Thursday, July 08, 2010

"I wanna be...

...a paperback writer." Paperback Writer by the Beatles.

My sister sent me a link to a blog that gave a fascinating insight to the Twilight series. As this article points out, there are two types of people in the world. There are the "twyhards" and the "I-can't-stand-this-garbage" types. I have friends in both camps, and I find myself somewhere in the middle. I enjoy the stories as I enjoy most decent stories, and I like the movies as I like most movies with attractive people, mild peril, some kind of plot and a score worth listening to without the movie.

I read them when I had swine flu last fall, and I was bed-bound anyway. I found them simplistically written stories with predictable plots and monotonous teenage emotions about a darkly fantastic being that I traditionally am inclined to dislike. But I cannot leave it at that. There was a brilliantly selected cast of characters (somewhat cliche, but then, there's a reason cliches come to is because they are in some sense, an honest view of reality) with a beautiful portrayal of selfless love, and extremely refreshing roles of men and women. I suppose, if I were to be honest, I might admit I am more than mildly tolerant of the books. I am actually rather fond of them--I found them difficult to put down once I started them, and I was quite sympathetic with various characters. Not that I'd read them over and over and over again...more like, I would pick them up again in about four years, when the fuss dies down and I forget a few of the more complicated plot twists.

There are debates about the appropriateness of "vampire" stories, but I would encourage the people who shy away from the books for this reason primarily to give it more of a chance. In the same way I consider witchcraft to be evil, yet I do not equate the characters in Harry Potter or the Wizard of Oz with a real-world witch, I cannot take the characters of Twilight who are shapeshifters and vampires in the same way I would take the traditional vampire. Stephanie Meyer has written an entirely new mythology of vampire, redefining the current understanding, and requiring those of us who had already made up our minds about vampires to take a moment and consider re-classifying different "types" the same way we did with Gandalf the Grey, or Glinda the Good, or Dumbledore, the Force from Star Wars, or the Genie from Aladdin, Casper the friendly ghost, or any of the the other "demonic," "evil," "wicked," and other badnesses generally associated with the job title claimed by these characters (wizards, magic, witches, djinns, ghosts...) Some of you may choose to write off all of these literary characters and devises as evil, or have various excuses for various ones of them, and I am not going to tell you to change your mind about that. I am merely reminding you that an intellectually honest (and a morally un-hypocritical) person will allow for equal application of ethical standards.

I personally have come to the decision that, while I will not blindly absorb these elements of fiction, I will not allow it to prevent me from a fair analysis of the other aspects of the writing. It will remain as it is, I believe, intended to be: a literary device. In the same way a certain kind of meaning is derived from a message packaged as a haiku, I accept that a different kind of message is intended to be delivered in a story about a fantastical, imaginary, traditionally evil being with superhuman powers a cannibalistic dietary habits. (Though, as I have said on this blog in other contexts, it's all in the packaging!)

But back to my original point.

Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn have a perspective on the roles of men and women that is refreshingly unique in modern literature. I have not done sufficient research to back this 100%, but I think it is due to Meyer's Mormon background--which adds on a whole new set of issues and questions regarding the messages of the series, but I don't want to address those today. An entire book could be written discussing that, and it would take a much more intimate look into they author's life and history and beliefs than I am prepared to take, and I would not like to discuss it in any depth without giving her the benefit of a sufficient amount of research.

Strictly from the stories themselves, however, I think I am a sufficiently qualified critic and analyst of the portrayal of men's and women's roles in society. And now we will get past all this preliminary nonsense and into the meat of comparing the story to my analysis.

Bella is a surprisingly balanced heroine. She is not obsessed with her clothes, hair, and makeup the way most "feminine" heroines would be, yet nor is she a man-eating, butt-kicking, butch female. She is weak enough to require protection, but she is strong enough (and smart enough) to deal with the terror and adventures brought on by her curious connection to the vampires, and to make even harder decisions rationally and, in the context of the stories and the world surrounding it, surprisingly moral decisions.

Edward, meanwhile, is an equally balanced hero. He is manly and strong and wise, yet without the soul-sucking goody-two-shoes arrogance these qualities generally accompany. His insecurities do not make him act like an idiot (unlike, for example, Toby McGuire's Peter Parker in Spiderman 3) but they keep him extremely sympathetic to the late high-school, early college readers. (I would guess also more than that, because some struggles are universal to mankind, but I would hazard the guess that teens and younger adults are the most affected crowd by these books). He is athletic and strong, but also artistic and sensitive. He is obviously intended to be the perfect man (which even I would say he's pretty close except for a) he drinks blood; b) he's cold-blooded, literally; c) he's fictional; and d) he has weird eyes. I could handle the vampire part aside from all this, but I'm pretty picky about the eyes.)

Jacob on the other hand (if you are unfamiliar with the stories--Edward is the love of Bella's life, and Jacob wishes he were the love of her life, but he is, instead, only her best friend from childhood) is much less artistic, much less sensitive, and much more rugged. He is darling (is that a bad word to use to describe a werewolf?) but with a temper problem. His love for Bella causes him to take extra care and get beyond some of his issues and immaturities as far as she is concerned, but she is still very much the adult in the relationship, and his problems still exist toward the rest of the world. He is invaluable as a friend, and on a strictly physical level, I find him preferable, but Bella wisely values other things above Jacob's passionate hotness (I don't mean to be crude--that is literal. His body temperature, due to being half-wolf, apparently, is much warmer than humans, so at various times he saves her from hypothermia. Handy.) Overall, the summary of Jacob's comparative immaturity boils down to a lack of balance.

Back to Edward. He is very balanced about everything but Bella. As far as she is concerned, there is nothing he wouldn't do for her--but instead of the immediate gratification sense of "I'd do anything for you," he actually means he would do anything for her best--even if it's against her will, which it often is, or against his desires or safety, which it almost always is. It is this tendency--the self-sacrificial and sometimes "tough love" actions he takes because of truly wanting what is best for Bella--that sets him apart from any other modern literary character in my eyes. I suppose it is a mark of his maturity (he's, what, 150 years old?). His character might rightly be compared to Mr. Knightly of Jane Austen's Emma.

But the point of all of this is that these characters exemplify femininity and manliness without making either a sickening display of All That We Despise In The Opposite Gender. Bella is a strong woman who needs her man to protect her, and her goal in life is to be his best friend, able partner, and life-love. Edward is a strong man who wants to take care of his woman, do the right thing, and love her better than anyone ever. Jacob wants the same thing, but he is not able to love her as well as Edward...and eventually comes to this realization, and shows remarkable maturity in letting go...and Meyer kindly provides the reader with a happy ending for him as well (though that gets into some of the more complex storylines, so I won't spoil that part.)

These books make it seem good, and right, and splendid for Bella to have two great guys going after her. There is nothing wrong with it. It is not easy--it is not comfortable--there is heartbreaks--but decisions are made, people are selfless and honorable, and these sacrifices make good come out of the troubles that arose from selfishness and prior bad decisions. Even when Jacob gets his happy ending, it's a clear result of a mature and good decision, a self-sacrificing choice, and it is him stepping into a role that causes him to be the leader, the man, and the hero in a way he never could've been for Bella.

This post is already getting long enough without me going into specifics. I wish I could--but then, I think the books can stand on their own. I highly recommend reading at least the first one and accepting the good while not trying to hide the bad (they really aren't the most wonderfully-written books ever. Not the worst, either). But as with any fantasy series, or indeed, any THING, there is a certain amount of discernment required--if you are not capable of differentiating between imagination and reality, or good and evil, or right and wrong in fiction, and in the universe thereby depicted, these books will be inappropriate for you.

Let me briefly expand--this is my final thought about Twilight today, promise.

You know how when you read or watch Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings, or the Wizard of Oz, or even Alice in Wonderland, you are separated from "our world," and you go into "their world?" There's a distinct galaxy far, far away, and a Middle Earth, and a country that you can't get to where all these things happen. Laws of reality are slightly different there, and we take that for granted as we poke our noses into that world. The rules are created by the author, and it is given that while in our world you can't move furniture with your mind alone, or turn invisible with magic rings, or have talking animals (usually), or eat things to change your height just can in these worlds. No questions asked.

Then we come to something like Harry Potter. Most of it takes place at Hogwarts or in some inaccessible, fairly distant land where there are still dragons and gnomes and other such creatures...but Rowling pushed the line, here. She makes it clear that these things to exist in our world...and we just miss it. The magic, the action...some of it takes place in our world, in our time...yet, perhaps especially for the common American, who tends to regard the U.K. as a somewhat fantastic place anyways, it is still just enough removed to "suspend belief" as they say in the literature trade (or so my mother and sister tell me).

But then take it a step further. Twilight is not in a hidden private school in England somewhere with secret and imaginary countries and disappearing houses where Sirius Black lives. This is in Forks, Washington, with streets and schools and voting districts and a coastline. It may as well be Espanola, New Mexico, or Purcellville, Virginia, or any other number of intimate, local, and very, very real places. I am not saying this is a BAD thing--but it does make the line between fiction and reality that much finer--that much more blurred. If you are disinclined to suspend reality for something as obviously imaginary of the Wizard of Oz, then you probably ought to avoid Twilight, because it will seriously jar your literal belief bones--possibly to the point of trauma, requiring therapy.

Let me explain it another way. When I was about 15, my family went on a trip to Moab, Utah. That is the location of Arches National Park, which is full of breathtaking scenery and natural rock arches and other formations. It is also where Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade filmed the opening scene, where 16-year-old boy-scout Indiana Jones discovered Coronado's cross in a secret cave between the great double arches, and went on a phenomenal cross-country train chase back to his dad's house where he had to count to 8 in Greek while his father finished transcribing a classical illuminated painting...and so on. When we got the the park, and the double arches, I ran (and that was a big deal, because I was a chubby kid) and climbed up to the place where there SHOULD have been a cave with a tunnel where desperados dug up the cross (which "ought to be in a museum!") and somewhere else nearby ought to have been train tracks.

There was no cave. There was no tunnel. There was no train.

I was devastated. And that was when I realized that fiction, however enticingly wonderful, was not real, and my life could not be guided solely by what Indiana Jones would do, or Captain Kirk, or the Tinman, or even Frodo. This is not to say that I don't still strongly believe valuable artifacts of historical values shouldn't be preserved for the good of future men and the memory of those past, or that there are no no-win situations, or that love worth an epic quest, or that loyalty and doing the right the trump our individual lives and comforts. I do believe these things. But the details of how these characters got there will not be the way I have to act out these lessons. The difference between reality and fiction, if you read only the borderline works like Twilight, which does NOT so clearly demonstrate a break from reality in tangible, un-missing-cave-like ways, you may not learn. And that is my last warning regarding Twilight.

So, am I twyhard? Not really, I don't think so. I'm looking forward to the movie, but I doubt very much I'll come out gushing about it. I am not always in the mood for the style of the books...they really can be rather insipid. But remembering the deeper social impact of the ideas Meyer is promoting...that lures me in sufficently to make it all worth while. Which leaves me pretty much where I started regarding the series.

Thanks for reading, and sorry to go on so long about this. It's been bubbling under the surface for quite a while, especially with this Eclipse movie just coming out. Please feel free to comment back--I'd love this to be a discussion! I realize this is a somewhat controversial. :)


1 comment:

~Locke~ said...

A well balenced post on the whole. I tend towards the "garbage" side of the equation. While this post does not in any way make me want to read the insipid, vapid trash, it certainly makes me less judgemental of those who do