Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Value of a Girl

The holidays must have kept me mellow, or at least kept me distracted by family enough so that I haven't been fired up about anything in the last week or two.

FEAR NOT. Today I have hit upon something new at which to fling my outrage.

And it involves Twilight. Well, not so much Twilight itself as people's complaints against Twilight and what that tells me about the different expectations that readers (especially male readers) have for female versus male characters.

A common criticism about Bella Swan is that her appearance is never described in detail and therefore she is an empty shell, existing only as a conduit through which (female or gay male) readers can live out their Edward fantasies.

You've heard this before, yes?

This cartoon from The Oatmeal by Matthew Inman is what has set me off. Let me provide an excerpt:

"First off, the author creates a main character which is an empty shell. Her appearance isn't described in detail; that way, any female can slip into it and easily fantasize about being this person. I read 400 pages of that book and barely had any idea of what the main character looked like; as far as I was concerned she was a giant Lego brick...By creating this 'empty shell,' the character becomes less of a person and more of something a female reader can put on and wear."

Now, maybe you have your complaints about Bella. I know I do. Mostly I don't like how carelessly she throws away her humanity and her human life, because you know I happen to be human and I like it very much. But the girl does have a personality. She makes choices. She is in no way a lego brick.

And anyway, Bella's appearance IS described. I don't have a copy of Twilight at hand, but according to Bella's Wikipedia entry (I know I know...great sources I'm citing here...) she is described as being, "very pale with brown hair, chocolate brown eyes, and a heart-shaped face."

That counts as description in my book. Can you, for example, tell me in greater detail what Jay Gatsby looks like? How about Holden Caulfield? Ender Wiggin? Romeo Montague? Mr. Darcy?

No one complains about these famous fictional men being empty shells for lack of bust, waist, and hip measurements, as far as I know. So what gives?

Why, the difference is that Bella Swan is a girl. And the value of a girl is measured by her appearance. How can we know anything about her personality and value as a human being without first knowing her cup size??

It's interesting to note that Edward, more like a traditional female character, is described in loving, worshipful detail from his sparkly jaw to his granite hard chest.

Methinks the menfolk don't like the comparison too much.


  1. ok, i understand you're angry and i honor your anger, but the last line of this post still made me chuckle.

  2. Haha I'm glad. The time it takes to write a blog post is usually about the same time it takes for my outrage to pass.

    "I honor your anger"!? I love it! I think I'm going to ask Husband to add that to his "Things to Say to Talk Jennifer Down From Her Angry Tirade" repertoire.

  3. It's been a while since I read these books, but aren't they told in first person, from Bella's point of view? I'm pretty sure that if this is so, then Bella knows what she looks like, and if she's actually COMFORTABLE IN HER OWN SKIN (even if it is stupid human skin), then why does she need to care how curvy (or not) she is?
    And I don't have any problem with a MC being blank enough so that I can slip into their skin. That's why I read, so I can be other people and go other places. So I call those critics Poophead.

  4. Great point, Teri Anne. It IS written from Bella's point of view, which means we as readers are intimately aware of her personality. Poopheads, indeed!

  5. Rereading this, you give a couple of examples, but honestly, how many books really describe a male protagonist beyond hair and eye color (unless I suppose physique was inherently tied to personality, like the stereotype of a dork being scrawny)?

    Also, if Bella's appearance were described something like "burnished auburn hair and pale lavender eyes," critics would say the author was trying too hard.

  6. Funny, while I can now see that as a legitimate female complaint...I had never looked at it that way.

    Blame my gender, for as a male who read the first Twilight book (shhh, my wife MADE me!), I can tell you my irritation with the character of Bella Swan came more from her being a complete nitwit that had no identity of her own rather than the lack of a description of her physical features.

  7. bkherman, your complaint about Bella is arguable and a valid concern that can (and has been) discussed. I think what I'm really getting is as how often people criticize Bella's lack of physical description when they really just want to say, "I don't think she has a lot of personality."

    The difference between personality and appearance become muddled. These people don't even seem to realize that they are equating one with the other. And THAT is what freaks me out because.

    A girl's personality = her appearance and her appearance = her personality. Therefore her value as a person is measured by how attractive she is.

  8. Sabrina, if only Bella had lavender eyes. IF ONLY.