Tuesday, July 14, 2009
On understanding true love: second of two - spoileriffic
Okay, so yesterday, I started my commentary on the terrible awfulness of Twilight. My objections, vis a vis that post, were largely to the crappy writing style and the wading-pool depth of character in the protagonist. Today I'll look somewhat beyond that, to the people with whom Bella Swan (ack. Still ack when I type that) surrounds herself - and to the scary things we learn as a result.
There are, in fact, other characters than Bella (to the extent that she can really be described as a "character"). There's Jessica, who prattles; we know this because all of her dialogue is tagged, "she prattled." She doesn't have a lot of dialogue, because whenever she starts prattling, her good friend Bella tunes her out to think about Edward. We do get to hear her prattling whenever it pertains to... Edward. There's also Angela, who, in contrast to Jessica, is sweet and shy; we know this because all of her dialogue is tagged, "she murmured shyly." There's also Lauren, who is blonde and a bitch and says bitchy things.
Then there are the guys. Mike is spiky-haired and has a crush on Bella, much to the consternation of Jessica, who has a prattling crush on him. Eric has a crush on Bella and sees Mike as a rival. Tyler has a crush on Bella, much to the consternation of Lauren, who has a crush on him. Jacob has a crush on Bella and is Native American. That's it. That's what we know about Bella's only friends in this podunk town, because she cuts out on them completely as soon as she makes contact with...
... Edward Cullen, local hottie and vampire babe. Edward has a crush on Bella and is a vampire. In the interest of character depth and future plot conflict, Stephenie Meyer has made him perfect. He's gorgeous - "like a Greek god" - perfect face, alabaster skin, rock-solid body, eyes that are black when he's mad and gold when he's happy, "unusual" reddish hair. He's smart - the only student, perhaps the only person in town, as smart as Bella. He's super-strong and super-fast and drives a reliable Swedish-made sex machine. Though a vampire, he doesn't even eat people; he's so ridiculously virtuous that he's a "vegetarian," which means he eats meat that isn't people. He doesn't have fangs, sleep in a coffin, or burst into flames when he comes out in the daytime, all of which would be major turnoffs. He maintains excellent dental hygiene. And he sparkles - literally fucking sparkles in the sun "like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface" of his skin. But he has flaws! He's very flawed! He wants desperately to drink Bella's blood, but he can't stay away. And he drives too fast.
Oh, he also stalks her and has been coming into her house and watching her sleep every night since she moved to Forks, which would seem like a flaw, but it's actually romantic, because... something. It's romantic. Don't question, accept.
I do not like it. I do not like it, Sam I Am. I don't like the idea that impressionable teenagers are internalizing this deeply creepy concept of stalking-and-possessiveness as love. Because it isn't, and there aren't enough Lifetime movies in the world to deprogram a girl once she's decided that he only hits her because he loves her so much.
That danger is inherent to the nature of the supernatural love story - the danger of the beast and the fantasy that my love, my love can be the one to tame it. And with that concept of true love as a shield, the scarier he gets, the more appealing he becomes - in that scene in the meadow, where he demonstrates precisely how he could lure her and chase her and trap her and beat the crap out of her, Bella exposits that he has become even more beautiful when he's vicious and potentially life-threatening. We all know that girl.
And after said display, it was all, "I'm sorry I scared you. I just love you so much, sometimes I can't control myself." We all know that guy, too.
And that's where the scary comes in. The scary in these books isn't the day-walking, "vegetarian" virtuous vampires - it's the real-life men these girls are going to someday encounter and the real-life women these girls are going to someday be.
Let me tell you a little love story. It's about a girl - depressingly servile but still fairly competent, self-sacrificing but still fairly sharp and clever - who moves to a small town and meets a boy. He's dark, broody, and mysterious, showing affection but always with an undertone of danger. He warns her that he has a violent streak that comes out whenever she's near - but he won't leave her alone. He loves her so much that he can barely control himself when she's around, so she'll have to do it instead.
Over time, she begins to isolate herself from her friends and family because they wouldn't understand. She lies to them about where she'll be. She skips school and school events if he won't be there. She folds to his will at the merest dazzling glance. He watches her constantly, all around school, at her house in the middle of the night. She tries her hardest to learn what sets him off - she learns not to move when he kisses her so as not to provoke him. And still, he constantly warns her that she isn't safe around him - that she'd do well to be afraid of him, that she should avoid him for her own safety, that she is putting herself in danger by being around him. And in the end, she's begging him to kill her to remove the temptation.
"I love you - now stay away from me, I'm dangerous." "Look at the way I hurt you. I love you so much, I can't help it - you should stay away from me." Putting all of the onus on her to stay away from him for her own safety, absolving him of the need to exert self-control. Making her change her behavior so as not to provoke him. Take away the supernatural vampirity of it all, and it becomes pretty clear - "Every time I'm near you, I want to beat you beyond recognition, I love you so much. You should stay away from me, despite the fact that I'm constantly following you around." But fill in the blanks with a venomous monster and a lemon-fresh circulatory system, and suddenly it's a romance for the ages.
I feel like these books need to come with a big, red sticker on the title page - "Disclaimer: Obsession isn't love. Possession isn't love. Wanting to hurt someone isn't love." If you're lying to your friends about where you're going just in case he happens to kill you while you're there, that's a bad sign. If you aren't allowed to move when a guy kisses you because he might snap and kill you, that's a bad sign. If you find yourself begging him to kill you so you'll never have to be apart, that's a bad sign.
And what's really scary about it is the responses from fans - "It's just a story. Vampires aren't real. We don't think it's real; we just read it for the love story." That misses the point that it's not a love story. It's a story of dominance, submission, control, and manipulation. And if that's what teenage girls are reading as a love story, if that's the Edward they're holding their hearts for, we're failing them. And if that's the romance that grown women are idealizing, we've done a lot of failing already.