, mostly for my own pleasure, but it would be nice to hear an echo coming back. So...  I'm encouraging lurkers to de-lurk. If my writings generate some discussion in you, I'd appreciate it if you leave a comment. I'd like to hear your take too. You don't need a Blogger account and you can also  make it anonymous.



Rebel Fox said...

I read the Twilight books and actually enjoyed the sexual tension in the first 3. Didn't like the 4th book, but point aside, meyer had a new spin on the classic evil vampire - she made them dynamic in that there are good and bad vampires - they aren't all just bad. I'm sure this is in other books, but not as popular of one. Although her character develop lacks what anne rice has created in hers, they show a different side of the story more suitable for younger aged people.

I think you are totally right too in that it has that safe feeling. The roller coaster sentence is the perfect simile really. it's the tension that edward is feeling these incredible emotions, yet at the same time, would do anything to keep from hurting Bella, that give that safe boundary a bit of an edge. Most books don't go into the "budding" stage of sexuality but linger on either side of it.

The books positively reek of high school drama, which no doubt appeals to many of it teen readers, and which I admit to find hilarious, similar to the 5th Harry Potter book - Order of the Phoenix.

Rebel Fox said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Great post!

CYW said...

I removed the repeated comment.

HP got really weird when people started like each other...

Thanks for liking my simile!

melonontwotendrils said...

Really really like this post Chen!!!! Made me think about the series (though I too haven't read it) and movies in a whole new light! Much Appreciated! :)