Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Twilight Effect - My POV

This post is in response to the debate on this blog last week regarding the influences of YA fiction (specifically the Twilight books) on young readers.  My comments here will be based on the arguments presented in the previous four posts, so if you aren't familiar with them, feel free to check them out here.

I spent last week in a breathless, sitting-on-hands state of heightened mentalness.  As a champion debater in a former life, I struggled to keep my mouth shut.  By the time Friday rolled around, some of the viewpoints were getting inside my head.  I'd begun debating with myself.  And that, while always interesting, can be dangerous.

I discovered every post had points I agreed with, and points I didn't.  But the points of contention are so much more fun, aren't they?  So... I'm going to take advantage of being the 'owner' of the blog, and indulge my need for a voice in some of the points raised by both sides of the debate.  (NB: This isn't in any way intended to disrespect the prior contributors - I really appreciate the time and energy they put into this series.  These are simply the comments I would have made if I'd been engaging in the debate as it happened).

I'll only make one disclaimer: I don't believe a fictional character can (or should) ever TRULY be taken literally as a role-model.  But I see the argument, so am addressing these comments in that vein.  But if I had my way, none of us would see Bella in that light. 

Feel free to barbeque me in the comments.  I'm a big girl.  I can take it.  And I'll try to respond to everyone. 

Ready?  'Cos here we go:

Re:  INTRODUCTORY POST - Jasmin said...

"...I hate this series. I hate it with a consuming passion that has become the focus of my academia...."

"Hate" is an incredibly strong word - especially when levelled at the work of an individual you don't personally know.

I would actually be more concerned about teens hearing a strong, intelligent women using that word so implicitely against someone / something else, than the messages Twilight may (or may not) send.  I believe it implies that either a) the speaker is intentionally trying to stir up strong feelings in the audience, or b) there is some reason to believe the speaker cannot view the subject matter objectively. 

I don't believe either of those was your intention, but I wish you had chosen another way to phrase it.  On a specific point:
"...I reserve my right to hate a narrative that wants us to adore a guy who rips the engine out of his girlfriend's truck so she can't go to see her best friend."

And you can.  Except, that isn't why he did it.  The characters' conversation and the circumstances surrounding this incident very clearly demonstrate that Edward's desire is to keep Bella away from dangerous werewolves - not from a friend she cares about.  He does nothing to separate her from other friends - in fact, he spends the entire series encouraging her away from himself and into the more 'normal' circumstances and relationships available to her.

This kind of statement - to me - smacks of someone using circumstances or basic facts, without recognizing the underlying 'spirit' of the situation.  Is it dangerous to be in a relationship with a guy who would rip the starter out of your car to stop you seeing a friend?  YES.  Is it dangerous to be in a relationship with someone who would rip the starter out of your car to stop you from going into a life-threatening situation?  NO.  In fact, we should all be so lucky.

When read in context, I believe this incident demonstrates a great deal of selfless love.  Edward knows Bella will be upset with him for doing this.  He does it anyway because his fear for her life outweighs his fear of losing her to Jacob.

I want my teenage nieces to seek out a love that is willing to sacrifice self and comfort, for the good of the other person.  When both people act with the other's best interests in mind, both people's needs will be met.

Did you ever ask yourself about Edwards intentions, or only get hot under the collar about the way he chose to inact them?

Post #1 - Joshua Weed said...

"...If I were her counselor, I would be focusing my therapeutic efforts on building Bella's self-esteem and trying to resolve the attachment issues she has with her father in order to broaden her perspective about relationships with the opposite sex."

There's no doubt Bella's relationship with her father was stilted, particularly in the beginning of Twilight.  But I think anyone who believes a teenage daughter's relationship with her father doesn't come under some serious remolding during those years is sadly mistaken.  Bella and Charlie go a long way to show love for each other - even demonstrating care when the other doesn't know it. 

Before Bella becomes 'obsessed' with Edward, she chooses to move out of state to allow her mother the time and space to develop her own marriage; to feed and care for her Dad when it's obvious he doesn't really know how to do that for himself; to remain quiet even when friends around her are demonstrating typical teenage foolishness.  All very mature and self-aware demonstrations of understanding and love.

In fact, the only areas I see Bella fall into feelings of inadequacy remain generally under the headings of 'beauty' and 'physical prowess' - and let's be honest, as a teenage girl those themes are unavoidable. 

Yet, despite these feelings , Bella doesn't sabotage the relationship, go fishing for compliments, start a diet - or do any of the things we ladies are often guilty of doing even into adulthood: trying to change ourselves to make ourselves good enough for the person whose attention we'd like to attract.  Instead, she recognizes her feelings to herself, then keeps right on living in the way she thinks she should.

That is, in my opinion, a fantastic role model for any young woman.  I'd like to see more IRL people taking that approach to insecurity.  And I would hate to see that 'counselled' out of anyone.

Post #2 - Kate Nash said...

"...The book explores a relationship in which a girl changes everything about her life for a boy, because he is perfect and she is flawed."

See the notes above re the previous post.  I'd like you to qualify this statement, because I can find no evidence that Bella changed anything about herself for Edward.  In fact, their ongoing conflict is usually sparked by her insistence on doing things as she believes they should be done, regardless of his opinion / desire to protect her.

"...I really feel that fiction, particularly fiction written for the wide consumption of an adolescent audience, lacks representation of a lot of areas that are really important...Often, even when they are included, disabled, colored, and LGBTQI characters are portrayed in stereotypical ways, or exist as an embodiment of those characteristics..."

Firstly, writers write what we know.  The call for minority group novels should be made to minority group writers.  My personal experience: I've yet to find an atheist who realistically (and unstereotypically)  depicts the internal struggle for a teen of biblical faith.  I'd be offended if they claimed to fully understand my journey.  For the same reason, I wouldn't think to impose my ideals and imaginings on an LGBTQI teen because chances of me getting it more right than wrong are so slim, I'd probably hurt them more than help.

That doesn't mean I don't care for or want to see literature released for teens who live those issues every day, only that I'm not equipped to write for them. 

Secondly, I think this is a much more pragmatic and business-based issue than you may want to admit. 

Publishers are in business to sell books.  Minority demographics will never buy as many books, because there are, by their very definition, fewer of them.  I don't believe any publisher turns a book down because it's 'not white and priviledged enough' or 'the characters are too sexually fringe'.  They turn a book down because their marketing department tells them they'll only sell 1000 units - whereas that book over there will sell 100,000.

I agree that issues of race and sexuality are prominent for teens and good books addressing these issues should be published.  But I am not going to hold my breath for the Big Six to start buying and marketing them because the pure truth is: democracy and capitalism are built on the majority.  And in America the majority of book buyers are white, cis, and want to read about similiar characters because they find them more accessible, and relatable.  Change that fact and you will change the Big Six marketing plans, you'll change the landscape of YA literature - and more power to you.

For now, this is where independent publishers, self-publishing and e-publishing have a huge role to play.  I'd highly recommend you do some research: Stories, novellas, poems and even books based on the kinds of characters that you want to see (and, more importantly, written by authors who themselves fit into those minority demographics, so can write them realistically and without cliche) are out there.  They just aren't on the front table at your Barnes and Noble.

Post #3 - Erica said...

"...In Twilight, Bella Swan is so entranced by Edward that she ignores what may be good for her (i.e. school, Jacob, real friends, Mike Newton) you know, some degree of normalcy. In fact, author and assistant professor of Theology at Wheaton College says, “The romance in Twilight is all consuming…the books use words like obsessed or consumed to describe Bella’s feelings for Edward” (Jones, 2009, p. 20)..."

Why are Jacob and Mike Newton classed as 'real' and 'good' things, but Edward classed as 'bad'?  Because he isn't - to use your word - normal?

An overriding flaw in the teenage psyche (or the adult psyche, for that matter), is the inability to believe they can step outside of social norms and cultural rules to find love, peace, contentment. 

More teens need to experience a consuming love that is all-encompassing.  Most wander through their childhoods feeling lost and alone.  Someone loving them despite their flaws, with their best interests in mind, and without reservation would be a good thing.

If my sixteen-year-old niece met a young man whose concern for her demonstrated anything like Edward's determination for her health and wellbeing, I'd be happy to see her consumed by it.  Selfless love is a beautiful thing, and far too rare in this day and age.  That, in my opinion, is the very crux of why this book (series) has been so successful:  Deep down, we all want to be loved that way - and we'd happily give up our 'normal' existences to have it.

Post #4 - Kat Kruger said...

"The shallowness of Bella's character, to me, is in her inability to define herself as a person without being in a relationship..."

Did we read the same book?  If she defined herself by the relationship with Edward, she wouldn't defy him so dramatically on so many different occasions.  As well, this is a girl who left her established, apparently happy life in Arizona to make the incredibly selfless and mature decision to give her mother the freedom to enjoy her new marriage.  Her personality, sense of style and value-set remained unchanged for the duration of the books.  She does not define herself by this relationship - she does define 'true love'.  And if, in real life, someone found a genuine 'true love', I'd defy anyone to find fault with working towards a compromise in order to keep it.

If you are implying it's possible to be in a successful relationship without compromise or flexibility, we might as well stop talking.  Mutual sacrifice is very the foundation for a strong relationship.  It doesn't mean we don't have boundaries we won't cross, or lines we won't hold to.  It does mean figuring out which of our previous lines and boundaries are actually important.  It means when conflict arises, we have to find a medium ground - somewhere we're both happy.  And it only works when both people are willing to do it.  If Bella insisted on remaining static, unmoved, inflexible on everything, she wouldn't be in a relationship at all, let alone defined by it. 

"...She's completely consumed with Edward because he's gorgeous. She ditches all her friends to enter into a relationship where he has all the power. And really she has no depth written into her character in any way..."

First:  She is attracted to Edward because he's attractive.  She falls in love with him and continues to admire his beauty.  Who of us doesn't want to continue to find our love attractive after the novelty has worn off?  But aside from that, though she speaks to herself about his beauty, she is consumed by who he is and her love for him, not what he looks like. 

Second:  She is, realistically, melodramatic and isolated by the breakup with Edward.  Most of us who thought we were in love in high school have been there at some point.  It isn't a bad example, it's an honest one.  Bella, thankfully, returns to other relationships BEFORE Edward comes back - again, a realistic depiction of the natural flow of these things. 

"...I just feel like girls need stronger female role-models than that, not weepy damsels who fling themselves off cliffs when they're dumped by a boy..."

I'll say it again: Bella didn't fling herself off a cliff because she'd been dumped.  She'd seen Jacob's friends cliff-diving and decided to try it, in search of an adrenalin rush that might evoke an hysterical hallucination of sorts.  It was a dumb thing to do, but she's seventeen!  She wasn't trying to kill herself.  She wasn't trying to get anyone's attention.  She was just doing something she thought would make her feel better.  Stupid?  Yes, but not a damsel in sight. 

To sum up:  Read the books, people.  Stop spinning events to match your desire to argue them.

Oh, and regarding the 'girls need stronger female role-models' comment... see tomorrow's post.

So that's my two cents. 

Your thoughts?  Responses?  I'll be listening and happy to discuss any of these points in detail (and via gentlemanly debate) in the comments or via email if you prefer.


  1. Excellent! I agreed that some of the arguements were too vague and used too many generalizations without specific examples from the book. I kept screaming "Give me examples of that? because I can't think of any!" Some of the arguements were also overly dramatized. Your responses were well thought out, referenced the book and the author at several different points. I appreciated the effort you have put into them.

  2. Super! You said everything I've tried to say about Bella and Twilight but couldn't spit it out properly.

    One thought from my kid. The negativity about Twilight possibly stems from its own popularity.

    If a person discovers a trend before it becomes the 'cool' thing to do, they love it. After everyone jumps on the bandwagon, suddenly it becomes antithema.

    BTW, my daughter says when I gave her the set of the Twilight Saga, I gave her the best gift she had ever received in her 28 years.
    Just sayin'

  3. Thanks Huntress,

    I'm going to address the popularity issue in my next post, because I think you're right - it's a big part of the angst against this series.

    That said, its popularity means more people are aware of it / reading it, so I guess that naturally leads to a great contingent of detractors.

  4. I agree with the comment about popularity breeding discontent, and even hatred. As a counter-culture type in my youth, that was the intended reaction (punk rock - which I loved - is a good example, ugly was the goal). But, this has also come up lately in discussions surrounding the publishing of popular fiction by someone in academia. As soon as a work is published, it is no longer as "significant". As soon as it sells well, you have "sold out".

  5. Katherine - I know what you mean. I'll address some of that in the next post. But it's a slightly different issue.

    In truth, I think most 'real' literature doesn't get recognized for what it is until much later down the line, when it proves to either be an insight into the time, or a ground-breaking (or maybe hard-to-mimic?) approach.

    Hmmmm... more food for thought!

  6. To preface, I'm not much of a debater, but I think you maybe didn't get the full gist of what I was saying about diversity. I apologize ahead of time if this comes off rude -- I'm just out of a very long day after a 12 hour night shift, so I'm once again probably less eloquent than is desirable.

    To begin -- are you trying to say that you, as a white cis etc person, have NO contact with anyone who isn't like you? Yeah, sure, writers write what we know -- but you know, Meyer doesn't know any vampires. Neither do I. That doesn't mean either of us can't write about them. I object to books lacking diversity at all, and I think it's a copout to say "I'm not queer, I can't represent that" or "I'm not atheist, I can't represent that". I'm not saying every book has to be about someone who isn't a majority, but I am saying that there is a lack of diversity period, and I think it should stop. I definitely think the presentation of a particular way of life or race, etc as better than others should stop.

    (Also this statement: "The call for minority group novels should be made to minority group writers." is a little racist. Just so you know.)

    As for the issue being business based -- I'll be the first to admit that that's a good part of it. I'm no stranger to how much minority things /don't/ sell. But, thing is, just because a book isn't rejected for not being XYZ enough on paper, that doesn't mean that's not why it was rejected. If a marketing department tells them it won't sell, why do you think that is? These issues underlie this problem, too. I think these books SHOULD be on the front table at large stores. And that's my point. It's a lot bigger than the publishing world, I'll give you that -- but you weren't asking about the world in general. I get that democracy and capitalism are driven by majority, and I get that racism is deeply ingrained in American society. That's one of the reasons that diversity doesn't sell in the first place.

    Also, "highly recommending" that I "do some research" is a little insulting, especially considering that I had to define a term for you that you didn't understand -- cisgender -- so I think it's pretty clear that research is something I do sometimes. I'm not trying to be confrontational, I'm just letting you know how that came off, to me.

    AS FOR Bella changing her life, I'll have to get the books off the shelf and compile some references for you about why this is how I perceived things. (: But to touch on the point of 'maybe people don't like it because they're jealous' -- that's not my problem with it. In fact, every time I talk about Twilight with people, I am sure to say that it is a credit to the author that she wrote such popular books. I'm certainly happy they rekindled some teens' interest in reading. The books are enjoyable reads! I don't deny that. But just because they're enjoyable reads doesn't mean there aren't problems there. That's true for a lot of things!

  7. Great to see you again Kate!

    This is where we head into the tricky territory of cyber-communication. So I'll try to make sure I'm not ambiguous or leaving room for misdirection:

    First of all, if anything I said seemed insulting or patronizing, please ignore! That was never my intent. Debate is an exchange of views, not personal posturing. I'll have a look and see if I can rephrase that comment.

    Re the minority thing - here's my experience: Yes, there are many (MANY) people in my life who fall into various minority categories. And I'm sure that's true of most causasian writers. I'd never suggest a writer shouldn't include minorities - I write an asian-american teen character in the book my agent is currently trying to sell.

    I care about people, try to understand them (seriously), and do research, also.

    And yet, I've been slammed on more than one occasion, by more than one person (friends and family who love me and continue to care about me after these events) for forming opinions about the positions they may take, the culture they experience, the life they lead... because I'm not.

    None of that is intended as a 'woe is me', only to inform this statement: When I said "writers write what we know' and "make the call for minority books to minority authors" that wasn't racist. I just think those books will be better received, probably more authentic and possibly BETTER WRITTEN by people who've lived it and breathed it.

    No-one on earth has lived the Twilight Vampires because they don't exist. No-one in this time has lived historical or fantasy settings. The writers who write these things take a contemporary mind and apply to the 'other' world they're creating.

    The issues you raised in your post are huge, present, and incredibly vulnerable for many people here and now - including people I care about, and who I listen to. And they tell me STOP.

    They taught me that no amount of research will ever replace the actual experience.

    The statement I made was possibly contentious. I'm sorry you read it as racist. It wasn't. I know that without equivocation. You don't know me, you don't know my head and you can't define my heart for me.

    To me Racism = identifying a skin color and / or heritage and looking down on a person for it.

    Racial ignorance = not understanding something that someone else does or says because of where they've come from.

    Though I try not to be, I may be guilty of racial ignorance.

    I am not, do not and will never determine myself to be better than someone else because of their skin color, racial heritage or cultural background. Full stop. The end. It is not the way I'm wired.

    I'm happy to trot out 'real' people from real minorities who would confirm that for you, but it isn't the point.

    Instead of throwing mud and terms and accusations, let's exchange views. Idealize. Educate.

    We'll get a lot further and hopefully not hurt each other that way.

  8. I must say I was content to just read this post and be done considering it is quite late where I am and I have already said my peace on the issue of the Twilight debate on one of the former post. However, when I read Kate's comments I felt a strong urge to again voice my opinion.

    As an African-American woman and writer I felt there was NOTHING Racial about the comment that the call should go out to minority group writers about more minority group content. Yes we write what we know and as writers we think and live outside the "norm" very often and must put ourselves in character's shoes that we know absolutely nothing about. Still that doesn't mean that because I do the research and speak to those that have lived a certain way doesn't mean that I will ever fully grasp that lifestyle.

    In general when most African-Americans see books written about African-American life by someone that isn't of our race we tend to glaze over it. The truth is we don't expect it to be good. That isn't to say that it isn't just that that is the expectation and honestly we would rather support our own people than someone else. That might sound racist and to some extent it is but it is true.

    Therefore if we are that concerned about supporting our own then we should be just as concerned about petitioning the major publishing houses to publish more minority authors. When the fight of civil rights started it was started by African-Americans. When the gay rights movement started again it was started by those in that community. Many of us might not have heard about it until it reached a national level but believe me most things as this start out at home.

    Lastly, I would just also like to add that this wasn't suppose to be a debate on who should or shouldn't write minority fiction or who should demand that more of that fiction be published. This was a debate on the series of Twilight. A novel that is written in a world where vampires and werewolves, mortal enemies, learn to get along in the end. Maybe that should be the real effect of Twilight. That whatever our differences we learn to get along if only on paper :).

  9. Well said, 'Just Me'. The overall themes of Twilight, for me, have always been about love conquering all, including long-held misunderstandings and barriers between different groups. Getting back to Aimee's post, I believe the reason that Twilight was so addictive for me was because Bella and Edward’s all-consuming love is something I’ve always wanted; it’s the same reason I couldn’t speak for hours after watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet – there’s something very powerful and very moving about complete, all-encompassing love, something that connects with me on a very deep level. And judging by the success of the Twilight series, I’m not alone.

  10. Hi Aimee,

    I'm a little late to this discussion; my apologies. I have both by enthralled with and disgusted by the Twilight series and I've taken a lot of time to think about why. I picked the first book up just before the fourth one came out. I'm not a vampire-lover or hater, but vampire lit is not my usual read. I was hooked, and bought the rest of the series in rapid succession. Why was I hooked? Because the story (at least in two of the books) portrayed a great romance as experienced by me, a 35-ish-year-old-reader.

    When I stepped back and thought of this as a romance between a 110+-year old man (and one who has killed people at that) and a teenager, the story took on a decidedly creepy tone.

    Added to that is Bella's general teenage vapidity--she is simply, to me, not an interesting character outside of Edward. She didn't have any skills or interests that made her stand out to me. She might very well be a typical teenager, but who wants to read about that?

    When Edward disappeared from her life, she took on increasingly adrenaline-driven risks because it made her feel closer to him. She got depressed to the point where everyone in her life was worried about her. Instead of dealing with the very real phenomenon of teenage depression, we get the risky behavior which only stops when she now has to rush across the world to "save Edward."

    Again, fine for an adult tale but not something I would hold up as a role model for young girls.

    Good discussion here!


  11. To AubrieAnne,

    I think the posts/responses seemed vague or overly dramatized because that is how the series is reflected through the actions of Bella and Edward. Actually they have an "all consuming passion" and thats pretty general but only because throughout the book there was this deep attraction to Edward and that is quite simple. The book is very dramatic because Bella's actions are something I have not witnessed in real life(i.e., riding motorcycles with strangers to see the ghost of Edward's face, cliff diving with a vampire chasing her) those were dangerous stunts just for her to see an image in her brain of Edward. To me that was very dramatic, but its still a popular series among teens and their moms.

  12. Obviously I am a little late to the game but I found the post very interesting. Having not read the series I can't really speak to all of it but I would argue that maybe there is a reason to avoid a relationship where someone would rip out the starter of your car to keep you from doing something life-threatening. Obviously that is a strong motivation but to me a man usurping my judgement and stopping me from making my own choices is a problem, even if it is for a "good" reason.

    Concerning writing books for minority teens (racial, sexual orientation etc) I don't think you need to be a minority to understand and sympathize. It wasn't for teens but I've written a ms (still in progress) where the heroine was a biracial slave. (In the interest of full disclosure a distinction could be drawn here between what I wrote and a white person writing about African American issues because it is a fantasy where neither Africa nor America exist so nobody is African American...but I modeled the situations that she was facing as a slave after what went on in the United States.) I don't know what it is like to be black in the United States that is obviously true but that doesn't mean that I cannot understand that kind of hardship through something I am familiar with and use it to tell a story. There also happened to be a relationship between two gay men which I depicted. I am a white straight woman and yet I had no trouble finding their voices. Perhaps it would be different if it were for teens because maybe they are struggling with defining themselves more, but I think that people can create convincing characters of different races etc. from themselves. But maybe the books you've read that didn't do it right I haven't been exposed to.

    You're absolutely right that there is lower sales potential for books about minorities. Perhaps a solution to that is for established authors who have some clout to then start writing books featuring minorities and use their fame to add those kinds of works to the market. I don't know the complete answer but I do think that writers should work together to solve this issue.

    Concerning the all consuming love // Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet kill themselves because of their all consuming love. I understand the allure but ultimately if you love someone so much that without them you can't move on that isn't healthy. And one of the warning signs for a relationship that could lead to domestic violence and stalking behavior is one partner saying "I can't live without you." Obviously not always but sometimes. Again, I didn't read the series, but if Edward loves her more than life itself and doesn't have anything else to live for that isn't healthy for him or her (if that is in fact what is happening.)

    Girls definitely do need stronger role models. I can't say Bella is a weak role model, not knowing her character, but I think that it would be wonderful to have a female character who kicks ass just the same as the boys...or better. Books for teens (and adults) about young women as military heroes, police officers, athletes, or really just anything that shows both physical and/or mental strength are so important and so necessary.

    In a small aside I am not an atheist but although I was raised in a Christian home I no longer am a Christian. (But I did really enjoy your about me section because it so reminded me of my mother who is devoutly religious but loves my fantasy books about gods and goddesses and swashbuckling.) Even though I am not a religious person I have written characters who are very pious (although not in a Judeo-Christian framework.) I actually think an atheist would write a very good book about struggling with faith, since I would guess that most of them, like me, turned away from the religion of their upbringing which probably involved a great deal of spiritual turmoil.