Jordan Baker, Sydney Morning Herald, November 19, 2009
When I was growing up, my literary heroine was Josephine March from Little Women. Jo was a lanky tomboy with no interest in frocks or gentlemen. While her sisters flirted and fretted about their noses, Jo scribbled in the attic, dreaming of becoming a writer. She chopped off her hair, threw snowballs and lived with gusto at a time when gusto was extremely unladylike.
There were others like her. Anne of Green Gables wrote stories about raven-haired beauties but was herself a naughty ginger, who won over a reluctant foster family with spirit and intelligence. While her school friends crocheted doilies and married the first chap who asked them, Anne charged off to university to win scholarships and medals.
Jo and Anne encouraged generations of women to learn and dream. So I worry for girls who will grow up with Bella Swan from Twilight. Where Jo and Anne were smart, independent and true to themselves, Bella is self-absorbed, clingy and willing to give up everything – her education, family, and mortal soul – for a man. Some may argue that the Twilight books are just a modern-day fairytale. But the fairytale has become a phenomenon that has captivated teenage girls around the world, and sullen, selfish Bella has become a poster girl for the gender roles Jo and Anne rejected more than 100 years ago.
Readers meet Bella as she arrives in a dank little town to live with her father. She falls in love with the gorgeous, rich, bloodsucking Edward Cullen, who has been 17 for about 100 years. Edward and his family feed on animal blood to avoid killing people. But Edward still lusts for human blood, and Bella’s especially, so being with her is an exercise in self-control (a parable for abstinence, one of the book’s many moral messages). Edward’s appeal to teenage girls is understandable. He values Bella’s wellbeing over his desire.
Yet over four books and thousands of pages, Edward’s character, as seen through Bella’s eyes, does not evolve beyond his looks and sexy vampire superpowers. He rarely has a thought that doesn’t involve fawning over her. I can’t remember him making her laugh. Bella, meanwhile, is less concerned about whether her boyfriend will kill a member of her family than whether he’ll dump her on her 18th birthday because she’ll be too old.
Bella is also irritatingly helpless. She constantly gets herself in trouble due to selfishness or stupidity and needs Edward to swoop in and save her. In the New Moon book, on which the latest film, released today, is based, Bella loses all will to live when Edward decides, reasonably, that a long-term relationship with an immortal vampire is not in her best interests and runs away. She figures out she can summon his presence when she’s in danger (he’s always on rescue duty) so she hurls herself off a cliff just to hear his voice.
When they reunite (warning, there’s a spoiler ahead), Bella decides that the best course of action is to become a vampire herself. She accepts that once she becomes a vampire, her first impulse upon seeing her family and friends will be to suck their blood.
As it turns out, one thing she does not have to give up is motherhood. Bella and Edward marry while she is still human; Bella was initially reluctant, because while she’s prepared to give up her future and family for Edward, she doesn’t want to be one of ”those girls” who marry young. They conceive a half-vampire, half-human child. Baby vampires are particularly dangerous, apparently, as they have as little restraint as any baby and have been known to slaughter entire cities when they’re hungry. But with customary thoughtlessness and confused morality, Bella refuses to have an abortion. Her decision puts a lot of people to a lot of trouble.
For more than a century, Jo March and Anne Shirley have been teaching little girls that there is more to life than hooking up with a rich, handsome bloke. Now, in 2009, we have a heroine who tells them that it’s worth their family, their education and their soul. Bella may well be immortal, but I hope for the sake of all little girls that Jo and Anne outlive her.