Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Books: Don't you know that it's different for girls?

Shots at the Twilight film, and the YA novel series that spawned it, are now about as common on horror blogs as RSS feeds and follower lists. Not too long ago, I took a jab at the series, despite having never read any of the books or seen the film in question. That's pretty lousy of me, I reckon; though I can take some small measure of comfort in the fact that I'm far from alone. As of this writing, I've seen blogs that make unfavorable apples and oranges comparisons between the tween-oriented franchise and the mediocre soft-core vamp flicks that poured out of 1970s Europe and into the Gen X horror fan's consciousness like some polluting tanker spill of cinematic sludge. Other, perhaps less dubious projects, include efforts to detail crypto-Mormon propaganda hidden in the works and diatribes that suggest the books' sado-masochistic undertones program young women in assuming that abusive relationships are the norm. Capable of being both an anti-sex abstinence tract and perverse ode to violent eroticism, Twilight and its sibling tomes are apparently the critical equivalent of the shmoo: the most useful beast the critical world has ever known.

This is not to say that these criticism aren't all correct. (Well, excepting the one that claims that Twilight is less subversive than the fangs and boobies flicks of the Euro-trash cinema set – the latter being "subversive" only to the degree that selling she-flesh to audiences looking for cheap thrills, a multicentury tradition in Western culture and the key market strategy of the world's oldest profession, can be thought to be subversive. That criticism is just wrong.) Twilight may be all these vile things and more.

But still, it's nice to hear an opposing viewpoint.

Over at the Atlantic, writer Caitlin Flanagan looks at the Twilight books to figure out what they can tell us about, and I quote, "the complexities of female adolescent desire."

From the article:

The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.

About the steamy (not so steamy?) parts, with an interesting note on the important role the supernatural plays in the book's thematic scheme:

The erotic relationship between Bella and Edward is what makes this book—and the series—so riveting to its female readers. There is no question about the exact nature of the physical act that looms over them. Either they will do it or they won’t, and afterward everything will change for Bella, although not for Edward. Nor is the act one that might result in an equal giving and receiving of pleasure. If Edward fails—even once—in his great exercise in restraint, he will do what the boys in the old pregnancy-scare books did to their girlfriends: he will ruin her. More exactly, he will destroy her, ripping her away from the world of the living and bringing her into the realm of the undead. If a novel of today were to sound these chords so explicitly but in a nonsupernatural context, it would be seen (rightly) as a book about "abstinence," and it would be handed out with the tracts and bumper stickers at the kind of evangelical churches that advocate the practice as a reasonable solution to the age-old problem of horny young people. (Because it takes three and a half very long books before Edward and Bella get it on—during a vampiric frenzy in which she gets beaten to a pulp, and discovers her Total Woman—and because Edward has had so many decades to work on his moves, the books constitute a thousand-page treatise on the art of foreplay.) That the author is a practicing Mormon is a fact every reviewer has mentioned, although none knows what to do with it, and certainly none can relate it to the novel; even the supercreepy "compound" where the boring half of Big Love takes place doesn’t have any vampires. But the attitude toward female sexuality—and toward the role of marriage and childbearing—expressed in these novels is entirely consistent with the teachings of that church. In the course of the four books, Bella will be repeatedly tempted—to have sex outside of marriage, to have an abortion as a young married woman, to abandon the responsibilities of a good and faithful mother—and each time, she makes the "right" decision. The series does not deploy these themes didactically or even moralistically. Clearly Meyer was more concerned with questions of romance and supernatural beings than with instructing young readers how to lead their lives. What is interesting is how deeply fascinated young girls, some of them extremely bright and ambitious, are by the questions the book poses, and by the solutions their heroine chooses.

Connecting the novel's plot to classic gothic romances, notably Jane Eyre, Flanagan suggests that there's something primal about the story, even for today's readers.

The Twilight series is not based on a true story, of course, but within it is the true story, the original one. Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof.

And later:

Think, for a moment, of the huge teen-girl books of the past decade. "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" is about female empowerment as it's currently defined by the kind of jaded, 40-something divorcées who wash ashore at day spas with their grizzled girlfriends and pollute the Quiet Room with their ceaseless cackling about the uselessness of men. They are women who have learned certain of life's lessons the hard way and think it kind to let young girls understand that the sooner they grasp the key to a happy life (which essentially boils down to a distaff version of "Bros before hos"), the better. In "Sisterhood," four close friends might scatter for the summer—encountering everything from ill-advised sex with a soccer coach to the unpleasant discovery that Dad's getting remarried—but the most important thing, the only really important thing, is that the four reunite and that the friendships endure the vicissitudes of boys and romance. Someday, after all, they will be in their 50s, and who will be there for them—really there for them—then? The boy who long ago kissed their bare shoulders, or the raspy-voiced best friend, bleating out hilarious comments about her puckered fanny from the next dressing room over at Eileen Fisher? "Gossip Girl," another marketing sensation, replaces girls' old-fashioned need for male love and tenderness—these chippies could make a crack whore look like Clara Barton—with that for shopping and brand names. Notoriously set in an Upper East Side girls school that seems to combine elements of Nightingale-Bamford with those of a women's correctional facility after lights-out, the book gives us a cast of young girls whose desire for luxury goods (from Kate Spade purses to Ivy League–college admissions) is so nakedly hollow that the displacement of their true needs is pathetic. "Prep"—a real novel, not the result of a sales-team brainstorm—derives much of its pathos from the fact that the main character is never sure whether the boy she loves so much, and has had so many sexual encounters with, might actually constitute that magical, bygone character: her "boyfriend." The effect of "Prep" on teenagers is reminiscent of that of "The Catcher in the Rye": both books describe that most rarefied of social worlds, the East Coast boarding school, and yet young readers of every socioeconomic level have hailed them for revealing the true nature of their inner life. In "Prep," the heroine wants something so fundamental to the emotional needs of girls that I find it almost heartbreaking: she wants to know that the boy she loves, and with whom she has shared her body, loves her and will put no other girl in her place.

Bella, despite all of her courage and competence, manages to end up in scrape after scrape: finding herself in the path of a runaway car, fainting at school, going shopping in a nearby city and getting cornered by a group of malevolent, taunting men. And over and over, out of nowhere, shoving the speeding car out of her way, or lifting her up in his arms, or scaring the bejesus out of the men who would harm her, is Edward. And at last, while she is recuperating from the near-rape, with a plate of ravioli in a café near the alley, he reveals all. Not since Maxim de Winter's shocking revelation—"You thought I loved Rebecca? … I hated her"—has a sweet young heroine received such startling and enrapturing news. As he gradually explains, Edward has been avoiding and scorning Bella not because he loathes her but because he is so carnally attracted to her that he cannot trust himself to be around her for even a moment. The mere scent of her hair is powerful enough that he is in a constant struggle to avoid taking—and thereby destroying—her. This is a vampire novel, so it is a novel about sex, but no writer, from Bram Stoker on, has captured so precisely what sex and longing really mean to a young girl.


Though I found Flanagan's defense of the series – fueled by both literary insight and personal anecdote – very persuasive, I still have some reservations. Being something of a bargain basement empiricist (by which I mean I'm one of those thick-headed yahoos who can't be told), I had to see how the book behaved outside the lab of lit theory.

Taking to heart the idea that this was something only a young girl could really understand, I found the supposed "perfect" reader of Twilight. Ruby is the only daughter of my neighbor's who live a few doors down. She's a voracious reader of novels and comics – she's also a novice on the piano and huge fan of Disney's unstoppable High School Musical franchise. Curiously, she's also a big David Bowie fan, but she's got no particular love for the Beatles – something her heartbroken parents, who feel Bowie is some avatar for a morally deadening post-60's hyperreal vacuity, confided in me.

Ruby has read the book Twilight and she was not impressed. She said it was boring. She enjoyed the action scenes and the scary parts, but she found the author's attention to the physical beauty of the male lead – the vampire lover Edward – tedious and, ultimately, a deal-breaker. She did not read past the first book. She saw the movie, but mostly out of a sense of social obligation: all her friends were going, it would be gauche to avoid it on something as inconsequential as objections over quality. Ruby enjoyed the movie better than the book. She felt that it was vast improvement just showing how pretty Edward was, instead of talking about it over and over.

10 comments:

Sasquatchan said...

After reading Caitlyn's article, I'm left with a few thoughts.

One, now I know what happens to the deconstructionists that I scoffed at while in college. (Hey, I minored in English because I like to read, not write papers about whether the author was a closeted homophobe self hating cutter doped up on heroin because of how said author portrayed a minor male character..)

and secondly, I think Caitlyn is (or will become) one of the shrill man hating 40 year olds she so loathingly describes.

(oh yeah, see my recipe deconstruction from last post ;)

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

The lit crit approach you're describing is either a queer theory approach or, perhaps, New Historical approach.

Flanagan's approach is something like a gender studies/reader response combo approach with a schmear of personal essay.

Remember, deconstruction says there's nothing outside the text - so the author's bio don't matter none to the reading.

Looks like the ol' Bill 'em it's Scary degree is getting a work out!

AndyDecker said...

And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar :-)

It is always interesting what people read into things, especially if it successful things. The idea that a book like Twilight is subversive is a bit much. It is a YA novel, of course it is conservative in important parts. It won´t advocate doing orgies after school or celebrating black masses on sundays. (That is more a topic for one of those shrill eps of Law&Order). And they did the vampiric abstinance thing 10 years ago on Buffy, so why is this a new aspect? Can´t they be bothered to inform themselves about a genre?

As a genre fan of course I cringe at the thought that they now managed to defang the vampire completely, but this is only a logical progression after Anne Rice or Coppola who made a monster like Dracula into a whiny Im-Ho-Tep wannabee.

Personally I think Disney´s relentless efforts to portray kids as adults much more horrific than 20 volumes of Twilight. But that´s only me :-)

CRwM said...

Andy,

Actually, there have been pro-orgy YA novels. The infamous Rainbow Party book, which featured oral sex parties in which boys would get a rainbow of different colored lipsticks on their johnsons, was famous enough to get nixed by the publisher. Which I think supports my point - why do we still equate sex with subversion? If a tween minus the bear parties are grist for the YA mill, then what's shocking about the Euro-model of coozed up nosferatu? Though, blame me for that. That's my contention, not hers.

More to her point:

That I think the "cigar is a cigar" approach is part of the defense Flanagan mounts. She makes the claim that Twilight doesn't make sense except as a dramatic exploration of what a romance between a vampire and human might play out like. She makes the case that the vamps of Twilight aren't to be thought of a symbols dressed up in bloodsucker drag. (As Buffy's vamps were.)

FULL MOON INDUSTRIES said...

just got blog back up and running. i posted a few pics from Halloween night. check it out when you get some time fullmoonindustries.blogspot.com/
stay true~

AndyDecker said...

I guess I have to be more interested in the YA market *g Rainbow Party, lol.

After writing that yesterday I came to think if a YA vampire series with reversed gender would be equally suiccessful - the mortal boy and the vampire girl. I guess not.

Books for girls are a different thing. So if they enjoy stuff like Twilight, more power to them. At least they are reading.

About the sex, I guess this is a cultural thing. From afar I have the impression that in America the sane approach to all things sex gets screamed down by the hysterical puritanical mindset. Here in some parts of Europe - just as a stupid example - we get the frontal nuditiy thing at prime-time on network tv and virtually nobody gives a damn. Can you imagine say Marg Helgenberger going topless in a bed scene in an ep of CSI?

On the other hand, we can get only the edited version of SAW, which for the tv version gets edited a bit more. Win a little, loose a little :-)

The Headless Werewolf said...

Really interesting stuff, thanks for posting this.

Still, I'm feeling slightly defensive since in my blog I may have made one of those "dubious" claims about TWILIGHT vs what I do think are more subversive Euro-vampire films of the 70s. (I'm not sure if you're referring specifically to what I wrote, so please pardon me if I'm wrong about this). I can only speak of the first TWILIGHT book (and not the film), and while I actually found much to enjoy, I found the text to be fairly conservative in nature, and I'm not thinking wholly in terms of sex; in fact, I actually found it quite seething in that regard. At the same time, Meyer tends to put Bella in situations that require her to be saved repeatedly, much like many heroines of conventional female gothic literature. Even when she's assertive, Bella winds up unconscious or in a position that she must be swept up in someone's arms, very, very often literally. Though she can be assertive, she's ultimately not empowered in this regard, and hence, the novel falls into comfortable patterns that really don't challenge any hegemony. Maybe I need to read the other novels, especially since the ending to the first book suggests a tantalizingly different direction. In contrast, much of the Euro-stuff of the 70s raise interesting questions about female empowerment and sexuality (and not just sex, though I certainly am a dirty-minded Gen X'er who digs the nekkid babes). Hence, my admittedly underdeveloped generalization.

CRwM said...

Headless,

I didn't mean to offend. I've got this love/hate relationship with Euro-horror from the 1970s. Though it is really more of a love/HATE thing.

Basically, when I was cutting my horror teeth, that stuff was the "you haven't lived, darling, unless you've seen [place randomly selected Euro-exploiter here]" stuff and I imagine that I feel about that stuff the way Brit's 1st gen punks felt about the Beatles. It's suffocating.

Your observations re: Twilight are not only insightful, but better grounded than mine as all my info is second hand.

If I overstepped, please do forgive.

The Headless Werewolf said...

Oh, no apologies necessary, it's not like we're talking about life and death stakes (well, not literally, at least!). I enjoy the give and take, so thanks for letting me comment on your blog. Your stuff always prompts me to think!

sexy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.