Twilight: Women Behaving Badly

Content Note: Depression, Social In-Fighting, Criticism of Writing Styles

Twilight Recap: Bella has arrived at the weekend beach get-away. 

Twilight, Chapter 6: Scary Stories

We've theorized in the past that Bella Swan, as a character, is in some ways an almost perfect portrayal of depression, or (at the very least) a deeply sad and withdrawn young woman. Because of that theory, I haven't criticized her for many of her thoughts and actions, primarily because I do think that thoughts are generally private things and because her actions have for the most part been significantly less noteworthy than, say, Edward's. Today we're going to take a bit of a hiatus from that approach and I'm going to treat Bella Swan from a different angle -- one where she's not depressed because I don't think the author intended her to be so. How could Bella's thoughts and actions appear differently in such a light?

This is partly an attempt to keep things fresh and interesting, but mostly because I read some passages from Eclipse this week that made me very frustrated with the way I feel Bella is written as a character. As usual, feedback is welcome in the comments below. I hope this will be interesting and not offensive to anyone.

   The food was already being passed around, and the boys hurried to claim a share while Eric introduced us as we each entered the driftwood circle. Angela and I were the last to arrive, and, as Eric said our names, I noticed a younger boy sitting on the stones near the fire glance up at me in interest. I sat down next to Angela, and Mike brought us sandwiches and an array of sodas to choose from, while a boy who looked to be the oldest of the visitors rattled off the names of the seven others with him. All I caught was that one of the girls was also named Jessica, and the boy who noticed me was named Jacob.

One of the things that frustrates me about Bella in particular and Twilight in general is that both the character and the writing seem anathema to detail. I do not recall a clear picture of how many Forksian teenagers were on the outing, except that they maybe all fit into a van or two. So that's... eighteen kids? Twenty? Now we have a group of Quileute teenagers joining the Forksians, and once again, we have no idea how many there are. One of the girls is named Jessica, which Bella presumably remembers because there is another Jessica in the group already. One of the boys is named Jacob, which Bella apparently remembers because he looked at her "in interest".

This style of writing has a lot of potential side-effects. One that we've already talked about is that it has the tendency to make Bella seem so intensely depressed that she is mired in a cloud of constant sadness through which new information cannot penetrate. But there are others. Another explanation is that the writing is deliberately vague because the author is only interested in the sparkly vampire bits and doesn't want to get bogged down in the logistics of how the Quileute teenagers were conjured from the ether like that, what their appearances might be besides NATIVE AMERICAN, and if they have any names or if we should just call them 'NATIVE AMERICAN'.

This is a valid writing style, in as much as any writing style is valid (and who am I to argue with eight gazillion sales worldwide?) but it can be very frustrating for the sort of reader who doesn't want to wander a fictional gray landscape of indeterminate details until a sparkly vampire pops into view. It feels like the literary equivalent of Riddick-o-Vision from "Pitch Black".

Another probably-unintended consequence of this vague No Details Need Apply writing style is that it makes Bella seem astonishingly self-involved. Because S. Meyer doesn't want to give us a bunch of names, we continually have Bella simply not noticing or even trying to remember people when they are introduced to her. When she does bother to notice a name, it's almost always because the name belongs to a boy who has made googly eyes at her. (Or because it's a girl named Jessica.) This makes a modicum of sense in a hub-and-spoke romance novel where every boy on earth is magnetically drawn to Bella by the force of the narrative, but without cleaner handling in the text, it makes Bella seem like she's so self-absorbed that she refuses to notice people who aren't equally taken with her.

   It was relaxing to sit with Angela; she was a restful kind of person to be around -- she didn't feel the need to fill every silence with chatter. She left me free to think undisturbed while we ate. And I was thinking about how disjointedly time seemed to flow in Forks, passing in a blur at times, with single images standing out more clearly than others. And then, at other times, every second was significant, etched in my mind. I knew exactly what caused the difference, and it disturbed me.

When Bella does approve of the women around her, she approves of them on the basis of whether or not they demand any toll on her in exchange for her friendship. The ideal companion, Angela, is ideal because she sits silently nearby while Bella can tell the reader all about her growing obsession with Edward.

And bonus points for Bella snarking at her own vague, blurry narrative. However, this strikes me as passingly similar to the "Preemptive Strike" in How Not To Write a Novel where Howard and Sandra note:

   Here the weary author, who can no longer deny the awfulness of what he has been writing, attempts to deflect criticism by acknowledging the glaring flaws in his novel. He will often go on to have the characters explain the problem away by pointing out that because it is real life, it is not subject to criticism…as it would be in a novel.
   Of course, it is a novel, and nobody is fooled.
   As in twelve-step programs, acknowledging the problem is only the first step. Readers will not accept your unbelievable coincidences or clich├ęd prose just because you acknowledge there’s a problem. You must go on to fix the problem.

"How Not To Write a Novel" is a piece of witticism wrapped up in snark and served with a side of teasing, but I think the underlying point is valid. It's not enough for Bella to say, "Huh! Isn't it odd that the reader has no concept of what day of the week I started school, how long ago that was, what month it is now, how many people I know, or what I do with myself during the day seeing as how I have no job, no friends, and the only homework I have is for remedial subjects that I can therefore finish quickly? It must be because I only care about Edward and don't notice anything else!" Yes, Bella, I imagine that is why I find your life a mystery wrapped in an enigma and buried at the bottom of a very dark well, but that's not something to brag about, it's a cry for stronger editing and maybe some sassy beta characters.

   As they finished eating, people started to drift away in twos and threes. [...] Mike -- with Jessica shadowing him -- headed up to the one shop in the village. [...] By the time they all had scattered, I was sitting alone on my driftwood log, with Lauren and Tyler occupying themselves by the CD player someone had thought to bring, and three teenagers from the reservation perched around the circle, including the boy named Jacob and the oldest boy who had acted as spokesperson.

Bella Swan cannot focus on any detail in her day that doesn't revolve around Edward Cullen. She just told us that. She has described herself as 'obsessed' with the young man, and just today has sunk into an anxious depression at the idea that she might not see him until Monday. Or maybe not even then, if he's absent from school that day.

Jessica, on the other hand, is "shadowing" the lowly and unworthy Mike, because she's a pathetic puppy who can't bear to be separated from her crush for more than a few minutes.

For the most part, I've tried to give Bella a pass for the negative things she thinks. Thoughts are private; we probably shouldn't be judged by our innermost thoughts. (I have some doozies!) Thoughts are affected by depression, by hormones, by the very food that we eat. But Bella Swan -- for this post and this moment in time -- is not a person like you or I are persons. She is a character, and moreover she is a point of view character. Most importantly, she is a point of view character who is literally obsessed with a man who has done nothing but treat her badly and abusively while using not-so-subtle weasel words to criticize the women around her for being obsessed with men who do nothing but treat them badly and abusively.

I think that in S. Meyer's mind the difference is plain: Edward is bad to Bella because he loves Bella. Mike is bad to Jessica because he loves Bella. Therefore, Edward is faithful and worthy, whereas Mike is faithless and worthless.

But it doesn't work that way. Intent isn't magic, true, but beyond that Bella is not psychic. She should not know that Edward's bad behavior is motivated by True Love. (One could also make the case that she should not care, because Intent != Magic.) And it's simply not good enough to have Bella mentally note that, "Oh, well, I guess I'm kind of pathetic too," because (a) see above about fixing things instead of hand-waving them but also (b) Bella never explicitly compares her situation between Jessica and herself.

If Bella was openly saying "wow, Jessica seems pretty pathetic, but I guess that's what I look like when I moon after Edward despite his bad behavior", then we'd have a case of some subtlety. Some self-awareness. We could even have a novel that explores marginalization of women in our society and why some women don't have the luxury of a choice between Good and Bad men. Some women really only get to choose because Bad and Terrible men. Moreover, we could have an in-text discussion about the similarities between Mike and Edward, and the differences. We could perhaps have a story that is less about the Power of True Love and instead have a story about complex men and the pluses and minuses that Edward brings to the table.

We don't have those things, not in-text. What we have is the constant reassurance that Bella is 'pathetic' (her own words) but that it's understandable because Edward is so very perfect. Whereas Jessica is pathetic and needs to cut that out.

   A few minutes after Angela left with the hikers, Jacob sauntered over to take her place by my side. 


   He looked fourteen, maybe fifteen, and had long, glossy black hair pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck. His skin was beautiful, silky and russet-colored; his eyes were dark, set deep above the high planes of his cheekbones. He still had just a hint of childish roundness left around his chin. Altogether, a very pretty face. However, my positive opinion of his looks was damaged by the first words out of his mouth.
   "You're Isabella Swan, aren't you?"
   It was like the first day of school all over again.

And then there's this.

The whole Bella/Isabella thing is a thin contrivance to foreshadow Edward's telepathy (he knows her preferred name! he must have read everyone else's minds!) and to get her to sit up and take extra-special notice of him. But this contrivance is long past and is no longer necessary. For Bella to be upset that this pretty boy with the interested eyes has the audacity to know her by the wrong name seems utterly childish. I can only assume this is a case of Wrong Setting; it made sense for Bella to be exasperated to correct everyone on the first day of school because she was tired and overwhelmed and she'd made the same correction a dozen times already that day. Now, days or weeks or months later, it just makes her seem petty. I don't get snarky when people accidentally call me "Ann".

   "Bella," I sighed.
   "I'm Jacob Black." He held his hand out in a friendly gesture. "You bought my dad's truck."
   "Oh," I said, relieved, shaking his sleek hand. "You're Billy's son. I probably should remember you."
   "No, I'm the youngest of the family -- you would remember my older sisters."
   "Rachel and Rebecca," I suddenly recalled. Charlie and Billy had thrown us together a lot during my visits, to keep us busy while they fished. We were all too shy to make much progress as friends. Of course, I'd kicked up enough tantrums to end the fishing trips by the time I was eleven.

I read somewhere that the Blacks (Such a subtle surname! I'm still sorry that between Bella Ugly-Duckling and Edward Cold-One, we missed the chance for a Whitey McMarbleThighs protagonist.) are named after members of S. Meyer's family, so the Jacob-Rachel-Rebecca-Leah* naming scheme probably isn't meant to denote a fundamentalist Christian movement within the Quileute community, but it gives me that impression nonetheless.

However, a glance at the Quileute Nation website tells me that English names seem to be common in the community, so I will instead just be grateful that Jacob isn't named "Man Who Walks the Earth But Only Sees the Sky".

* Yes, Leah isn't a Black. She is a Clear Water, which is slightly better than Girl Who Cries Tears Because The Author Hates Her.

   "Are they here?" I examined the girls at the ocean's edge, wondering if I would recognize them now.
   "No." Jacob shook his head. "Rachel got a scholarship to Washington State, and Rebecca married a Samoan surfer -- she lives in Hawaii now."
   "Married. Wow." I was stunned. The twins were only a little over a year older than I was.

Don't worry, Bella! You'll be married in about a year yourself!

   "So you build cars?" I asked, impressed.   "When I have free time, and parts. You wouldn't happen to know where I could get my hands on a master cylinder for a 1986 Volkswagen Rabbit?" he added jokingly. He had a pleasant, husky voice.
   "Sorry," I laughed, "I haven't seen any lately, but I'll keep my eyes open for you." As if I knew what that was. He was very easy to talk with.
   He flashed a brilliant smile, looking at me appreciatively in a way I was learning to recognize. I wasn't the only one who noticed.
   "You know Bella, Jacob?" Lauren asked -- in what I imagined was an insolent tone -- from across the fire.

Bella, being the irresistible force of nature that she is, has accidentally acquired another suitor in less the the time it takes to cook an egg. Lauren, evil blond that she is, has decided to needle Bella about being irresistible. HEY, BELLA, WHY YOU SO HOT? OH BURN!

Besides this being maybe not a winning strategy for Lauren, if her goal is to shame Bella for her massive hotness, I want to call shenanigans on Bella's description of the situation. Bella imagines that Lauren's tone is "insolent", and I have to wonder about the choice of wording there. "Insolent" can mean "rude", of course, but it often connotates a very specific kind of rudeness. That which is insolent is that which lacks appropriate respect for the subject matter. A child mouthing off to a teacher is insolent; an employee telling her employer where he can stick the yearly performance review is insolent. Lauren can really only be insolent to Bella if she is inferior in some socially-constructed way to Bella -- and if Bella acknowledges this to be so.

Beyond the word choice, though, a large chunk of this chapter feels like the dreaded Telling instead of Showing. Lauren's words alone -- "You know Bella, Jacob?" -- are not insolent. They could be merely curious. (Indeed, they indicate that Lauren has paid more attention to the visitors than Bella has, since she has remembered the name of a person not obviously interested in her. It's not a good thing when your Alpha Queen is less snobbish than the Plucky Protagonist.) So we've been given the first-person equivalent of a Tell: Bella can sense that Lauren's tone is insolent. We have to take her word for it.

This wouldn't bother me in another novel, I think, but Bella has proven so monumentally bad at reading people that it grates on me here. It's jarring to have to keep flip-flopping from "Gee, I guess Edward really does love me and I just imagined he was consumed with hatred for my existence" to "Jacob is in love with me and Lauren hates me for being beautiful and I can tell because I am so good at reading people." You can't have it both ways, unless you want to give the reader whiplash.

   "We've sort of known each other since I was born," he laughed, smiling at me again.
   "How nice." She didn't sound like she thought it was nice at all, and her pale, fishy eyes narrowed.

And then you have things like this. HEY, LAUREN, WHY YOU HAVE FISH EYES? OH SNAP!

Besides this very possibly being a shout-out to "Pride and Prejudice", it strikes me as both petty and contradictory. If we accept S. Meyer's world-building of objective beauty, Lauren isn't ugly. It's right there in the manual: she's beautiful and blond and all the boys in school have dated her and vied for her attention.

If the author turns that around and decides that, no, Lauren is totes ugly in this scene because she dares to needle the protagonist and if the narrative is first-person, this doesn't make Lauren seem ugly to the reader. It makes Bella seem rude and petty. Yes, Lauren is being a jerk. (I guess. Since Bella is "imagining" the insolence, it's hard to be sure.) But that doesn't make Bella seem like less of a jerk for drawing mental mustaches on Lauren so that she can then silently jeer at her for being a Stupid UglyFace. It just makes Bella seem snotty.


Brin Bellway said...

how disjointedly time seemed to flow in Forks [...] I knew exactly what caused the difference, and it disturbed me.

Oh, him. And here I was thinking she'd stumbled into a event-based subjective temporal anomaly, similar to camping but lasting for months on end. Which would suggest she views her time in Forks as a single event, a diversion to finish up and get on with her life.

But no, it's only about Edward again.

"Rachel and Rebecca," I suddenly recalled.

So where's Sarah? You can't have Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah without Sarah! I demand pattern closure!

Oh! Good news: there is a Sarah. Bad news: she's dead.

GeniusLemur said...

I see how S. Meyer thought Jacob was so lively. I mean, he's got an actual hobby! It's kind of a standard-issue manly hobby, but he actually does something in his spare time. He's only been around a couple pages, and he's already a better-rounded character than either of our leads, or anyone else in the book.

Ana Mardoll said...

I know, right? And I actually cut some, because it was getting long, but he teases Bella about her truck (he helped build it and it can't go over 60 mph) and when he sees she's getting defensive, he smoothly switches tack and talks about how it's a tank and they don't make them like that anymore.

HE HAS A PERSONALITY, OMG. And he's polite and socially well-mannered. It's amazing!

Ana Mardoll said...

Good grief, that's awful! Why do the Quileute women all suffer horrible fates? :(

chris the cynic said...

So remember how I said that I already had an idea for how I was going to handle Ben meeting female-Jacob, one that would entirely ignore Twilight. Well I actually had more than an idea, I'd already written it, but Windows restarted my computer without my permission for no reason (it says that its to install updates, but it never actually installs them) at the same time that autosave on my word processor failed to work (when it tried to recover the documents it produced were blank.) So that's annoying. As is often the case, I like the version that is now lost to the dark clutches of oblivion more than the one I have rewritten.

Also, I figured that it would be Mike, being the possessive one, who would turn a simple question like whether or not Jacob and Bella know each other into something not-nice. Let's see, what else? This scene takes place while the participants are standing rather than sitting.


One of the girls was looking at me as if she were trying to figure something out, or remember something, and I was probably looking at her the same way, because she seemed familiar, but I wasn't sure. If I'd stopped to think about from the opposite direction, asking myself who in the tribe I might recognize, I'd have found an answer a lot sooner, but instead I tried to figure out the way I always try to figure out why I might recognize someone: I looked at her, I repeatedly thought, 'How do I know her?' and I hoped that an answer would come.
Eventually one did, but I wasn't sure until I was told her name. The other names I lost track of almost as soon as I heard them, but when I was told she was Jacqueline Black I had my answer for sure.
My right hand was clutching my shirt, I don't know whether putting pressure on scrapes actually helps, I kind of suspect the opposite, but it's how I deal with them none the less. Shaking hands would probably hurt, but I figured it would be worth it, so I forced myself to let go of my shirt and offer my hand, then I said, in the most confrontational voice I could manage, “Hello Jacqueline, if that is indeed your name,” while we shook hands. At that point it was a contest to see who could keep a straight face for longer.
I think we broke down at about the same time, and then she pulled me into a hug and said, “It's good to see you.”
I hugged back, and tried to regain my footing so she wasn't holding me up, while saying, “It's good to see you.”
“You two know each other?” Michelle asked, in a voice that seemed to tinged with disgust.
We disentangled ourselves and turned to her. I was going to say that we'd know each other since we were kids, but Jacqueline spoke first: “No.”
I followed her lead, “Not at all.”
“I don't even know his name.”
“It's Ben,” I said, still facing Michelle.
“Nice to meet you, Ben,” Jacqueline said, also keeping her attention on Michelle.
“You as well.”
“No problem.”
“We definitely never met.”
“Not even once.”
Michelle said, “You two know each other,” this time as a statement. There was definitely something not nice in her voice, but I ignored it.
“Well...” Jacqueline started.
“It's possible our mothers went fishing together.”
“Once or twice.”
“And we might have seen each other every summer growing up, except for the last four years.”
“Three years.”
“I never was good at math,” sadly this was and is completely true. I never have been
Jacqueline concurred, “No, you weren't.”
“But apart from that...”
“We don't know each other in the least.”
“Why do you ask?”
Michelle made a frustrated noise and left, Jesse followed her.
“Are we horrible people?” I asked Jacqueline
“Definitely,” she said. “How have you been?”

Brin Bellway said...

Why do the Quileute women all suffer horrible fates?

No wonder Rebecca and Rachel moved away at the first opportunity.

chris the cynic said...

That does seem to be the wisest thing one can do.

GeniusLemur said...

And he actually responds to stimuli! He sees Bella getting upset, so he changes to a different tack. Every other character seems to have exactly one way they act, which they use in every situation.

Ana Mardoll said...

@Chris, as always I adore your rewrites. It's awesome to see Ben and Jackie take initiative in a situation like that in such an active way instead of passively whispering together after all the other characters have left the scene. *shivers*

@Brin, that makes such tragic sense. At least they went to Hawaii. *sigh*

@GeniusLemur, I KNOW! It's like... it's like he's the only character who isn't a Stepford, er, Forks Robot.

Silver Adept said...

@chris the cynic -

They're evil. EVIL, I tell you, to make Michelle suffer through a routine like hat. *grins* I like that interaction far better than the one we get.

@Ana -

That Bella you're describing swings in toward narcissism, if we're not going with the depression route. bella has such a high opinion of herself that she imagines insolence and then starts disparaging the physical characteristics of those that dare talk to her. The good friend is the one that doesn't try to get above their place by talking to her.

And then there's Jacob, who we can't have getting on Bella's bad side before he imparts the necessary exposition - and who is appropriately appreciative of Bella's beauty. Since she thinks he might be a little cute in return, he avoids the fate of being pigeonholed into a "type" and has enough attention paid to him to make him seem less of a cardboard cutout or Stepford West Robot.

Also, good for an older Black women to get out and go to college. If Sherman Alexie's Absolutely Ture Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the complete truth about life on the reservation, then the scholarship to WSU and life outside the reservation was a feat all by itself. Too bad the strong female role gets one line and is off-screen.

Majromax said...

I can see why there is a Team Jacob. In a book full of characters painted only in shades of grey -- Edward included -- Jacob somehow stole the bright acrylics without Meyers noticing.

chris the cynic said...

Unless someone comes up with a more compelling theory, I'm standing by my belief that Jacob was able to be an interesting and not-jerky character because Meyer didn't notice him. He was just a plot device, he didn't rise to the level of character, and because of that he was allowed to actually be a person.

We see things like that in Left Behind. The characters the authors barely notice come to life, the ones they pay attention to are not good. In both cases it's like the author's subconscious is a better writer than the author.

depizan said...

I wonder how much of that has to do with the characters being more constrained by the plot. I know Kit hates it when writers talk about their characters refusing to cooperate, but I think in some cases it's an entertaining way of saying that the character as written would have to act out of character to follow the plot as written, therefore, the plot had to change. With both Left Behind and Twilight, the plot can't change, and since neither plot makes much sense*, the characters can't either. But the bit parts can.

*The plots, generally speaking, could, but as written, they really don't.

Patrick said...

I am convinced that Jacob is great because Smeyer first thought nothing of him and then conceived him as lovelorn friend. When the fans took to him and founded Team Jacob... Well, then she tried to indulge them and write a more romantic Jacob - which gives us Eclipse Jacob where he becomes just as horrible as Edward.

Marie Brennan said...

Today we're going to take a bit of a hiatus from that approach and I'm going to treat Bella Swan from a different angle -- one where she's not depressed because I don't think the author intended her to be so.

I have to admit, I prefer this angle of analysis. While it's nice to theorize occasionally about how you could invent a rationale for characters or events, I'd rather dig into the existing story, and address what (we think) Meyer wanted to present. Obviously speculating as to authorial intention is a minefield, but we can be fairly certain she didn't set out to write Bella as a depressed teenager with an inner ear problem: she was, instead, drawing on pernicious romantic tropes, that deserve to be called out in front of the class.

(I'm still trying to figure out why the hell this story became so popular, given that Bella seems to achieve the double trick of being both offensive and a non-entity. Hence wanting to dig more into the romantic-tropes thing, of fainting and falling over and being carried by the Designated Love Interest, and also not paying attention to anything else in your life.)

chris the cynic said...

Describing Bella as depressed is like describing Edward as abusive, it ignores the author's intent and instead looks at what's in the text itself.

We know that Edward isn't intended to be abusive, but it's kind of hard to ignore when it pervades every Edward scene.

That said, sometimes it makes sense to step back, remember that Edward isn't supposed to be abusive, and comment on his actions in the context of the fact that we're supposed to think he's the best love interest ever. (Not necessarily perfect, just better than every other male in the entire history of fact and fiction alike.)

I feel the same way about talking about Bella as depressed vs. emotionally normal. Bella being depressed pervades every scene, but she wasn't intended to be that way any more than Edward was intended to be abusive. So sometimes it makes sense to set that aside and have a post like this one, but I don't think we can ignore it all the time because it's in the book.

If all that these posts were going to do is describe Twilight as it was intended to be then there would be almost nothing for Ana to say. The books are not as intended, there are a lot of problematic things that were never intended to be there.

Ana Mardoll said...

And to add to the irony... me describing Bella as narcissist is probably no more author intentional than Bella as depressed.

So my post is basically saying "I'm not going to call Bella depressed, because I think that's not what the author wanted. Instead I'm going to call her a narcissist."

Ah, Twilight, you are surprisingly hard to analyze at times. :)

chris the cynic said...

It's like an onion. You look at it and say, "The author never intended us to think about it this way," so you remove a layer, but then the result is still, "The author never intended us to think about it this way." If you remove that layer then you'll find more, "The author never intended us to think about it this way."

If you keep on removing layers you'll find more layers and once you've stripped away all the unintended implications, how much will be left?

How much of Bella can remain if we we throw out everything that makes her seem emotionally unhealthy and physically disabled? How much Edward could possibly be left if we cut out everything that makes him not-a-perfect-boyfriend?

That said, there's definitely insight to be gained by saying, "If I grant you this point, what remains is [post]." Probably a lot of insight.

Ana Mardoll said...

So you're saying Ogres are like Onions?

I think a major problem is that... when I squint at Bella as a fictional character, I really hate her sometimes. She's a big bundle of stereotypes about weak, petty, childish, narcissistic women, and there are definitely times when Meyer seems to WANT you to think that (reference all the times Bella calls HERSELF "pathetic" and childish).

And yet... and yet... If I look at Bella as a person, I don't hate her.

I'd hate Edward, sure. Edward DOES abusive things. But Bella... has an attitude that I may or may not like, and I probably wouldn't be totes best friends with her, but there are aspects of her personality that I recognize as things that are in many people, including myself. For instance, I have once in my life been childish and petty (Bella), but I've never dragged anyone bodily across a parking lot (Edward).

So there's this line I fear to cross where I'm saying, "Alright, I'm going to hate on Bella this week, but this isn't personal to YOU, beloved reader." I don't have to worry about that with Edward for the most part.

Marie Brennan said...

Hmmm -- I think I see those two things differently, but I will grant that I only know the books from people's quotes and analysis, so I don't have a solid textual foundation for my argument.

But, to speak from what I've seen: I don't actually read Bella as depressed, though I think you can use depression to make sense of her character. I feel like what I see happening, on a craft level, is that Bella exists only in relation to Edward, and all the things that would look like depression in a real person -- no hobbies, no friends, etc -- are just the narrative stalling out any time he's not around. And when it comes to analyzing that, I guess it's a question of causality in my head: which comes first, the action or the adjective? I feel like these posts often present Bella as, "she acts like this because she's depressed," whereas Edward is presented as "he's abusive because he acts like this." For my own part, I see both cases as "the author presents the following actions, and I suspect I'm meant to read them as romantic, but they come across more as signals of depression/abusiveness." If that makes any sense. And I'd love to see more deconstruction of their supposed romantic nature, alongside the negative impression they give -- because so many people do find it romantic, and that both perplexes and disturbs me.

Ana Mardoll said...

Ah, I see! That makes sense. I think you're right -- some of the posts are more "here is why this is problematic" and some are more like "let's attempt to make some sense of the contradictions here".

I think I can start calling the romance out a little more effectively once the couple is together, because yes, it is absolutely problematic. Maybe I should start going a little faster, though -- I miss our 300 comment threads. :D

depizan said...

And I'd love to see more deconstruction of their supposed romantic nature, alongside the negative impression they give -- because so many people do find it romantic, and that both perplexes and disturbs me.

Me too. I only read the first book (which was more than enough), but I spent the whole time staring at the romance going "Up is down? Bzuh?" I mean, taking a step back, it's really just a more extreme version of a lot of slightly creepy romance tropes, but wow does it underline how creepy those tropes are. Though I don't think I've ever read a romance that did such a bad job of selling the attraction (to me). Part of that failure to sell is that the given explanations get an out of cheese error with me, and part of it is probably due to Meyer's reluctance to get steamy. (I may find the horniness and sex scenes in your average romance novel more hilarious than sexy, but they do sell the attraction.)

As for the out of cheese error part, what are we really given as explanation? Bella: He's so pretty and he may hate me, I think I love him. Okay, part of that sounds like plausible teenager, right before it takes a left turn at Albuquerque. Edward: She smells tasty (literally) and I can't read her mind, I think I love her. WHAT!? EW EW EW EW!!!

Marie Brennan said...

Well, but I think the process of the couple getting together is just as problematic as what happens once they are. Edward's treatment of the fainting incident isn't just a bad response to disability or medical trouble (if that had been what was actually going on in that scene), it's a truly nasty demonstration of a whole knot of issues around femininity and masculinity, the fetishization of fragility/weakness vs. strength, the romantic trope that there must be a crisis-based excuse for close physical contact, how all those things play into the sexual overtones of vampirism, etc. Which are all things you've brought up, but -- well, I feel like those things are to Twilight what evangelical theology and purity culture are to the Left Behind books: the water in which the story swims. There's a lot more to be said there, even in the early stages.

And yeah, part of the answer is for me to jump into the comment threads more often, I know. :-) If I want to see that sort of thing, I should probably try to chime in with it.

Kit Whitfield said...

Why do the Quileute women all suffer horrible fates? :(

I think it's part of a very long tradition of racial-sexual stereotyping. To quote Sojourner Truth, may she rest in peace:

That man over there say that women needs to be helped into carriages, lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?

The thing is, whatever Meyer's personal attitudes, the world of Twilight is exceptionally hostile to women and revolves entirely around men. There isn't room for more than one successful woman - Bella - and a few cheerleaders in the background, most of whom either are mothers or, like Alice, take a maternal role towards her. Other women of all races are degraded fairly constantly.

But how they're degraded is racially dependent. White girls get degraded by being stripped of their dignity, which is closely connected with their beauty. Their sexual interest in boys is a matter of sour grapes if they're turned down and ridiculously obvious neediness if they're not, or haven't been yet. Failures to mother Bella are described in terms of ugly facial expresses or unpleasant voices. If you're a white girl, you're a white lady: your identity rests on your femininity, your femininity depends on your beauty, and if you step out of line, you are punished by having all of them swiped away in a single catty remark.

White women, as a social construct, are fragile like that.

Brown women, on the other hand, are expected to 'work and eat as much as a man ... and bear the lash as well', and as such, are not treated as 'women' in the same way. Where white girls are marked out in Twilight by subtle social humiliations, brown girls are marked out by crude physical pain, injuries, bereavements and abandonments. These are the equivalents.

Partly this is also about beauty, I think: Bella's narrative voice seems to regard all Quileute people as looking much alike, so the tiny details of expression and feature that she can condemn in a white girl get blurred into a general copper prettiness. Lauren gets her eyes criticised; Emily(?) gets her face mangled. When someone just has a Noble Savage face, it takes a lot more to mar her looks.

If you're a white lady, smaller amounts of pain are a bigger deal; it doesn't take much to prove that you aren't the star. If you're a brown girl, Twilight has to hurt you more to convey the same amount of degradation. Brown girls are expected to have a higher pain threshold.

I guess they should just be grateful nobody expects them to be Bella's mammy. Wrong kind of brown girl, perhaps, but they need to take what they can get in this world.

Ana Mardoll said...

Lauren gets her eyes criticised; Emily(?) gets her face mangled. When someone just has a Noble Savage face, it takes a lot more to mar her looks.

Kit, that observation is both awesome and tragic. Tragiawesome? But I think you're spot on. :(

Silver Adept said...

That is a tragic-aweseome observation, Kit. I wonder if some of that requiring more is because there's the societal half-fetishization (unless it's a full fetishization by now in the mainstream - I'm not sure) that Exotic Women (People?) are Prettier Than White Folk. It takes more to put them "in their place" because they have an advantage merely by having a different ethnic heritage.

Fluffy_goddess said...

I keep looking at these and thinking "oh, it's a fairy-tale fate, well that's out of place." Because all the tragic things that happen are melodramatic and fail to have any impact unless SMeyer decides they should be plot points. It's like the violence in The Master-Maid, where the heroine beats/burns/has dragged three men near to death, and they then suggest that their beloved prince ask for her help to get to his wedding with no signs they resent it. (One of my favourite authors/artists has been doing Annotated Fairy Tales of late; see for her doing The Master-Maid, which is the first version of the story I've ever read, and hilarious. She's done three of them so far, I think.) Oh, I've done something terribly frightening and potentially painful to you! Oops! I will kiss it better and that will actually work!

I'd call it cartoon violence if it were more slapstick and actually onscreen, but there's enough of that that I think I can say cartoon and fairytale violence coexist in Twilight.

bekabot said...

Why it's okay for Bella just to diminish other young white women psychologically, mostly within the confines of her own head, while young non-white women, in the books which feature Bella as the heroine, end up as objective roadkill: in traditional fiction it's usual for white people to be allotted the upscale-emotional and mental characteristics and for non-white people to be assigned the downscale-emotional and bodily ones. The Twilight books are books of a traditional stamp and they were written with the traditional tropes in mind. Hence the pattern might be expected to hold: a young white female character is identified as not-the-heroine when a psychological/mental injury is attached to her (and it need not be an injury she's aware of). But a young non-white woman, by the same token, is identified as not-the-heroine (should that prove necessary) through the infliction of bodily injury and/or outright psychological trauma. To each, in a way, their own. (I'm not saying I approve, I'm just saying I suspect that's the way it works.)

Or, IOW, what Kit Whitman said...

chris the cynic said...

And when it comes to analyzing that, I guess it's a question of causality in my head: which comes first, the action or the adjective? I feel like these posts often present Bella as, "she acts like this because she's depressed," whereas Edward is presented as "he's abusive because he acts like this."

The only causality I see in either case is evidence leading to the conclusion. We can say Edward is abusive because he exhibits abusive behavior. We can say Bella is depressed because she exhibits symptoms of depression.

But in neither case does it make sense to me to draw a causal link in the manner you're discussing. Nothing comes first. It isn't the case that someone first does abusive things and then is abusive. They're being abusive from the moment they preform abusive actions. The adjective and the action co-occur by definition. If I say, "Edward is being abusive," it means, "Edward is doing abusive things." If I say, "Edward is doing abusive things," it means, "Edward is being abusive." Neither one comes first. They can't. You can't have one without the other.

The same is true of depression symptoms. If you don't have them, you aren't depressed, if you aren't depressed you don't have them. Neither comes first. Now it's somewhat more complicated than that because there has to be a degree of consistency. Just like we probably wouldn't say, "Edward is abusive," if Edward exhibited abusive behavior once and only once in all of his life, someone wouldn't be diagnosed as depressed if they exhibited symptoms for only one day. (If I remember correctly, one has to exhibit symptoms for two weeks to be considered depressed.)

For my own part, I see both cases as "the author presents the following actions, and I suspect I'm meant to read them as romantic, but they come across more as signals of depression/abusiveness." If that makes any sense.

I definitely agree in that I don't think that Meyer intended to include depression or abusiveness. I think that there are at least three things at work, probably more.

The first is bad writing. Consider, for example, Bella's lack of emotional response to almost anything. My opinion is that the monotone mood is probably a result of a lack of narrative range more than anything else.

The second is that I imagine Meyer was drawing on personal experience. She probably knows people who have, at some point or another, acted like Bella or Edward. It's possible that she wrote them in ways that are entirely divorced from her experience of humanity, but I think that the time she spent living on earth amoung people has probably had an influence on how she writes her characters.

The third is that there are a set of established ideas she's been drawing on, from her specific culture, from the genre she's writing, and presumably from various other sources. She has ideas about how a good girl should act, about how a romantic hero should act, about how a proper man should act, and so forth.

And I'd love to see more deconstruction of their supposed romantic nature, alongside the negative impression they give -- because so many people do find it romantic, and that both perplexes and disturbs me.

I also very much wonder about this. For example, the total lack of affection between the two coupled with things like Edward dragging Bella across a parking lot (not to mention the constant insults) make me quite perplexed at why so many people see it as romantic.

Ana Mardoll said...

Well, and another problem is that ABUSIVE is pretty easy to diagnose, at least in this case, where there is obvious physical and psychological violence involved. It's a label of behavior.

Whereas DEPRESSION is more like a psychological diagnosis, which is trickier to diagnose. I know a lot of people see Bella as whiny, narcissistic, a drama queen, a complainer. She's like the rorschach of protagonists!

Maybe we should do a series! BELLA FLAVOR OF THE WEEK!!

hapax said...

@Fluffy_Goddess -- I love The Master Maid. Of course, I have an abiding affection for surrealistic fairy tales, the creepier the better. My current wip is a re-telling of the Master Maid crossed with Koschei the Deathless.

@Marie Brennan -- I'm going to do a terrible thing and go off-topic to burble at you admiringly about The Onyx Court series. Dark historical fantasy of manners? Yes, please, and give me MOAR. But why did your publisher let the first two go out of print? My library has lost their copies (check out and not returned) and I CAN'T GET REPLACEMENTS!

Fluffy_goddess said...

That sounds *awesome*. I'm glad someone recognised the fairytale; you never know which ones people will know because everyone grows up reading different collections, and sometimes they're the same stories with different names, and sometimes the same name will belong to two significantly different translations. I really like the annotations on the one I linked to above, but of the three she's done so far, only one is even remotely familiar to me, and I'm usually a fan of fairytales. Every once in a while I go back and play with them again, but I don't tend to get very far with true rewritings -- the only thing I've finished is a post-tale vignette about a sorceress from some versions of Swan Lake.

Marie Brennan said...

@Ana -- yes, thank you; I couldn't quite put my finger on the behavior/feeling dichotomy of abusive vs. depressive. Not that there aren't behaviors associated with depression, but a) some of them are more non-behaviors or non-action, if that makes any sense, and b) the ones that are more active (like suicide attempts) aren't characteristic of Bella. She's just this lump of inertia: she sits still until pushed into motion by other things, and then cruises along until something stops her or changes her direction. There are very few places in the story where I see our supposed protagonist protagging.

Amarie -- I've been watching the movies of this series, and I have to say, one of the few reasons I can stand them has to do with the way that I think the films are more willing to say "what Bella wants isn't healthy for her." Some of that might be my own preconceptions as a member of the audience, but I really think the second installment in particular was startlingly honest about the dysfunctional, self-destructive co-dependence fest that is Bella + Edward.

Marie Brennan said...

@hapax -- aw, thanks! Glad you enjoyed them.

The first two are technically not out of print; if they were, the rights would have reverted to me (and I might be able to get my current publisher, who did the later two, to pick them up). They aren't on bookstore shelves much anymore, but they're still available to be ordered -- and being as recent as they are, everything is available as an ebook, too. I hope that helps!

Kit Whitfield said...

*Children* just worry about what they want. So, as a result, that leaves Bella Swan to be cared for, sheltered, and protected.

Yes, that makes sense. I'd say it makes sense of something else: the fact that Edward is supposedly a perfect partner all evidence to the contrary.

In effect, Bella 'falls in love' with him right away; at least, she feels an immediate and powerful sexual attraction to him, and as we never really see them interact in any other way than arguments about whether they're going to see each other or not, the sexual attraction seems to be the main issue. Which is fine; sexual attraction is an important part of a sexual relationship.

But in real life, it's easy to be sexually attracted to a person who is not, in fact, very nice. They may turn you down, either nicely or not; if you get into a relationship with them, they may treat you badly. Edward, from his actual behaviour, is controlling and insulting; he's a fictional character in a book that works very differently from the real world, but a real man who acted that way would be an abuser.

But one of the things that keeps people in abusive relationships, or even just in bad ones, is that they hope their partner will change. They want the relationship to work, and even if that is logically not likely, it can be very hard to see past that basic desire. I don't say this to demean people in bad relationships; I'm talking from personal experience as much as anything else. 'I want' is a powerful force even when any outsider can see the relationship isn't going to end well.

So Bella ... wants Edward to be the perfect partner. He's handsome, he's high-status, he's aloof enough from the town she hates that he doesn't represent a compromise with her location; he looks like a catch. So the fact that he's also got all these qualities that create problems - from the in-book point of view, being with him means sacrificing your life; from the out-of-book point of view, he's just not very nice - are obstacles to be resisted and ignored rather than serious dealbreakers. If she can just keep insisting that she wants him long enough, by the emotional logic of the book, then he'll be in her life permanently - and he'll be the kind of person she wants him to be.

Structurally the books are rather uneven; threats come in and out at unpredictable moments and feel rather random. I think the main reason is that the plot is operating that that very visceral level: like a child making a fuss - which is the state all of us regress to under certain conditions - the plot is one long focus on a single issue of But I want it! The force of wanting it is so powerful that it bears down any conventional plotting, because to create a conventional plot one would have to stop wanting for a minute and start thinking about all the drawbacks - but in a way, I think to criticise that is to criticise the book's big selling point. It's a very vivid portrayal of that child-like state of mind where you can't think about anything except the thing you want, and like an indulgent parent, the book eventually succumbs, magically removes the problems by a process an engaged reader is too worked up to examine critically - just so long as they're gone, we don't care how - and grants the wish.

chris the cynic said...

She's just this lump of inertia: she sits still until pushed into motion by other things, and then cruises along until something stops her or changes her direction.

See, this is the part where I look confused and don't know what you're talking about, not because I disagree but because I agree completely. Seriously. Here is my initial response:

Yes. And have you ever heard or read a better description of depression than the sentence you just wrote?

And then I was going to talk qualify that by getting into causes (if she were a lump of inertia because her religion specifically told her to go where the universe pushed her, I'm not going to call that depression) but I think if I'm going to qualify things the first thing that I should say is that it's not really a description of depression so much as a very good description of a common manifestation of being depressed.

One which cuts across various flavors, my own experiences with depression are almost completely different from those of the writer of hyperbole and a half, but one of the biggest commonalities is that when we're in it what you wrote applies to us. There's a reason I've written more or less exactly what you wrote (I don't think I used the word "cruises" though) to try to explain to people what it's like to be depressed. Though, surprisingly, not in the thing I just linked to.

Of course it's not just that. If it were just that then that would be one thing, but it's also so much more. For a quick not at all exhaustive list: how she views others, how she views herself, how she occupies her free time, the specific limits to her reading material. I'd like to say more, but I have to go.


I actually wrote this first, but since it's trying to preemptively respond to something that might not be thought/said anyway, it seemed better to put it at the end.

b) the ones that are more active (like suicide attempts) aren't characteristic of Bella.

I realize that you didn't say what I'm about to respond to, but what you did say is close enough that I'm going to respond to that thing you did not say just in case anyone reading should get the wrong idea from what you wrote.

Marie Brennan is obviously correct that suicide attempts are associated with depression, I think (though am having some trouble digging up stats for attempts rather than successful suicide) that the association much stronger in that direction than the reverse. (Someone who attempts suicide is much more likely to be depressed than someone who is depressed is likely to attempt suicide.)

The thing is, a lot of people turn this around to make suicide attempts into an unofficial diagnostic criteria. If someone isn't attempting suicide they conclude that the person isn't depressed. These people do extreme harm to real people on a massive scale, and at the very least should be shunned. They hurt people, and do it for no real reason. Saying depressed people aren't depressed benefits no one.*

It is possible for someone to be depressed for years upon years, it is possible for someone to be depressed from childhood until they die of old age, and never have suicidal thoughts.

I realize that no one here has said otherwise, but given that the idea does come up a disturbingly large amount and since the connection between depression and suicide was brought up, I just wanted to get that out there.


*Well, it might benifit those who have to pay for treatment, but I've never seen a case of this where that made sense as a motivation.

Ana Mardoll said...

TW: Suicide

And have you ever heard or read a better description of depression than the sentence you just wrote?

This has been my experience with depression as well. I didn't really feel "sad" when I was depressed, just... numb and unable to do anything to change my circumstances. And you're absolutely right that Lack of Suicidal Ideation does not equal Lack of Depression.

Although if we're going to be aware of the existence of New Moon at all (and I find it increasingly hard NOT to be), Bella *is* borderline suicidal in that book. Or, at least, she does escalatingly dangerous and reckless things in order to see Edward in her mind, and she doesn't care if she kills herself in the process. So even if we are looking for suicide as an indicator, I have to think that it's in canon.

That was random, maybe. Still just now waking up.

GeniusLemur said...

I haven't seen the movies and don't intend to, but I seriously doubt the movies intend that. The movies are romantic movies: if they acknowledge just how messed up this relationship and the people in it are, their rationale for existing disappears. I think it's more likely a matter of the medium: the dysfunctionality just becomes more apparent in a movie where living, breathing actors are saying the lines in a real setting, rather than the printed page where the author can control everything and tell us exactly what she wants.

And yes, Bella is an inert lump. She has the one thing in the world she wants (Edward), but she hasn't done anything to pursue her desire. She just leaves the initiative in his hands at all times.

As a side note, I'm frankly astonished that "Team Jacob" exists. Yes, Jacob is a more colorful character who's more authentically romantic and kind than Edward. But how does he deserve the sullen, narcissistic airhead that is Bella Swan?

Kit Whitfield said...

She's just this lump of inertia: she sits still until pushed into motion by other things, and then cruises along until something stops her or changes her direction.
And have you ever heard or read a better description of depression than the sentence you just wrote?

Well, it wasn't my experience of depression, just throwing in my penn'orth. But then I was suffering from postnatal depression and I couldn't afford to sit still or cruise along: I had a baby to take care of. For me it was more like climbing a mountain on my bare hands and knees: it was exhausting and it hurt to move and there was a terrifying gulf whenever I looked down, but I had to keep on the move because there was someone depending on me. What I would have done if I hadn't had a newborn to look after is, of course, another question.

I've seen other people get savage with depression rather than inert, though. So in my experience, sitting still isn't the only way it happens.

mmy said...

Well, it wasn't my experience of depression, just throwing in my penn'orth.

Chiming in to agree with Kit -- I have seen many forms of depression from anger to catatonia. Indeed that is one of the most frustrating things for people suffering from depression -- they keep on being told that they don't have the "right" kind of depression for it to be accepted as "real" depression.

chris the cynic said...

One of the problems with talking about depression is that it is so varied, and thus any description leaves people out. If you get down to the absolute basic clinical description, you have at least two things that do not need to co-occur (the can, but don't need to) and if either one is true then it's depression. Thus any single description will not apply to some people, if you describe it using the first, then it leaves out people who only have the second, if you describe it using the second it leaves out people who only have the first, if you describe it using both it leaves out both of those groups.

So there needs to be a lot of "or" to include everything, but a description of a single person isn't going to have "or".

I tried to point out in the paragraph following what you quoted that that was only one of the possible ways it could occur. I guess I didn't manage that, and for that I am sorry. I definitely don't want to imply that that is the only way depression can manifest. It isn't.

Acting as if things are otherwise denies people's actually experiences and no one should do that. I was not trying to do that, I am sorry that I did.


I do want to be clear that if the description didn't include being pushed into motion by outside things I wouldn't have thought it so good a description. If it only included sitting still I would not have responded to it the way I did.

I cannot say how things were for you because I am not you, but I can say that every time I've felt the way you describe (and I definitely have) it was because there was something outside of me pushing me into constant motion even when I felt like I'd collapse if I went any further. (And your description of a terrifying gulf whenever you look down rings true as well.) I have no idea what you would have done without a newborn to look after, but I know that every time I've been in that state the only thing separating that from being inert was the constant pressure of whatever it was I did have to do.

Being a lump of inertia doesn't just mean sitting still, or even moving at a constant pace, because sometimes the thing that pushes you into motion keeps on pushing and pushing after you're in motion. Or, to put it another way, it includes frenetic panic and seemingly endless marches.

So, I don't know your experience and I can't speak for you, but when I personally have had experiences that seem to match that description I haven't seen them as fundamentally different from when I've had experiences when I can't act unless I am acted upon. In both cases I was only able to do what I absolutely had to do*, it's just that in one case that meant running as fast as I could no matter how much it hurt or how tired I was. (Metaphorically I mean, it's not as if I've ever been chased by an angry lion or anything.)


* I would love to be able to expand this category, not because I particularly like the experience (I actually imagine it's what drowning feels like: stop moving and oblivion takes you, so you have to keep going even though you're spent) but because it's the one time I can actually consistently do things (or at least start doing things) more involved than typing/talking. I can't necessarily do them well, it's not a state that I find conducive to good work, but a lot of time just getting started is more than I can manage.

chris the cynic said...

But she did at least intend for the readers to feel. And I don't think that we, as readers, feel what she intended us to feel either. A lot of people pretty clearly do, but we here do not. I think even the people here who like Twilight don't feel the way she intended for them to feel.

Kit Whitfield said...

But she did at least intend for the readers to feel. And I don't think that we, as readers, feel what she intended us to feel either. A lot of people pretty clearly do, but we here do not. I think even the people here who like Twilight don't feel the way she intended for them to feel.

That's just the normal state of any published work, though. There's no such thing as a book whose readers are unanimous about it; every book is liked by some people and not by others, read close to the author's intention by some readers and counter by others, and so on. Hold every book to that standard and none shall scape whipping.

Kit Whitfield said...

@Chris the Cynic: another suggestion. I've read that psychologists advise against talking about 'successful' or 'unsuccessful' suicide attempts because they feed into an ethos that makes suicide attempts more likely, and more likely to be fatal when attempted. 'Completed suicide attempt' is the phrase suggested, or perhaps 'fatal suicide attempt'; the advice is to avoid giving any kind of value ratings to suicide attempts based on whether or not the individual survives them.

chris the cynic said...

I don't think we're talking about quite the same thing.

I think that "This scene where male lead drags female lead across a parking lot and then threatens her when she thinks about running away feels extremely abusive and downright scary instead of romantic as it was intended to feel," is somewhat beyond the ordinary background radiation of a lack of unanimity. There seems to be a difference in degree there, to me at least.

It is certainly possible that every book has people who feel exactly that way about it, but even then I think it is worth asking why what was written as romantic was read as abuse without simply saying, "Hold every book to that standard and none shall scape whipping."

Even if every one does have its own parking lot scene, I don't think there's anything wrong with examining books with that standard in mind.

For that matter, I'm not sure what other standard we'd hold books to. Perhaps there is some objective standard out there, but it seems most natural to talk about our personal experiences of them. I don't think there's anything wrong with that being the standard one holds books to.


In response to the other thing you said. Thank you for bringing that to my attention. I don't really look at the word success that way, and so would never have thought of that.

Marie Brennan said...

I haven't seen the movies and don't intend to, but I seriously doubt the movies intend that. The movies are romantic movies: if they acknowledge just how messed up this relationship and the people in it are, their rationale for existing disappears.

What I took away from the second film is that Movie!Bella's desire to become a vampire can be read, and probably should be read, as suicidal. The very first thing is some dream where she imagines herself getting old and this is the Most Horrifying Thing Ever, and then she wakes up and it's her birthday and she responds to everybody wishing her a happy one by saying things like "another year older. Like that's anything to celebrate." And that's followed by the students reading Romeo and Juliet in English class, and Edward telling Bella he envies the title characters of the play because -- and I quote -- "they could die."

There was more to it than that, but there was a surprisingly high degree of material in that vein: showing that Bella would rather die than get older, that she has such an utter horror of aging that she would rather abandon pretty much everything in her life (metaphorical death) than let it go on for another minute, that Edward's self-hatred is also completely self-destructive (he doesn't decide to go commit suicide-by-Volturi just because he can't trust himself around Bella; the impulse was there for a long time), etc. I'm not saying some people can't find that romantic -- some people can find anything romantic -- but I am saying that the frankness with which their behavior was presented, and the lack of valorization attached to it, made me wonder whether the filmmakers were actually on my side.

Marie Brennan said...

Amarie -- I'd say you're dead-on about the filters thing. The Dothraki in A Song of Ice and Fire were always problematic, but it was possible, when I was reading, to put my own, more favorable interpretation on them. When A Game of Thrones started airing, though, it was harder -- if not outright impossible -- to look at what was being presented on the screen and not get really squicked. And yeah, I don't see any way to film the parking-lot scene that wouldn't put the abusive aspects front and center, in a way nobody could really ignore.

A part of me almost wishes it had been in there, because you have to imagine there would be some Twilight fans who would go, "It wasn't like that at all!" . . . and then go back to their beloved books, re-read the scene, and see that actually, it kind of was. Sometimes it takes a smack upside the head like that to make you look critically at things that were previously invisible to you. But yeah, the backlash would have been huge. And since the whole point of making the movies was, as you say, to rake in the cash, there's no way the studio would have let the director get away with filming something that would have sent the fans into such a collective rage.

Amarie said...

To Kit:

That’s a solid analysis, Kit.

I was going to add a personal story of a friend of mine that reminds me of what you said. And then I remembered that I just graduated high school not two years ago…so there are a *lot* of examples that I could use! And specifically in the romance department!! What’s more is that, unfortunately, I’m pretty sure I’ll meet more people of the like no matter what age I am, where I go, etc.

So, instead, I’m going to tell you this: as much as you think I’m intelligent, I think of you as a mentor and teacher. You’re absolutely incredible and, frankly, I think I learn more from you than you ever could from me.


To Marie Brennan:

YES. It’s quite an uncomfortable spot for the movie makers, isn’t it? And, as many of us have noted, to add salt to the wound, no matter what is done, the end result is dysfunction on the screen. : /

GeniusLemur said...

Well said.

Kit Whitfield said...

I think I learn more from you than you ever could from me.

I wouldn't bank on that. ;-) Let's just continue to enjoy the pleasure of each others' conversation.

Regarding the movies - I think that one of the constrictions of adaptation is convenient in this case: books are longer than films and you can't show everything. Even the most purist of fans understands this and will be expecting some cuts - which means that you can cut some of the most problematic scenes and get away with it as long as you include the high points. (And would I be right, Amarie, in saying that the scenes that the plot absolutely requires are also the fan favourites?)

I heard somewhere that Robert Pattinson said that he actually hated Edward, and dealt with this by playing him as self-hating. That, I think, is a great gift for the film, because it allows it to smooth over a lot of problematic behaviour from Edward: Pattinson plays him as a man who's constantly struggling not only with sexual temptation, but as a man who's pretty much struggling with himself every time he opens his mouth. For female viewers who find the angst side of Edward attractive it increases the attractiveness, but it also allows any really problematic lines or behaviour to be read as behaviour that he was at least trying to control, even if he didn't succeed completely.

I think you could include a dragging-to-the-car scene if you absolutely had to, but you'd have to depend a lot on the actors' performances. It'd be a case of: 'Okay, Robert, steer her along but don't hold her arm so hard that it doesn't look as if she couldn't break away if she really wanted to; Kristen, try to make the stumble at the car look like Bella's clumsiness rather than like Edward pushed her...' Basically you'd have to downplay the roughness.

I think that actually filmed scenes can be very ambiguous.

TW: Rape

One of the best documentaries I've ever seen is Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, which is about an alleged rape of a woman who came to perform a strip show in a frat house and then, for reasons that the different participants disagree about (she says she forgot her handbag and had to go back for it; one of the frat boys says she wanted to carry on partying), went back there later on and emerged next morning claiming she'd been raped. The disturbing thing is that a lot of the events of the night were filmed by the frat brothers - not the alleged rape itself, but a lot of the run-up to it in which the alleged rapist spends a lot of time grappling her ... and yet people can watch the footage and come away with completely different ideas about whether or not it was consensual. Some people see consensual foreplay in which there's a lot of flirtatious role-play and trash-talk; some people see a drunk, high, tired woman telling the guy she doesn't want to have sex with him, but fighting him with sarcasm rather than appeals for help. (For what it's worth, I'm basically in the latter camp. I think the footage calls some of the less important elements of what she claims into question, and that she used questionable judgement in how she told him 'no', but that it was rape and that is the fault of the rapist.)

Anyway, that's a case where different people see two completely opposite readings: one group sees playful consensual sex and the other sees criminal sexual assault.

So I think film-makers could shoot some ambiguous scenes, especially in this culture that doesn't treat violence against women very seriously. But certainly if I were directing, I'd want to go the avoidance route as much as possible.

Kit Whitfield said...

TW continued...

Oh, and another interesting fact about Raw Deal which might be relevant to the issue of filming scenes. The directors basically assumed a neutral position and shot the documentary in a way that put the audience in the position of jury: the let everyone speak for themselves and let the audience make up their minds. When they screened it, they were expecting a gender divide in the audience responses.

They were right that there would be one, but they were wrong in how it would divide.

They expected that women would side with the woman and men would side with the frat boys. In fact, most of the people who considered it consensual were women and most of the people who considered it rape were men. The director, Billy Corben, theorised that this was because, whatever you think about the allegation, the footage is not very nice - it's a rough party at best, and nobody wanted to identify with anybody in the scene. He figured that rather than siding with their own sex, people wanted to distance themselves from the participants ... which meant believing the person least like themselves. Women watched it and thought, 'Well, I'd never do what she did' (earn money stripping, spend the evening naked, talk like that); men watched it and thought, 'Well, I'd never do what they did' (hire a stripper for a party, have sex or sexual activity in front of my friends while they filmed me) - and so they just didn't trust the word of the person of their own sex because that person was acting so differently from what they considered reasonable behaviour.

So all in all, I think we shouldn't underestimate the capacity of people to side against themselves.

Marie Brennan said...

Kit -- yeah, Pattinson is actually the one who convinced me to go see the first movie. I wasn't going to, until I read a quote from an interview when he basically said, "all these guys auditioning were trying to play Edward the way he's described, as being the Most Awesome Thing Ever -- but the more I read the script, the more I hated the guy. So that's the way I decided to play him, as a manic-depressive who hates himself." And I thought, that's an interpretation I can get behind.

I still don't like Movie!Edward. But knowing the actor and I are in agreement on that point goes a long way toward helping me cope with the story.

Marie Brennan said...

How many different ways can someone be yanked backward, or be pulled along such that they have to to put all their effort into not falling over backward?

It's possible to do that in a comic fashion . . . but only, I think, in animation, where things can be exaggerated and defy physics. And even then, some people might think it's off-putting rather than cute.

Amarie said...

Oh wow...this is all pretty amazing. Especially what Kit said about the different reactions to that rape/consent documentary. And Chris, I always love how you can put scenes that are vague (or at least, to me) in bright, clear form.

If I may, does anyone have any similar ideas of how they could have been more true to Eclipse and make Bella break her hand during Jacob's assault? Or do you guys think that the way they did it was as good as they could get it...?

Ana Mardoll said...

I haven't seen Eclipse in awhile, but it seems to me that they shied away from the text a lot -- if I recall correctly, it looked like a Hollywood standard "impulse kiss".

I think if they got any closer to the original -- with Bella going obviously rigid and waiting it out -- it would play way too close to the assault that it is in the book. I do not know, though, if people would catch that visually.

Irina said...

It's cruel to call twins Rebecca and Rachel anyway (says a mother of twins called Rebecca and [something else than Rachel]). All the mail addressed to "Miss R Lastname" that they have to sort out!

JenL said...

It's like an onion. You look at it and say, "The author never intended us to think about it this way," so you remove a layer, but then the result is still, "The author never intended us to think about it this way." If you remove that layer then you'll find more, "The author never intended us to think about it this way."

I think the quickest shortcut might actually be closest to the author's intent: "The author never intended us to think."

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