Friday, 12 August 2011

Twilight Discussion: The Bechdel Test and Gender Stereotypes

There's a thing that's talked about in internet feminism called the Bechdel Test. The way to pass the test is simple: two named female characters talk about something that is not a man.

Now a surprisingly huge number of films fail this test, and that's why the test itself is so often cited. But personally I'm uncomfortable with using the Bechdel Test as some be all and end all measurement of how successful a film is in its portrayal of women, since by its own rules Sin CityShowgirls and Suckerpunch actually pass with flying colours and those films are rife with exploitation.

Okay, small shameful confession time: I actually like Sin City. It's not one my favourite movies by any stretch of the imagination, but from a purely artistic and visual point of view I really like it. It's quite beautiful to look at. But it fails on pretty much every other level (including basic storytelling) and I'm not one of those people who can cry "Oh, but it's art! That makes it okay!" when something is blatantly misogynistic/racist/homophobic etc. So Sin City still fails. Sorry.

Twilight fails the Bechdel Test repeatedly, and while I said that I think the Bechdel Test is has a lot of flaws and is cited as evidence way too often, I think it is significant in this case when examining the novel's portrayal of gender as a whole, and the female gender in particular.

Kathryn Elizabeth made a really interesting point in a comment to my last entry about how stereotypical the female characters are. Most of the time when female characters are this flat you can attribute it to the fact that it's a male writer and/or written for a male audience. But Stephenie Meyer is most certainly female and writing for a female audience, so why does she feel the need to write such a stereotypical character as Bella Swan?

It could be a simple case of bad writing, but I'm not too sure. After all, Twilight is an astronomical bestseller. It must be appealling to some need, emotion or desire within its audience on a very deep level to have gained such enormous popularity. Now, I'm inclined to believe that Stephenie Meyer is one smart cookie. Sure, she can't write worth a damn, but that's never really been a requirement in a bestseller (case in point, The Da Vinci Code). She can't write a good novel. Can she write a good bestseller? Absolutely.

Personally I find Twilight's blatant pandering to gender stereotypes and corresponding views on traditional gender roles to be as condescending as it is insulting. But I'm clearly not in the majority, and it's not like Twilight is an exception. The average pulp romance novel followed more or less the same plot as Twilight for the past fifty plus years. The difference with Twilight was that Meyer tapped into a popular trend- vampires- and got a pretty cover with an apple on it rather Fabio. Also, Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been over just long enough for her target audience not to have grown up watching it, but for vampires to still be a big influence in pop culture.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was and remains the intelligent show for teenagers. It took traditional female stereotypes- the airhead blonde, the awkward nerd, the sexy mean girl- and subverted them. It wasn't perfect, far from it, but Buffy did go a long way in portraying female characters who weren't just shallow cardboard cutouts of their individual stereotypes.

Twilight doesn't do that.

Bella is the typical 'damsel in distress' girl. Throughout the book she has almost no agency. Things happen to her, she doesn't make them happen or play any active role in making things happen. There are times when she has to consider making decisions- whether or not to go near Edward after she discovers he's a vampire is one- but even then the decisions end up being made for her by, you guessed it, Edward. She doesn't have an oppotunity to make mistakes because she doesn't have an oppotunity to do anything. The only decision she's made so far was to move to Forks, and even that was because of somebody else's actions.

The characterisation of Edward really deserves an entry all on its own, but I'll give it a go here. To be fair to Stephenie Meyer, her male characters are as stereotypical as her female ones, which raises more questions. Why is Edward so appealling given that he's basically a blood sucking Heathcliff?

Bella is written to stereotype. But what is also telling is that Edward has a stereotypical view of Bella. From his initial meeting he sees Bella as a self-sacrificing, sainted and oh so helpless little girl who needs to be protected. He falls for a concept, not a person. He doesn't consider her own thoughts and feelings, nor does he seem to care. He never considers that Bella has a choice in what happens in her own life. When Edward decides to stop wrestling with his libido vampiric thirst for blood and talk to Bella, he never considers that she might not want to talk to him. It's not "Do you want to hang out with me," its "You're hanging out with me now."

Edward makes a ton of assumptions about Bella in their very first meeting. Since they're complimentary assumptions (what person doesn't want to be thought of as self-sacrificing when they're actually being self-centred?), Bella is flattered by them and doesn't think to contradict. Which is another key issue- Edward has a gendered view of Bella and Bella doesn't think to contradict him.

Edward and Bella are not real (duh). They are characters who are clearly constructed as people to aspire to. Given the construction of gender in this novel, what message does this send?

That men not only can have stereotypical views of women, but can expect women to behave according to those stereotypes because the stereotypes are true. And women should not only be flattered by this, but should behave accordingly, since this is what men like, and being liked by men is the most important thing for women. This is why the Bechdel Test and the fact that Twilight fails it is significant: women in Twilight are only seen in terms of how they relate to men.

So why the appeal? Twilight reinforces traditional gender roles, so is this what is the most appealling thing to its female readership? I think it's part of it.

I believe that a quintessential part of growing up is making your own decisions and dealing with the consequences of those decisions. And it's hard. It's scary. And I'm sure we all have times where we wish someone else would take care of the decision making for us. It's escapism- a world where someone else makes the big decisions and the central character, which is the audience focus and the character we're supposed to relate to, doesn't have to accept any responsibility what so ever.

I'm sure we all want that sometimes. But you can't live your life that way, and the fact that Twilight panders to this highly unrealistic desire is condescending, insulting and very damaging.

Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example again. I always thought that one of the central messages of Buffy (other than 'high school sucks') was that actions have consequences. Characters made mistakes, those mistakes had consequences, they dealt with, learnt from and overcame those consequences, or they didn't and the consequences grew worse. Buffy made a mistake in not telling her friends that Angel was back in Season 3, she was called out on it, she learnt from it. Willow made a mistake in using too much magic in Season 6, the consequence was that Tara broke up with her, Willow refused to deal with her mistake and thus the consequences grew worse.

Bella doesn't get an oppotunity to make mistakes and learn from them because she doesn't get an oppotunity to do anything at all.

So why, Stephenie Meyer? Is it in fact a subtle commentary on the role of women in society? A dark parody of gender stereotypes? A study of an abusive relationship from the point of view of the victim?

Or just misogynistic bullshit?

I would really like to know your thoughts on this, dear readers, and I invite you to do so in the comments.


  1. I think the problem with the Bechdel Test (apart from the fact that I suspect Bechdel herself intended it as--a thing often not perceived on the Internet--a joke--is that it doesn't distinguish between women's motivations for talking about men: e.g.,

    * Josephine and Karla talk for hours about why Josephine will just DIE if Chuck doesn't invite her to Winter Formal
    * Lisa and Pauline talk for hours about whether Garry really is table-top gaming with his dudebros or cheating on Pauline
    * Ana, a symphony conductor, and cellist Michiko discuss which Bach partita(s) should be included in the opening night concert
    * Professors Kathy and Angela ponder whether Ph.D. candidate Ralph's dissertation proposal is adequate
    * Maj. General Rita and commando Beth discuss how to capture the leader of a terrorist cell.

    Lots of online fans would yell Fail! about all of them, but I think it matters if women have agency and professional interests or exist only in minor romantic contexts (or as objects of rescue).

  2. Look, I don't mean to denigrate the fine work that Hannah's doing here - and let's face it, she's turning dust into champagne - but this passage really struck me:

    "Throughout the book she has almost no agency. Things happen to her, she doesn't make them happen or play any active role in making things happen."

    Has it occurred to anyone that perhaps she's just _submissive_? Like, seriously, emotionally/socially/sexually submissive? Maybe she doesn't _want_ to make decisions. Maybe she feels more comfortable when a strong person guides her. Not everybody wants to be a leader; not everybody wants to be Buffy leading the charge with a stake in each hand (to be fair, a lot of the time Buffy didn't want to be Buffy either). So maybe this is just Bella's nature.

    If so, are we wrong to condemn Bella for _not_ being a strong female lead, with agency and decision-making and leadership skills? Empowered women can be sexy or sophisticated, book-smart or street-smart, university educated or rising through the ranks, CEOs or free spirits. But the connecting thread here is that they're strong, empowered and forthright people.

    Should we be pushing women to be like this? Couldn't an empowered woman be shy, chaste, reserved?

    Maybe Bella's a submissive, and that's okay?

    There's a flipside, though. Bella's not just a person. As a character in a horrifyingly popular series, she's a role model to millions and sets a standard of behaviour that guides young women around the world. Stephanie Meyer bears a heavy responsibility to use her books for good.

    If Bella has no agency, is Meyer teaching young women that they can face adversity by adopting a submissive pose and hoping that someone else solves the problem?

  3. Kathryn, I think you definitely raise an important point about the possibility that Bella likes being submissive. When viewing Twilight in that light it makes sense- there's a masochistic element to Bella at the very least. And if that were the case I'm certainly not going to condemn anyone for their lifestyle choice, even if I don't understand it myself (submission being a major turn off for me).

    But as you say, Bella is a character in an immensely popular series, not a real person. I think authors of young adult fiction in particular do bare some responsibility to set a good example for their audience, or if the protagonist is a poor role model, to at least provide one alternative character who has a spine.

    I honestly don't think we need yet another submissive female protagonist. If Twilight is a study in submissive female sexuality (and I wouldn't give Stephenie Meyer that much credit), then it's certainly not an original one and completely unnecessary to boot. We don't need a novel about how wonderful it is to be a submissive woman, society tells us that every day.

    "If Bella has no agency, is Meyer teaching young women that they can face adversity by adopting a submissive pose and hoping that someone else solves the problem?"

    I think you've hit the nail on the head, Kathryn. This is exactly the message Twilight seems to send, and I believe it's part of the series' appeal. It appeals to our (and in particular teenagers') desire to have someone else fix the problem , to be 'saved' in that sense.

    Like I said, Stephenie Meyer is one smart cookie.

  4. To be honest, I never thought about the whole idea that maybe it's tapping into the fear of making decisions and dealing with consequences. That's an interesting view and, although I myself am a bit of a control-freak, I can understand the pull there.

    That being said, I do agree with you that that's not all there is to it. Quite honestly, it really scares me what this says about what women really think that they should be offering not only men, but society as a whole. I also wonder if a lot women are buying into it because unconsciously they do believe that they should act this way.

    The interesting thing here is that the young women I know (around 25-years-old) that do tend to like Twilight are those that tended to gravitate toward the more submissive characters to begin with. One of my friends LOVES (with capital letters and all) the Disney princesses, as well as Juliet and Ophelia (from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet"). She spend the majority of her teenage years being almost-obsessed with her boyfriend/fiance/husband. Now, I have nothing against her husband, he's really sweet, and they're really happy together but I've just always had a problem her almost-obsessive nature when it came to him and romance in general. The women that I know that are stronger, the ones that don't buy into the typical romance and are willing to fight their own battles, are the ones that scoff at Twilight. So, although it makes me said when the first friend told me she liked Twilight, it didn't surprise me.

    I think that Kathryn brings up an interesting point, but that it still doesn't necessarily excuse Bella's character as a whole. In the interesting dominant-submissive relationships in the stories that I've read, the biggest thing that seems to come across to me is that submissives are strong in their own way. Their strength is the knowledge, and willingness, of giving up their will to another person. A true submissive knows exactly what they're doing and exactly what it means. Bella does not exhibit these traits; she does not appear to know what she is giving up nor to acknowledge that her choosing to give Edward that power over is, in it's own way, a power of its own. After all, a person can't have power over you (except in extreme circumstances) without your permission. In today's world, giving up control can oftentimes be harder than taking it.

  5. PS: You asked last post about the American schools' math teaching. Yes, we have separate classes for things like Trig and Calculus, but generally those are taken in order instead of all at once. For example, it's only AFTER you take Calculus that you can take Trig (at least, that's what I remember; it's been a while). They're set up as building blocks, basically.

    PPS: So many typos in my previous comment... -_-;