Why I Love Bella Swan, Part 3: Why I Love Bella Swan

The Twilight saga tells the story of Bella Swan, a highly competent and intelligent teenage girl, who moves to a small town in Illinois when her mother remarries. Like all the best young heroes, and like many competent and intelligent teenage girls, she has a fierce and irreducible feeling that she is somehow out of place or out of time in the world around her. This is registered in two ways in the saga: firstly, her clumsiness and physical awkwardness, a sort of negative superpower which puts her literally out of sync with her material environment, and secondly, her lack of fit with the girl culture of her peers.

She is not interested in clothes or shopping, hates the idea of going to prom, hates the idea of weddings and marriages. She feels the wrong things for the wrong people. She is fierce, passionate, driven: she feels too much, too intensely; the intensity of her feelings scares the people around her, and it drives her to express those feelings in physically risky ways, as when she learns to ride a motorbike or jumps off a cliff into the sea.

She is, in other words, fucking awesome.

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Why I Love Bella Swan, Part 2: Anti-girl antifandom

Part one is here.

In this post, I’m going to talk about Twilight antifandom, and the ways in which a particular discourse about the books is complicit with deep-rooted misogynist aspects of our culture. In the third and last post in this series, I’m going to finish up by telling you how I read the books, what I think is valuable about them, and why I would like to see that reading more widely shared.

Twilight is a series of novels by women, about women, for women.* The first film adaptation had (prior to the opening of Fifty Shades of Grey), the highest-grossing opening weekend by a female director. Stephenie Meyer, the author of the books, went on to produce a film called Austenland, based on a novel by another female author, directed by a woman, and with women-only advance screenings and premieres. In 2014, Meyer launched a competition, in partnership with Women in Film, to help five aspiring female filmmakers to make short films based on the Twilight Saga together with an all-female panel of mentors including Meyer, Catherine Hardwicke (the director of Twilight), the actors Kristen Stewart, Kate Winslet and Octavia Spencer, Jennifer Lee (the writer and co-director of Frozen) and Cathy Schulman, the president of Women in Film.

So why isn’t Twilight already being generally celebrated as a massive win for women?

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Why I Love Bella Swan, part 1: Feminist Reading

This is a tidied-up version of a talk I gave to UOW’s Feminist Society’s Free School in October, with bonus content like:

  • full sentences
  • proper references
  • Chicks on Speed videos

It was an hour-long talk, which comes in at around 5000 words, so I’m going to split it into a few parts. This first part sets up some of the political-theoretical background to my reading of Twilight – and specifically Bella Swan – with some ideas about how feminism works and how reading works. It’s also the part with the embedded Chicks on Speed video.

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words are my sails

A serendipitous juxtaposition on my Twitter feed yesterday: an essay in the New Statesman called ‘No-one was “gay” in the eighteenth century’*: why we must not rewrite history with today’s terms’ and an announcement from punctum about the publication of this book:

mygaymiddleages

The New Statesman essay is not arguing that no-one was same-sex-attracted in the eighteenth century, but that we should not use contemporary terms to describe same-sex-attracted people from the past. It argues that sexual identities are historically contingent and change over time, and that we should be sensitive to this. This is, of course, true – to be a prostitute in the eighteenth century means something different from being a sex worker today – but it’s every bit as true of mainstream, non-marginalized identities. To be married means something very different in Jane Eyre (Reader, I married him) than it does in Twilight. To be a woman means something very different in fifth-century Athens or first-century Rome than it does today.

The philologist George Steiner wrote in After Babel that

when we read or hear any language-statement from the past… we translate. Reader, actor, editor are translators out of time… [and] the time-barrier may be more intractable than that of linguistic difference. Any bilingual translator is acquainted with the phenomenon of ‘false friends’ – homonyms such as French habit and English habit which on occasion might, but almost never do, have the same meaning, or mutually untranslatable cognates like English homeand German Heim. The ‘translator within’ has to cope with subtler treasons. Words rarely show any outward mark of altered meaning. (p.28)

Words like ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘married’, are just this kind of false friend, subtly betraying us into anachronism. As we read these words in past texts, we translate them into their contemporary English homonyms ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘married': we ‘rewrite history in today’s terms’. We read anachronistically, and this anachronism, this translation across time, creates affective, emotional, and intellectual bridges into the past for us: it opens up ways for us to find ourselves in history, to imagine (ourselves into) other worlds.

Calling same-sex-attracted people from the past ‘gay’ is also an act of translation – it translates a gendered/sexual/socially constructed identity term from one “language” or cultural/historical system into another language. It’s a more visible act of translation, though, because the terms being translated are not homonyms. Like all translations, it is inexact, but indispensible for the making of connections, and for opening up access to texts.

In Convolute N of The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin develops an image of the historian as the counterpart of the Angel of History from ‘On The Concept of History’. The Angel of History has the wind of progress caught in his wings, and although he wants to go back into the past and rescue it, he is blown back, ceaselessly, helplessly, into the future. The materialist historian is sailing a boat; where the angel cannot move his wings, the historian can set his sails and thus navigate the winds of world history.

What matters for the dialectician is to have the wind of world history in his sails. Thinking for him means: setting the sails. What is important is how they are set. Words are his sails. The way they are set makes them into concepts. (p.473)

Words are his sails. Words – like gay - are the way we navigate historical difference, the way we access the past through acts of translation, which are also (for Benjamin, and for me) acts of rescue.

When we argue that ‘no-one was gay in the eighteenth century’, we are making hypervisible the acts of temporal translation which underlie all readings of past text – but only for identities which are marginalized in the present day. Meanwhile, identical acts of translation of/for privileged/mainstream identities – men, women, married – remain invisible, unremarked, unrebuked.

That’s bad history.

*Isn’t that title gross? It sums up the article – completely misleadingly – in such a way as to make it appear complicit with the most conservative and homophobic strands of contemporary thought: a world without gayness is possible and we lived in such a world until very recently.

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A boy who is pure of heart

Saw this passage from Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation on Twitter a while ago and am struck by how economically it manages to pack the greatest number of highly offensive assertions about cross-age relationships into the smallest number of words:

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So the story is, in point of sheer literal fact, about a young man being judged immediately and harshly by a group of older women, and yet it manages to present itself as a story about a young man who is evilly judging the women. How? What did he do that was interpreted as his ‘alertness to any sign of compromise’? We are not allowed to know. His actions are presented almost solely through evaluative, abstract language, in terms of the women’s interpretation of them. The only concrete examples we have of his EVIL JUDGINESS are that he held himself ‘stiffly’ and didn’t laugh at the women’s jokes: the passage also makes it very clear that this group of women are profoundly invested in their identity as all being the same age, but the writer doesn’t allow the suspicion that it might be difficult for a younger man to relax in this company to soften the judgement.

What I love best, though, is the woman ‘who is dabbling in being young again’, which in five words manages to assert that no-one could ever like someone younger than themselves as a separate human individual, only as a way of returning to one’s own youth, and also that this must be ‘dabbling’, as relationships with a ten-year age gap are necessarily short-term. I’m also intrigued about the actual ages involved: is a woman of 35 really no longer ‘young’,  desperately trying to recapture her ‘youth’ of ten years ago, possessed of many concrete achievements, and marked by many compromises? (I wasn’t, and I don’t think any of my friends were, but maybe that’s just me/us: maybe everyone else spent the years between 25 and 35 achieving frantically and ageing unhappily.) But on the other hand, if she’s 45, then I think the problem is more with a 35-year-old man who presents as a ‘boy’ and hasn’t achieved anything yet than with the age gap per se. (Jenny Offill herself is 46 and published her first novel at the age of 31 and her second last year, which doesn’t really shed any light on the matter, except that it takes her 15 years to write a book, into which you would think a ten-year age gap could fit comfortably.)

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Upcoming events

On Tuesday I’m flying out of the southern summer into the northern winter, and wondering whether I remember how to be cold,* and preparing for three research events where I’ll be speaking:

Classics research seminar, Bristol, 27/01/2015

I’m giving a paper called ‘Amateur Mythographies’, on the ways in which creators, consumers, and critics of popular culture deploy the idea of myth. I’m looking at three things in particular: myth as narratology; myth as folk knowledge; and myth as a basis for ritual (religious and magickal practice). I’m interested in the challenges that popular and scholarly understandings of ‘myth’ might be able to pose to one another.

The Bristol Classics seminar is open to visitors, especially people thinking of doing postgraduate study at Bristol, and is always great. More information here.

Classics and the New Faces of Feminism, London, 31/01/2015

This is a sandpit – less formal, more provisional and collaborative than a conference – bringing together lots of amazing scholars to talk about how Ancient Greek and Roman texts and feminism can energize each other in the present day. I’m talking about the words ‘no’ and ‘now’ and their ambivalent power both for and over Classicists and feminists. The sandpit website is here (but I think it is now fully booked).

Feminism and the Academy: Resisting Traditions in Academic Research, Egham, Surrey, 4/02/2015

More feminism, more refusal. My contribution to this interdisciplinary conversation about modes of resistance to, or within, the traditions of the academy is proudly indebted to the work of Sara Ahmed, who wrote ‘It takes conscious willed and willful effort not to reproduce an inheritance’, and is entitled ‘No’. This is a public event, but they ask you to register: here is the event website.

*Canadians and Scandinavians may laugh now.

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Daniel Deronda as 1970s feminist utopia

I woke up today convinced that the purpose of my life is to write a version of Daniel Deronda set in 1970s Australia.

This all came about because I am rereading Daniel Deronda, which I first read in 2007 for this conference, where I gave a paper on the way in which its narrative gets taken up and transformed in Melissa Lucashenko’s amazing 1999 novel Hard Yards. Since moving to Australia my interest in the similarities and differences between the books has been rekindled, and I’m working on rewriting the original paper for publication. So I’m thinking about the ways in which Eliot’s original narrative, about a young man in 1870s London who finds out he’s Jewish, is echoed and subverted in Lucashenko’s novel, about a young man in 1990s Brisbane who doesn’t find out he’s Aboriginal, and what kind of light Lucashenko’s novel – and the Australian context – sheds backwards onto Eliot’s novel. So I was already thinking about the possibilities of rewriting Daniel Deronda in a different historical/ cultural context.

Anyway, this morning I was reading a gorgeous bit where Daniel meets his love-object Mirah’s estranged (and evil) father for the first time, and

was cold and distant, the first sight of this man, who had blighted the lives of his wives and children, creating in him a repulsion that was even a physical discomfort (464)

It struck me that this is completely fundamental to the novel: the idea that men who blight the lives of their wives and children are SO EVIL that it is physically difficult to be in the same room as them, like they have the same kind of miasma as murderers. The novel’s main villain (Mirah’s father is only the secondary one), Henleigh Grandcourt, is another wife-and-children-blighter: meanwhile, women who blight the lives of their children are presented as simultaneously victims of, and magnificent resisters to, patriarchy (the wonderful Princess Halm-Eberstein, Daniel’s mother, who abandons Daniel because she only married under pressure from her dominating father and because she has a right to be an artist).

And  that’s when I realized that Daniel Deronda works phenomenally well as a 1970s feminist utopia: simultaneously critiquing patriarchy (the worst thing you can be in Daniel Deronda is a bad father), centring female experience, and inverting the patriarchal hierarchy which values male/masculine people and things over female/feminine ones. So we get a lovely female-centred family, the Meyricks, as a vision of female self-sufficiency and collectivity, and we get two main characters who are either women (Gwendolen) or constantly and approvingly compared to women (Daniel himself, whose virtues are explicitly feminine ones – that is, he is a good person insofar as he embodies traditionally feminine qualities).

This idea, of the novel as a 1970s-style feminist utopia, helps me come to terms with the end of Gwendolen’s story, when Daniel tells her to go and live with her mother and sisters: not to try and invent a fabulous destiny, a glittering success, for herself, but to root herself in a group of women and experience her life ‘growing like a plant’, organically, through her duties and obligations to the real women around her (literally, her sisters). It also helps me see why, perhaps, I’m dubious about the premise of Diana Souhami’s recent novel Gwendolen,* in which  Gwendolen moves to London, becomes ‘liberated’, and ‘joins a free-thinking Victorian bohemia of authors, artists, reformers – and sexual rebels’.

‘No!’ 1970s-Melbourne-Radicalesbian-George-Eliot cries, clutching her shaggy hair. ‘Sister, no! Gwendolen’s individual freedom – her success – is not the point! Sexual adventure is not liberation! Only working and living as a collective of women, an organic movement, rooted in the lives of real women, will bring about liberation!’

So there you have it. Daniel Deronda 1977.  Gwendolen and Daniel as members of the Melbourne counterculture, Gwendolen as a Radicalesbian, a novel whose plot centers on late-night arguments about collectivity and destiny and politics. Daniel would find out that he was Aboriginal, rather than Jewish, in an homage to Lucashenko. Gwendolen would join a collective household. All I have to do now is write it–

*Really I am probably just dubious about it because I strongly feel that everyone except me is wrong about Gwendolen. I like Diana Souhami a lot, and you should probably go and read Gwendolen, especially since my version is almost sure to be another one of those novels I was born to write which never gets started.

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