Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The "Twilight" Challenge: Part 2 - On the Terrors of Bella Swan, the Marvels of Comparative Feminism, and the woes of Vampiric Inaccuracies

The challenge continues!  This Friday, the latest film in the Twilight Saga “Breaking Dawn (Part 1),” hits theatres, and to “celebrate,” we’re spending this week examining the Twilight franchise in depth with my epic five-part investigation of the series: “The Twilight Challenge.”  Originally published on YourHub in June 2010, it’s been revised, expanded, and updated for 2011.  It chronicles my findings as I journey into the dark fathoms of this series, with reviews, analysis, and more!

Today we continue with chapters two through four, including my analysis of the horrifying protagonist, Bella Swan, a feminist analysis of Bella’s relationship with Edward, and finally, an examination of the franchise’s vampiric inaccuracies by guest writer Sean Chapman (co-host of the Monthly Ten podcast!).  You can read Part One of “The Twilight Challenge” here, and there will be three more parts, one per day until Friday.  On Friday afternoon, expect my review of the “Breaking Dawn” movie. 

Read “The Twilight Challenge: Part 2” after the jump….

 Chapter Two:
Half Moon
In which I explain why Bella Swan is the single worst protagonist in the history of English Literature.

After a very brief prologue, Twilight opens with Bella Swan describing, in excruciating detail, how terrible a place Forks, Washington is, over and over again.  She explains how miserable the town makes her feel because of the size, the weather, and the overall dreary feeling.  That would be fair criticism, but Bella is explaining this because she has just moved to Forks, despite knowing full well, for years before she arrived there, that she hated the place.  As she gives us the background information, we learn that she was in no way forced to move there, and that she could have gone travelling around the country with her mom, whom she apparently loves dearly, and her new husband, whom she also finds pretty cool.  And yet, she chose to move to Forks with her boring Dad, and from the first sentence onwards, she whines and moans as if the world has done her some cruel injustice.  Does anybody else see the giant logical fallacy on display here?  She made that decision of her own free will!  It’s nobody’s fault but her own!

Yes, this is how Twilight begins, by introducing Bella Swan as a thoroughly unlikable person, someone so full of herself that she tries to blame her own mistakes on others.  From there on, she continues to complain about every single thing that comes her way, even the positive stuff.  By the time she emotes “Ew, snow.  There went my good day,” I was ready to toss the book in a corner, douse it in kerosene, light a match and watch it burn. 

I hate Bella Swan.

Words cannot explain how much I hate every imaginary fiber of Bella’s fictional being, but I’ll give it my best shot.  Keep in mind that Bella narrates the entire novel in first person, so there’s no reprieve from her infuriating thoughts from start to finish.  The voice Stephenie Meyer conjured up for Bella is truly the worst part of the character.  As I already explained, Bella constantly finds something to complain about, from the weather to her house to her bathroom to the incredibly friendly teenagers at Forks High School who are just doing their best to help her fit in.  When she’s not complaining, her attitude is still largely flippant and just downright unappealing. 

In fact, unappealing is the word of the day when discussing Bella Swan.  If her literary voice and attitude aren’t enough of a turn off, her behavior and befuddling thoughts most certainly are.  On Bella’s first day of school, she learns about Edward Cullen, and later meets him in Biology class, where he gives her a dirty look, avoids her for the remainder of the period, and then runs away at the end of class without ever talking to her.  At least, that’s how Bella interprets things.  From an objective standpoint, isn’t it possible that Edward’s behavior was due to a personal problem, rather than a reaction to a girl he had never met before in his life?  Maybe he had a stomachache, or an even more serious illness.  Maybe he’d just gotten a call from his parents that his beloved dog Rover died, and he was grieving, wanting to get out of class as soon as possible so he could go bury his lifelong companion.  There are numerous possible explanations.

Of course, we find out later that Edward is a vampire (and therefore doesn’t get stomachaches and most likely doesn’t own a pet dog named Rover), and that he avoided Bella because he instinctually thirsted for her blood.  But remember, Bella didn’t know that at the time – all she knew was that he was a pale, shy boy, a boy she had never met before.  And yet, she automatically assumes that Edward hates her for no reason.  Subsequently, Edward doesn’t show up at school for another week, and Bella again assumes this is all because of her.  She doesn’t consider a single other possible explanation; in her mind, Edward took an automatic disliking to her and started skipping school because of that inexplicable hatred.

This behavior infuriated me as a reader, and since I was fairly sure there was a fancy term to describe Bella’s actions, I consulted my mother, who conveniently has a degree in psychology.  After carefully summarizing the plot to her, my mother agreed that Bella Swan displays textbook narcissism. 

Well I don’t know about any of you, but I’ve always wanted to read a 500-page book written from the perspective of a narcissistic brat. 

That’s not the only instance of Bella’s narcissistic tendencies: it happens over and over again, particularly where Edward is concerned.  She’s always assuming that occurrences most likely unrelated to her really are her problem.  As the book goes on, she starts acting downright selfish, her narcissism grows, and she becomes even more repulsive.  One of the first big events in the novel is a car accident in the High School parking lot, where one of Bella’s friends almost hits Bella in his truck.  Edward swoops in and saves her life, and surprise surprise, she thanks Edward by treating him horribly.  Since Edward was on the other side of the parking lot at the time, she’s convinced it would take superhuman speed for Edward to have saved her, and she demands Edward tell her the truth about what happened.  I myself, being a sane person, would thank Edward many times over for saving my life, forget anything weird I noticed, and just be happy to be alive.  That’s not enough for Bella, of course, and she continually demands for Edward to tell her all his secrets.  More than that, she gets mad at him when he comes to the hospital to check on her, and throughout the book shows anger when Edward displays concern for her safety.  God forbid the guy who cared enough to save your neck continues to worry about your well-being.  Sheesh.

It’s behavior like this that makes Bella so unlikable, but she can also be downright stupid at times.  Though she has very little evidence, all of it wildly inconclusive, she figures out Edward is a vampire pretty darn fast, and wholeheartedly believes that explanation long before he admits it.  Would any intelligent person really jump to vampire, a fictional creature, as their first guess when someone displays strange skills?  Apart from rumors about the actions of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula, who drank the blood of his enemies to demonstrate his power, nobody has ever claimed vampires are real; it’s common knowledge that they exist only in books and movies.  Why, then, would Bella accept this explanation so fast?

I know why.  She’s a moron.
Her stupidity only grows as the novel wears on.  During the climax, the evil vampire, James, kidnaps Bella’s mom and threatens to kill her unless Bella comes to meet him without Edward or the Cullens for support.  Logical thinking informs us that James would only make this demand if he were scared of the Cullens, indicating that they could easily defeat James.  It would seem to me like the proper reaction here would be to tell Edward’s family and have them sneak in the back door to rip James limb from limb, saving Bella’s mother in the process (it turns out James was bluffing about the mother the whole time; she wasn’t even in the same state).  Instead, Bella caves in to James’ demands and nearly gets herself killed.  Idiot.
The last thing any author wants to do when writing creative fiction is to conjure up an unlikable main character.  Every story has a protagonist, and their function is to drive the story forward.  Therefore, if the main character is repulsive to read about, the rest of the novel falls apart: there has to be some redeeming quality in the main character.  That’s why I’ve spent so much time explaining why I hate Bella: she’s the reason Twilight doesn’t work.  If I liked Bella, Twilight would be a decent, even entertaining read.  But that’s not the case.  Not even close. 
I hate Bella Swan more than I hate any human being I have ever crossed paths with.  If anyone this loathsome went to my high school, I’d legally change my name and move to an Amish settlement in Alaska just to insure I would never cross paths with them again.

Chapter Three:
Waxing Gibbous
In which I perform a feminist reading of Twilight by drawing comparisons with Buffy the Vampire Slayer

In the past few years, the anti-Twilight argument that has most often caught my eye is the feminist reading of the series, which always comes to the conclusion that the story is horribly sexist against women.  The main crux of the argument is that Bella is completely and utterly dependent on Edward, a slave to his will who eventually (in Breaking Dawn, the fourth book) becomes a vampire, giving up everything she physically is, to be with him.  She, the woman, has to make huge sacrifices over and over while Edward, the man, sits back and watches.  These assertions made sense before I actually read the book, but afterwards, I understand them even more.  I do think it’s an important issue to discuss, considering the popularity of the series and the message it sends to gullible young minds, but rather than rehash what other feminist thinkers have written, I’m going to try something new. 

One of my favorite TV shows is Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show that, despite its silly-sounding title, had volumes of messages, metaphors, and unfathomably deep meaning to dole out.  I’m certainly not the only person who considers it one of the most important fictional feminist works of the past twenty years, at least on TV, and the effect it had on increasing the number of strong leading roles for women on television is undeniable.  For the entirety of its seven seasons, Buffy continually gave viewers fresh, exciting, and meaningful takes on modern feminist ideals, primarily by giving us a protagonist who was a powerful, kick-ass superhero without the assistance of a strong man.  Throw in the fact that the vampires of Buffy actually resemble real vampires, and it becomes clear that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the antithesis of Twilight.

Like Bella Swan (and it sickens me to draw comparisons between my all-time least favorite and one of my most beloved fictional characters), Buffy Summers engages in a vampire romance in the second season of the show (she actually has two vampire relationships, but for simplicity’s sake we’re just discussing one).  The object of her affections is Angel, a vampire who was cursed with a soul, meaning that he is a good and noble being.  Buffy and Angel fall in love for reasons that make perfect sense (unlike Bella and Edward): Buffy, having superpowers, feels isolated from the rest of humanity, and Angel, having a soul, is alone in the world of vampires.  They both have a strong sense of justice and morality, spending much of their free-time ‘dusting’ vampires.  It’s easy to see why they bond, and the romance that blossoms is completely organic. 

The messages these two relationships, Bella/Edward and Buffy/Angel, send are very, very different.  While Twilight proclaims that it’s good for young women to hook up with creatures who instinctively want to hurt them, Buffy Summers eventually learned that being with a vampire isn’t a good thing, even if that vampire has a soul.  Like Edward, Angel may be a nice guy who, by his own choice, would never hurt his lover, but that doesn’t negate the fact that underneath, he’s still a predator, a demon, a vampire who instinctually wants her blood.  Angel can control this urge better than Edward because he has a soul, but the curse that gave Angel his soul also stipulates that if Angel ever experiences a single moment of true happiness, his soul will be torn away and he will revert to his evil, instinctual tendencies.  Thus, when Buffy and Angel make love for the first time, Angel loses his soul and turns evil, attempting to hurt and kill Buffy many times.

Series creator Joss Whedon has identified this as the greatest metaphor the show ever delivered, an allegory for the nice guy who lures an innocent young woman into his bed for the night only to turn into a monster in the morning.  After this happened, Buffy realized the error of her ways and eventually sticks a sword in the relationship.  For neither the first nor last time, Whedon and his team were arguing against being with someone abusive, no matter how attractive they may be on the outside. 

Now let’s look at Twilight.  Edward thirsts for Bella’s blood, and freely admits he is always suppressing the urge to kill her on the spot, but none of that repels Bella.  In the fourth book, Bella and Edward finally make love for the first time, and since Bella is a human, Edward’s vampire strength leaves her bruised, battered, and beaten.  This is a similar scenario to Buffy, where sexual intimacy reveals the true nature of the man.  Whereas Buffy realizes Angel was a mistake, Bella actually begs Edward to make love to her again.  She enjoys, nay, craves the abuse. 

What kind of message is that?  I haven’t read Breaking Dawn, but the Wikipedia plot summary is pretty darn clear on what happens.  Bella and Edward continue to make their sick, abusive love, and Bella even becomes pregnant with a vampire baby that slowly kills her from the inside.  In fact, the abusive strain of Edward and Bella’s sexual relations eventually becomes so severe that Edward has to turn Bella into a vampire to save her life.  It seems to me like the message being conveyed is that it’s okay for a man to physically abuse a woman, as long as the woman really loves him a lot.

That’s crap.  That’s repulsive, misogynistic drivel that quite frankly has no place in modern fiction.  I look at Buffy and Twilight and I see two stories that got the same deck of cards, but played those cards in very different ways.  Buffy used vampire romance as a metaphor to send a female-empowering theme, whereas Twilight exploits vampire as a means to diminish and belittle the role of women in a relationship.         

I certainly don’t enjoy or condone this kind of message, and while it is undeniably the message being sent, I’ll admit that I don’t think it’s what Stephenie Meyer intended.  The story is probably more innocent than that.  In fact, in the first book, one of Bella’s English assignments is to discern “whether Shakespeare’s treatment of the female characters is misogynistic,” which seems to me a sly hint from Meyer that she thought her female characters were stronger than the immortal bard’s.  This just proves that Meyer has no business writing creative fiction, and also that she’s probably too thick to recognize that her own work is the misogynistic one.     
Chapter Four:
Full Moon
In which a guest critic enters the court to present evidence on all the ways the vampires of Twilight don’t count as real vampires at all

One of my biggest complaints about the Twilight series is its treatment of vampire lore, which is, in a word, abysmal.  Now, I know a thing or two about vampires, but I’m not the expert.  That would be my good friend Sean Chapman, an ardent Twilight hater and, more importantly, monster aficionado.  I asked him to write this portion of the article, and he graciously agreed.  I found that his words speak louder on this subject than mine ever could, and I agree with his assessment one hundred percent.

The Children of the Night
An Essay Concerning the Vampiric Inaccuracies of ‘Twilight’ by Sean Chapman

As humans, we have a macabre fascination with blood; to us, blood represents life.  Thus, in our darkest nightmares, we create a creature which sucks the very essence of our life from us.  We create the Vampire.  Virtually every culture has some form of a vampire, but in recent history, the incarnation which defined the vampire was Bram Stoker's Dracula.  However, an upstart new franchise written by Stephenie Meyer has attempted to wrest control of the public conscience, to forever change what a vampire is.  It is called the Twilight Saga, and it is destroying humanity's greatest horror by transforming it into the greatest teenage heart throb.

In 1931, a film adaptation of Bram Stoker's “Dracula” was released.  The titular role was played to perfection by Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi.  His strange eastern European accent, hypnotic stare, sweeping cloak, and malevolent yet alluring presence fascinated audiences.  As far as the public was concerned, Lugosi was Dracula.  The gothic atmosphere and visual use of shadows helped Dracula, along with other Universal Pictures movies of the era like “Frankenstein,” define the cinematic horror drama.  As a character, Dracula has appeared in more movies than anyone except Sherlock Holmes.  Clearly, Lugosi did something right.  For all intents and purposes, “Dracula” is a masterpiece and defined the public perception of a vampire.

Flashforward to America in 2005. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer has just been released and is collectively being consumed by nearly every teenage girl in America.  Soon, three more books will be released.  After that, the film adaptations will begin.  Twilight is firmly cemented in popular culture and isn't going anywhere.  Why is Twilight so popular?  Why has it fascinated all those teenage girls?  Simply because it takes the vampire and twists and transforms it into the most shamelessly appealing thing it could be.  A Twilight vampire does away with all the folkloric aspects of the creature.  A Twilight vampire scoffs at garlic.  A Twilight vampire could go to church without breaking a sweat.  Hell, a Twilight vampire could bathe in holy water and wouldn't feel a damn thing.  That's because a Twilight vampire doesn't have any sort of attachment to religion or religious paraphernalia.  A traditional vampire, on the other hand, has everything to do with religion.  They are warded off by signs of God because they are essentially the spawn of Satan.  The name ‘Dracula’ literally means “devil’s son,” after all.  Vampires are meant to be evil: ultimate, unequivocal, unadulterated evil.  They are the undead that feast on the blood of the living. There's no real room for moral high ground in that situation.  A traditional vampire exists because they are the instruments of the devil.  A Twilight vampire exists because some socially isolated, mentally disturbed teenage girl can't get a real boyfriend.

Problems abound from the Twilight version of vampires because Stephenie Meyer needs to portray some of them as heroes.  Vampires are not heroes.  In some modern fiction like Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, they are anti-heroes, and certain Daywalkers such as Blade are portrayed as anti-heroes.  But no vampires are heroes.  As I said before, a vampire's situation doesn't allow room to be kind and good.  The best they can do is kill other vampires, but even then they must feast on human blood to survive.  And here we come to the big hurdle.  Twilight features so-called "vegetarian" vampires that drink the blood of animals instead of humans.  I'm sorry, but that's lame.  If vampires can drink the blood of animals, why would any of them bother with humans?  Just because it tastes a little better?  Common animals pose considerably easier prey (just take them out El Chupacabra style) and almost entirely circumvent law enforcement if you're marginally careful.  Vampires need to feed on human blood because that's what makes them scary, that's what makes them interesting, and that's what makes them fascinating.  They steal our life force.  They are our predator.

I could go further into other inaccuracies involving traditional vampiric traits, such as transformation into bats or wolves, lack of a reflection, or need to sleep in the soil they were buried in, but there is one change which has gotten more attention, and deservedly so, than any other.  Traditionally, vampires only go out at night and sleep during the day because they have an aversion to sunlight; they draw strength from the moon and sunlight burns them, so sunlight completely, and quite dramatically, destroys them at the slightest touch.  However, in Twilight, not only can vampires go out in the sun, it actually makes them sparkle like a diamond.  Much has been said, most of it angrily, about this, but I have one simple question: Why?  Why in the name of Bram Stoker, Bela Lugosi, F.W. Murnau, Christopher Lee, and the good Professor Abraham van Helsing would a vampire ever, EVER, sparkle in the sunlight?  What insane, LSD-induced, schizophrenic state was Stephenie Meyer in when she came up with that?  Does she hate everything about vampires?  Did Dracula give her nightmares when she was little and she wants revenge?  What could possibly have happened to her that made her want to take something as undeniably cool as a vampire and make it sparkle?  I wish, dear reader, I had an answer, but I do not.

The problem with Twilight vampires isn't that they ignore a lot of the folkloric traits of the vampire.  A lot of people, Anne Rice once again being an example, have abandoned those aspects in favor of a more modern approach and done so quite successfully.  The problem is that Stephenie Meyer not only abandons those traits, but also forsakes the dark, macabre, gothic themes and tone that make a vampire horrific (and awesome).  The vampire is a predator, a stalker of the night.  His or her hypnotic stare attracts their unwitting victims.  The vampire is dark, the vampire is sinister, the vampire is our darkest fantasy come to life.  Stephenie Meyer's vampires, however, sparkle in the sunlight and make friends with, and love to, ordinary humans.  They're whiny, annoying teenagers, more to do with Anakin Skywalker from the Star Wars prequels than the calm, cool, calculating Bela Lugosi.  Reimagining an archetypical character is fine as long as the person doing so has an intense love and passion for the creation.  Stephenie Meyer clearly does not.

Next Time on “The Twilight Challenge:”

I enter the dark and dangerous realm of “Twilight” Cinema
with the first, most fearsome movie!

No comments:

Post a Comment