Today in our consideration of Twilight: Edward and Bella are a love story for the ages. Specifically, the ages of 12-15.
Linda: So today's topic is, in some ways, the most actually interesting to me, and that is: the love story. Because, although I find it disturbing on many levels, I completely understand why it works on people up to a point.
It's very blunt, and not very artful, but there are a lot of classic versions of power and powerlessness, and so forth. So much time is spent, for instance, making Bella needy and vulnerable — being saved from being crushed by vans and so forth — that you have to have the balance of him being like, "I can read everyone's mind but yours." This is the thing that makes some guys in bars surprisingly successful with lines like, "You seem sad."
Marc: Sure, that adds a little bit of balance, though I'm not sure that it even puts them in the same zip code as far as having an even hand in the romance. But what ends up happening is that Bella essentially becomes a puzzle for him to solve. Which, to be fair, is more or less what Edward is to her. But once you've solved them, then what?
Linda: Well, that's where it falls apart, I think. I haven't read the following books, but some people have told me that they don't like them as much, and that as the relationship progresses, it becomes less interesting. And that makes a lot of sense, because this kind of thing is easier to explain as an initial attraction than it is the basis for a relationship.
For instance, Bella is set up early as someone who is repulsed by people who make it too easy on her — as with that guy ... Mike? The one who likes her openly from the beginning, about whom she says she envisioned him "with a wagging tail"? There's a lot of disdain for enthusiasm and passion in men if it isn't tempered with glowering and emotional unavailability.
And that's basically how fourteen-year-old girls are. They want a battle. When you get older, you want it to be easier. And I wouldn't be surprised if that's why the books get tougher for people. This is a fine basis for being passionate about someone in high school; it does not make for a lifelong love.
Marc: Exactly. I found their relationship to be all fire and no heat. Everything burned with an intense passion that was equal parts agony, and I couldn't find anything solid behind. It was as though they each individually decided on the other as their True Love for random reasons. Which, as you say, is part of being a teenager, where you and your best friend can meet two girls on an amusement park trip, decide on the spot that you're two couples and spend the rest of the day holding hands despite the fact that you know it means nothing.
Or so I have heard.
More things we have hypothetically heard about bad romantic choices, after the jump.
Linda: Well, that's what I kept highlighting as I was reading the book (and people thought I didn't pay attention): it's incredible how clumsy and devoid of nuance the manipulation of certain dynamics actually is, but that doesn't mean those buttons can't still be pushed. There's this part where Edward says he's "giving up trying to be good." Which, of course, pushes the button that in addition to the well-known idea of the fantasy of being powerful enough to make a bad boy become good, there is also a fantasy of being powerful enough to make a good boy become bad. Which is subtly manipulated by the words "giving up trying to be good."
"What if I'm not a superhero? What if I'm the bad guy?" Aaaaaaargh.
Marc: Did you just become Linda-Hulk?
Linda: Kind of.
And then, of course, there is the physical pushing and shoving and sneaking into her room, which totally freaks me right out.
Marc: As to your first point above, yes, that's a powerful, if unsubtle, message to throw at a girl (or a boy, as the case may be): "You're my last chance at salvation." Or happiness. Or nomalcy. It's insidious, because it shifts the responsibility to Bella. If she lets Edward go and he turns his back on his "vegetarian" lifestyle (which I'll admit, showed some wit on the part of Meyer), then who will be to blame for the deaths that follow, whether they were murderers and rapists or innocents? Bella. It will be on Bella. But that's not just wildly unfair to heap upon Bella's shoulders, it's flat-out wrong. It is Edward's choice whether to be good or evil in this world, and pretending that it's Bella's responsibility is a cruel lie.
As to the pushing and shoving and room-sneaking, so much has been said about the fact that it's precisely the behavior of an abusive partner — something which BELLA HERSELF realizes — that there's not a whole lot I feel I can add. Except to say that Edward is an actual killer and has expressed his actual concern that he might actually lose control and hurt her. So we're not even talking about a metaphor for stalking and abuse here. We're into the actual language and actual behavior.
Linda: I tend to feel the same — that this is well-covered territory. But even knowing that, I was not prepared for passages like this one, which I highlighted:
"I was mentally calculating my chances of reaching the truck before he could catch me. I had to admit, they weren't good." 'I'll just drag you back,' he threatened, guessing my plan."
That's just ... frightening. That's out of a story of being genuinely, honestly abducted by a violent person. The whole thing about trying to figure out whether you have the means to escape .. it just really, really bothers me.
Marc: Right. That could be a line straight out of Dean Koontz's Intensity. Which, it's been a while, but I don't remember as being quite so romantic.
Linda: Here's another passage I was amused/bugged by, as Bella is contemplating being violently killed: "A tiny voice in the back of my mind worried, wondering if it would hurt very much, if it ended badly."
Marc: Just a tiny one, though.
Linda: "I was filled with compassion for his suffering, even now, as he confessed his craving to take my life." I mean, I've seen that lady on episodes of Dateline. Usually, the story of the episode is how she gets killed.
Marc: Right. It's not even that I object to horror elements being inserted into what is, in the long view, a romance. Love and sex are terrifying things, especially when you're a teenager and have no experience with them. Plenty of writers have successfully used one to shine a light on aspects of the other.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer gets mentioned fairly regularly by our commenters, and I think that that's an excellent example. Buffy's attraction to Angel is incredibly complicated, and every time she learns more about his past and what he's capable of doing, she becomes more and more wary, even as she's drawn deeper. At no point does she think, "He could kill me. He has tortured and killed mes in the past. Nah, won't happen, though." Angel's dark side hovers over the proceedings, even when they're at their happiest.
So I have no problem with elements like these being used as metaphors for the vulnerabilities involved in romance. But it's not really being used as metaphor here. It's just... being used.
And that's what's worrisome.
Linda: Well, and Buffy is completely different, to me, because in addition to the fact that he's a vampire and therefore could theoretically eat her, she's also ... a vampire slayer. There's some equity, weirdly, in the sense that they are both sort of fated to kill each other, in a sense. She's not just a sitting duck where she's like, "He wants to kill me, so I just kind of hope he doesn't."
Marc: Right, exactly. And the way that Meyer has worked her vampire mythology, vampires can only killed by other vampires. So Bella isn't even on the level of a Willow or Xander, where it's still POSSIBLE to kill vampires even if they lack Buffy's, I don't know, spiritual affinity for doing so.
Marc: In a drastic, whiplash-inducing tone shift, one thing I've found especially curious about the love story is the fact that there's almost no courtship. As we've mentioned, they're not a couple and then they suddenly are a couple. You know how Greg Daniels (I think) used to talk about how he didn't want to rush into the Jim/Pam relationship too quickly or focus on them too exclusively, partly because he thought that there were more interesting scripts to be written than "Jim and Pam cuddle for 22 minutes"? I sort of felt like that's what the middle half of this book was like. "Bella and Edward cuddle for 200 pages."
Linda: No, that's definitely true. I think it's a result of the thing you mentioned about how it's all about burning fealty, from the beginning, and it's not really about getting to know each other. There's that sort of shoehorned-in business about "for the next three hours, he grilled me about my life" stuff, but no, there's no process of falling in love, really. He basically is just as in love with her the minute he smells her as he ever is later, and she's basically on the hook from "perfect face."
Marc: And "treated me poorly."
Linda: Yes. "And yelled at me and dragged me various places against my will."
And again, none of this is bad as teenage-attraction stuff. It's like ... this is going to sound like heresy to the followers of the mythos, but if it were a lighter story, where it didn't devolve into the ultimate battle between good and evil, I'd actually have enjoyed it more. It's not that the story isn't compelling (if poorly written), it's that entirely too much is being asked of it. What's basically a high-school romance is being asked to support something epic, and that's why it winds up feeling stupid.
And I can completely believe, as some have reported, that this becomes an even bigger problem as the story kind of gets bigger and bigger and bigger and more epic.
Marc: Sure. There are excellent stories to be told about teenage romance (poorly chosen and otherwise), and there are ways in which adding a horror element (or sci-fi, or film noir, or caveman musical, or whatever) can illuminate aspects of it. This particular telling of it doesn't strike me as particularly insightful or interesting. It just IS.
(There's a relevant quote, I think from Robert Christgau, that I'm trying to find, something along the lines of "It's not a model of X, it's just an example.")
Linda: Right, but with all that said, I get it. I don't even think she did all of it on purpose, but the book is like a series of red levers that get flipped one at a time, and they're classic levers used in fiction, and especially in romance.
He's dangerous, she's drawn to the danger. He has animalistic impulses toward her that he tries to restrain so as not to hurt her. She considers herself strong, and she's so uniquely strong that he can't read her mind, but at the same time, she requires repeated rescue, and the climax of her story takes place while she's unconscious. There are repeated references to her being childlike — sitting on his lap, being lifted like a child, and so forth. That implies that she's being cared for. It's almost like if you hit enough hardwired buttons, it doesn't matter that much whether you hit them with any skill. The book is just very good at taking out a big mallet and playing Whack-A-Mole with romantic cliches.
Marc: Sure, I see that. And, to pull another Thursday-night comedy into this discussion, I could see it being akin to 30 Rock 's lady porn from last week, in terms of flipping all those levers.
I guess I just realized very quickly that I didn't like being the mole.
Linda: Well, the thing is, you get all the cliches, and I can appreciate that, and even enjoy it, and not be bothered by it. But then there is full-on embrace of the one that says that it's sexy to have someone driven to violence by his desire for you, and that's basically where I just felt forced to draw the line, much of a killjoy as it made me feel like.
Marc: That's where the romance becomes woefully lopsided. Bella rhapsodizes about Edward's beauty. Edward mocks her clumsiness. Edward's desire is all about what it does to him. Bella's desire is all about what she can do to ease the agony of his suffering, even if it means taking it on herself.
Linda: No, exactly. I'm not sure what he, as someone who has been alive for more than 100 years, gets out of her, except that he's TOTALLY DRIVEN TO BITE HER TO DEATH. What, otherwise, does she have to offer?
Linda: I have to say, I think lifelong relationships based on physical comedy are not likely to be successful.
Marc: There's also the question of why he doesn't turn her into a vampire like she directly asks him to. I know, I know: the agony of the transformation, eternal torment, nigh-uncontrollable hunger pangs, blah blah emo. But it would solve so many problems that it seems almost selfish for him not to give her what she wants. Plus there's the added advantage of adding one hilariously clumsy vampire to the wild.
I'm starting to think that he's not ready to move in with this girl yet. All of this is still the first-date stage, as far as he's concerned.
Linda: One of our commenters made the very good point yesterday that when a guy tells you, "I've killed people before," most girls would be like, "Hmm, let's explore that." As opposed to, "Poor baby, oh well, no worries."
Marc: Her self-preservation instincts are poor.
Linda: We are in agreement there, sir.