Thursday, September 24, 2009

Feminism, Censorship, and Writerly Responsibility

Moonrat recently posted a survey that got me to thinking. She asked which very popular books we’ve bought and read, liked, etc. One of the books on the list was Twilight.

Now, I have a certain prejudice against writers that belittle popular works. I’ve heard it so many times, and so often it’s simple sour grapes, that I almost uniformly disconnect from any of those diatribes. Saying you don’t like a work is one thing. Even picking apart why is fine, it’s that going overboard into “terribly written, how did it ever get published” stuff that bugs me. I’m sorry, as far as I’m concerned, if it’s selling in the stratosphere it speaks to people. Maybe it’s not your taste, maybe it goes against the “rules” of fiction writing, whatever, it still speaks and to me, you have to give the author respect for what they’ve accomplished, it doesn’t really matter if it’s not to your own taste.

That’s not to say I don’t hate some popular works. I hated Twilight, in fact. But it’s not because it’s terrible writing and I’m so much better than the author.... it’s not because I think that kind of writing is dragging down literacy, blah, blah, blah. As far as I’m concerned, that kind of thinking is for elitists, and if there’s one kind of “ist” I can’t stomach it’s the kind that makes itself feel superior by belittling others.

Twilight. I didn’t like it because it bothered my feminist sensibilities. That’s it in a nutshell. It bothered me so much, that I started picking out things, like the number of times “ochre eyes” were mentioned, just to have something else to roll my own eyes over. And to be honest here, as a writer, I saw so many areas where her craft could be improved. But to me, that’s a writing thing and shouldn’t be confused with a storyteller thing – bluntly put, it doesn’t matter if I think other authors are better masters of their craft, I can’t fault the storytelling and that’s what she was aiming for. I read the first one all the way through, just to make sure it wasn’t my speed, but I never read the rest of them. Because it bothered me.

She wants to be turned into a vampire – think about this, she wants to die, leave her own family forever, and cling onto his family after knowing this kid for a couple of months!!!! Aghhhhhhh! That’s what bothered me. He sat outside her window and watched her sleep... and it was portrayed as romantic!!!! Aghhhhhhhhh!!!!! Excuse me while I pound my head off the wall at the leaping, bounding, backfall of woman-kind.

It bothered me.

But - It bothered me as a thirty-six year old mother of three, one of which happens to be a girl. It bothered me today, knowing what I know, with the sensibilities I have. But the author’s job wasn’t to capture my sensibilities – her job was to capture Bella’s, a teenage girl in love for the first time. Me, today, would beat the bloody hell out of anyone watching me sleep through a flippin’ window. But that’s today. Do you remember how intense the emotions were in high school? Do you remember how serious everything was, how every little argument was blown up, every crush the end of the world? I do. Ms. Myers did her job. She wasn’t supposed to capture a mature woman’s sensibility at these events, she captured Bella’s. Tell me you didn’t know a girl in high school who thought her life was over when her first real boyfriend broke her heart... tell me Ms. Myers didn’t capture it with all of the angst. Because she did. If we’re honest, she did.

That’s the thing here, people aren’t always right. They don’t always live their lives the way that are best or exemplify a healthy or moral message. And whatever you add to your list of writerly responsibilities, a moral, a theme, a message – whatever you add to it, the cardinal rule you can’t break is being true to the character. When you do that. When you create a sixteen year old with the perception of a thirty-six year old, you’ve lost the battle... the craft might be there, but the storytelling is less than authentic.

The Celebrated Author mentioned that Twilight bothered her because so many young girls idolized Bella, as if she were a role model. I can’t say I disagree. It bothers me that there are girls in middle school reading this that might think dangerous relationships are romantic, etc. But, on the flip side of that coin, who do they have to talk to about it? I mean, seriously, we can’t be thinking of blaming a book for the way young girls think about relationships can we?

I don’t believe in censorship. I think, for the most part, it’s akin to hiding your head in the sand and hoping something goes away. I don’t believe in censorship for kids, either. Don’t get me wrong, you need to make sure things are age appropriate, but that doesn’t mean banning things you disagree with. My daughter’s in middle school and a bunch of her friends have started reading the Twilight series. She’s not interested yet. But if she does decide to read it, I’ll be reading along with her, so that we can discuss it together. Books and media don’t raise children, and when they disagree with the messages a parent wants a child to understand, it’s the perfect stepping stone for discussion.

Thoughts? Anything rile your feminist bone?


moonrat said...

yes, Twilight is horribly irresponsible media that is brainwashing teenagers into slavishly obeying and celebrating gender roles.

but it gets kids to read.

it makes me sick to my stomach.

but it gets kids to read.

ok, i'll make myself stop now... otherwise i'll go on and on until we're all old and grey and it doesn't matter anymore.

WordVixen said...

I'm not a feminist at all by modern standards (I'm all for equality, not superiority), but I do have issues with co-dependency. No interest in Twilight or any other book with vampires in it (aside from Terry Pratchett, but that's a totally different kinda thing), but... You've actually made the best case for Twilight that I've ever read/heard. I'm actually considering trying to get a cheap copy for research now.

Gary Corby said...

Twilight has demonstrated one very interesting result: a zillion women lined up to slaver over the Bella/Edward relationship, and not a single man made them do it. Something to consider for those who believe women's roles have been defined by men.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Moonie,

Thanks for the inspiration. I'm kind of with you here, too, I hated it... but other people loved it...

Hi Wordvixen,

You know, I'm not sure if I should be pleased at my honesty or shoot myself for accidentally recommending something that annoyed me so badly... :-)

But she did definitely stick with her character's pov - and I don't think I could have done that with this story. I would have had a driving need to make her stronger and more independent than the story really called for.

Hi Gary,

You make a very good point. It's not men who propogate this type of thinking, it's women. Kind of like the old advice, "People treat you the way you teach them to treat you."

But then, all that really tells me is we still have a good deal of work to do.

Liz said...

Hi there,

This is my first time posting on your blog. I'm usually the type to just take things in. I love 'nuggets' of information.

At any rate, I do agree that Bella comes off as weak. However, keep in mind that she has basically already been without a family.

In the begining of the book she leaves to move in with a father she has rarely seen because her immature mother got married and didnt want to stay at home with her. Also keep in mind that at some point through the book it comes out that part of Edwards Vamp talent is to "pull" people toward him. So part of the reaction she has would be due to that.

If it helps any, in the next books Bella does grow more of a back bone.

Nice post. =)

Gary Corby said...

Something that occurred to me along the same lines...I know my daughters will be reading my work. Do I really want them quoting my own characters at me when they're teenagers?

Obviously not. So I write strong women leads who respond more or less the way I'd want my girls to. Which leaves me, I confess, with anti-Twilight characters.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Liz,

I think she did a very nice job of sticking with the character's pov - including the extenuating family situation. You're right there. And like I said, it bothered me as a 36 year old, I can't say any of that would have bothered me at 16. So, while I can say that the story's not to my taste and even tell you why, I won't say the story didn't work, because it did.

Thanks for stopping in and adding to the discussion!

Hi Gary,

Do I really want them quoting my own characters at me when they're teenagers?

Oh, thanks, now I'll have an extra reason to censor myself! :-) I tend to like strong characters regardless, but my characters don't always do things I'd advocate... hmmm.... don't know what I'll do if my kids use my fiction as an excuse... I suppose I'll give them points for a good argument and then ground them anyway :-)

Erica Orloff said...

Hi . . .

As a YA author, I consider how I want my teens portrayed in the books I write. I think Bella whines. I think the obsessional think is unhealthy.

BUT . . . I have BEEN in an onsessional love affair. It captures, for better or worse, a kind of love that most of us experience at least once in our younger years and then shed as we mature. It doesn't bug me as much as it bothers some others because I think writers creating art . . . well, they create a mood, a feeling, a relationship, a whatever. She captured obsessive love. People can hate her writing or hate what is says about men-women, but I don't think I would go so far as to say it brainwashes. I think you have to be 15 to get it.


Laurel said...

Hi, Merry!

I liked all the Twilight books, as in I enjoyed them even though I'm pretty sure they won't be on any required reading lists anytime soon. I thought they were fun to read. In spite of Bella. I don't mind characters who are overblown, but the clumsy, the hapless, and the fainting! Oh, dear me...the fainting.

Not to get too graphic but from a biological perspective what 17 year old girl is capable of functioning biologically if she faints at the sight and smell of blood?

And all the Austen references. Any Austen girl would have given Edward a piece of her mind.

I felt like Bella was a foil, a plot device to show how strong the idealized romantic hero was. She did get better through the books, though, and show a little gumption.

And regarding the unhealthy, obsessive, stalking behavior I must confess I've a soft spot for that in fictional characters. "Every Breath You Take" by the Police? Swoon. Untamed Heart, where Christian Slater's mentally off busboy character breaks into her house while she'd sleeping to leave a presumably stolen Christmas Tree? Pitter-patter goes my heart.

Would I slap a restraining order on any of these bozos in real life? Absolutely.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Erica,

I don't think you have to BE 15 to get it, but you do have to remember what it was to be 15. I get the draw, I'm just not drawn to it, myself... But there is definitely a market there and there's nothing wrong with it - she captures something honest, regardless of whether or not I like it.

Hi Laurel,

You know, there's that, too - all of the books and movies with these kind of stalkerish things that are Romantic... it doesn't bother me in all of them. In fact, I just finished a really fabulous YA that I might do a review on because I love Love Loved it and haven't seen much out there on it... the romantic interest was watching her through the window, you find out at the end... didn't bother me. Didn't bother me even a little. And it should have, but the way the characters were drawn, especially the MC, I overlooked it.

So, yeah, what works in fiction doesn't necessarily work in real life... but maybe someone ought to tell that to these boys before they wind up arrested :-)

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I've read a chapter or so of TWILIGHT and I've read a lot about it. No one talks about it much, and nothing against Mormonism, but a lot of the relationship echoes the mores in that religion.

A friend of mine pointed out to me how it touched on girls' obsessive loves and feelings, just the way you did here. And I admit I drew a blank. I wasn't a terribly touchy-feely teenager. So I have a tough time understanding why it's popular. It's one of the reasons I'm likely never to touch YA.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi SS@S,

You know, I read an article relating the whole series to the Mormon religion, and though it was a humorous article, it was still really interesting. I won't read the rest of the series, unless my daughter does - in that case, I'll read along so that I don't risk being overly judgmental about something I haven't read... Besides, I'm planning on making her read a lot of classics :-) the least I can do is read some of the ones she's interested in.

It's one of the reasons I'm likely never to touch YA.

I hope you rethink that some, though... at least to read some more YA. Twilight is one kind of novel with one kind of heroine, and while I think it was true for what she was trying to accomplish, it's not true for all characters and certainly not all YA.

Cindy Pon's novel is YA, it's on my tbr list and looks fabulous. Ellen Oh's ms. is also YA and let me tell you, her story and characters are breathtaking. The Book Theif was probably one of the most beautifully written, heartwrenching novels I've read in the last decade - YA.

I just finished reading another YA by an author I'd never read before, and it was astoundingly good... I think I might post a review soon because I think it's a book that should be read by jeeze, everyone.

YA can be a great genre because the emotions are so high, it makes for a good place in life to have an important storyline, lifechanging event, etc. It's also a great genre to write in because, for me, I love the idea of speaking to kids in that age bracket, of resonating and giving them something to bounce off their everyday life. It's as wide and varied as mainstream, just aimed at a different age bracket really...

Kate said...

Merry, I'm glad you wrote about this. I think you hit the nail on the head - as a grown woman, Bella's attitudes bothered me enormously. For example, she's crazyhorny for Edward, yet when he tells her they can *never* consummate, it has zero impact on her feelings about being with him forever. And then of course there is that stalking thing. Don't get me started!

On Moonrat's blog, I said reading Twilight was intensely embarrassing. I meant this not in the sense that people should feel ashamed for enjoying it, but in the sense that trying to identify with Bella made me cringe.

Natasha Fondren said...

I have too many female friends who act like they can take or leave their husband, and that makes me sad. And they all say they are "independent," but it's not really true: they are surrounded by family and friend networks that support them. They say they can be independent, but I want to see them say that when NO ONE is there to help them. NO ONE. Not one single friend, not one single sister or brother or mother or father or acquaintance in the WHOLE WORLD.

No one is independent unless they are dead. To survive in this world we NEED other people. Some people have many friends and huge families; some people have one or two friends and a husband, or whatever.

I love the Twilight series because it makes it okay for girls to love boys passionately. It makes it okay for them to grieve the loss of that love, to feel normal for that grieving process. For a long time, women were supposed to not love a man so much as to grieve like Bella did; we were just supposed to hate them. I HATE hearing how women put men down, often joking. It is WAY worse than the WORST chauvinistic thing I have ever heard a man say.

If you don't need a helpmate in life and you don't love someone so much you'd lose a part of yourself in losing them, then why bother? I certainly wouldn't. It's not obsessive love and it's not celebrating gender roles; it's family. It's being part of a family, part of a group that needs one another in order to function.

I am a feminist, too, but I believe it is about freedom of choice, not a rejection of partnership. I don't care who supplies what gender role, but we humans definitely need each other.

Merry Monteleone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Kate,

I think it mostly comes down to sensibility, and the thing with her not caring that they couldn't consumate their relationship, that didn't throw me at all for some reason.

Hi Spy,

Umn, okay, I didn't mean to offend you, I really really didn't. And I do understand NEEDING another person... but needing another person to the point you can't live without them is unhealthy. I'm sorry, it's unhealthy. I think it's a natural mindset for young love or first love, that all consuming place that Bella and Edward fall into. That's why I think she did capture the sensibilities of the age bracket and character.

And I only read the first one, I have no idea where she took the characters from the second novel through the last. So there is that, too. It's not that I think needing another person is bad. But needing someone, anyone, to the point that you're willing to give up everything, including your own life? I can see the romance in that if it's a sacrafice of self for the other, like diving in front of a bullet for someone you love or something. But deciding to die to be with your boyfriend? Deciding to give up your own family, education, everything?

I don't think it's an either or - I don't think being independent means you don't grieve the loss of people and relationships. I think you can be your own person and still feel. So I don't know, I'm not that far over the feminist scale where I man bash - I actually get along with men better than I get along with many women.

And I think my aversion to this particular novel really comes down to reader responsibility. It has nothing to do with the author or story and everything to do with the life experience I bring to the table. From my experience, obsessive love often leads to abuse, and so maybe I automatically went there, as soon as some of the more 'stalkerish' traits came up... but then, I think it's something girls in that age bracket should be aware of, too - one of the few cases where you don't want to learn that lesson from experience.

Natasha Fondren said...

Ah, I understand how you're perceiving it. (And no, you didn't offend me.) I suppose it's how you view being a vampire, LOL. From a strictly fictional point of view, I think it's silly and unrealistic that most characters are unwilling to become vampires, especially in the vampire worlds where being a vampire is not that unpleasant. I'd choose life for centuries as a vampire. It'd be fun. Especially in those vampire worlds where I wouldn't have to kill other humans. Think of all the time I'd have to learn a million things. Bella isn't really giving up life; she's just choosing a longer one.

For Bella, in this story, choosing to be a vampire is not really any more dramatic than a Canadian choosing to live in the U.S. to marry their mate.

Although, I'm not sure I love my husband so much that I'd want to spend 900 years with him...

Shelly said...

I haven't read Twilight, and even though I like the discussion here, I'm not going to be tempted into reading it out of curiosity (yet). But I did want to chime in to say that you really do a great job laying out here the reasons not to practice censorship, and to avoid literary snobbery. Both of those are things it is easy to stand against when talking about it, but sometimes harder to avoid in real life. I know I've been guilty of being embarrassed by some "lowbrow" novel I'm reading, even though I think there's as much room to enjoy the "lowbrow" as one wants to give it.

Good discussion.

Laurel said...

I love me some "lowbrow." I also love A.S. Byatt, Faulkner, and the Pearl Poet. It's just two different kinds of pleasure.

Twilight is milk duds and popcorn. Possession is champagne and caviar. There's definitely space for both page-turners and omigosh I had to read that page four times because it was so amazing on my reading palate.

I also think that young readers are often more savvy than we give them credit for. They do understand the difference between a consumable that is strictly entertainment value and one that is actually art. Just like they roll their eyes at ill-disguised efforts to encourage abstinence in all forms because BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN if you have sex/do drugs/go to keg parties/hang out with the cool kids who are really mean.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Natasha,

you know, occasionally I'm with you on the vampire lore and why the heck aren't they interested in living forever thing. In this case it bugged me just because it struck me that she'd have to cut ties with her real family, if she didn't want to be outed as a vampire. I mean really, what kind of botox is good enough to explain how she looks 16 when she should be 65? Never mind the type of cosmetics that would account for sparkling in the sunlight :-) Okay, and that bugged me, too - SPARKLEY VAMPIRES!!!! Me likes mine spooky scary.

So it's not so much that I disregarded the lore, though maybe I thought too much ahead. Like, hey if she becomes a vampire she's pretty much confined living among them and not with her own people... and again, that thinking ahead thing is pretty much an adult response, not something I would've gone with as a teenager.

Hi Shelly!

I'd love to say I've never been embarrassed by my more 'lowbrow' reading, but I have... I've left some of my beach or snack reading at home and not brought it out at the dentists' office. I'm a little less worried about other peoples' perception now than I once was, but depending on the reading fare, I can still be mildly embarrassed on occasion.

Hi Laurel,

You've just hit on the biggest cardinal rule for middle grade and young adult authors - don't talk down to your readers. Don't make you novel so much about a moral that you're spoon feeding them on how to think rather than telling a story.

I think a lot of newer writers to the genre do just that, or make the bigger mistake of not even reading in the market they're writing for. If you don't enjoy the writing there, it might be a sign you should be working with a different readership.

Demon Hunter said...

Great post. I'm glad that you broke down why you didn't like it, instead of just bashing Stephenie Meyer.

Hey, where's a newer post? ;-)

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey Demon Hunter!

Okay, new post's up! Thanks for the kick in the pants :-)

Colleen_Katana said...

Oh my god....the cheese stands alone. Ok, I really loved Twilight. And I know there's nothing genius about it or her writing...but I simply fell in love with a world she created. And it took me back to a time when love was pure passion and no dream was too big not to pursue.

However, yeah, Bella was really effing annoying. And I kind of hated her throughout the book--but I kept reading. And maybe I'm different because I'm older than most of the kids reading it, but even in high school, I never had a problem differentiating fantasy from reality. Differentiating the true heroes from idealistic fairy tales. But that's because my parents were awesome and amazing at instilling this in me from an early age.

So, is Twilight any worse for kids than Disney princess stories? Stories where women are portrayed as helpless until a dashing prince comes along to save them? I personally don't have a problem with the latter either. Again, I feel it's the parent's job to explain that it's ok to enjoy stories so long as you differentiate it from reality.

But...I feel like a total geek defending Twilight because I KNOW in my soul of souls that it sucks in a lot of ways. And yet my best friend and I always end up talking about it and complaining about how we each should have been cast in the movie. LAME, I KNOW.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Colleen,

You're not alone at all! Liz, Laurel, and Natasha all liked Twilight, and those are just the ones who commented here - the series obviously has a huge fanbase.

And I totally agree with you, kids know the difference between fantasy and reality - it's why it annoys me that people try to censor on the basis that they're 'protecting' children, rather than the reality that they're exerting control... and I think the parents that play into that are often knee jerk in their reaction and, in my opinion, a bit lazy in that they often either don't read what they're banning or if they have read it won't take the time to discuss the issues with their children.

That's my opinion, though. I'm sure there are some parents out there who think I'm the asshole.

Natasha Fondren said...

*totally giggling at your objection to sparkley vampires* LOL!