Sooner or later, I'll have to admit that Firefly is really the first Joss Whedon franchise I've really followed. Buffy was riding high during a time in my life when I was just too busy to watch television, and by the time I was in a place where I felt I could catch up, I was daunted by the sheer volume that had come before and the impossibility of coming up to speed quickly. I did watch a dozen or so episodes of Angel, though, largely because it was aired around the same time as Charmed (which I watched for awhile out of desperation for positive portrayals -- however mismanaged -- of Wicca in the media).
I didn't really care that much for Angel, but one episode stuck with me well enough that years later I was able to pull up an episode synopsis with very little effort. In this episode, Cordelia (who is plagued with painful and debilitating visions) pops into the astral plane to have a heart-to-heart over this whole painful-and-debilitating-visions business. Her spirit-demon-guide-buddy gives her the once over and remarks in surprise and admiration that she must have unusual self-confidence because most other people present an idealized version of themselves on the astral plane.
[nsfw] This was really more than enough prompting for me to roll off the couch laughing hysterically because I would rather imagine that I too would have decent self-confidence if I looked like Charisma Carpenter. It's a pretty decent bet, after all, that if you're asked to pose nude for both the cover of Playboy and a ten-page nude layout, that at least according to society at large, you're doing okay in the looks department. [/nsfw]
But it was while I was confirming via Wikipedia that Charisma Carpenter had in fact posed for Playboy (because I do try to double-check the stuff I write), that I found this quote:
In the June 2004 issue of Playboy magazine, Carpenter appeared on the cover and in a ten-page nude layout. When asked by People magazine in 2005 about her nude pictorial and whether or not she would ever pose for Playboy again, she replied, "I don't know. I did Playboy for a very specific reason. Not only was it a good financial move, but it was about the place I was at in my life. I had just had my son and I'd gained 50 lbs. during pregnancy. I wanted to get back to my old self. I wanted to feel desirable and sexy. So I thought, 'What if I went full throttle?'"Which I guess just goes to show that even "looking like Charisma Carpenter" is not a full-fledged guarantee of feeling desirable and sexy all the time.
Now, I've no idea if canon!Cordelia in Angel is supposed to be beautiful all along, but I do know that Twilight is supposed to be the story of an "average girl" and the beautiful boy who loves her. Stephenie Meyer has consistently reaffirmed that Bella is average looking and not Barbie-beautiful, and that the surplus of her admirers in Forks are the result largely of her newness and subjective standards of beauty that vary from place to place. Bella is not supposed to be impossibly gorgeous, and this makes her easier for the reader to sink into the character: hey, I'm not impossibly gorgeous either, so this could be the story of my life.
And yet... there seems to be a tension in fantasies that we both want our reader insert character to be as plain and unattractive and average as necessary for us to sink into and yet still astonishingly lovely should we ever actually have to look at them. On the silver screen, the most "average girl" suddenly is filled in with a Hollywood Homely or, in the case of Bella Swan, Kristen Stewart. And, yes, beauty is subjective and very much within the eye of the beholder, however, Ms. Stewart definitely meets many of the mainstream American "standards" of beauty.
But isn't this just what Hollywood always does? Buying up intellectual property describing plain or homely people and casting them all as drop-dead gorgeous knock-outs is part of the standard operating procedure for Hollywood movies. Maybe so. Except that there's this book that I got my hands on this weekend: The Twilight Graphic Novel.
|This is a real thing in the real world.|
|The novel is not actually in color except for about 3% of the book. That disappoints me.|
|Drink that in.|
The cover is not, as you might wonder, vampire!Bella. That is, in fact, human!Bella holding hands with Edward in the forest meadow in the first book, Twilight. Bella, as pictured here, is white-as-the-driven-snow, with big brown eyes, thick lips, and a cavern between her breasts that is apparently so deep that it is sucking her sweater into gravitational collapse. (That's the only explanation I can give for the way her sweater is arranged.) Her hair reaches down to the small of her back and additionally seems to have been coated in whatever they give the Pantene Pro-V gals in the commercials.
This Bella is "average" in the same way that Kristen Stewart is "average", which is to say "not average at all". There isn't a single spot on her skin, not one mole or skin tag or birthmark or even pores. Her face is perfectly symmetrical, her eyebrows are as thin and straight as if she'd spent that very morning being waxed and penciled. Her eyes are heavily shaded with mascara and eye shadow. It's a look that can be attained naturally or can be acquired with makeup and wax and skill, and there's nothing wrong with those things, but I'm not sure it's the Bella we were sold in Twilight. But it seems to be the Bella that the author, the artist, and (presumably) the fans want.
Or maybe not. That's just the graphic novel, right, and we all know how much those artists are influenced by anime these days. Let's pull out The Twilight Saga Official Illustrated Guide and see what Bella really looks like, pre- and post-vampirism.
|Please tell me: is that a gold brick chained to her hand? Is it some sort of MP3 player? I need to know.|
Outside of the shinier hair, I honestly cannot tell a difference between human!Bella and vampire!Bella.
I think part of the appeal of Twilight lies in it being the story of an "average girl" (just like you!) who has all her fantasies come true, including the fantasy of being as incredibly beautiful on the outside as her soul-mate recognizes she is on the inside. Of course, in order to become beautiful, she has to start as "not-beautiful" (just like you!), even if we don't want to actually see that reflected in the movies and visual media accompanying the Twilight 'verse. So lip service is made to the fact that she's a little average, a little homely, a little plain, and we sit back and believe the words without dealing with the reality that the images being presented to us don't mesh with the words themselves. Why should that bother us? We've been dealing with Hollywood Homely all our lives, after all.
The fantasy of being beautiful, however, strikes me in some ways as being similar to the Fantasy of Being Thin. In 2007, Kate Harding wrote:
But exhortations like that don’t take into account magical thinking about thinness, which I suspect — and the quote above suggests — is really quite common. Because, you see, the Fantasy of Being Thin is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person – one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has. It’s not just, “When I’m thin, I’ll look good in a bathing suit”; it’s “When I’m thin, I will be the kind of person who struts down the beach in a bikini, making men weep.”If the fantasy of becoming beautiful is a fantasy of changing the self instead of changing looks, then it doesn't matter if Bella Swan is beautiful all along. The difference between human!Bella and vampire!Bella becomes a difference not of skin texture or eyebrow size or hip-to-waist ratio or bust measurements or anything else that our society largely arbitrarily defines as "beautiful" and "not-beautiful". The difference becomes something as intangible as the elusive vampire sparkles: a magical transformation into a different person. Human!Bella stumbles into school and the boys turn their heads to gawk at the new toy; vampire!Bella struts confidently around the world making grown men fall to their knees and weep in her wake.
Twilight is a fantasy, and I've said before and will say again that fantasies are well and good and healthy. But it's worth remembering -- because there are quite a few industries out there that pay good money to coax us to forget -- that the fantasy of magically becoming a new person overnight, whether via acquired beauty, acquired thinness, or acquired vampirism is not something that can be realistically realized. All these things will open doors and grant social acceptance, and that's the unfortunate nature of the world we currently (as of writing) live in, but they won't make someone a different person.
The flip side is that 'different personness' can be achieved without having to resort to magically-acquired body changes. Or, it's just possible that 'different personness' isn't even really necessary once we look past the constant demands of society to be more of whatever the exhorter-of-the-hour wants us to be.
Or, as Kate put it:
The reality is, I will never be the kind of person who thinks roughing it in Tibet sounds like a hoot; give me a decent hotel in London any day. I will probably never learn to waterski well, or snow ski at all, or do a back handspring. I can be outgoing and charismatic in small doses, but I will always then need time to recharge my batteries with the dogs and a good book; I’ll never be someone with a chock-full social calendar, because I would find that unbearably exhausting. (And no matter how well I’ve learned to fake it — and thus how much this surprises some people who know me — new social situations will most likely always intimidate the crap out of me.) I might learn to speak one foreign language fluently over the course of my life, but probably not five. I will never publish a novel until I finish writing one. I will always have to be aware of my natural tendency toward depression and might always have to medicate it. Smart money says I am never going to chuck city life to buy an alpaca farm or start a new career as a river guide. And my chances of marrying George Clooney are very, very slim.One of the very few things I like about Twilight is that -- if you squint at it in just the right light -- it tells the story of an unhappy girl who takes steps to improve her life and get the future she wants. What I don't like about that message is that she does this via fantastical means that simply aren't available for the rest of us. It's a fun and compelling fantasy if you like that sort of thing, and that's great. But I'd just as soon have had Bella come to love her own self instead of exchanging her self overnight for a 'better' self.
None of that is because I’m fat. It’s because I’m me.
Final note: I really very much wanted to work this Monty Python clip into the post, but the occasion never presented itself. Here it is, anyway.