Is It Really Just a Story?

For a little over half a year I lived, worked and went to school in western Wyoming. It was quite literally the middle of no where. The nearest city with decent shopping, medical facilities, what have you was Salt Lake City in Utah and that was three hours away. While I was there I had my eyes opened to an entirely new and different way of life. I went from a school that was completely racially diverse to a school where 95% of the population was white. I went from a city where I was used to having something to do every weekend to a town where the only thing to do was hang out in someone’s basement or garage. I went from a fairly progressive city to a town where conservatives ruled. I also went from a place of religious diversification to a town strictly christian with a strong Mormon presence.

I learned a lot about Mormons during those few months. Truth be told, I hadn’t even known of their existence before I moved there. I also learned a lot about intolerance, about racism, about religion and about myself. I took all of that to the table with me when I cracked open Twilight nearly a year ago now. Every female in my family under the age of 50 has read this book and some have become huge fans. I am “the reader” in my family. I have gotten a lot of flak for not at least trying to read this book, because they just knew I was going to love it. I did not. Then it became that I just needed to read the series as “it gets better”. It did not. If anything things got worse with New Moon. Now I’m faced with reviewing Eclipse and I am having a difficult time with it.

I noticed other people on Twitter were having the same sorts of issues that I was whether with Stephanie Meyer, Orson Scott Card, or others not necessarily Mormon. In particular April over at Good Books, Good Wine talking about Orson Scott Card and his homophobia was the straw that broke the camel’s back and led me to write all of this.

Where do you draw the line when it comes to an author’s personal, morally reprehensible, beliefs? Especially when those beliefs bleed over into their writing? Clarifying note: not all Mormons have beliefs that match up with what I list above and below, in fact some don’t agree with any of it at all, from what I’ve read in non-fiction books and my experiences living in Mormon country a lot of the hard-lining is confined to fundamentalist groups not associated with the church, that being said such beliefs did not form in a vacuum as I had ample daily proof.

From my reading of Eclipse I came away with a story that was chock full of racist over tones, misogynistic implications, unhealthy relationships and controlling abuse. All of these can be seen without even knowing of the religious beliefs that underlie (and drive) these themes and then it’s made even worse. There were passages in this book that actually made me physically ill to read them. When does a story stop being just a story. When do we stop and say it’s time to take a closer look?

Another note: I do not want to ban this book. Ever. I am anti-banning books. I do want to have a healthy and thorough discussion of what is really being said within its pages beyond “it’s just a story” though. I want to look past the “sweet” romance and I want to hold up what is driving this book and discuss it honestly. But, where is the line? When are you looking into things “too much”?

In Eclipse If you read about how all Central and South American vampires are warring savages are we supposed to ignore the racial implications? When the (Italian based) Volutri with their rules and hierarchy bears a resemblance to the Catholic church are we to say nothing? What about when the North American vampires complain that the Volturi don’t intervene to quiet the rabble often enough are we supposed to ignore the strong Catholic presence in Central America and chock it up to coincidence?

When Edward disables Bella’s car and physically restrains her from visiting a friend am I just supposed to see the love and care and ignore the abusive overtones? What about when she is literally kidnapped by his family to prevent her from going anywhere or seeing anyone he doesn’t like? What about when the reasons people give me for this controlling and disrespectful behavior (he loves her and cares for her and doesn’t want to see her do things he doesn’t approve of for her own safety) sounds like the exact ones an abused wife gives to justify her husband actions? Am I to pretend, like so many do, that if there is no physical pain that it doesn’t count as abuse, when in reality there are far worse things than pain? Abuse that can have far more lasting and devastating effects mentally, emotionally and spiritually?

When I read three books where every single female character is not able to make a single meaningful or powerful decision by herself, what am I supposed to think? Or worse, what am I to think when time after time meaningful and powerful decisions are forcibly taken away from the women and decided by the men in the book without said women’s input? What do I do when people tell me that Bella gets to choose between marriage and sex and vampirism and forever, and no marriage and no sex and no vampirism and no forever? What am I left with as I wonder how these characters came to the point where they can’t tell the difference between a choice and an ultimatum?

Don’t get me started on the werewolves and the pedophilia. In fact don’t get me started on the vampires and the pedophilia. I liked a question on Goodreads that asked which was the greater age discrepancy between lovers and listed some controversial pedophilia themed novels (such as Lolita, with Lolita being two years shy of Bella people) as well as the age difference between Anna Nicole Smith and her oil baron, at the cusp of death, that she controversially married. The age difference between Edward and Bella far outranked all of theirs. Also. Werewolves. Two-year-olds. Active involvement throughout their lives. Grooming. That is all.

That being said, I also do not want to say that women should stop reading Twilight. I hate the fact that there are only two groups of people that get their reading dictated to them in this manner: children and women. As a woman can I not tell a morally reprehensible work when I read it? As a woman can I not see both what works in a relationship and what obviously doesn’t when I read it in a book? As a woman can’t I read Twilight and realize that this treatment, or these words, or that action makes me uncomfortable and so I now know to avoid it in real life? I am not a child. I do not need to be told what I can and can’t read, or what I should and shouldn’t read. I can handle books that might give me “dangerous thoughts”, I can judge for myself whether or not a book is damaging and adjust my own behavior and reading habits appropriately. I do not require anyone else to do this for me, thanks. I do not wish to do this for anyone else either.

I also strongly believe that teenagers can also handle this themselves. Even with so many liking Twilight. Even with so many loving Edward and Bella. I support their choice even if I don’t agree with it. Maybe they come from conservative homes and backgrounds and are comfortable with certain overtones, or are sweetly naive enough to miss them completely. Maybe they like the fact that Bella, unlike them, can push a guy as far as she is willing to go sexually and still be safe, still be treasured, still be loved. She will never feel pressured to preform that sex act, to allow that touch, to compromise herself in order to keep him by her side. There is no excitement, but there is also no fear (of the pain, of the act, of the consequences), no stress and worry (about how he will treat you after, who he will tell, how you will change), no apathy and resignment (feeling like this is all you have to give a guy because sometimes it seems like this is all he wants). All that is left to experience is the love. As a teenager that is freaking liberating.

I also want to point out, ultimatum or not, I support Bella choosing to marry at eighteen. It is a choice. She is not a child at that point and she is free to make it. I also appreciated that, from what little I know of Breaking Dawn, the original Eve overtones are gone as women’s sexuality is celebrated and fully experienced in the post marriage bed. Knowing Mormons I should have seen that one coming, really. Once Bella is a vampire she proceeds to break some beds it seems and more power to her for that. What little I know of the rest of the book though actually has me worried about cracking the cover.

So coming back to my point. Why do so many people insist that when you read books like the ones in the Twilight series that you can only judge it on the merits of being “just a story”? Especially when so much of literature is about so much more than that? Why can’t you notice the themes, comment on the sociological, economical, and political “coincidences”, note that the author’s beliefs are strangely mirrored in the stories they write? I don’t want to read them and be told to only use half of my brain so that all I’m getting is a simple love story. I don’t want to be told I can’t read the simple love story because when you read it with a full brain it’s teaching me that my self worth as a woman is completely bound up in my ability to be morally pure and bear children. I want a medium ground. Stories, in my experience, are rarely just stories.

What are your thoughts?

4 Responses to Is It Really Just a Story?

  1. April (Books&Wine)
    5:54 am on November 23rd, 2010

    I love what you say about women treated as children. Why is it that we don’t say, hey men, perhaps you might get reprehensible ideas from reading this?! Although, like you say, I think we need to trust adults to judge for themselves whether they agree with a book’s morals or not.

    I think anyone who is serious about reading knows that often books are more than just a story. I think when you study or examine what you read in-depth, you get a better picture when you consider societal context, author background, and what underlying themes may be conveyed. Also, I think it makes books more interesting to think about all of these different aspects.

  2. Bitsy
    8:34 pm on November 24th, 2010

    I find that once I know something about one particular author or another it will always color my impression of their writing after that. Things that I might have ignored or glossed over will leap out at me and I will pounce on it (yes! you say this because I know you think that!). When in reality sometimes I think that maybe it is not that obvious to everyone else and someone not in the know would have just let it slide or not put as much weight behind it as I did.

    Also I laughed when I saw what you said about scolding men about their reading material. The thing is, the idea is ludicrous and yet it still happens to women even today. Ugh, it infuriates me.

  3. Jodie
    6:48 am on November 23rd, 2010

    I really like this post A LOT.

    I just thought I’d stop by and point you to this post by cleolinda where she explains her own middle approach of compartmentalising issues (specifically in relation to Twilight): http://cleolinda.livejournal.com/891365.html#cutid1 because it’s relevant and really good. And because I went through a similar Twi-crisis maybe you’d like to see what my way intelligent commentors had to say about this issue: http://bookgazing.blogspot.com/2010/07/praise-and-blame.html

  4. Bitsy
    8:26 pm on November 24th, 2010

    Thanks so much for commenting, and thanks for the links! I’ve just finished reading both and it is awesome to see other people have the same sorts of problems and conundrums I do!

    First, cleolinda gets it all right. I love how she writes about teenage girls not understanding boys and being scared and how the book fills in for that and offers an alternative to the expectations that society seems to have. I also was really happy to read her final paragraph where she writes that the reason for the book’s success is because of this desire for a slower burn. That helps explain things in a better light.

    I also really enjoyed reading the post and comment discussion on your blog! The best point that I liked was the one that said that Bella was pushing for Edward to make her a vampire not because she wanted to throw her life away and separate herself from her family and everything she knew for some guy she just met (my interpretation) but because she wanted to love Edward, but more importantly wanted to love him in an equal relationship. Which can’t happen as long as she is human. I had never thought of it that way before but it does help put Twilight in a better light. If you ignore the rest of the series anyway.

    Also on the subject of compartmentalizing, it was driving me crazy too because I know I do this with other books (just not Twilight) and I always wonder if I’m going crazy or if deep down I’m really guilty of thinking these horrible things because I like a book that has such a thing in it. For example, my liking the book Ice, a book that contains a huge age discrepancy that I normally find abhorrent in literature, even though the main character is 18 when the book starts.

    You might also like to see some of my other ramblings on the subject of vampires (that only briefly touches on Twilight, I think I had only read the first one at that point) Feminism and the Recent Vampire Craze.

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