Friday, July 22, 2011

Gender Roles in Fiction (Twilight and Harry Potter Talk)

Yesterday I had a great conversation with a woman about books... certain ones, in particular... and their various ways of treating women. It led me to think about the male/female dynamic in writing--actually, in life, but, as reflected in writing for sure.

Okay, for instance... take Twilight. (CHILL OUT my Twihard friends, I'll be gentle.) So, Bella Swan is kind of an alert for young girls about the pitfalls of the traditional female gender role. She's more of a classic grotesque placed in a modern period, because her behaviors are quite against the supposed feministic grain. Modern women are commonly reminded not to place all their worth in a partner, because you are your own person. You don't want to live for someone else to the degree that, should they go away, you are unable to function. You should have a backbone, a life and purpose and joy all your own that is not dependent upon anyone else. But, the character of Bella in Twilight does the exact opposite. She, quite literally, falls catatonic and unshakably depressed upon losing her love interest. And you know what? When I think about the story fairly, I can kind of understand why. Not only that, but I'll go so far as to say that this depiction is more realistic to how a teenager would react. Let me explain. You have this character who has been taking care of people all her life. She's been forced to be the grown up. Her mom is more an adolescent than she is, her dad is helpless. Now, enter strong, independent, stubborn, doting and handsome father-figure Edward... suddenly she's got everything she's ever wanted, namely, someone to take care of her--a reliable parent figure. Someone who doesn't need her, just wants her. The premise, psychologically, makes sense. But, it bothers me anyway, because it's a rather realistic example of how girls can be made so dependent upon others for their own sense of okay-ness that they wouldn't be able to stand being away from whatever security blanket has made them so non self reliant.

Now that I've named what bugs me about this particular fictional dynamic, I'll say what I like about it. In spite of its portraying Bella in such a sad way, women everywhere, from every walk of life seem to be intensely attracted to this series! And it probably has a lot to do with the fact that the character of Edward (much as I really want to just sucker punch him for being such a hard-ass), possesses a few vital traits that are seriously hard to find in a lot of guys. Namely, Edward gives a shit. He sees her humanity, he cares about this girl on a much more respectful, compassionate level than simple teenage lust would allow. He IS fatherly (which, you know, if given too much thought will start to squick me out a little, so moving on). He is somewhat evolved (in his old-fashioned way), and absolutely seems to see the intrinsic good and worth of this human being beyond what she is capable of seeing in herself. That leads to my theory about why women love these books--and men, you should pay attention, because this is important. Recognizing and honoring the humanity and worth in a woman is essential. Wanting her sexually is fantastic--but wanting her HUMANLY is more important. In fact, it often leads to the sexual part, ifyaknowwhatI'msayin'. People make fun of Twilight, for sure, but it's got its good points.

Right, so, what is my ideal treatment of characters as equals in fiction, then? I'm going to have to agree with millions across the world and say HARRY POTTER, my friends. Seriously. And not just referring to its equal treatment of women (Hermione! Ginny! Tonks! Professor McGonagall! Luna!). I'm talking about all of the main characters. The book so beautifully develops and evolves each and every one of the main characters into their own strong, important, independently courageous human beings. You have to adore that. And the women, they are solid! You get the feeling that if anything bad happened to Harry, Ginny would still go on. If Hermione lost Ron... she'd push through it. The characters regard each other with deep respect and they give each other room to be who they are meant to be, again, independently of anyone else. So, while Steph Meyer did a realistic job of portraying the common dependency of a teenage girl, JKR went with the idealistic polarity. I wish her dynamic were always the case, but, alas, it is all too often not.

Anyway, just my thoughts. I'd love to hear your ideas/theories/opinions on your favorite or least favorite male/female dynamics. Talk to you later!



Anonymous said...

I think you've anaylsed this perfectly, Jen. I'm in total agreement.

Jen said...

I absolutely agree with everything you said. I prefer the way JKR dealt with her heartbroken girls (seriously, was there anything better than Hermione sending that flock of paper (?) birds after Ron in Half-Blood Prince?), but SM's portrayal of Bella in NM was, unfortunately, very realistic.

When my only serious high school boyfriend broke up with me, I was in a similar state as Bella. I stopped eating, I shut everyone out...I really didn't care if I lived or died.

I've seen a couple of comparisons recently between Bella's behavior when Edward left her and Hermione's when Ron walked out on her & Harry. The general consensus is that Hermione's tough & Bella's a wimp, but I think that's unfair.