Perceptions of Women in young adult novels: Damsel in Distress vs. The Independent Woman.

Grace Cooney

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In recent years there is no denying the dramatic change in popular culture in terms of what society today deem to be an adequate role model for the young girls of today. Whether it be in the young ‘celebrities’ that don our television screens, the cinema screens or whom we allow our youth to listen today, there is no denying that our culture has become fuelled by sex and partying. Where the ‘cookie-cutter’, Disney idols, have become ‘bad girls’, such as Miley Cyrus. Who are the children supposed to look up to?

In this case I am going to discuss the major difference in the role models for young girls that can be seen in young adult novels and how in some cases it can be seen to be very anti-feminist. Even in the literary heroines of today there is a great contrast between role models and what they represent the damsel in distress or the independent woman, with Bella Swan of the Twilight Saga and Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games trilogy portraying these respective role models.

Since the initial publication of the first ‘Twilight’ book in 2005, it has been received with great criticism in the way of anti-feminism. Criticism that stemmed from feminist readings of the first novel and the three novels that followed; New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn, published in 2006, 2007 and 2008 respectively. There is no denying the masochistic nature of Bella throughout The Twilight Saga, which calls some feminist theories into question. Alison Happel and Jennifer Esposito of Georgia State university state that “post feminism suggests that the goals of feminism have been attained and thus, there is no need for further collective mobilization around gender. Women are presumed to be free to articulate our desires for sex, power, and money without fear of retribution.” They also discuss the notion of choice that women have. This kind of thinking can be seen explicitly in the character of Bella throughout the series, there is an apparent “sexualisation of violence” in terms of Bella and Edward’s relationship as Edward warns Bella “about the dangers of being around both him and his family”, nevertheless she continues to put herself at risk because she loves him so much. This sexualistion of violence can be seen in concurrence with postfeminist thinking as post feminists claim “that women have the power and agency to choose any kind of relationship for themselves, even relationships that have the potential for danger or violence” and as such is this novel promoting violence in the home, whether it be physical or emotional? Do we really want our teenage girls thinking that being submissive in a relationship is healthy?
Taking all of this in to account along with Bella begging for Edward to turn her into a vampire, or undead. Anthea Taylor, a feminist cultural critic at the University of Sydney, states that Bella’s desire for death also “represents her desire for self-transformation and for certain forms of capital such as an age-defying feminine body and a physical strength that eludes her in life.” (Taylor, 2011: 2) It is in this instance we can consider Naomi Wolf’s ‘Beauty Myth’, Bella as an intelligent but average looking girl wishes to look like the female members of the Cullen coven, “marked by an excessive beauty and style of which Bella is in awe and covets, despite her disavowal of traditional signifiers of femininity.” Is this something we want our children reading? That young impressionable girls should want to be skinny and what is perceived to be beautiful? Bella’s want of Edward to literally kill her and the dangerous choice she makes in the fourth novel by insisting she carry her parasitic baby full-term, shows her ability to choose as a post-feminist but it also raises awareness to Bella’s deep sense of masochism that is prevalent throughout the series also. Taylor’s reading refers to the central relationship in the novel as masochistic. Academic, Rachel Hendershot Parkin discusses that Bella’s insistence on sex, despite Edward’s crushing, bruising strength and ability to end her life inadvertently in the head of passion, also suggests her willingness to disregard her own safety and to submit to whatever physical pain he will inflict on her.
The most obvious example of this can be seen early on in Meyer’s second novel ‘New Moon’, in which Edward leaves Bella behind. Bella is both physically and psychologically destroyed, unable to do anything and adopting a zombie like state, showing her inability to exist without him and the “erasure of an identity that was made meaningful only in its connection to him”. Another masochistic moment occurs towards the end of the same novel when Bella jumps off a cliff in the hopes of evoking some memory of his voice. To make sense of this instance Taylor draws on Simone de Beauvoir’s 1988 “characteristic of masochistic self-punishment, only in her attempts to endanger herself does she regain her psychic connection to the Other.” Bella is always perceived as a damsel in distress, it is any wonder how she survived at all before moving to Forks, Washington, as Taylor states “she is profoundly clumsy… constantly injuring herself and, by implication, in need of her supernatural guardians.”

If one were to attempt to draw any comparison at all between Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games, one would be undergoing a great task. ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy, are a series of three books, the first one is entitled ‘The Hunger Games’, the second ‘Catching Fire’ and the third, ‘Mockingjay’, they were published in 2008, 2009 and 2010 respectively. The story’s heroine Katniss, unlike Bella, exudes an air of the “independent woman”. Well capable of looking after herself and others, as seen in terms of hunting for her family, looking after Peeta in the arena and ultimately winning the games at the end of the novel alongside Peeta.

A final point to consider, when comparing the protagonists in Twilight and the Hunger Games is the prevalence of a strong female character. Peeta cries when he is elected for the games, where Katniss does not. He can also be shown to be the weaker of the two sexes when Katniss looks after him and protects him in the arena towards the end of the novel. There is something to be admired about the way there seems to be a shift in gender roles in the Hunger Games, and it is refreshing to see the female as the stronger gender within these novels. This is something we should be promoting within our young girls and future women, that to be independent is a fine characteristic and, that unlike Bella, you don’t need constant care and attention from a man to survive in the world. That they can look after themselves. This is the kind of role model our young teenage girls should be looking up to and the type of women they should aspire to be. A strong women, free from a dominant male character.

In comparing the four novels of The Twilight Saga with the Hunger Games trilogy, I think it is fair to say that women are more positively portrayed in the Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen, as she greatly portrays and promotes the independent woman, rather than the submissive and passive Bella Swan. In comparing and contrasting these too vary different book series, it is apparent that there varying perspectives on the female gender and with this in mind, is it ok for our young girls to be reading material that could potentially be damaging to their character?

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Grace Cooney