Thursday, December 6, 2012

Is Bella Weak and Is It Bad If She Is?

by Ben Howard

This is the last time I’m going to write about Twilight. I’m sure there are all sorts of socio-cultural and pseudo-theological points I could pull from it if I really wanted to invest more of my time, but ultimately two points convince that this is a futile pursuit. One, it’s probably already been said. We’ve been digesting Twilight in our society for more than seven years at this point and a lot of people smarter than I have delved into the intellectual deep end of the books and movies. As for point two, I just don’t care that much about it. It’s candy, enjoyable enough, but full of empty calories and bound to give you a toothache if you eat too much.

But I do have one more point that at least starts with Twilight.

A lot of people have written about Bella’s character, especially the way she exhibits a lack of agency. Bella becomes the very definition of the damsel in distress and is literally saved from death on multiple occasions in each movie. She is portrayed as a character who is a victim of both circumstances and of her emotions.

In the movies, Bella has is given old truck which I lovingly named “Ol’ Buck” because I believe all vehicles should have names. Typically, in teenage coming-of-age movies, a vehicle serves to symbolize freedom, the power of choice, and ultimate control over one’s life, but that isn’t the case for Bella. I was struck by the fact that whenever Ol’ Buck is on the screen, Bella is always the passenger and one of her male suitors is at the wheel. Clearly, I surmised, this was yet another instance of the creative minds behind Twilight placing Bella in a place of submission.

I even texted my observation to a friend of mine thinking she would get a laugh at this ridiculous portrayal of the weak and mousy woman. Except she didn’t respond the way I expected. She told me that she didn’t like to drive, and that she would probably let the guy drive all the time anyways. Maybe I was reading too much into such a small thing.

Oh. Maybe I am.

Perhaps in my efforts to be a progressive 21st century man who wants to see strong empowered women, I had started seeing oppression where there was just preference. Maybe there was no “there” there. In fact, to draw this point out even further, maybe Bella likes that she doesn’t have agency. Maybe she enjoys the life she is living and it makes her happy. Maybe she’s already exercised her freedom by surrendering it.

To be honest, I don’t think that’s the case, but seriously think about it, why couldn’t it be?

Why do we assume that Bella has to be assertive to be fulfilled? Why do we assume she has to have power in order to be happy? I mean this for men as well as for women. Why do we assume that control and agency are pre-requisites for a fulfilled life?

I certainly would have a difficult time living a life without control or some semblance of power, and I’d have a hard time sharing in a life with a woman who didn’t feel the same, but why do we so blindly assume that this is the only way to operate?

On the scale of egalitarian to complementarian, I am firmly egalitarian, no question about it. I think women should be free to do whatever they want just like everybody else. I think they should lead and preach and teach and do all the things that society has long forbidden them from doing, but I’m not convinced that people who choose not to do those things are weak. Nor am I convinced that men who appreciate women of this disposition are Neanderthals and misogynists.

I have more to say about this topic and some other related issues, but I’ll hold them out for tomorrow.

What do you think? Am I off base? Is power or agency necessary for happiness and fulfillment? As a white male, having this conversation puts me in an unusually vulnerable position since I'm pretty sure I can only offend, but I want to know what everybody out there thinks and what this conversation brings to mind.


You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenHoward87 or email him at benjamin.howard87 [at]

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  1. "Is power or agency necessary for happiness and fulfillment?" Yes. Especially, I think, in her case. Her codependence means that when her hero leaves her, she becomes crippled by the experience and is only able to function again, in a meaningful way, when he returns. It's fine to be in a relationship, and it's a perfectly valid choice to actively choose to deny yourself some (operative word here is SOME) agency in that relationship, if that's what you want to do. I have students who want to grow up and be mothers and housewives - they don't want a career. And that's fine! The problem is that Bella is not a complete person once she completely surrenders her agency to an abusive partner. She is a husk of her previous self, unable to enjoy any aspect of life in the obsessive pursuit to reconnect with her previous partner. How can one truly live a happy and fulfilled life when they lose themselves?

  2. Quick thought: Do we not surrender our power and agency to God when we choose to be Christians?

  3. I just wrote a very long response to this article, only to have it erased. I will try again.

    If Bella were a real person and chose to surrender her agency and power, I'd say, more power to her. It's her life, and who am I to judge.

    The problem with Bella's powerlessness as a fictional lead character is twofold, I think.

    1) It just makes for bad literature. Firstly, it's been done over and over again and it unoriginal. And was unoriginal in the 1800's. Secondly, it makes the story stilted and boring. A lead with no agency is just waiting for the next thing to happen. And since Bella doesn't react to the things that do happen in any way (Look, Edward left her and her "reaction" was to do nothing. Literally. Like 3 minutes in the movie where she does nothing. Much like the rest of the films/books) the lulls between conflict are dull, and the plot really doesn't progress at a reasonable pace at all. I wouldn't even call Bella the protagonist, because she literally does nothing to advance the plot. Also, this is made worse by the first person narrative of the books. Being inside someone's head who has no reactions to anything and doesn't think or do anything about anything is incredibly boring.

    2) Bella's lack of agency has led an entire host of preteen and middle aged ladies to want to surrender their agency. I'm not saying that fictional characters should be role models, but they seem to be whether any of us like it or not. I'm not even saying that artists should try to make good role models in their work, because I don't think that they should. If somebody wants to emulate Dexter, Bella, or any other un-role model worthy character, that's their own fault. People know the difference between reality and fiction. I am partially saying that Bella's lack of agency seemed to launch an entire generation of ladies to succumb to passivity. I would also argue the inverse, however. Perhaps Bella's passivity hasn't made these girls desire passivity, but rather Bella was created and made popular by their preexisting desire for passivity. After all, even before Twilight, there were hundreds of paranormal teen romance books that had female lead with agency out the wazoo, better writing and better plot that never became nearly as popular as Twilight. Maybe there is something inherently flawed in our culture that makes us want to be powerless in our own lives. Twilight is the symptom, not the problem. I don't know.

    On a rather random side note, I actually thought about this article and reread it because of 50 Shades of Grey. Stick with me here. I made the bad decision to read 50 Shades of Grey this weekend and even though it was awful (so bad. Sooooooo bad. But that's beside the point), it essentially argues the same point as this article. 50 Shades, in case anybody has been living under a rock, started as Twilight fan fiction, and reads very similar to Twilight, except with sex. Lots and lots of sex. At any rate, the main difference between 50 Shades and Twilight (aside from the sex. Did I mention all the sex?) is that it's made very explicit that the Bella/Ana character willing chooses to surrender her agency to Edward/Christian. She literally chooses to take on a submissive role and surrender her power. There's even a contract to be signed that is written out in its entirety within the novel. So, you and EL James apparently think alike, Ben. Scary thought, right? Except your little article here is about a thousand times more eloquent than the entire 550 pages of EL James's novel, even if it has significantly less sex. :)

  4. Carlee, I just wanted to point out that how much I don't think like that. I have an incredibly difficult time dealing with people who lack or surrender agency. I just thought it was a point worth discussing, and the more I think about it, a point worth dismissing, at least in this case.

  5. I understand that. I was mostly teasing about you thinking like EL James. I did find it interesting that I read your article last week, and then I read a book that made the same point, however.

    I also have trouble with people without agency, both in literature and real life. I try not to be too harsh on the real life people, because it's their choice and I really can't judge them for it. The fictional characters though, I can hate on all I want. I do think it's a rather interesting conundrum about whether Twilight has caused the anti-agency epidemic or merely pointed it out. I tend to think the latter, but I would like to get to the root of the problem there. Any ideas?