Wednesday 21 July 2010

Bella and Edward: Romantic or Dysfunctional?

With the release of Eclipse, the same discussions have cropped up about the nature of Bella's relationships with both Edward and Jacob. On the face of it, these relationships are romantic, intense, all-consuming. Teenagers everywhere have sighed over the thought of having a man who loves you so much that he watches over you as you sleep. Meyer certainly captured the dizzy passion of first love.

For some anyway. Other people screamed about the fact that Bella was being stalked, threatened, controlled by her vampire lover. Edward kidnaps her to prevent her from seeing her friend; he decides how her future should pan out; he comes into her room when she is defenceless and asleep. And Jacob! This relationship is held up by some as being the normal one of the two - Jacob is warm and brings out the best in Bella. But, to others, he forces himself on her and refuses to take no for an answer.

What surprises me, though, is how shocked people seem to be by this. All through literature and TV/film we have seen examples of so-called romantic relationships that, when you analyse them more carefully, are actually quite frightening!

How about going all the way back to Shakespeare? Romeo and Juliet, those star-crossed lovers. The love they have for each other is such that they simply can't live without the other - altogether now.... "Awww!" And yet, through stupidity, these two bright youngsters tragically commit suicide for love. Not so romantic really. More romantic would have been to see them enjoy a long and happy marriage, with lots of children. Maybe I'm just a bit too old and cynical to see suicide as a valid declaration of love?

What about Buffy? She is held up to be a *good* example to girls everywhere - strong, independent, passionate about everything she does. She is responsible, committed and kick ass. Yep, a great role model! Until you start examining her romantic history as well. Sure, I wept with everyone else at the ups and downs of her relationship with Angel and thought it was breathlessly romantic - yet we also have someone who follows her, comes into her bedroom uninvited, and tries to control her. Spike is worse - Buffy allows the guy who practically rapes her to get close to her; definitely not a good example to women everywhere!

Lastly, let's have a quick look at the fairytales: something like Beauty and the Beast. Again, on the face of it, a deeply romantic story. Beauty comes to love the Beast, despite his hideous visage, because she realises that his beauty is more than skin deep. Yet he imprisons her, keeps her locked away, and attempts to coerce her into marriage - not so romantic.

I guess that my point is that the vitriol towards Bella and Edward (and, to a lesser extent, Bella and Jacob) is misplaced, since romantic relationships throughout literature and film have often been more than a little dysfunctional.

What do you think? Do you find Bella and Edward breathlessly romantic? Do you have any other dysfunctional relationships you want to highlight?

(With credit to the discussion on as a result of an Eclipse review)


  1. Interesting question.

    I do think there is a HUGE difference between Bella and Buffy.

    Bella quits everything about her life to be with Edward: her studies, her family, everything because she doesn't think she needs anything else other than Edward.

    Buffy KILLS Angel to save the world and it takes her a long, LOOOOOOOOOONG ass time to start to forgive Spike. She never quits her mission or her world or her friends for either man. She is very much her own woman.

    I agree about Beauty and the Beast though. And Romeo and Juliet is to me, less about love and more about hate. I don't see Romeo and Juliet as a love story at all - hello, they meet and get married and kill themselves IN THREE DAYS. When they are both 13! But they would not do this if it wasn't for the hatred between their families.

  2. It's an excellent point on the differences between Buffy and Bella, Ana, and I fully agree with you. This is why I do agree with Buffy being held up to be an effective role model, because she really is an independent woman, with good friends and trying to make a life for herself - all GREAT. Bella is a black hole of nothingness that sucks all the goodwill out of both books and film :-p. If I overheard anyone saying that Bella was a decent role model I would be ANGRY!

  3. I can't STAND either Bella or Edward or Jacob! Bella is a whingy whiny moaning little madam and I don't really see why everyone is falling over themselves to be with her, Edward and Jacob - basically everything you've said is mirror image to what I have said to my Twilight obsessed friends. You know what annoys me even more? I HAD to read all the books to see what happened. The films I just plain don't like. I think they are boring, and not very well acted (I say that hiding behind my sofa!)I took my 13 year old to see Eclipse the other day. I sat falling asleep to all of it till the fight scene, perked up a bit then snoozed off again when they exploded crystals, She loved all the lovey dovey stuff... and half nekked Jacob but hated the fight scene. I almost feel bad for not liking the whole Twilight thing because since I was ickle I've loved everything vampire/werewolf/monster-ish. But I guess it's all the points you make and it's just one step, well, several steps, to fluffy for me.

    I've totally not answered your question have I?

  4. I think one of the differences between Bella/Edward and Buffy/Angel is when you look at the Twilight books, there is so much detail about Edward, right down to how his breath smells I believe, and yet the detail on Bella is wafer thin. Now, I can see one of the reasons why this was done, so that the reader (and I'm going to go out on a limb here and say - 99.9% women) can insert themselves into the role of Bella and thereby feel as if they are being romanced by this glittery toothless fairy, sorry, vampire. It's a very one sided relationship. As you said, Bella is mostly a vaccuum and not a very rounded character. I also admit to not being an expert though. As Ana said, Bella literally wants to die, just so that she can be with Edward forever. Really? After a few weeks or maybe months, she wants to spend eternity with someone? Maybe she should have spoken to some couples celebrating their golden wedding anniversary first before making that decision. Get some perspective, take a step back and maybe consider its a lot of raging hormones. Guess that's me being silly and adult. Silly, silly me.

    The Buffy / Angel's relationship was not perfect, but then I believe it is more realistic, in terms of them both having choices and both being 3D characters and imperfect beings. If you take away all the supernatural stuff in both relationships the B/E is incredibly scary by comparison.

  5. For starters, I've always been a bit confused by the Edward vs. Jacob thing. Bella pretty much stakes her claim in the first five minutes/pages of the story. The whole love triangle plot lacks any kind of dramatic tension from beginning to end. It's not "will she choose Edward or Jacob?" so much as "will Jacob just shut up and get over it?"

    But in general I agree with the vitriol. Even for a genre known for its dated (or nonexistent) gender politics, Bella is an insipid, spiritless victim above and beyond any kind of reasonable expectations. If Meyer subverts the genre's assumptions at all, it's that the characters around Bella (inlcuding, once or twice, Edward) regularly attempt to empower her, and she ignores them, willingly sacrificing her independence to her love. There's an argument that she's demonstrating the growing twenty-first century awareness that traditional gender roles are a valid choice, but again, she does it in such a weak, powerless way that it comes across as fear of responsibility rather than self-knowledge.

    The only times she takes any active role in the story, rather than allowing herself to swept along by events, is to put herself in danger - repeatedly - so that she has to be rescued. If she has a creepy, obsessive stalker for a boyfriend, it's only because she wants one.

    The genre, as you say, observes a rich convention of helpless women and abusive men. But the oldest stories belonged to a time in which this was more or less reinforcing the social status quo. An eighteenth century girl would probably not be imprisoned by a horrible monster, but she would certainly be married off by her father without consulting her. Belle's helplessness in Beauty and the Beast is a cipher for a real-world girl's helplessness in the time the story was written; the story is about how she deals with it.

    Buffy, by contrast, is a good example of a modern interpretation of traditional horror/fantasy ideas. Buffy is the physical equal of both Angel and Spike, as evidenced in the one scene where Spike does try to rape her and she fights him off. The romance plots in both cases don't assume helplessness on her part and focus on how she deals with that; although they explore ideas like the inner beauty and the outer monster, doomed love, temptation and damnation and so on, they're just window dressing on very contemporary, very human relationships. They're about anxiety, self-doubt, sexual tension, self- and mutual deception, and love gained and lost - the kind of thing that real people go through in their teens and twenties, telling themselves that no-one has suffered like this before - with the whole narrative problem of supernatural horror and female helplessness taken out of the equation by Buffy's status as the Slayer.

  6. What David Moore said. I'd love to have a good rant but I'd just cover the same ground that he has, and probably a lot less eloquently.

    I guess the thing with the comparisons is the question about what else is there? In Buffy, you were never more than a few minutes away from some great lines and the ironic genre convention lampshading that made Buffy so much fun to watch. In Shakespeare, it's great writing. In Beauty and the Beast - well, Gaston is pretty awesome.*

    What gets me about Twilight is how seriously it takes the concept that, as a woman, you are literally defined as a person by your Fathe-I mean, boyfriend.** I even mentioned it as one of my "books that made you laugh" moments in the Meme with Relish, when Edward leaves and Bella literally goes "blank", leaving the reader with ten or so blank pages to show how empty her life is. At that point, Poe's law comes into effect: it's impossible to parody because the parody would be indistinguishable from the original work.

    Poe's law is also why I think the movie of Eclipse gets a raw deal from reviewers. Personally I think it's impossible to miss how tongue-in-cheek the entire production is - particularly in the handling of Jacob. It's aimed squarely at the fans, yes, but when I watched it I couldn't shake the feeling that actors were going to start breaking character to wink out of the screen at me.

    But that's just me. I'd like to hope that young girls reading Twilight are smart enough to not grow up into women that pin their hopes on a man whose love is matched only by his homicidal rage, but then that's maybe putting too much emphasis on Twilight as an influence. It's not as if abusive relationships haven't existed in the past and to point fingers solely at Meyer's prose would be disingenious in the extreme.

    Ona side note, is anyone else freaked the Hell out by the very concept of The Host? Hey, these space parasites cure cancer and make you live longer but YOUR CONSCIOUSNESS CEASES TO EXIST. Is it just me that thinks that's a really bad thing, or is everyone going to point a finger at me and start going "UNNNNGGGGHHH" like Donald Sutherland at the end of "Invasion of the Bodysnatchers"?

    *and he has the best song.
    **Displaced paternal issues in Twilight is a whole other level of dysfunction I don't even want to go near.

  7. All these stories are about sex and power. Bella wants to lose herself in Edward. She doesn't actually love him for himself. He is a dominant force and she his submissive. Bella is an extreme example of a submissive, having found her dominate she will do whatever he wants, do whatever it takes to be with him and basically nothing else matters.

    All vampire stories are clearly about these two roles whether the author or the reader realises it or not.

    Equally Buffy and her vampire lovers are about the same thing. However, Buffy is not an easy submissive because although she eventually gives in to both of them sexually she still maintains her own personal power and choice. She allows herself to be dominated in one aspect without becoming a true submissive.

    Romeo and Juliet are both submissives hence the inevitable doom of their relationship. If one of them was more dominant there wouldn't be any need for the insansity that unfolds. There is no balance so it all self-destructs.

    Most "romantic" stories are about dominance and submission. Not always physically or violently. One person wants to give themselves body and soul to another, most often this is in the more traditional heterosexual context. The woman as the submissive and the male as the dominant.

    The thrill comes from the submissive struggling, at first, before giving in. There is also a thrill if the dominant rejects the submissive, but then relinquishes to become the dominant partner therefore fulfilling the submissives desire. In that respect the submissive has a lot of power and is actually more in control than the dominant though their power is closeted.

    These stories appeal to people in different ways depending on how they see themselves and whether or not their own fantasies follow a dominant or submissive route.

  8. It is probably interesting to note that Shakespeare was a great admirer of the Greeks. Romeo and Juliet isn't a love story, it is a tragedy, and tragedies follow certain rules as Aristotle discusses in the poetics. The force that moves the play is not love, but moira, and the primum mobile is a misunderstanding (which Aristotle refers to as harmartia).

    I'd argue that romaticism in Romeo and Juliet isn't the romanticism of love but the romanticism of tragedy. The same sort of thing as Dido ascending the pyre to fall on the sword of Aeneas. It is to a great extent symbollic and isn't suppose to be seen as a "real relationship".

    Twilight is wack though.

  9. Not going to lie, it seems most young adult urban fantasy or paranormal books (I can't talk for general ya fiction as I don't read much of it) is all about the girl says no - guy pushes her anyway - they fall in love thing. It seems incredibly rare to find any kind of truly good relationship in the books. Unfortunate, but not sure what we can do to change it other than be vocal. Not that I am against it, I think it provides an excellent teaching opportunity for parents and children, but I would like to see healthy relationships as an option too.

  10. Ok, I'm going to approach this comment from the point of view of being the parent of a teenager.

    My daughter (Cherily) and I watched much of the Buffy series together. It was a bit of a weekly ritual. I enjoyed the geek factor. Daughter enjoyed the boys/rebellion/shiny factor. I had no issue at all with Cherily watching any of the series and even found it a useful "tool" to springboard into conversations about sex, sexual identity, independence and more general relationship "stuff".

    Cherily is now eighteen and is quite the fan of vampire novels and movies. She is NOT, however, a fan of Twilight (books or movies).

    Her peers are of various ages, roughly 13-25 years of age, and she has spoken of a cut-off point at which she believes girls stop believing in this kind of material (generally 13/14).

    She's also spoken about how mortified she'd be to discover someone she hung out with had either read the books or seen the movies. The backlash from people of her generation against Twilight is, to me, both as a parent and a lover of all things genre, most heartening. She, and her friends, get that this is most definitely NOT romance. And, rather than just bitching about the "relationships" between Edward, Bella and Jacob, as being twee and childish, my daughter seems to understand quite clearly that something is very amiss.

    Going back to what I said about having been able to use storylines in the Buffy series to spark off a conversation about "growing-up" stuff with my daughter, I was wondering how this might work with the Twilight series.

    Now, I haven't read any of the books. I've read extracts, seen the blurb. I have only seen the first movie. Perhaps, I am not qualified to be quite so anti-Twilight. But hey, this is not meant to be an analytical comment on the series, just my thoughts as a parent. So, if Cherily were thirteen and we'd just spent the past couple of years being bombarded with these books and movies... Would they have affected her differently to how they have affected her now?

    My geek-mum self says no. She'd have turned away from them as the twisted, dysfunctional piece of codshit they truly are.

    Then there's realistic-mum self. Deep down, I think she may have just bought into it if she'd been in that right target-age group. She'd have loved the societally approved generically-handsome Edward and Jacob. She would have, in some way, identified herself with Bella and all the dramas of teenage love.

    As a parent, I'd have been worried sick about my kid watching this level of screwed-up relationship material. If I'd have found any way for this to become one of those parent-child "relationship stuff" conversations then I think much of that conversation would have been about maintaining your independence and avoiding control freaks at all costs.

    It's a sad fact that, with massive marketing, almost any old piece of drivel will capture a teenager's imagination. Kids have been bombarded with the Twilight series for how many years now? And it's not over yet!

    Ah, I've rambled on rather a lot. A thousand apologies. And, Amanda...Look! I think I only swore once! ;)

  11. Haha love it. I feel like I have done nothing but comment on Bella and Edward posts since I returned to the computer, but many of them are making massively good points. Agree with Ana that there's a big difference between Buffy and Bella (also not sure Angel can come into her room totally uninvited since Whedon follows the canon idea that vamps must be invited in the first time and we know from the 'Omg why are you so dumb Dawn' episode that the invitation can be revoked later if necessary).

    Can I add my own dysfunctional relationships to your list? Jane Eyre and (another Edward) Rochester. Heathcliff and Cathy. Tess and Angel (gaaaaahhhhhhh). Crazy dysfunctional. I don't think Romeo and Juliet are quite the same. If Romeo had forced Juliet to split from her parents, or convinced her to join him in some suicide pact I'd agree they compare with Bella and Edward - but they're really more involved in a huge tragic misunderstanding and copious melodrama rather than an unequal power dynamic.

    I do think that we need to be examining what people are taking away from these books vs what Meyer originally wanted them to take away (I think this, but I'd like to give credit to a blogger called cleolinda for making me aware of this idea originally). It's not necessarily always the same thing. Maybe there are girls out there buying into the whole abstinence angle she sets out (and isn't that awful), but I'd argue that there are also girls who see themselves in Bella because she's hot for kissing and sex and pursues it with enthusiasm. It gets problematic when she is then refused sex and starts to think 'Oh no I shouldn't taunt his self control, how awful am I' teenagers see that, or do they blow that off and continue to identify with Bella as a girl who is keen to explore her sexuality with hots guys and keeps on at Edward despite being told she must not test his self control?

    I dunno maybe that's just my biased Team Bella views coming out. I'm know I'm getting pretty fed up at seeing all the hatred directed at Bella, because she's insecure and needy. Oh sure Edward's a stalker, Jacob keeps alluding to the harm he could do her and saying he'd rather she died, but those issues almost seem to be going by the wayside after the first flush of critical recognisation in favour of all out Bella dislike (not saying you're doing that by the way, happening oher places). It's so odd to me how much people seem to despise women who act like Bella, when it's the world around them and probably (at least in Bella's case) the men in their lives who have shaped their behaviour. We should be angry at the world for creating girls like Bella, not angry at the girls themselves who are unfortunately reacting realistically to the pressures of the world around them. In Bella's case her mother sets a terrible example (despite the blatantly pasted on 'be independent, don't get married young' message Renee is suppoused to stand for she still doesn't attend her daughter's graduation because her new man has a small injury), obviously somewhere in her past Bella's been made to feel like an ugly, clumsy girl because she keeps talking about being awful despite her clear and present beauty, she turns up in Forks and is glared at and rejected by the most handsome boy in school, she makes friends with the most beautiful people in the world - anyone would feel insecure and compare themselves unfavourably to others in her place. And once you're on the insecurity slope it only takes a few outside pressures (and one super anti-feminist writer) to push you into a very confused, non-feminist place. Thank goodness I had strong role models around when I was growing up, because I was so insecure I could easily have tipped into 'I am rubbish because I'm a woman, not just because I am an insecure, unskilled teen' territory if I'd been surrounded by mysogynistic company.

  12. Andrew - yeah, um. Being freaked out by the aliens in the Host? That's, um, kind of the point. The aliens are BAD. They only think they're doing good.

    It's a very intelligent book, as far as books for teenagers go.