The Imaginary Heroine

searching for the plot

My Life in Fiction March 29, 2010

“We see the future, we see something waiting for us even when we don’t feel it inside sometimes.”
– Psychosister23, “The Great Debate” by Rachel Caine from A New Dawn edited by Ellen Hopkins.

I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t you…over this whole A New Dawn book review thing yet?! Well, yes, I am. This isn’t really a book review. Just something I was reminded of when I read this bit from Rachel Caine’s essay. It was part of her discussion about Twilight’s positive lessons for young women. Namely, that in encourages them to think about what their adult life could and should be like. Even though they feel like misfits, they can become the heroine in their own story.

This definitely struck a chord with me. I read. A lot. I also watch a lot of movies and TV. I love stories. They give me hope that there is meaning in a really confusing, chaotic world.

This is the origin of this blog. My life has started to feel kind of pointless. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know how I’m going to get there. I go to work, I come home, I do dishes, I go to bed – what happened to the great life story I was supposed to be the star of? I’m not sure. Maybe that happens later. Maybe this is the great adventure I’m supposed to be having. I’m just too close to see it. Maybe my “post-adolescent idealistic phase” is crashing and burning. In any case, I need a project. I need to feel like there is a point to life, the universe, and everything.

It’s a whole lot easier for me to do that when I’m reading and writing and trying to tease out pearls of meaning from between the lines.

I want to make myself clear. I don’t expect to become a heroine in a fantastical quest against evil. I am fully cognizant of the fact that life is not like a novel or movie. This doesn’t keep me from using narratives to explain the mysteries of life. In fact, the reason we read books and watch TV shows and see movies is because well all do this to some extent. This may be why people my age often go through this kind of disillusionment phase (you know it kills me to admit I’m going through a phase, but I think it’s a pretty well documented fact if it’s being discussed by fifteen year-olds in Clueless).

We’re bombarded with all kinds of stories and meanings in the media we consume. To take a particularly dramatic example, in Brave Heart Young Murron gives Young William Wallace a thistle at his father’s funeral. Years later, when William proposes to Murron, he reveals that he saved the same thistle for years. Seeing the thistle, Murron knows that his affection is sincere and long-standing. She consents to marry him.

In real life, this kind of thing doesn’t happen. Stuff today is pretty disposable. Clothes are mass manufactured for no one in particular and meant to be discarded after a season. Ipods are made to survive about two years, since by that time the next generation will be available. We spend $3.50 on a cardboard cup filled with coffee, neither of which will last beyond an hour or so.

Because the tangible world is so disturbingly fluid – our setting and the objects around us so impermanent – it’s easy to start believing that we live disposable lives in a disposable culture. This may be why we are so charmed with the thistle in Brave Heart, tuppence in Mary Poppins, and Harry Potter’s scar. They’re artifacts that prove the existence of meaning.

How do we know William loves Murron? He kept her thistle. We can see his love right in his hand. The thistle, tuppence, and scar are metaphors for an abstract meaning. The thistle device is used by writers to draw the audience’s attention to central points of meaning in the narrative. They’re shortcuts on the desktop of the mind.

I think maybe the tangibility of these objects sometimes gets in the way  of their significance. The object is not the point – the meaning is the point. But instead of focusing on the meaning of the metaphor, we lock onto the physical presence of the object and become obsessed with finding tangible symbols in our own lives. Why not? That’s how several forms of media have taught us to process meaning.

What I’m endeavoring to teach myself is that even without these tangible artifacts I can still find abstract meaning in my life.

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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 11: “Edward, Heathcliff, and Our Other Secret Boyfriends” by Robin Brande March 24, 2010

M[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.]

Just the title of this one made me smile. Growing up a shy, bookish girl, I can definitely say that I got a lot of my romantic preferences from books. Brande compares Edward Cullen to some of the leading men in the novels that influenced the Twilight Saga and argues that he wipes the floor with them.

I’ve already spoken my piece on Heathcliff (or as Brande calls him “Scary Psycho Man”). Brande, Edward, and I are both completely confused by Bella and the other Heathcliff lovers out there. To torture his beloved’s husband, Heathcliff marries his sister and proceeds to strangle her dog and treat her so abominably she has to run away. After she’s dead, he goes out of his way to torment their son (they had sex?! EW!) to an early death. Just…No. Not attractive at all.

To me, it seems unlikely that Edward is supposed to be Heathcliff. Instead he is supposed to be Edgar, while Jacob is Heathcliff. Heathcliff didn’t get the girl. Edgar did. Heathcliff turned into a wolf and ran away for months and months…oh wait, Jacob did that. Heathcliff disappeared for years to regions unknown. Then he goes insane when Cathy is destroyed by her torn affections and dies. See what I mean? What if Edward hadn’t gotten the girl? I think the fact that he can behave himself may have something to do with that fact.

Brande finds Romeo a bit more acceptable, but not exactly up to Edward’s level. Mainly because Romeo ends up snuffing it so early. Sure he married Juliet, but their romance ended up being a wham, bam, thank you ma’am, didn’t it? Bella admits she “kind of had a thing for Romeo” in New Moon. What is with this girl? She clearly has terrible taste in men.

Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy gives Edward a run for his money. It’s no surprise since, Meyer says that Twilight was loosely based on the Austen masterpiece. Brande herself has a thing for Mr. Darcy, calling him “Mr. Perfect” and admitting in her bio at the end that she “threw herself into a three-day binge of Carcy-infused chick flicks.” Bella never mentions P&P as one of her favorites, but she does mention reading some Austen novels in Twilight. I’m sure Mr. Darcy is probably pretty high up on her list too.

Though I agree with Brande’s assessment that Darcy is markedly better than either Heathcliff or Romeo, I’m still stymied by the fact that both he and Edward are arrogant @$$hats sometimes. She admits that they need “a good smack upside the head,” but argues that they eventually mend their ways once they give into true love. They just need a couple chances to get it right.

Brande thinks that Edward beats out all three of these classic heros. They were the “secret boyfriends” to thousands of women throughout the years. Clearly they were Mrs. Meyer’s secret boyfriends too and she appears to have taken the good qualities of all her favorite leading men and knitted together over the series to create the UBER Fictional Boyfriend that is Edward Cullen. Brande and millions of ladies thank her.

I can find little fault with the main argument of the essay. Clearly, Edward’s attractive qualities have roots in the romantic leads that have captured the hearts and minds of women for centuries. I don’t find these heros as attractive as many other women seem to, but to each her own. Maybe I’ll do a follow up post on my secret boyfriends of ficiton…

What really caught my attention is that Brande repeatedly calls Edward honest. Huh? I agree that he’s pretty up front with the declarations of love. In Brande’s words, “Romeo had his pretty soliloquies, and Darcy can say a lot once he gets going, but no one gives you the blow-by-blow, this-is-why-I-love-you the way Edward does.” However, he’s not so up front about other things.

Anyone who’s read Midnight Sun knows that Edward’s got a manipulative streak. Sure the whole Angela/Ben matchmaking thing is cute on the face of it, but it’s obvious controlling behavior as well. Earlier in the essay, Brande cites Edward’s refusal to make Bella choose between him and Jacob as a sign of his rationality (Jacob can protect her and make her happy), but from where I sit it looks like really skillful manipulation. By not forcing Bella’s hand, he makes himself look angelic and makes Bella feel like crap for having feelings for Jacob.

Jacob calls Edward out before the new born battle in Eclipse. When Jacob realizes what a skillful player Edward is, he tries to follow suit. He’s not winning by being honest, time to change strategies. Being both honest and inexperienced, the manipulation is so shoddy, we see it immediately. The whole “suicide by vamp” play for affection and smooches really ticked me off – like it did a lot of readers. However I kind of appreciated that his attempts at manipulation had an ugly clang, especially in comparison to Smooth Criminal Cullen. Edward is so good, he’s even manipulated the readers into being on his side!

It also royally pissed me off at the end of New Moon when Bella can’t believe that Edward still loves her and Edward turns it back, acting hurt because she had so little faith in his love. “You believed me so easily!” he accuses. Ugh. Excuse me! Can anyone say gaslighting? Ah, yes. The classic technique of romantic and platonic emotional abusers the world over. Enough about your feelings, how do you think I felt when you reacted negatively to me being mean to you?!

Honest? Up front? Not our Edward Cullen.

 

A New Dawn part 10: “A Moon…A Girl…Romance!” by James A. Owen March 22, 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.]

Eerily similar, no?

Although romances make up over half of all book sales, James Owen couldn’t find a single friend or colleague willing to admit that they read them. They actually became offended when he suggested that not only do they read romances, but they read them frequently.

How does he know this? Because they’re all Twilight fans. Owen’s main thesis is that Twilight, when boiled down to its essentials, is really an old-fashioned romance novel.

According to Owen, the only reason the Twilight Saga is considered a Young Adult book is because a Young Adult publisher was the first to like it and pick it up. He argues that due to the characters’ ages alone, Romeo and Juliet would probably be published under this banner today. The label doesn’t define the book – just the publisher.

Twilight actually bridges several worlds, including horror, fantasy, and, of course, romance. How well it performs each genre varies. Clearly Meyer’s monsters are not quite up to snuff for horror. “[T]he anomaly of Stephen King’s classic Carrie aside – I’m unable to think of a horror book deserving of the name in which the denouement takes place at the prom,” Owen remarks. Fantasy is, in his opinion, also not the essential point of the Twilight Saga. Sure vampires and werewolves are interesting literary devices, but they’re mostly window dressing. The real focus of the books is the characters and how they interact. The main action of the novel involves a girl meeting a boy and trying to make it work against all odds. It’s a romance.

Owen makes a great point about why we’re so resistant to admit that we’re reading romance novels. The term has become so narrowly defined that all we can think of is cheesy Fabio men named Dirk clutching some swooning ninny while her heaving bosom tumbles from her ripped bodice. It’s a pretty suffocating genre label.

In my personal experience, adult genre labels are getting narrower and narrower all the time. When you do find something that combines several different genres, it’s difficult to explain to someone else what kind of book it is that you’re reading. Is it a mystery if there’s romance? Is it a fantasy if it’s about catching a thief? Giving book recommendations labels is a loaded proposition.

Meanwhile, J.K. Rowling’s Harry potter series has transformed the Young Adult label into something much more flexible. Young Adult books are allowed to dabble in sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance – whatever!

As readers, we’re looking for wonder and excitement – things Owen notes were part of the romance movement and its literature in the first place. The publishers in the adult section are taking themselves so seriously, their books have lost a lot of their hypnotic powers. It’s no wonder that some of the most wildly popular books among both teens and adults right now are Young Adult novels.

[Aside on the New Moon book cover: I recently heard someone call Bella’s pose (head and hand against man’s chest/shoulder/neck, depending on respective height) “dialing in Tokyo.” The phrase tickled me so much I just wanted to pass it along.]

 

A New Dawn part 9: “Dear Aunt Charlotte” by Cassandra Clare March 20, 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.]

I enjoyed Cassandra Clare’s humorous, yet wise advice about how to choose between Team Jacob and Team Edward. Which mythological beast would make the best boyfriend? Decisions, decisions! Aunt Charlotte kicks her letter off by noting that “this kind of question is a nice change of pace, since in books it always seems to be a girl torn between a vampire and a werewolf, unlike in real life when she would be torn between a mailman and an area insurance adjuster named Bob.” Indeed (+1000 lol points).

Sadly, Taylor's wig here looks better than KStew's in the Eclipse trailer.

Since werewolves and vampires are, y’know, not real, Clare must use movies as evidence upon which she can base her advice. This means she gives us a great overview of the film portrayals of vampires and werewolves over the years. Like Steiber, Clare notes that movies did a lot for both monsters, pulling them out of scary/gross out territory and placing them into the roles of romantic leads.

I have to admit, I used the numerous movies she listed as suggestions for my Netflix queue. Poor 7abibi… Some of them are on demand, so I’ll have to stream them in my copious (+1001 lol points) free time.

In general, her outlook on both werewolves and vampires is mixed at best. Werewolves are strong, sexy, and in touch with nature, but they tend to be more than a wee bit out of control. Vampires may be erotic and aristocratic, but dang are they emo. Romance with mythical creatures is nice in theory, but Aunt Charlotte seems to think the hypothetical real world consequences would be pretty messy. That is, if the mythical creatures in question aren’t too busy fighting centuries old wars, protecting nature, or partying until the cows come home to be in a relationship at all.

I wont reveal the conclusion, but I gave it +eleventy lol points.

 

A New Dawn part 8: “Destination: Forks, Washington” by Cara Lockwood March 18, 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.]

This was supposed to be a pretty lol-worthy ditty about the real world town in which the fictional Bella and Edward play out the tasty Twilight drama. It’s not quite as lol-worthy as, say, this…but it was pretty good all the same.

I’m equal parts amused and annoyed by Lockwood’s admission that she’s creeped out by little towns. She ties this fear to a point about how lots of weird stuff happens in small towns in fiction. I would argue that lots of weird stuff happens in big towns in fiction too. An inordinate number of super heros and their nemeses seem to live in NYC, no?

After growing up in a small town in Kansas (~3,000 people, very close to the size of Forks, WA) and moving to Long Beach (~400,000 people), I definitely experienced the opposite feelings. Big cities creep me out. It’s loud and there’s always someone around who could be up to no good. I find it more plausible for something crazy and fantastical to go down in an urban environment, because it’s still a foreign land for me.

This is a picture of downtown in my real home town. Notice the lack of...everything...

When I brought my college friends home with me, I was always amused to see their reactions. Gravel roads and county highways seem far simpler to me than city streets stuffed full of businesses and traffic. They seemed to be immediately lost. About as lost as I feel when I try to drive myself anywhere new in L.A. county.

After dark? Forget about it. All of my city friends seemed convinced that a chainsaw killer was waiting for them in the ditch at the next cross roads. Never mind that they were probably in more peril from meeting gentle Bambi and family whilst they crossed the road. Which is kind of like my terror of being outside the apartment alone after dark.

All this affirms my belief that monsters, whether in character or setting form, are obviously reflections of the unknown. City folk write about creepy Podunk towns. People from Podunk towns know nothing happens there and think that the big ol’ city is out to get them.

This is downtown in 1911... Hmm... Looks about the same.

 

A New Dawn part 6: “Tall, Dark, and…Thirsty?” by Ellen Steiber March 14, 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.]

This essay was one of my favorites of the lot. It started with a fun overview of vampire mythology, literature, and movies and some of the social constructs our changing vampires have reflected over the years. Unsurprisingly, when Steiber begins interpreting Meyer’s vampires as part of that continuing tradition she’s more than a little disappointed in how they stack up. As a traditional vampire novel, Twilight kind of sucks (lame pun intended). [Maybe because they’re a different kind of blood drinker? The “drink this wine it is my body” kind of blood drinker?… Ahem…] She then finds something even more creepy than blood-drinking monsters lurking beneath the vampiric veneer.

Steiber places the origins of our current crop of vampires in the Balkan “Vampire Epidemic” of the 1730’s. The legends and old wives tales found their way to Britain and were popularized by two works in particular. The first was John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (I got my hot little hands on it for free right here). Published in 1819, Polidori’s tale of the vampire Lord Ruthven is said to be a product of the same ghost story session that spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The darkly magnetic Ruthven, Steiber tells us, was even based upon another of the session’s participants, the bad boy, rock star poet Lord Byron.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) amped up the sexual tension. What with his trio of sexy lady vampire roommates and taste for young innocent women, Dracula was clearly a metaphor for the specter of sexuality in the repressed Victorian Era. “He’s a perfect example of the exotic, inscrutable stranger whom good girls really should avoid,” says Steiber. In 1931, Dracula became immortalized on the silver screen by the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. His portrayal was so arresting that it has held up for 80 years as the prototypical vampire. Ask anyone to do a vampire imitation and I’m betting it will owe quite a bit to Lugosi’s Dracula.

Over the years vampires have become even more tied to sexuality and romance. Steiber points out the advantages to a vampire as a romantic lead. A vampire is powerful and magnetic, making him immediately appealing to other characters and readers alike. The vampire has also become something of a sympathetic loner, making them emotionally vulnerable in ways that can be exploited for a number of plot devices, particularly a romance.

After setting up the source material for our modern vampires, Steiber decides that Meyer has actually inverted numerous traditional elements of the vampire. Edward is not a dark parasite destroying the life and virtue of his innocent victim. Quite the reverse, Edward is a paragon of Victorian morality, safeguarding his beloved’s virtue – even when she begs not only to become a monster, but to jump his bones as well. Even Bella’s transformation into a vampire is an inversion of the classic story line. Bella does not become a fallen monster, instead her transformation saves her life and enables her to raise her child.

If the vampires in Meyer’s universe aren’t about sexuality and destruction of innocence, then what on earth are they about?

“What I’ve come to see about vampires, though, is that they change with the time and culture they appear in. They’re mirrors of our fears and desires. Early bloodsucking vampires were all about the hold that the dead had on the living…The stories of psychic vampires told of people who fed on other’s energy, drawing their strength from weakening those around them… Even Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been interpreted as a reflection of fears of its time: of foreign influence threatening british society, of our animal nature threatening to overwhelm our reason, and of illicit and irresistible sexual compulsion threatening marriage…Meyer’s vampires – or more accurately Bella’s obsession with Edward seems to mirror our current terror of aging, our own deep fear that without flawless physical beauty, we’ll never truly be worth loving.”

The prevalence of the beauty as virtue has a major impact on the young women of today. Especially now that we live in an age of rhinoplasty for sixteen year olds and Photoshop features for personal digital cameras. Steiber is rightfully concerned that Twilight seems to whole-heartedly endorse this philosophy and export it to the millions of teen girls who read it.

“She’s taken our warped attitude toward age and made it even more extreme, and because Bella is so easy to identify with, I can’t help but feel uneasy with this. Life is change. What Bella’s so eagerly signing up for is everlasting stasis.”

Ellen Steiber‘s essay really surprised me. I thought I was in for a bit of historical info, but she really shifted my perspective on Edward’s sparkling, marble pecs and gave me another interpretation about the underlying meaning of Twilight. Her assertion that we have abandoned our disgust of the monstrous, parasitic vampires of the past in order to focus our loathing on humanity has given me plenty of tasty food for thought. Her bio at the end of the essay says that she’s also written for a book called Demigods and Monsters: Your Favorite Authors on Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series. Sounds delicious… *Adds to Amazon wishlist*