Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘literature’

It’s okay because he loves me! – Why Twilight is damaging, and why it’s still popular

(Trigger warning: Some description of domestic abuse)

Spoilers: Twilight series, Angels in America)

That the Twilight series has been called ‘the new Harry Potter’ over its rise in public awareness I think is utterly depressing, even for those who weren’t that fussed about J. K. Rowling. The universal appeal of Rowling’s work and the skill with which they were crafted are insulted by being compared to the flimsy, clichéd, mewings of two-dimensional pseudo-romantic escapism that Stephanie Meyer has wasted trees on. Comparative multi-kajillion pound sales does not a comparative standard of literature indicate.

But why my harsh words, given I’m not a rabid potter-fanatic? Dear J. K. probably doesn’t need my support, writing from her home which is probably made of gold. It’s a point that has been made by others before me, but there is absolutely no ambiguity whatsoever that the relationship between Bella (often criticized as a Mary-Sue) and Edward is utterly abusive.

Surprisingly enough, I have a problem with literature (I’m being generous in using this word) which normalizes and excuses gendered violence to any audience, let alone the pulsating mass of hormones and peer pressure that are teens and tweens.

‘OMG Team Edward!’… ‘I want his sparkly babies!’… ‘My spine is being crushed…’

What is this violence you might ask? Well, in no particular order, how about:

  • Edward breaking into Bella’s home to watch her sleep is glorified as romantic, rather than pant-wettingly terrifyingly stalkerish.
  • The emotional manipulation and implicit blame placed on Bella by Edward through such choice (melodramatic) language such as “If I wasn’t so attracted to you, I wouldn’t have to break up with you.”
  • How about not only that after sex, Edward leaves Bella “decorated with patches of blue an purple” (because the word ‘decorated’ is hugely appropriate for describing the marks of violence, as if it were jewelry) but also that Bella tries to hide this because it would upset him to see. Such an empowering message for women right there.
  • When carrying their half-vampire baby (that was only conceived after marriage of course, Meyer being a good Mormon writer), the pregnancy causes Bella’s spine to break and so Edward tears open her uterus with his teeth to provide a supernatural caesarian.

Obviously (from the links) I’m not the first person to point these issues out either. Is Twilight a soft target then? I would say only in the way that George Bush was a soft target – yes a lot of jokes were made, but ultimately the man had (and has) a scary amount of support that ultimately got him into a position of huge influence. Spreading awareness of the critical inadequacies of large-scale yet damaging things is important.

A response often levied by fans in response to acidic criticism such as this:

‘Why do you have to be so analytical? That takes the fun out of it, it’s just a love story, and we enjoy it for what it is. Why can’t you just enjoy it?’

Okay. So without rhapsodizing too extensively on why normalizing harmful behaviour by accepting it as unproblematic is, well, problematic – this is a defense often used when one makes a criticism of something they like that has a millimetre more depth than simply saying what is immediately put in front of you. It certainly seems a little odd to me that the idea of putting a modicum of thought into something means you’re automatically stripping it of its ability to be enjoyed. To quote from a wonderfully useful article, this argument says nothing more than “I think people shouldn’t think so much and share their thoughts, that’s my thought that I have to share.” Nice work.

The problems with the book series don’t begin and end with the horrific but nonetheless simple ways in which Bella is harmed and manipulated. As far as I understand it, two themes that repeat throughout the work as justifications are that 1. What happens is justified by love, and 2. What happens is what Bella wants. It’s not that often in works of fiction that when one partner of a relationship does something horrible to another, the victim actually says ‘fuck it, I’m not standing for this’. It’s more ‘romantic’ for even extreme violence to be neutralized even through a literary tactic as banal as ‘well, he then felt really, really bad about it’. A great example I can think of that goes against the grain is Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, where the character Prior is abandoned by his boyfriend Louis, who can’t face the physical symptoms of Prior having AIDS. In the end, the two are shown to have a deep friendship, but not before the dialogue:

Louis: I really failed you.  But…this is hard.  Failing in love isn’t the same as not loving.  It doesn’t let you off the hook, it doesn’t mean…you’re free to not love.

Prior: I love you Louis.

L: Good.  I love you.

P: But you can’t come back.  Not ever.  I’m sorry.  But you can’t.

“You know you’ve hit rock bottom when even drag is a drag…”

Whilst this clearly isn’t written as the same sort of dreamy escapism that is the big hook of Twilight, it’s a nice illustration that these characters have more depth to them than life having zero meaning whatsoever except for their one true love. How is this an attitude that receives admiration, anyway…?

To address the second point, what Bella wants is used as a justification for much of what happens in the stories that feminists have taken issue with. A main character who other than fawning over her undead boyfriend has no obvious hobbies beyond cooking and cleaning for her father? It’s okay, that’s what she likes doing. Meyer has claimed in interviews that because feminism is about choice, Twilight is a feminist book. But not one of the female characters in twilight work, or engage particularly with independent activity. An honest choice is not what is being made appealing here. The same idea is true when it comes to the issue of abortion. As a Ms. Magazine blog post states:

Edward, Jacob, Alice, Carlisle and the Quileute wolves are all against Bella’s choice to carry out the pregnancy–and understandably so, given she looks like a living skeleton. The fetus, as Carlisle tells her, “isn’t compatible with your body–it’s too strong, too fast-growing.” Yet Bella never considers not carrying out the pregnancy, even though her life is clearly at risk—something that would no doubt make those who propose “egg as person” laws and “let women die” acts quite happy. The life of the fetus is framed as more important than Bella’s, a sentiment that colors these pieces of anti-abortion legislation. And Bella is portrayed as a heroic martyr, the ultimate mother-to-be, rather than as a delusional lovestruck teen with a seeming death wish.

There are plenty of readers who are quite astute enough to realise all this for themselves. There’s no shortage of feminists who enjoy Meyer’s works. This seeming paradox is pretty common – there are plenty of film, TV and literature examples which we might enjoy, whilst also experiencing the nagging doubt in our minds that to be consistent with our politics, we really shouldn’t. Enjoying Twilight doesn’t make you a bad person, or even a bad Feminist, any more than enjoying a MacDonalds necessarily makes someone a bad fitness trainer. Just be aware about what you’re enjoying.

A Feminists Guide to Curing Yourself of Twilight-Mania offers some amusing resources, including recommending the fiction of Anne Rice and Laurel K. Hamilton. If vampires and love are your thing, these are definitely worth a try.

Book review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender is an excellent book. From a neuroscientific perspective, Cordelia Fine meticulously unpicks prevalent gender stereotypes we’re all very familiar with, and lays out a detailed and well researched critique of the (often shoddy) research and writings that have propped these beliefs up.

The book is divided into three sections – ‘half changed world, half changed minds’, ‘neurosexism’, and ‘recycling gender’. Whilst I didn’t feel this sectioning was strictly necessary due to how all of the subject material and arguments are interlinked and related, they do help maintain a sense of ‘detailed introduction’, ‘analysis of scientific claims’, ‘detailed conclusion’, which is helpful. I felt that Fine draws the reader in from the start – with pithy, acerbically satirical (but importantly, inoffensive) humour on the very first page of the introduction. By page 9 of the first chapter, one is drawn in by proclamations such as the familiar ‘male/female’ check-boxes at the start of many forms in fact ‘priming gender’ and influencing how one then answers the form. Fine expertly achieves what is necessary for any popular science book – getting people interested in the questions, without scaring them off with the technical aspects. No biological background is needed to appreciate the critiques that Fine structures throughout the book.

I feel the concept of ‘neurosexism’ is a valuable one, which Fine has coined in this work. All too often, the prejudices of researchers can leak into supposedly objective work, because there is a prevalent attitude that scientific methodologies allows researchers to successfully remove themselves from influencing their results, even when undertaking interpretations – rather than recognising the difficulty (and ultimate futility) of this. Little to no acknowledgement of this happens inside or outside of the field, and so one can hopefully see how in combination with the simplistic (but again, virtually ubiquitous) attitude that ‘science = facts’ can cause a lot of problematic stuff to be taken for granted. It is a mighty claim for anyone to say something behavioural is ‘hardwired’, though this is a term I would hazard we are all familiar with through popular culture. Fine uses a great quotation from Anne Fausto-Sterling in the introduction which sums up her claim nicely:

[d]espite the many recent insights of brain research, this organ remains a vast unknown, a perfect medium on which to project, even unwittingly, assumptions about gender.

Throughout the book, an impressively thorough number of references are given (the bibliography is 39 pages long), though in the text there is a recurring focus on the work of a small handful of particular authors. In no particular order, ones that stuck out to me were:

  • Louan Brizendine – The Female Brain
  • Leonard Sax – Why Gender Matters
  • Simon Baron-Cohen – The Essential Difference (and other works)
  • Allan and Barbara Pease – Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps

These works were quoted and dissected, used as examples of poor methodology, untenable claims, and problematic stereotype support. What Ben Goldacre might term ‘Bad Science’ (another fabulous book, that you should read if you haven’t, incidentally). The reason I bring this up is because some might claim that the revisiting of these sources may imply there isn’t that much out there to criticise, that Fine may be picking on only a few examples to make her arguments easier to maintain, or to make strawmen of the cases presented.

I do not believe these potential criticisms to stand up, however. Brizendine, Sax, and Baron-Cohen are all respected neurologists, psychologists and doctors (With Allan Pease being the exception, his background being in sales before writing best-sellers on body language and communication with his wife), commanding a great deal of academic clout – making it all the more impressive that Fine’s meticulous research creates serious criticism that also remains accessible. There are a large number of differently sourced examples through the book that highlight how ingrained and accepted much insidious gender stereotyping there is throughout societal consciousness. None of the quotations chosen by Fine of works she casts a critical eye over appear unfairly cherry-picked, and indeed having also read The Essential Difference at least, I can confirm no misrepresentation or simplification of Baron-Cohen’s work, which is almost disappointing as one would not expect a Cambridge Professor to propagate such underdetermined claims that buy into a chronically anti-feminist state of affairs.

Delusions of Gender doesn’t restrict itself to an insular critique of those within the niche of neurobiology. By broadening discussion to how work in this field has influenced (or been influenced by) how people view personal relationships, single/mix sexed schooling, how people raise their children, advertising and media, and work on gendered behaviour in animals, Fine managed to create a work that covers so many important questions as to keep the non-scientist engaged from beginning to end, but without attempting an analysis in terms that are outside her area of familiarity. You won’t find any Judith Butler or Michael Foucault in the references. Nor will you find any meaty discussion of how trans* or non-binary gender experiences are related to the narrative of the science of sex differences. Fine obviously can’t be held responsible for the ubiquity of the sex binary within scientific discourse, though I feel exploration of this could have been a valuable and fascinating addition to the book. It is a delusion of gender to imagine that there are only two genders.

This is tame criticism however for a book that clearly sets out its area of investigation, and does so with precision and originality. I feel it would be a very small number of people who could read this book and honestly say they hadn’t learnt a lot. Make time for this book, even if you think it sounds too brainy.

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