A tale of two heroines
It looks like the “Twilight” series of movies is coming to an end and I for one couldn’t be happier — that it’s over.
You might wonder why a middle-aged man would make the mistake of reading books written for teenage girls. My wife got into the series and with the film versions coming out, I thought they might be interesting.
Perhaps it’s good that I don’t have a daughter because from my perspective, Bella Swan just about the worst literary role model available.
What the author does well is to write from inside the head of a teenage girl. Well, not every teen girl and not any I’d want to know.
Bella is a completely passive character. She is a victim of everything, her circumstances, her (mostly uninvolved) parents, her boyfriends and the creatures who want to terrify her. She does nothing to change this and lets the others in her life lead her around as though she has no will of her own.
Then, there’s sex. I’m no advocate of teenage sex, but the perspective taken in this series is like an extreme version of a Pat Robertson sermon. Bella is perfectly OK with dating vampires and werewolves, she’s aspires to be a vampire herself so that she won’t grow older than her boyfriend, even if that means she risks losing control and going on a killing spree that destroys everything and everyone she loves.
But, the author tells us, if she has sex before marriage, she’ll be risking her immortal soul.
To this author, as apparently to some Americans, all morality is to be reduced to sexual morality. Nothing else really matters.
Bella’s passivity was merely annoying through the first couple of books, but as I got into the third, it went from annoyance to offensive.
I’m not giving much away by telling you that Bella is torn between two suitors, one a vampire, the other a werewolf. What’s ridiculous about this is how she allows them to treat her. The supposed love of her life, stalks over her, controlling her every move and allowing her no choices of her own — not that she tries much.
The other suitor is supposedly a friend, but when he forces himself on her, forcibly and violently kissing her, what is her reaction? Does she slap him? Call the police? No, she falls for him too, thus setting up the triangle.
These attitudes would be more befitting a Victorian romance than a 21st century novel. As a role model for teen girls, Bella is not just outdated, she could be dangerous.
Contrast her with Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the more recent “Hunger Games” series.
At first glance, the two characters have a few things in common. Both are engaged in struggles with forces greater than they can control and both are involved in love triangles.
Unlike Bella, Katniss takes nothing lying down. She acts. Does she exhibit superhuman control over her environment? Of course not; that level of unreality is reserved for mindless Hollywood action films.
Katniss is no wallflower. Despite overwhelming odds, she engages in a struggle against forces far more powerful than she.
Katniss’ world is a futuristic, post apocalyptic hellscape, set in a world where one privileged region controls the rest of the country and most live in poverty. Power is highly concentrated and opportunities for resistance are few.
But, unlike the Twilight series and so much of our culture, the Hunger Games series does not let the reader off easy. The situation isn’t cut and dried, black and white, good and evil. We see the humanity of those on the “wrong” side, and the good guys don’t always do the right things. Even as Katniss joins the resistance, she is appalled by some of their actions. The readers are forced to think about what they might do in situations where the choices aren’t easy and the consequences difficult to contemplate.
Sex isn’t a primary issue, but not because of some artificial and moralistic mandate, but more because circumstances make other things a higher priority.
Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that the way the story is resolved is unexpected and preferable, both from a literary and moral point of view to the “Twilight” series.
“The Hunger Games” series isn’t for the faint of heart. It includes horrific violence. But, the complexity of the storyline, the characters and their issues make it a useful tool for educators. Teachers are using it in classrooms — generally middle school and up — and the classroom discussions are lively.
In case you’re wondering, my literary choices do extend beyond young adult fiction. My preferences tend toward the two Johns: Steinbeck and Irving.
But, variety is the spice as they say, even if some choices are disappointing.
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.