In Defense of Bella Swan: Hating Twilight, Not Teenage Girls

I managed to go over three months and twenty posts before getting into the Twilight series, even though this blog is mostly about young adult, so obviously I consider that an amazing act of restraint. (There will be spoilers in this post, but if you’ve managed to live your life without hearing these elsewhere, I will be surprised.)

You don’t need me to tell you Twilight is bad. We all know Twilight is bad. It is both poorly written on many levels and ethically iffy, in terms of how it romanticizes an abusive relationship, appropriates the culture of Native Americans from the area, and pushes some of the darker, sketchier aspects of Mormonism into the morals of the text (I’m not the expert on this, but dive into the Mark Reads Twilight archive if you want a more informed take on it).

(Because it bears saying, I’m not trying to slam Mormonism by mentioning that; all religions, especially in terms of being institutions, have a sketchy side.)

In any case, the badness of Twilight is not what I want to talk about. And I’m not here to chastise you if you like it despite its badness; romance and vampires and werewolves are fun, and ultimately I like a lot of bad and problematic stuff. (Acknowledging and calling out the flaws is good. Beating yourself up for what you like is sad.)

Instead, I want to talk about the badness of people and the way that they talk about Bella. No, seriously. I was once on a hotel shuttle talking with a colleague about a paper I’d given on Twilight when someone came out with, “Bella is a bitch.”

This sums it up, basically: the kinds of attitudes I’ve heard about Bella over and over again. On the Internet. In news articles. From the mouths of people with actual PhDs in actual literary analysis. Not always in the same inflammatory words, but the same idea: she’s a bitch for stringing along two guys. (Not really a thing that happens in that series, despite the famous love triangle, but sure?) She’s a bitch for blowing off her dad. (Okay, but who didn’t blow off their parents as a teenager?) She’s a bitch for blowing off her human friends. (Sure, but who hasn’t done this from time to time when they get caught up with a new love interest? Adults do this.) She’s a bitch for having a baby and wanting to have sex with her husband. (Whoo boy.)

(Some people will even pop in if you talk about Edward’s abusive behavior with a, “Yeah, but Bella’s a bitch,” as if “bitches” deserve it. Please go away forever if you think I deserve my engine ripped out for wanting to see my best friend, thanks for stopping by!)

Let me wind back for a minute here. If you’ve ever read New Moon or have seen the movie, then you know about a famous gap, a time after Bella’s breakup where the novel shows time passing through mostly blank pages, or the movie spins the camera while Bella sits unmoving and the seasons change. This one conceit/scene garnered such mockery and criticism from non-/anti-fans of this series, when I think it’s actually one of few skillful choices the author made. (I also think the director translated the idea nicely, for the record, but I generally think the people making the movies tried to improve the material, to mixed results.)

Bella is, from the beginning of the series, introverted, caught up in her inner world, bookish, finds others to put before herself, and it isn’t easy for her to be happy or chipper, while it’s very easy to upset her. She’s got all the makings of a teenage girl with depression. (I don’t like to diagnose fictional characters, but Bella arguably makes a suicide attempt in this same book, so I don’t feel like it’d be a controversial one.) And she’s going through her first real break-up feeling like there’s no one she can talk to, at a loss to reach out even beyond her shyness because she’s keeping Edward’s vampire secret. Of course what she feels like is a pit of nothingness, when she isn’t feeling absolutely horrible. God, I had a guy in high school break up with me and then mournfully MSN me sad song lyrics.

Break-ups are hard, y’all, and they’re especially hard the first time around when you don’t already know you can survive one and love again, and they’re also especially hard without a support system, and they’re also especially hard when you deal with depression on a good day. The blankness Bella feels makes sense. Does it drag on extra long given the length of their relationship? Yeah, but their relationship was an intense, extenuating, supernatural circumstance, and Bella has nothing good happening in her life at the time. Give the kid a break, yeah?

So that said, back to the premise: Bella is a teenage girl who does typical teenage things. Yet despite this, a lot of people who hate the Twilight series seem to direct their anger at her rather than at much-less-explicable aspects of the writing. And that’s why despite hating Twilight and not loving Bella’s choices, I am the world’s most vocal Bella supporter: because hating on Twilight shouldn’t equal hating on teenage girls—but in a lot of cases, Twilight haters are using the “badness” of Twilight to express a very icky veiled misogyny (plus some ageism, probably).

Here’s the deal: I was Bella in high school. No, there weren’t any vampires or werewolves, but I had an emotionally and psychologically manipulative, abusive boyfriend who I thought I’d be with ~forever~ and a lot of people admired and so on—you get the picture. He alienated me from my friends and broke up with me “for my own good.” (Just like Edward, he was right, but not for the reasons he thought.) Thankfully, just like Bella, I had my own Jacob, but that’s another story.

I was frustrated as anything when Bella goes back to Edward, believe me. (I managed to say no to my own Edward when he came back, thank everything.) But another part of me was sad, because I knew where Bella was coming from. My real-life Edward? He used to deliberately date and dump girls with low self-esteem over and over to ask them back out, just to make them feel insecure and like they had to work for his love. And you can read that right in Bella’s dialogue: she believed he didn’t love her, and she’s so relieved he does that all the unnecessary pain he’s put her through, all the lack of respect he had for her feelings and agency, just dissipates. A lot of people go back to their abusers. Bella is a teenage girl with very little self-esteem, mostly disengaged parents, and maybe one real friend. Her choice is sad, but not impossible to understand, and certainly not indicative of cruelty—she’s not dating Jacob; she’s not even sure she likes him.

Sometimes I think that we instinctively blame on characters things that are much more related to bad writing, particularly in the case of narrators or focal-point characters. Maybe this is something that fandom “gets”; people deeply in fandom tend to complain about writing when their faves start acting inconsistently, rather than complaining about their faves for taking inexplicable actions. I’m not going to say that Bella’s actions are inconsistent with her character; I think I’ve demonstrated that her characterization is quite consistent. But the issue is the distortion in the actual narrative, not unlike in the Half Bad trilogy. Twilight would make sense if we saw Bella as an unreliable narrator, a young woman completely taken with a manipulative supernatural boyfriend who ends up losing her life and her humanity to buy into a happily-ever-after that’s actually full of blood. (The latter half of Breaking Dawn ruins this a bit, but to fair, most people find Breaking Dawn and its teen-mom-marrying-rich-looking-perfect-and-having-a-perfect-baby wish fulfillment ridiculous, me included.) But the narrative itself wants us to believe that Edward is perfect and Bella’s life with him will be perfect, et cetera, so as tempting as it is to read it that way, it’s most obviously not what the narrative wants us to believe.

All of this said, what does it matter if people hate Bella and not the work? Well, it matters because that hatred is directed at a teenage girl making not-unsympathetic choices. Which means that it’s very easy to see that hatred spilling over towards real-life teenage girls, especially fans. (Check out the prologue to the book Bitten By Twilight if you want more on the story of how this has boiled over before.) It’s also easy to see the ways that hatred becomes a point of comparison: “Katniss is so much better than Bella, because reasons.” Which means it’s easy to see how there are some ways to be a teenage girl that are acceptable while others aren’t. Sure, I prefer Katniss; she’s one of my favourite characters. And she’s certainly better written than Bella; Bella’s arc is a hot mess. But Katniss is also a different kind of character: brash; capable of effective violence; she has someone other than herself to care for. Bella can’t effectively use violence in her story; she’s mostly shy; she’s focused on romance because she doesn’t have other preoccupations; her skills (cooking, cleaning, reading romances) are very much coded feminine. And those are all fine ways to be. 

And that’s why my defense of Bella is still a blog post today: because a lot of the time, standards for young adult heroines are complicated. There’s a real tendency to create the strong female character/”Action Girl”—divorcing the character from femininity as much as possible while making her still desirable to boys/men (the trope of the girl who doesn’t know she’s pretty/doesn’t do anything to be pretty, anyone?), and sacrificing variation and complexity for “coolness” and the ability to be effectively violent. I don’t think Katniss falls down this hole, for the record, despite the boxes she ticks; she’s complex and very vulnerable. But I feel like a lot of the time that type of female character is portrayed as the ideal while characters who don’t fit the type are derided—and Bella is convenient home for a lot of this vitriol.

This is the tip of an iceberg in a much bigger subject, I know, and I have a lot of intersecting and overlapping thoughts on it I haven’t pieced together yet. But thanks for coming this far, and maybe we’ll get back to Bella, the issue of strong female characters, and narrators vs. narratives another time. Until next week!

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