Feminist critic Joanna Russ argues that, in a patriarchal culture, everything is seen from the male point of view. Women have a place within a patriarchal culture, but it is a minor place; there is a women’s culture, but it is a sub-culture, and it does not represent all that is possible of human experience. This is why, she continues, almost all of western civilization’s masterplots feature heroes rather than heroines. Women appear in these stories, but usually in supporting roles—loving wife, old crone, dear sister, temptress, loose woman, evil witch, etc.—all stereotypes. Yet there is one masterplot in which women are allowed the role of heroine—The Love Story.
Why? Because, even though she’s the “star” of the story, she’s still in a weak position. She is the one lacking power, the one who must be rescued or saved or pursued. A hero uses his strength, talent, or wit to overcome obstacles and prove his worth (or lack of it)—in a myriad of ways, thus the many plots available for heroes. A heroine just needs to find a man. That’s why she only needs one plot, right?
The first female novelists struggled for acceptance as authors, and unlike male novelists such as Fielding, Sterne, and Smollett who could pen suggestive scenes and still be respected, women writers were often deemed immoral for even daring to put their names on their tamest literary creations. They were also pretty much limited to producing novels of manners in which young women learned their “proper” roles in society.
But even with these restrictions, thinking, intelligent women found ways to fight back, ways that were often subversive. They might have been limited to the love story plot, but they could show their heroines’ pain. They highlighted society’s double standards. They showed the desperation many females felt in the face of economic insecurity. They painted pictures of feminine despair at having talents society allowed them no place to exercise. They depicted women of dignity, who refused to prostitute themselves for financial security and held out for husbands who respected them and whom they could respect. And, finally, after hundreds of years, things changed. Women authors gained greater freedom. They could depict strong women with dignity and choices and varying life paths.
And along comes Stephenie Meyer, who seems to try, in the Twilight novels at least, to undo all the progress of the last two hundred years. This may be a vampire story, but it’s the Love Story plot. Bella simply has to have a man. She cannot exist without one. Edward (although he repeatedly derides her and talks to her as if she’s a child) completes her and is necessary for her very survival. And when he leaves, what happens? She latches on to Jacob (who basically treats her the same way Edward does, but not quite as badly). Like I said, she’s gotta have a man. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against love and marriage—but I’m for relationships built on both self- and mutual respect.
And what’s the deal with “genetic dead ends”? Traditionally, women’s worth in a patriarchal society is based on their childbearing capacity. Therefore youth is prized, and women decrease in value as they age because they lose this ability (see my ageism post). Young women who did not or could not bear children were deemed “surplus” women—essentially a burden on society. This is another view of women that female authors have fought against, and what do we find in the Twilight saga? Rosalie and Leah, two young women who feel worthless because they are unable to bear children— they are, using Leah’s term, “genetic dead ends”—and Bella, who’s willing to sacrifice her own life for her unborn child, against the wishes of Edward, Jacob, and Carlisle—all the men who care about her (and should care about the child). Again, I’m not discounting the value of children—or of self-sacrifice. I’m a mother, and my children are very important to me. I’m also willing to sacrifice for them, and so is my husband. And so are most mothers and fathers I know. What I’m saying here is that this is a very sexist presentation of parenting. A woman’s worth is not based on whether or not she can bear children, just as a man’s worth is not based on whether or not he can or has fathered children. And women are not the only ones willing to sacrifice for the welfare of their children.
Meyer seems to be trying to depict Bella as a strong heroine, but she goes about it in all the wrong ways. Bella rejects parental authority yet “parents” her own parents. She doesn’t care about clothes or what kind of car she drives. She doesn’t care about going to the prom. Bella is “above” all the typical teenage-girl things, and I guess Meyer thinks that this makes her seem mature and independent. Another weird thing that I guess is supposed to make Bella a feminist is that she’s ready for sex and for Edward to “transform” her, but she’s not ready to marry him at eighteen. It’s just too low-class-white trash—people will talk about her! But it’s hard to think of Bella as strong when she has no individual sense of self-esteem/identity and is constantly putting herself in positions that she knows will force Edward or Jacob to rescue her.
Many of the other females in these novels fit these same patterns. Renee is needy and flighty and must be shielded and taken care of. Leah is the stereotypically bitter scorned woman and is only grudgingly accepted in the pack. The celebrated third wife is “strong” only because she kills herself to save her men. The “imprinted” women have no choice but to belong to the male wolves that imprint on them for life—a relationship much like a knight and his fair lady. All in all, Meyer’s fictional world is pretty degrading for women.
So why are so many girls and women identifying with these books?
To be continued . . .