I grew up reading strong female characters: Hermione Granger from Harry Potter and Liesel Meminger in The Book Thief. They may have been bookish and awkward and shy, but they had an internal combustion that fueled them on (and of course, later on, Katniss Everdeen literally burned on). I admired these characters for their pluck and tenacity; as a teenage girl, I saw myself in them and what I wished I could be. Throughout high school, I basically ignored Twilight and only considered it while reading a chapter in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, because the chapter basically said that vampirism is almost always a metaphor for sex. After graduation, I decided to go ahead and read them and see what the fuss was all about, and I wanted to be able to legitimately say they were awful.
I’m not going to spend an entire blog post on how bad the writing of those books are; if you’d like to see an entire website about it, click here. Quick disclaimer: I did enjoy reading them in the way that you enjoy eating an entire bag of Cheetos puffs in one sitting or chewing on gummi worms during a bad movie. But the greater messages of the books upset me in their treatment of young women.
Again, I will spare you the comparisons of Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen versus Bella Swan, because it’s just so easy: Hermione Granger continues fighting to defeat the Dark Lord even when the love of her life walks out, and Katniss Everdeen helps lead a revolution while her love is being tortured (granted, Katniss does have one too many breakdowns in Mockingjay but whatever). Bella Swan curls up in a ball on the forest floor when Edward leaves her, and she lives in a nigh-catatonic state until she begins flirting with another boy. Her only true happiness comes from Edward or Jacob, never from within. Message received: life has no meaning without a boy in it to tell you you’re special.
The reason why I’m taking the time to write about this issue is because I read this article today. In it, Tara Isabella Burton confirms what I’d worried about all along: most, if not all, books in this category preach the same message–that you only have value if a boy loves you. And this is a genre that has its own section in Barnes and Noble. Burton lays out the formula for these books, and Bella Swan (ugh that name) fits all the categories:
- Ambiguous in description but always “intelligent”: Bella Swan is described as good in school and pretty, but apart from knowing that she has dark hair and eyes and is clumsy, she could basically look like anyone. This is convenient because it allows the reader to imagine herself in Bella’s spot because she is so damn bland. The fantasy is easier to complete–Edward isn’t necessarily telling Bella how much he loves her, he’s telling you.
- Vampirism is a safe way for Bella to explore her sexuality without actually going all the way (despite that awful baseball scene in book 1, she and Edward don’t hit home base until three agonizing books later). These books provide a proxy for sexuality through vampirism or magic or some other fantastical world.
- Bella is loved not for her intelligence, wit, or charm. Edward loves her because he cannot read her mind and her blood smells special. And yes, I get how creepy that sounds, and we even get to learn the Italian for it: la tua incantante or something. She is loved because she is “unique” to Edward, not through common interests or her personality. She is inherently special to one person, and only one man can see that. She is not special based on her own merit or to herself.
- Bella’s female friends are basically seen as annoying, cumbersome, or irritating. She only has a mind for Edward. I get it–young love, whatever–but so many girls are too quick to throw away friends to hang out with a boy. And instead of proving that that behavior is dangerous and detrimental, Meyer makes it seem okay in the end because she marries Edward at the age of eighteen (or maybe nineteen but what difference does that make?) Yes, this is the message we are sending girls–get married right out of high school; it’s okay if you don’t go to college because you’ll be a wife and mother and that’s all that matters.
I’m glad that these books get teenage girls to read; I really am. But I cannot fully support an entire genre that teaches girls that their greatest value only comes from outside of them, that they are only worth something when a boy is validating them. This is dangerous and untrue. The truest lesson is that only when you love yourself can you love others or let others love you. I used to not believe this, but I do now, and I know this much to be true: you will never truly be happy until you believe you deserve someone healthy and whole who will treat you well. Emma Watson plays Hermione in Harry Potter and Sam in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which leaves us with this quote: We accept the love we think we deserve. If we teach girls that they only deserve love from other people and not themselves, they will only evaluate themselves in how others see them. Their only sense of self will come from external sources, rather than building an identity based on introspection. We cannot and must not let this lesson for girls when they turn the last page. We owe them more than that. Please read, but please know that your value lies beyond what a boy thinks of you. A girl needs to know she is a person who deserves love and affection from herself above all others.