Twilight, Chapter 3: Phenomenon
Today we're going to take the text in order: Clumsy, Boys, Clumsy, Boys. I may be a little unpleasant; I apologize in advance.
WHEN I OPENED MY EYES IN THE MORNING, SOMETHING was different.
I jumped up to look outside, and then groaned in horror.
A fine layer of snow covered the yard, dusted the top of my truck, and whitened the road. But that wasn’t the worst part. All the rain from yesterday had frozen solid — coating the needles on the trees in fantastic, gorgeous patterns, and making the driveway a deadly ice slick. I had enough trouble not falling down when the ground was dry; it might be safer for me to go back to bed now.
And now we come to the issue of Bella's clumsiness.
When I started reading Twilight, I was actually surprised at how many references to Bella's clumsiness are jammed into the first few pages. I mean, we're not 40 pages in and she's already beaned people in the head at volleyball and fallen over several times and been tacitly acknowledged by the entire school after one week that she's a klutz beyond all possible imagining. And it's only going to get worse from here.
At first I thought it was a sort of Every Teen characterization: many teens feel awkward as their bodies change and develop, so it seemed like this fit the pattern of Bella-the-Reader-Insert. But then the characterization started getting more and more in your face to the point where Edward will actually claim that Bella can't walk in a straight line across a level room without falling on her face. And I don't think we're meant to read that as an exaggeration. I figured S. Meyer was being heavy handed and didn't know when to reign Bella's One Defining Character Trait in a little to more subdued, realistic levels.
By the end of the novel, however, my cynicism had kicked in full force and I now firmly believe that Bella is a Walking Disaster Area merely so that beefy wolfmen and shiny vampires can have an excuse to pick her up and carry her everywhere like a handbag. Plus, it's great comedy for the whole family! We'll delve later into why this bothers me intensely.
But putting aside my cynicism for a moment, I'd like to talk about how disappointed I am that Bella's One Trait To Rule Them All characteristic doesn't influence the story more. I realize that Bella is a poor girl (living in a 2-bedroom 2-bathroom house with a single mother and a father who can take her on yearly vacations to California and with the ability to jet up to Washington on a moment's notice) and that the internet is something that doesn't feature heavily in her life (outside of the upcoming Hot! Google! Action!) but even with limited funds and a lack of specialty stores, why is there no mention of Bella owning special shoes? It seems to me that a good pair of non-slip shoes would be cheaper than the medical bills and lawsuits. (Question: Does Renee's mysterious income stem from her milking Bella's frequent spills into lucrative lawsuits? Discuss.)
Then there's the way Bella's parents seem not to notice or care about her condition. Should someone with (apparently) hand-eye coordination and depth perception issues be given a sturdy monster truck vehicle which is capable of flattening the other cars at school, as Bella noted in the last chapter? And yet 9 times out of 10, she's seen maneuvering that huge truck in and out of tight spaces like a champ, so what is the source of Bella's balance issues, if it's not depth perception and hand-eye coordination? Inner ear infection? Munchausen stemming from her parental neglect? Is it not strange that her parents apparently haven't had her professional examined for any medical issues? I'm not trying to be flippant; severe balance issues can cause serious harm to people, and can be indicative of serious medical problems. Why is no one -- not her parents, not her counselors -- noticing this problem and helping her? Once again, I'm furious that the Twilight adults are so utterly incurious about their charges.
I threw down a quick bowl of cereal and some orange juice from the carton. I felt excited to go to school, and that scared me. I knew it wasn’t the stimulating learning environment I was anticipating, or seeing my new set of friends. If I was being honest with myself, I knew I was eager to get to school because I would see Edward Cullen. And that was very, very stupid.
I should be avoiding him entirely after my brainless and embarrassing babbling yesterday. And I was suspicious of him; why should he lie about his eyes? I was still frightened of the hostility I sometimes felt emanating from him, and I was still tongue-tied whenever I pictured his perfect face. I was well aware that my league and his league were spheres that did not touch. So I shouldn’t be at all anxious to see him today.
This passage rubs me up the wrong way, but it's hard for me to immediately understand why.
For starters, I actually think it's not a bad thing for Bella to be excited about seeing Edward again. Edward is the first person in this book who has shown genuine interest in her feelings, and they were able to have a pretty deep conversation about why Bella moved to Forks and why the decision has made her unhappy. I can understand feeling embarrassed and vulnerable the next day, now that she's bared her soul, but at the same time, it would be a little exciting to have finally found someone to talk to in the dreary green hell that is Forks. Considering that Bella has been extremely isolated since arriving to Forks and apparently has been isolated her whole life, this seems like a pretty major life event to have a Maybe-Friend all of the sudden.
There's also the fact that Bella has been dreading seeing Edward for weeks since his first violent introduction to her in The Biology Incident. When he did finally show up again, he was polite and engaged her in conversation, even expressing sympathy for her situation. Yes, he still leaned away from her during class, but to me this would indicate that the prior outburst was therefore nothing personal -- if he can be charming to her and then still lapse into that leaning-away-while-grimacing behavior, it seems all the more likely that her shampoo is giving him an allergic reaction or something and he is just too polite to say. Or that maybe he has irritable bowel syndrome or something totally unrelated to her presence. Either way, I would think it would be a huge relief to find that your lab partner for the year apparently isn't a sociopath intent on your destruction, and that revelation alone would be enough to make me excited to see him again -- I'd want to re-confirm that everything is peaches and cream between us now.
Then, also, Edward is the first boy at school who has been interested in Bella without salivating down her blouse, or so it would seem to hear Bella tell it a few paragraphs down. And I think that would be rather refreshing, too -- Bella has already indicated how uncomfortable she feels being stalked-into-relationship by Puppy Mike and Chess Club Eric, so it seems like it would be very nice to have Just A Friend Edward to talk to and bond with. They're both out-of-towners, so they may have a lot in common since moving to Forks. Plus, Edward is supposed to be an actual orphan and Bella is an emotional one, so they'd probably have a lot of support to provide each other. And he's got two sisters, both of whom may also want a friend! Seriously, Just A Friend Edward seems like a jackpot for Bella.
So it's actually quite frustrating to me that all Bella can focus on is how pretty Edward is and how she shouldn't get her hopes up because she's UglyFace and he's SexyMusical. I get there's sexual attraction going on here, and I'm not saying that Bella shouldn't be attracted to guys, but there's a difference I think between saying "I shouldn't get my hopes up for anything more than friends" and "I shouldn't be friends because he's not attainable". There's no reason in my mind why Bella can't be simultaneously excited to see Edward because he might be a good friend in the making while also harboring a quiet sexual attraction to the boy. If the friendship pans out, maybe they can act on that attraction, but I can't think she's likely to get much chance at him if she shuts him down and refuses to be friends. (S. Meyer will disagree with this assessment.) And between a minuscule chance and zero chance, I'd pick the former.
Because Bella isn't interested in being friends with someone she wants but can't have, this characterization has the effect of making her look either very shallow (I can't have him, so I don't want him) or very low in self-esteem (He won't want me, so I shouldn't bother him). Both of these are valid characterizations, and nothing to necessarily complain about, but I don't like it being presented as some kind of ideal behavior. There's nothing wrong with being friends with someone who doesn't want you as a romantic partner, but I can't at the moment think of anyone in this novel who fills that role for Bella. Bella doesn't have friends, she has suitors. And that's not healthy, in my opinion. (Question: How would Twilight be better if Bella had a male best friend who was utterly uninterested in her romantically? Discuss.)
There's also the problem that in a few sentences, Bella is going to start complaining about how rough it is to be wanted by all the boys in school. I'm not trying to downplay this: having an unwanted suitor can be extremely unpleasant, especially if they're going the Stealth Boyfriend route that Mike and Eric seem to be quietly attempting. This is unsettling because it forces the object of attention into a position where she/he has to say "I know what you are doing, and I need you to stop. We don't have that kind of relationship, so please modify your behavior." This is extremely unpleasant because it involves confrontation and, in many cases, over behavior that can be superficially claimed to be innocent. (But I was just carrying your books for you! Geez!)
So I'm not going to say that Bella doesn't have the right to complain about her Stalker With A Crush. But at the same time, it doesn't work for me to have her complaining that she really shouldn't be excited about seeing Edward because it's not like he'd ever be interested in a relationship with her. I just feel like a more sensible character would have at least a moment of Gosh, it was nice to talk to a guy without feeling pressured into a relationship before going on to lament his unattainable hotness. Just a single moment of reflection, that's all I ask.
Beyond anything else, I don't like this passage because it's so overwrought. I can be petty like that.
It took every ounce of my concentration to make it down the icy brick driveway alive. I almost lost my balance when I finally got to the truck, but I managed to cling to the side mirror and save myself. Clearly, today was going to be nightmarish.
OK, here comes the unpleasant bit. *deep breath* The thing that bothered me most in my read-through of Twilight was the clumsiness issue. I'm serious. Everything else in this novel, every potentially bad thing, I minded less -- much less -- than the ha ha Bella falls down a lot stuff. And now I'm going to try to break down why it bothers me so much.
I have a chronic pain condition, so I know a little bit about living with a chronic pain condition. Falling down a lot is a chronic pain condition because falling down hurts. Bella falls down all the time, so it stands to reason that she would realize that falling down hurts. For people who fall incidentally, once or twice a year, falling may be comedy gold with a bad bruise to go with it the next day. For people who fall excessively, once or twice a day, falling is not something they joke about because falling means constant pain, twisted limbs, broken bones, casts, crutches, hospitalizations, and much more.
Knowing that, this line of narration means that Bella came very close to seriously injuring herself, because someone who falls every day (as Bella empirically does in-text) is very unlikely to joke about a little slip-and-slide as a near-death experience. (Furthermore, that "nightmarish" line isn't actual overwrought narration -- today actually will be nightmarish for Bella because she's almost certain to seriously hurt herself. Again.) She might joke about it in person, to minimize the pain of living with a chronic condition, but she would not joke about it in her head, which is what the narration supposedly is. I can almost guarantee that a Real Life Bella would be narrating this way:
It took every ounce of my concentration to make it down the icy brick driveway without falling. I almost lost my balance when I finally got to the truck, but I managed to cling to the side mirror and steady myself. Clearly, today was going to be nightmarish.
I may be being totally nit-picky, but for me those three words completely transform this passage from Haha, Bella falls a lot and it's cute and endearing and funny! to Oh, crap, Bella falls a lot and that must suck pretty badly. The first passage made falling desirable; the second passage makes falling undesirable.
Bella as a character doesn't minimize her pain internally. We have had detailed internal descriptions of how awful Forks is, how much she hates retaking her classes, how embarrassing it is to realize Charlie still loves Renee, how dreadful it is to have to put up with school pictures of herself in the hallway, how annoying it is to listen to Jessica's chatter, how uncomfortable it is to deal with Mike and Eric, how cold and wet and dreary and snowy it is in Forks, and... I think you get the picture. Bella may "suffer in silence" before her peers, but she doesn't self-edit her own pain.
Except when she falls down
The thing is, Bella doesn't actually have a chronic condition of falling down, because no one takes it seriously. It's the tree falling in a forest issue -- if Bella fell down all the time, someone would take it seriously. Maybe not everyone. Maybe not her neglectful parents or her narcissist boyfriend or her self-absorbed friends or her overworked teachers. But Bella would notice. Bella would have to notice, because Bella would be in pain constantly. Bella would take the falling seriously, and therefore the narration would take the falling seriously.
People who are in pain constantly think about their pain. They think about minimizing it as much as possible. Their thoughts will be occupied by their surroundings, their own actions, the actions of others, they way they stand, the way they walk, the way they carry things. There will be a constant internal battle for control and management and prevention of the pain. They may never be able to prevent falling with these mental exercises, but they'll still try because that's how humans are wired -- we want to minimize pain, cuts, bruises, and twisted and broken limbs.
Bella doesn't do this, ever. Her constant tumbles in Twilight are as serious to her as they are to a court jester. Whoops! There goes Bella! Oops! Bella falls again! It's slapstick comedy, over and over and over again. Haha! Bella beaned someone in the head with a volleyball! Will she never learn? Hahaha.
|Futurama: The Birdbot of Ice-Catraz|
To someone with chronic pain, this is insulting. S.Meyer is taking something that many people have to live with and she's shining it up into a lovable and amusing character trait. Bella's trips and tumbles aren't serious things that cause serious harm; they're just a cutesy characteristic to make her seem flawed and lovable. It's the equivalent of making a character who is supposedly suffering from cancer and then discarding all the icky cancer bits to talk about her adorable bald head and oh she gets cold at night so she needs a fluffy-wuffy werewolf to warm her up and isn't that adorwuble? Oh, but that's different because falling doesn't kill people, right? Well, not quite.
Beyond the issue of pain and privilege, though, Bella's not-really-chronic condition is troubling for what it represents. If the issue was isolated to sloppy characterization (She's clumsy!) and slapstick (...and it's funny!), without ever having consequences then it would merely be insensitive. However, it's worth noting that Bella does in fact hurt herself, and there are in fact consequences to her tumbles. The issue here, though, those "consequences" are actually presented as wonderful benefits.
When Bella seriously hurts herself for plot-convenient reasons, her pain isn't a source of sorrow but rather a source of joy because it becomes an excuse for her to be coddled, loved, carried, babied, and protected. Edward will at one point literally carry Bella because he doesn't trust her to walk without hurting herself. This isn't presented as a bad thing, as a chronic condition like this would most certainly be, but rather something advantageous. And because we have so few women in the Twilight novel, Bella enlarges to a sort of Every Woman in the narrative. Since her romance with Edward is supposed to be a pure example of True Love, a platonic ideal for the rest of us to aspire to, her actions and attributes become more than descriptive -- they become (intentionally or not) prescriptive.
Bella's clumsiness becomes not something to lament and avoid, but rather something to envy and emulate. Just think, girls! You, too, could fall at the drop of a hat and then you could have your very own strong Edward to sweep you up, kiss your (very tiny! and not really painful at all!) bruises and carry you away into HappyLand. And all you had to do was pretend to have a serious condition that kills people yearly!
Am I making mountains of molehills? It's possible.
Driving to school, I distracted myself from my fear of falling and my unwanted speculations about Edward Cullen by thinking about Mike and Eric, and the obvious difference in how teenage boys responded to me here. I was sure I looked exactly the same as I had in Phoenix. Maybe it was just that the boys back home had watched me pass slowly through all the awkward phases of adolescence and still thought of me that way. Perhaps it was because I was a novelty here, where novelties were few and far between. Possibly my crippling clumsiness was seen as endearing rather than pathetic, casting me as a damsel in distress. Whatever the reason, 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.
This passage tells me two things:
1. Bella has intense insight into her own author by instinctively understanding that her "crippling clumsiness" is meant to endear her to the reader and is meant to cast her as a damsel in distress to both Edward Sparklethighs and Jacob Oilychest so that they can take turns coddling, carrying, and catering to her.
2. Bella sees her own disability as pathetic.
- Arousing pity, esp. through vulnerability or sadness
- Miserably inadequate
The funny thing is, I agree with Bella. Falling over all the time is pathetic. But I somehow suspect that I am using the first definition of the word (i.e., worthy of empathy) whereas Bella is using the second.
Now having ranted myself hoarse, I don't want to come down too hard on S.Meyer. I think that she would probably agree that falling down all the time and living with chronic pain is a seriously bad thing. I additionally think that she probably meant for Bella's "disability" to be a positive trait in an affirming way, kind of like how Riordan's dyslexic characters can read Ancient Greek and isn't that just so freaking cool? I'm guessing that S.Meyer wanted Bella to be real, visceral, and flawed, so that she could turn around and say You're Beautiful And Special And Wonderful, Even If You Don't Realize It.
And I respect that, I do. And I want to like it, to encourage it. We need more weak heroes. We need more characters who live and struggle with chronic pain. But -- and here's the thing -- the pain has to be real. It has to be uncomfortable. It has to be unwanted. It has to be inconvenient. It has to at the very least be something more than a big joke or a source of embarrassment. The pain should be crippling in its own right and not because it makes the heroine angst about her dating options. And it has to be dealt with more deeply and sensitively than just a big excuse to be carried around on the shoulders of supernatural sex gods.