The Imaginary Heroine

searching for the plot

A New Dawn part 13: “The Great Debate” by Rachel Caine March 28, 2010

[Part of a series discussing the essays in A New Dawn edited by Ellen Hopkins. These posts may contain spoilers about all four Twilight novels and Midnight Sun.]

In “The Great Debate,” Rachel Caine imagines a fictional debate between two Twilight fan girls and two adult academics. The topic?

Resolved: Vampire-themed fiction represents thinly veiled sexuality and violence. Therefore, vampire fiction is not suitable for young adults, and in particular Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, which has brought vampire-themed young adult fiction to the forefront is not appropriate for young adult readers.

When Caine gets over trying to be hilarious and actually talks about how the books are actually beneficial because they deal with difficult subject matter like sexuality, violence, etc she makes really good points. I’m sure a lot of people will think this is a riot, but some of the humor just didn’t do it for me. At one point the moderator says the debate is going to follow the rules for Lincoln-Douglas debate and a teen debater replies “I don’t know who Lincoln Douglas, but I’ll be he’s a hater.”… Cue laugh track?

Youth and knowledge of pop culture does not automatically make someone uneducated. Isn’t that, in fact, the point of this piece? That all the teenage girls the “experts” worry are going to go have babies with quasi-abusive seventeen year old boyfriends because “Bella did it” are actually savvy enough to understand that the book is a) fiction and b) full of consequences for all of these actions? I was also pretty irritated by the teen girls interrupting everyone and even each other with things like “TIME’S UP, BITCH. Also, you suck.” Because we all know teen girls are obnoxious and rude at all times. I’m sure adults ever misunderstand, interrupt, or cover ignorance on an issue with rudeness… I would say that the main crime here was not Caine’s use of teen girl stereotypes for laughs, but that it just wasn’t that funny.

Anyway, the point of the essay is that the Twilight books do cover sexuality and violence, but they do it in such a way that makes it very appropriate for young adult readers. Girls have a pretty difficult time finding a safe space to safely explore their developing sexual preferences – why not do it in the context of books and movies? Twilight actually seems to glamorize abstinence for teens, not the reverse. Plus, what girl is going to want to have a baby that murders her from the inside out? As Caine points out, Bella’s tale is actually full of consequences for romance, sex, and pregnancy. It’s a cautionary tale, not a how-to manual.

Caine also discusses how empowering the Twilight Saga has been not just for young women but for adults as well. We identify with Bella because she’s lonely and a bit of a misfit. She has trouble making connections with people and doesn’t feel like she’s good at anything in particular. Caine’s Twilight teens give us a pretty good list of uplifting messages. Things like don’t hate yourself, because even though you might not think so, you’re awesome. Don’t rush love, because it’s worth being patient and letting it all fall into place naturally. Caine also argues that Bella is a hero in her own right, even if she isn’t a supernatural being. She’s brave, strong, and helps others even when she’s afraid. So…how are these bad things for teen girls to read about?

In fact, they aren’t bad lessons for girls and grown ups, for that matter. Which is probably one of the reasons the Twilight Saga is so popular from tweens to Twimoms. It’s a story of a misfit finding her power and rightful place in the world. I would say that this is backed up by the fact as a human Bella kind of sucks at life, but she turns out to be a really good vampire with super blood lust control, super powers, and a super family. Gaining her rightful place in the world puts everyone around her in balance and results in the deliriously happy ending we get in Breaking Dawn.

[This was in Harper’s Bazaar, but I thought KStew looked pretty vampy. Maybe Bella’s look in Breaking Dawn will take some cues from the shoot?]

 

A New Dawn part 4: “My Boyfriend Sparkles” by Anne Ursu March 7, 2010

[Part of a series discussing the essays in A New Dawn edited by Ellen Hopkins. These posts may contain spoilers about all four Twilight novels and Midnight Sun.]

In this essay Ursu details how the Twilight Saga illustrates truths about first love. Bella’s feelings for Edward are typical of a teenager locked in the throws of their first romance. Each segment of the essay is titled with phrases pulled straight from the mouths and diaries of young lovers every where: “He’s Not Like Other Boys,” “When He Touches Me, It’s Electric,” and “I’ll Love Him Forever.”

A less conventional heading is “My Boyfriend Sparkles.”The books are fantasy, but the best fantasy tells us something about reality[,]” says Ursu. “The author Lloyd Alexander said “Fantasy is a good way to show the world as it is. Fantasy can show us the truth about human relationships and moral dilemmas because it works on our emotions on a deeper, symbolic level than realistic fiction.”” Hmm…sounds familiar.

Ursu takes this a step further and points out that the fantasy of Twilight also serves to obscure less acceptable elements of the story. “There are aspects to Bella and Edward’s relationship that, when translated into the real world become disturbing and dangerous.” Namely Edward’s supreme power over Bella (while she’s human, anyway) and Bella’s supplication before him. This lack of equality is certainly not a healthy ideal for teenagers to emulate. Stephenie Meyer seems to know this and allows Bella to become a super-powerful vampire in the final novel, creating balance not just in the Bella-Edward relationship, but in the Twilight universe as a whole, resulting in total resolution of all conflict by the final pages of Breaking Dawn.

Bella’s transformation and Happily (Raised to Infinity) Ever After ending can be interpreted several different ways, depending on what you believe Bella and Edward’s relationship is supposed to represent. If, as Ursu posits in this essay, it represents the deepest, most obsessive throws of first love, there are still differing conclusions that can be drawn as to what exactly their happy ending means.

One way to interpret Bella’s rise to power and ultimate triumph is that first love can bring two people together, but the relationship can only be whole and permanent if the partners are equals. As such, their love is a source of strength that enables them to reach personal actualization and face down any dangers they may encounter. Even if that danger happens to be an undead army lead by ancient Italian vampires with superpowers.

However, Twilight’s ending can also be interpreted as an encouragement to throw everything to the wind for love, which, although a staple of innumerable volumes of literature, poetry, music, and art, has its pitfalls when practiced in real life. On a personal note, as someone who moved half way across the country to a city where she had neither friends, family, nor job prospects because of love, these pitfalls can be pretty heartbreaking in their own right. This isn’t to say that it isn’t worth it, but simply that the transaction is not as painless as the Twilight Saga would have us believe. Bella gets to keep her human family, her vampire family, her child, Jacob and Edward as a reward for having enough faith to sacrifice even her life for love. In reality, the rewards are more bittersweet.

I believe it is with good reason that the author’s conclusions are a bit pessimistic about the implications one might draw from the Twilight Saga. The fantasy doesn’t stop at the vampires and werewolves, but goes right to the heart of the story. For Ursu, first love that lasts forever is about as realistic as a sparkly boyfriend.

 

A New Dawn part 3: “Romeo, Ripley, and Bella Swan” by Rosemary Clement-Moore March 5, 2010

[Part of a series discussing the essays in A New Dawn edited by Ellen Hopkins. These posts may contain spoilers about all four Twilight novels and Midnight Sun.]

A theatre expert, Clement-Moore analyzes the Twilight Saga as an Aristotelian tragedy. According to Aristotle, the point of tragedy is to inspire pity and fear in the audience through sympathy for the doomed hero. This sympathy has a therapeutic effect on the audience, allowing us to achieve catharsis.

Twilight in Greek! How cool is that?!

Twilight in Greek! How cool is that?!

In this analysis, Bella is interpreted as a Classic Hero with a tragic flaw of being in love with a monster-boy and a tragic fate of being a danger magnet for less benevolent monsters. We feel sympathy for her through the novels as she suffers for her love. We fear no matter what she does, Bella may be fated to lose the ones she loves – her human and vampire families, her friends, Jacob, and Edward. By evoking these feelings, the novels allow us to connect with the fears we have about our own destiny and release some of the tensions they cause.

It all breaks down for Clement-Moore in Breaking Dawn as it did for many Twilight readers. Bella seems to escape her tragic fate and achieve a rapturous ending for all involved. The author decides to throw Meyer’s zillion page finale out because, for her, it doesn’t fit the pattern of the other books.

I will admit that this was my first instinct when I read Breaking Dawn. Actually my first instinct was to throw the book across the room. I think I may have done so a couple times. My cat was not amused.

What may be the problem here is that Clement-Moore is working with a philosophical framework that isn’t a fit for the subject matter. Stephenie Meyer was brought up in the Mormon church, attended Brigham Young University, and is still an active member of the LDS community. What Meyer created in Breaking Dawn is not a subverted Greek tragedy with a daring escape from fate, but instead a tale of triumphant ascension with a uniquely Mormon philosophical framework. In marrying Edward, consummating their marriage, and bearing his child, Bella is transformed into a powerful immortal being. This pattern closely matches the process of conversion to Mormonism and the path to redemption and union with God as promised in LDS teachings.

Low blow, but I couldn't resist

It’s important to note that my argument here is NOT that SMeyer set out to write a book to convert everyone to Mormonism. It is not that Mormonism is a good thing or a bad thing. It is not that Twilight having a Mormon moral to the story is a good or a bad thing. These are all debatable points and some of them depend on subjective personal beliefs.

My point is simply that Meyer has  a strong philosophical point of view and it inherently defines her writing. It would be interesting to speculate how intentionally she crafted her finale  – is it a very Mormon conclusion because she is very Mormon and that’s the framework by which she defines a happy ending or did she set out to write a characteristically Mormon happy ending from the beginning?

We will never know for sure and in some ways it less important than other questions. Questions like what does it mean that there has been so much backlash to Breaking Dawn from loyal readers? What does it mean that despite that backlash, it still sat atop the best seller lists for record amounts of time? Is Meyer a Mormon apologetic? Are some elements of the Saga a critique of Mormon thought? What does this mean for the stigmatization of Mormonism in American culture?

If it’s not already obvious, I find the Twilight Saga more interesting as a Mormon allegory than I do as a vampire adventure or a romance novel.

 

Guilty Pleasures and Guiltless Double Chocolate Scones January 29, 2010

Guilty pleasures first. After admitting my supreme dorkdom in the previous post, it’s amazing that I still have some qualms about admitting this….but… I am a Twilight fan. Actually, I prefer Twitard, in honor of one of the most hysterical blogs on the net Twitarded.

I didn’t want to read the Twilight Saga. I was tricked into  it by one of my professors. Once I started reading it, I didn’t want to like it. I started out with a pencil, circling questionable vocabulary decisions (‘verbose’? Seriously? I think she meant ‘loquacious’). But despite its doubtful literary merit and dubious moral undertones, it nearly ruined the last week of finals in my undergrad career. I started Twilight on stop day and went out and bought the other three books and devoured them one after the other. I simply had to know what happened.

I thank you Stephenie Meyer for all the joy you've brought me, but WTF, mate?

Even after the fiasco that was Breaking Dawn, I was still addicted to the books, audiobooks, soundtracks, movies, and various cosmetic and wardrobe products affiliated with the movie. I have the Aerie ruffled roll over sweats that Bella wore in that scene in New Moon where Jacob jumps into her window. I am that lame. 7abibi (“ha-bee-bee” which means my male beloved in Arabic and refers to my boyfriend, with whom I share an apartment and an annoying yet adorable cat) has born it all with puzzled equanimity, poor man.

I thought I had plumbed the depths with those sweat pants, but I was wrong.

After a few rotations of books 1 – 3 and even a stab and trying to like Breaking Dawn, it was obvious that I had to find more. I had to dip into the torrid, Mary Sue laden world of fan fiction. Don’t misunderstand – I have a few friends who read and also write fanfic. It only took a few peeks into Harry Potter fanfic during the long cold nights between books before I was totally turned off. Totally. Malfoy/Ron X-rated slash fic is just not for me. Sorry.

But after hearing the buzz on not one, but several sites about the fanfic Wide Awake by angstgoddess003, I had to go check it out. I was in pain. I needed more Twilight!

Dare I say it, but even devoid of vampires, magic, and other fantastical elements, Wide Awake is absolutely phenomenal. It’s full of delicious teen angst, drama, and romance woven together with a perfect stripe of tart humor by light and skillful hand. I stayed up two nights in a row and snuck peeks between calls at work. I was truly a woman possessed.

**Disclaimer: Wide Awake is rated M for mature. It has lots of filthy language, some graphic sexual content, and disturbing imagery that may trigger, offend, or disturb some readers. This is not your tween or prudish Twimom’s Twilight**

I want to examine some of the themes in a later blog post, because it’s a really beautiful text with many points of interest, but right now I just want to talk about cookies. You’ll notice that the chapter titles are named after cookies. These cookies provide a quick snapshot of Bella’s state of mind in a particular chapter. She relates to others through her baking.

This is something I can really relate to, as I both enjoy baking and eating baked goods. My greatest joy is always seeing other people eating and enjoying food I’ve made for them. It gives me a way to connect with people I may not know how to approach. Food helps me tell people that I care for them. For me, a gift of food is meant to encompass nutritional sustenance, sensual pleasure, and personal affection.

This recipe is based on one for a healthier cookie that was originally published in SELF magazine circa 2000. I was trying to counteract the guilty reading pleasures with a bit of virtuous eating (I seriously am trying to follow a Clean Eating diet, but my life simply can’t go on without baked goods). Unfortunately, my first batch turned out to be seriously lacking in tastiness. Who cares if food is healthy if no one wants to eat it? However, with a bit more leavening and some other tweaks, the recipe turned out to yield a pretty darn good (and quasi-healthy) scone.

Dark Chocolate Oatmeal Scones

Yield: Makes 2 -3 dozen depending on drop size

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour (regular whole wheat works too, but white whole wheat tastes lighter)
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup ground flax seeds or flax meal
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp kosher or sea salt
3/4 cup drained great Northern, Cannellini, Garbanzo or any white beans, liquid reserved
2 tbsp coco butter at room temperature
1/2 – 3/4 cup agave nectar
2 large eggs (can be replaced with 3 egg whites and 1 yolk, but all whites can result in crumbly, hard scones)
1/4 cup skim milk or unsweetened soy milk
1 1/2 tbsp pure vanilla extract
8 oz chocolate chips with at least 60% cacao content
Optional mix-ins: these are great with walnut pieces, dried cherries and/or cranberries
Optional topping: 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt and 2 teaspoons raw sugar

Equipment:
1 medium mixing bowl
1 large mixing bowl

Stick blender/immersion blender
Coffee grinder
OR
Food processor

Flexible silicone spatula
2 metal teaspoons
Silicone baking mats
Cookie sheets
Nylon rigid spatula (or other cookie de-panning device)
Cooling racks

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Using coffee grinder OR food processor, process oats until finely ground but not powdery. If you’re using the coffee grinder, this will have to be done in batches. Combine with flour, cocoa powder, ground flax seeds, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in medium mixing bowl. This is your dry goods bowl.

Using stick blender, purée beans and 2 tbsp reserved bean liquid until smooth in a large bowl. Add coco butter, Agave nectar, eggs, vanilla and mix with immersion blender until combined. Alternatively, purée beans and liquid in clean bowl of food processor, and then add coco butter, agave nectar, eggs, vanilla and pulse until combined. Then transfer contents to large mixing bowl. This is your wet goods bowl and soon to be your final mixing bowl.

Add dry goods to wet goods bowl in batches, stirring slowly with silicone spatula to avoid puffs of dry goods. Stir in chocolate chips (and other mix-ins like nuts and dried fruit). Batter will be thick and wet with heterogeneous bits of mix-ins and bits of oatmeal and flax. If batter is dry, drizzle in milk 1 tbsp at a time and mix until it becomes wet. If batter is too runny, add in whole wheat flour 1/4 cup at a time and mix until it becomes thicker.

Using metal teaspoons (in my experience, the batter is too sticky for a disher or scoop) drop about 1 – 1 1/2 tablespoons of batter on cookie sheets with silicone baking mats. The concern while baking these scones is upward lift, instead of outward spread. They can be made about 1.5 inches apart from each other, but be sure to spread the batter out to about 1/4 inch thickness. It will puff up quite a bit as it bakes.

Once the scones are dished onto the baking surface, now would be the time to add the topping if you so chose. Mix together salt and raw sugar and sprinkle a small amount onto the tops of the scones.

Bake 15 to 17 minutes until centers are firm. Use nylon spatula to transfer to wire rack to cool.

***

This recipe is very forgiving and versatile. Wet batter can be remedied with a bit more flour, while dry batter can be fixed with a bit more milk. There are also lots of other flavor combinations you can introduce to the batter with great results. Here are a few off the top of my head:

  • For a mocha scone add enough instant coffee mix for 2 or 3 cups of coffee to the wet goods before mixing in the dry goods
  • Try black beans instead of white – the dark, smoky flavor goes well with chocolate
  • Omit cocoa powder and chocolate chips and use mixed dried fruit and substitute lemon extract for half of the vanilla extract for a light, fruity scone
  • Omit cocoa powder and chocolate chips and substitute almond extract for half of the vanilla extract. Mix in sliced almonds for a toasty almond scone
  • Omit cocoa powder and chocolate chips and add 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 3 teaspoons ginger, 2 teaspoons cinnamon and use molasses in place of agave nectar to make a spicy gingerbread scone (omit pepper for milder gingerbread flavor)
  • Substitute maple syrup for agave nectar, nix all or part of the vanilla extract, and add in bits of cooked turkey bacon for a sweet and savory scone
  • Omit agave nectar, vanilla, cocoa powder and chocolate chips and swap 2 tablespoons olive oil for the coco butter, then try savory mix-ins like 1/2 cup parmesan cheese shreds and 1 cup broccoli pieces and 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning. Or use black beans as suggested above and add in diced bell pepper, cumin, paprika, and cilantro and serve them with salsa for southwestern scones.
  • I’m not particularly well-versed in the use of alternative flours (yet), but I feel like you could experiment with omitting the wheat flour in this recipe for gluten-free alternatives like rice flour and chickpea flour. You could also try partial substitutions of soy flour to lower the carb count, but I think a full substitution could result in hockey pucks instead of scones.