Hey everyone! Thanks for tuning in again! This week I examine the power of young adult fiction and the fandoms thereof in preteen and teenage girls' development. Remember, if you like what you read, subscribe, share, or become a patron! Visit my Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/prettylittleloudmouth) to support this blog- it takes a lot of money to maintain the site, and I want to keep writing for all of you lovely people!
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Stephanie Meyer’s began writing the Twilight series in 2003 after she woke up from a vivid dream involving two people having a deep conversation, in a meadow in the woods. One was an ordinary girl. The other was a beautiful, glittering, vampire. They were falling in love with each other, but their love would have to traverse species, temptation, and time itself. The vampire needed to overcome his intense attraction to the girls’ heated blood. The girl needed to overcome her girlhood. The boy became Edward Cullen, and the girl, the novels’ heroine, Bella Swan. Their story is literally the stuff of dreams.
It’s no secret that Meyer’s series falls short of being defined as great literature. Her characters are unoriginal and underdeveloped: her heroine Bella Swan is little else than self-destructive and insecure, while her competing lovers, Edward Cullen and Jacob Black, are little else than a passive-aggressive vampire and an athletic werewolf, respectively. Their relationships, sexually-charged but devoted to chastity, are abusive at worst and dysfunctional at best. The action of the plot crawls at a snail’s pace. Meyer’s writing primarily focuses on bland descriptions of Edward’s eyes (“The look only lasted a second, but it chilled me more than the freezing wind.”). So why does Entertainment Weekly call Meyer “the world’s most popular vampire writer since Anne Rice?” Why were her books on the New York Time’s Best Seller’s List for more than three years, after the first book’s publication in 2005? Why did a Morman mother of three, eager to spread her messages about pre-marriage abstinence and the evils of abortion, named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of 2008?”
Rachel, a 16-year-old fan, says, "Wow! I must admit, that when I heard about Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer, I was very intrigued. A book about a regular teenage girl— just like you and me— falling in love with a gorgeous vampire? Who wouldn't want to read it? I was hooked from the first page, and as I read it, it only got better. Twilight is great because it seems so ordinary; is it possible for this situation to happen in your life? Imagine seeing a guy, more handsome than any you've ever seen, and not being able to tear your eyes away from him. Throw in a little danger, a sticky situation, and a love more powerful than either character has ever known, and what do you get? Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. It is definitely a book worth reading."
Is it possible for this to happen in your life? Could an ordinary, “every girl,” as Meyer refers to Bella Swan, be swept off her feet into a world of true love, straight out of a vivid dream? Could she really meet a man with the rugged manners of Edward Cullen and skin matching the glittery decorations on her math notebook (full disclosure: joke stolen from a Seth Meyers comedy set)? Now, as an adult woman, I would say no. But would I have said no when I was 12, or 14, or 16? Would I have said no when I was still pretending that my giant teddy bear was Fred Weasley holding me as I drifted to sleep, or crying during Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, dreaming of finding my own adventure in the great wide somewhere?
"YA fiction," or "young adult fiction," which are books written specifically for preteens and teenagers (usually girls), is a relatively new phenomenon. But throughout history, even without an official label, there have been stories and literature that have entranced preteen girls more strongly than it did any other audience- Jane Eyre, and her Edward, comes to mind. So does Wuthering Heights, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, and even Samuel Richardson's Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded, which inspired some of the first documented "fan fictions" when fans of the book wrote stories featuring the novel's main characters for their local publications. During my formative years, young adult fiction was perhaps the single most influential force in guiding my development- I found my heroes in Anne Shirley (The "Anne of Green Gables" series by LM Montgomery) and her imagination, in Ella of Frell ("Ella Enchanted" by Gail Carson Levine) and her defiance in the face of forced obedience, in Gemma Doyle ("A Great and Terrible Beauty" and "The Gemme Doyle Trilogy" by Libba Bray) and her confusion in discovering how to navigate her friendships and her sexuality amidst an oppressive Victorian society. These books touch and influence young teen girls in a profound way- but more often than not, YA novels (the three mentioned above excluded) use this important platform to feature romantic fantasies instead of more empowering narratives.
Now, romance in these stories isn't inherently bad. Anne had her Gilbert, Ella her Prince Char, and Gemma her oh-so-sexy Kartik- all of these romances took a backseat to the main storylines of the heroines, and the romances served the purpose of showing the women's complicated sexual and emotional maturation. The problem arises when the romance takes the front seat, or, more accurately, the only seat, and when the heroine is placed in a position of subjugation rather than control. The problem arises when books, like Twilight, present a relationship with a man (or boy) as the heroine's primary purpose and primary desire. These more romantically-inclined books tend to follow a similar basic structure in which dangerous, forbidden, and older (or ageless) men are the agents of female sexual and spiritual awakening.
Considering how furiously teen girls have latched onto such books throughout the ages, the attachment of early 2000's teens to Twilight isn't so mysterious. Perhaps it’s simply impossible, when in such a delicate state (note: I don't mean "delicate state" in a condescending way...rather, it's the best way I can describe the fear and tenuousness of identity that comes with being a preteen or teenage girl in our society), to resist any depiction of female sexual and spiritual awakening, regardless of how poorly written and damaging to the female's agency that depiction might be. Twilight fans share the common struggle with their budding sexuality and hormonal turmoil most teenage girls feel in some degree. In the absence of other narratives, when teenage girls don't have the resources (read: the mothers who pass on their literary knowledge) or the secret know-how/drive to dig deeper in the shelves to find the Ella Enchanted's and the Anne of Green Gables's, they will find the stories they need wherever they can find them, in the first book they see prominently displayed in the "Young Adult" section of Barnes and Noble, or in the books their friends are reading. They will conflate the realities of separating from their childhood lives with the realities of exploring romantic and sexual relationships with men.
Every day our society tells girls that their primary value comes from their attractiveness to men. We don't need their books reinforce this message. We need their books to dismantle it.
Girls need a safe outlet for their emotions, a sex-object they can desire while free from any actual sexual obligation. Listen, I've harped on this fact millions and millions of times at this point. With the way our society's sexual politics work, in both the private and public spheres, influenced by porn exposure and rape culture, real sexual experiences with real boys (especially at a young age) never feel completely safe. Even if the boy is loving and trustworthy, there are social ramifications to be considered if anyone found out- being "slut-shamed," etc. Girls need romantic and sexual fantasies, so they will latch on to them wherever they can find them. And these girls don't immerse themselves in these intense fantasy worlds only to navigate the scariness of real-world sex, but also simply to bide time, until their little boy classmates catch up to their maturity. Imagine seeing a guy who is actually taller than you and who wears decently attractive clothes, a guy capable of taking care of you and respecting you and teaching you the secrets of carnal pleasure and buying you dinner at nice restaurants, walking into your high school cafeteria and choosing you, to have eyes only for you, to love you with such a force that you really would be willing to give up everything for him. And imagine you've been told your entire life that this is exactly what you should want- and ALL you should want. How could any girl resist the tempting vampire narrative of the Twilight books? What girl wouldn’t want to read it?
Teenage girls' profound connections to the books they love leaves the authors of these books with an enormous responsibility: the responsibility to present healthy and empowering sexual and romantic relationships. Relationships that are based on mutual respect, gender equality, and personal fulfillment separate from one another. It is the responsibility of young adult authors to present girls with narratives in which their stand-in is completely in control of her own destiny.
So Meyers' crappy prose, unoriginal characters, and barely-there plot lines, while infuriating, are hardly the most dangerous or problematic things about her books: the problem comes from the fact that she villianizes healthy sexuality, creates a protagonist who only exists to be fought over by two men, and romanticizes teenage love in an unrealistic way. She presents "love" as the be-all-end-all, the most her female "hero" can hope for in life: Bella Swan forgoes college, and indeed, any kind of life at all to marry Edward at age 18, bear his child despite its eating her alive from the inside (maybe I'll write another post about Meyers' blatant anti-abortion narrative at another time), and become a vampire to live with Edward into eternity. Meyers presents young girls with an impossible and damaging myth: the myth that if they only find their perfect guy, a guy who will protect them from everything, even their own sinful sexual desires, they will be happy and whole forever....and that it's possible to find this guy and make this huge life decision when you're still a teenager. Once, when I was 19, I TA-ed a theater class for gifted junior-high school students, I during class one day I engaged a young woman in a discussion about Twilight. I knew she had attended the premier of one of the movies the night before, so I asked what her favorite part had been. She responded, "the part when Edward asked Bella to marry him- it was so romantic! I was like, 'say yes!' 'say yes!'" "Oh," I said to her, "that part actually made me feel a little bit uncomfortable, because I thought that Bella was much too young to be getting engaged or married." "Oh wait," the young woman said, "she's a year younger than you, isn't she?" "Yep," I said. "Wow...I guess that is pretty young."
Stephanie Meyer’s began writing the Twilight series in 2003 after she woke up from a vivid dream- but most of the series' young fans are not able to recognize Bella and Edward's story as the "dream" it really is. And that's really the problem with Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series: it sets up unrealistic and damaging expectations in the most vulnerable of audiences.