Friday, March 6, 2009

Do girls still secretly want to be rescued?

Does the success of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series mean women have reverted to enjoying the notion of having a powerful man to protect them?

And if so, why?

Kirsten Tranter, in the latest Weekend Australian Review, suggests it may be the case, in a column that also explores how the romance between fragile Bella and vampire Edward rekindles the narrative of female masochism (where sexual gratification depends on suffering).

(I know I keep referencing the Twilight series, but honestly, when it keeps getting ink in literary publications like the Weekend Australian Review, you know it’s truly become a cultural phenomenon. If you're still oblivious to what it's all about, you can read my past posts here and here.)

Tranter, a fellow Joss Whedon/Buffy fan like myself, points out that while Whedon’s vampiric tales turned the tables on the stereotypical “girl fleeing from monster” (the girl turns out to have the strength and will to kill the monster instead), Meyer’s Twilight books mark a return to patriarchal values where the girl still needs saving.

Tranter says the success of the four novels proves authors are “still happy to create stories that end with cowering girls being saved by powerful guys, and girls are more than happy to embrace them”.

Does the overwhelming popularityof the Meyer series indicate attitudes may be changing among women (young and old) in the face of a threatening and uncertain world?

Is there a shift in the female psyche, possibly strongest among younger women, for a yearning of a time when they didn’t have to save the world but could rely on men to do it for them?

True, by the end of the fourth book, Bella has gained her own power and sense of purpose, but let’s not forget, the series was a hit long before that plot development was revealed. For most of the other books, she relies on strong males to protect her, whether it’s Edward or smitten werewolf Jacob.

I’ve always been a huge fan of quality fantasy, and, thanks to my obsession with Whedon and my general enjoyment of Meyer's series, I’ve started seeking out quality paranormal fiction (and TV shows: I’ve become a fan of Supernatural and the new kid on the block True Blood, which is darker and more unsettling than your standard paranormal TV fare).

Part of this is the timeless search for great stories. But part of it is about escapism – and there is no greater escapism than a world where the normal rules of reality don’t apply.

But that doesn’t mean I want to a fictional world where only the guys get to finish off the Big Bad (as Whedon would call them).

So why then, have female readers become so hooked on the story between Bella and Edward? Why then are teenage fans so totally in love with the overprotective Edward? Is Meyer undermining the feminist movement, or tapping into a latent female need for protection?

Thoughts anyone?


Heids said...

Hi Paula

Have been reading your blog for a while and am finally driven out of closet to comment. I am also a huge Twighlight (and Buffy) fan (and am in the 35-40 age bracket)I haven't read the W/e Aust article yet but I have to say I never thought of Bella as fragile when I read the books. I think the male characters did and they always considered she needed looking after. But she herself didn't see herself as fragile or go looking to be looked after and protected. Sure she fell apart in the second book...but I don't think she went looking for male protection even then. For me the attraction to the books was the tension always present in Bella's relationships...which I think women can relate to these days when we have so many more opportunities and therefore find tension may present itself more frequently in our relationships with the men in our lives as we are prepared to live with that tension to pursue some of the opportunities available to us. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what an interesting post!! I have read all the Meyer books as well and am a big fan. There is something so intoxicating about a strong male figure loving his partner so much he'd do anything to protect her.
I hate writing that because it's so damn pithy and adolescent (I'm 34 for goodness sakes!) but her books are just escapism. I wish I had my own Edward Cullen at 17 and's a lovely escapist fantasy.
When I was 20 I had a very blunt boyfriend say to me, "There are no men on white horses rescuing women. You have to get out there and make your own life."
Ouch! I think he saw through my hoping that somebody actually would come along and say all the things I wanted to hear.

Anyway. I think Meyer taps into that part of us that deep down wishes there really were men who would love enough beyond everything else.

Oh sigh.

Bec said...

Hhhmmm, very interesting question. I guess I don't think there is necessarily a correlation between what people want out of an escapist activity, and what they want in real life. From a personal perspective, I love reading this sort of 'princess' fiction where the girl is saved by the love and bravery of her romantic 'hero'. But is this what I want in real life. *snort* Don't think so!!!!!! But hey, that's why it's escapism right? If I was a soppy girl waiting to be 'saved' in real life, then reading about it wouldn't be an escape. I think as long as the idea is not absorbed into the ideology of our culture, and the stories are simply seen for what they are - entertainment and escapism - then it's all good :)

Charley said...

What a great and thought-provoking post! I've been sitting here for a while trying to offer my thoughts, but I might be sitting here all night. So I'll just leave it at: awesome post, and you've got me thinking..

Jade said...

Hi Paula

I think I agree with Bec too. I also love to 'escape' whether it be in my choice of movies or books. I'm yet to read this series of books, but I might one day.

I don't want to read something that reflects what's happening in real life. I like the fairytale 'happily ever after'. But that certainly doesn't mean I feel I need saving in real life! Nosiree, I'm way too tough for that :P

Linda Jacobs said...

Teenage girls (and maybe older ones, too!) just want to be loved. They all want someone to care for them. I see this every day in the dramas that occur in our high school. Yes, they are stronger and more independent than ever but, the yearning for love is even stronger.

I definitely don't think it means that they are getting weaker and waiting for a guy to solve all their problems; they just want a guy in their lives.

I think they are just romantics at heart.

Excellent post!

Carla Sonheim said...

My 21-year-old son was reading the series over Christmas, and I hadn't heard of it before (I know, I'm a bit out of it). I picked up the first book and when I was halfway through "Twilight", I said to him: "It's like a romance novel!"

I totally got hooked, though, and enjoyed the series; however, the "romance novel part" — mostly that Edward was the brooding, sullen, protective type — I could have done without!!!

(I THINK so anyways!!!!)

Great post, as always.

Gustav said...

Great post Paula and I enjoyed the comments from all the women above.

I found Heids comments interesting and in tune with my view of the "fragile" woman hypothesis.

In my view a woman's willingness to express her fragility is not a sign of weakness but strength. As a man I have been trained to never show weakness yet perhaps this is a sign of weakness.

Women do not seem to be interested in emotional light weights. They seek souls that radiate and vampires certainly radiate and perhaps Bella is attracted by this radiance and wonders what lies underneath. Powerful souls are like stars, they attract us to their light.

Paula Weston said...

Thanks everyone for a great discussion (and a special hello to Heids for coming out of the closet! I particularly liked your observation that Bella never sees herself as fragile)

And thanks too to Gustav, for being the lone male voice (so far) on the topic.

Having read these comments, I'd like to add one more of my own: As a 30-something woman, I like being able to look after myself and take control of my life and decisions, but I reserve the right to want someone to come along and save me once in a while ... :)

Is that a mixed message or what?