Sunday, March 30, 2014

Empowering through (all of the) stories

WARNING: Unpopular opinion ahead

Twilight seems to pop up on my dash a lot these days – not just in Ana Mardoll’s ongoing (and fantastic) deconstructions of the book, but also on videos of people with much larger platforms than my own. One is John Green’s now infamous Twitter lecture about what misogyny is and how Twilight is not nearly as misogynistic as our dislike for it. The other is by Team Nostalgia Chick, arguably one of my favourite things on the Internet, in their second season of 50 Shades of Green (soon to be renamed) where they talk about writing the sequel to Awoken.

For those of you who don’t know, last year (or was it the one before?) Team Nostalgia Chick started a project of sorts, where they attempted to write a YA novel, using just the worst tropes of the genre, publish it under a pseudonym, and then act out the super touchy author vs. mean reviewers thing. The first season was fairly interesting, had some really nice moments. But the announcement of the second instalment really rubbed me the wrong way, to the point where it sent me on a Twitter rant of my own.

But that’s not really what this post is about.

In fact, believe it or not, I’m about to agree more with John Green on something than with one of my favourite critics. (The end, it is nigh!)


Here’s how it breaks down: I don’t think that my dislike for Twilight is more misogynistic than the book itself, because the book deploys some really, really deplorable tropes, reinforces horrible attitudes towards women, sexuality, and liberation. It romanticises some really unhealthy relationships and the treatment of its female characters, Rosalie Hale in particular, is absolutely deplorable.

But to be fair to Green, I don’t think that’s what he meant when he said what he said. See, the above tweet is what gets quoted the most, but the ones preceding it focus on Bella’s “arc” and her “journey” to get what she wants. And… if we boil Twilight down to Bella’s journey, if we strip away every cultural context, ignore the treatment of every other character, make excuses for Edward and Jacob’s appalling behaviours – if we do all of that, then Twilight is quite an empowering story, and hating on Bella would seem misogynistic.

Why am I on this?

Because I love YA. Even when it’s really, really bad, I still find some nugget of enjoyment from reading the stories and reviewing them. I like picking things apart and exploring them within their cultural context. Most importantly, I love YA because I find ways to grow and develop through reading the stories. And even stories like Twilight, with all of their problematic tropes and implications, can be empowering. And I think that we focus on the negative so much, we forget to celebrate what’s good.

Bella’s journey in Twilight is essentially a wish-fulfilment fantasy about winning at patriarchy. Our MC decides what she wants and she damn well gets it, even when it’s outright dangerous for her. Yes, Bella’s proactivity in the story is fairly limited, and often comes in the form of manipulation and passive-aggression, but she’s essentially working within the boundaries given to her. (And she doesn’t test the boundaries because, well, that’s her character.)

Believe it or not, I was once a teenage girl, and I read and sincerely enjoyed Twilight. I thought it was inspiring, because I was raised to suppress my needs, creativity, and feelings, for the sake of other people. I was essentially told, by my parents and society, that those things don’t matter. Twilight told me that eventually, it would be worth it, and that I would be rewarded for my self-sacrifice.

And yes, writing that, I realize how fucked-up that is. And, having grown up a little since then, I realize that in real life, being passive and self-effacing for the sake of others eventually destroys you. Hence why Twilight is wish-fulfilment, not an aspiration.

Still, can you really blame us for enjoying the fantasy? Who wouldn’t love to have all their hopes and dreams served to them up on a platter, without breaking any rules or entering a bloody confrontation? (That is still if we ignore the other misogynistic aspects of the story. And the ableism. And the racism. And… everything other than Bella’s arc, really.)

This is why I agree with Green, up to a point. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he realized how similar in that respect his own books are to Twilight. Despite the fact that TFIOS takes quite a few potshots at the books (as reminded by the whittler in this amazing series of deconstructions) John Green’s characters’ arcs are really just as much about wish-fulfillment as Bella’s is.) That’s also why it pains me that Lindsay and co. seem so condescending towards the genre.

Yes, it’s problematic, some of the books reinforce horrible attitudes, and it doesn’t help that publishers have their eye more often on the trends and the revenue than on the stories, but at the end of the day, people always, always, ALWAYS, find something empowering about them. And mocking people for finding fulfilment in A Problematic Thing is not going to make you any friends.

(Just trust me on that. I found that the hard way.)

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