Why not Team Bella?

How to talk to girls who are obsessed with the self-destructive heroine of "New Moon"

Published December 2, 2009 8:03PM (EST)

Sick of hearing about "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" yet? Me too! But you know who's not? Teenaged girls. They're still eating up the story of Bella Swan alternating between listless moping and dangerous thrill-seeking -- plus occasional flirting with the werewolf next door -- in the absence of her emotionally abusive vampire boyfriend. 

Not surprisingly, some adults watching the record-breaking movie aren't so impressed. "Sitting in a sea of girls twittering and swooning at the phenomenal acting skills of Taylor Lautner's torso," writes "Odd Girl Out" and "The Curse of the Good Girl" author Rachel Simmons, "I found myself praying quietly for a scene where Bella paints, or sits on a bus with the debate team, or does something unrelated to obsessive, self-destructive pining. And I began to wonder how we could talk to girls about this film."

Simmons, an educator who specializes in raising girls' self-esteem, lays out what parents and teachers are up against. "Among the cringe-worthy morals of this story: When you're in love, the only thing that matters in life is your man. If you get dumped, your life is over, so feel free to act suicidal to get him back. Even if he tells you he never wants to see you again, manipulation and game-playing are effective ways to get his attention. Your friends are only ornaments; just kick them to the curb when he comes back." The marketing campaign for the movie pits "Team Edward" (the vampire) against "Team Jacob" (the werewolf), but as Carmen D. Siering wrote in Ms., "few young readers ask, 'Why not Team Bella?'" That's because the whole point of Bella's existence is earning the suffocating love of supernatural hotties; even if you think her obsessive devotion to Edward might waver in the face of were-love, you know you're never going to see her throw them both over to stand on her own two feet. (In fact, given that her only noteworthy quirk is clumsiness, she can't even be trusted to do that literally without male supervision.) And yet, seemingly every girl in the country under 16 -- to say nothing of grown women -- wishes she could be Bella. Fantastic.

Simmons advises adults looking to counter the messages of "New Moon" not to "come down like a ton of bricks on it. That's a debate we're sure to lose." Instead, she suggests asking leading questions like "If you were introducing Bella to your friends, how would you describe her? What are her interests and hobbies, for example?" or "Who is Bella besides Edward's girlfriend in this movie? Does she have another identity?" The post offers some excellent advice but doesn't answer the main question that's been haunting me ever since I broke down and read the first book: What is it that makes girls go nuts for this crap? I feel like I have a pretty good memory of being an angsty adolescent, but if I ever had the kind of personality that would have made me a rabid "Twilight" fan, I've definitely lost touch with that part of me.

In an e-mail, Simmons told me, "I think the Bella Swan character is so appealing because, from what I can see, she's stripped down to the core emotions an adolescent girl feels: excluded, lovestruck, and misunderstood. In adolescence things are experienced in extremes; it's either yes or no, black or white. It's difficult to find the gray or the nuance. The fact that Bella experiences things in such extremes -- she has to give up her soul, he'll kill himself if she's dead -- lights up a girl like a Christmas tree... developmentally speaking, that is." Okay, that makes sense. But still, my friends and I channeled our lovestruck, misunderstood outcast feelings into listening to Sinéad O'Connor and watching "Dead Poets Society" 700 times. Are there no better current pop culture offerings for today's girls to hang their tortured souls on, or does "Twilight" really speak to them in a way I just can't fathom? "This is a generation raised on Bratz, cell phones and low-rise jeans," Simmons explained. "They've been told that being empowered is about shopping, looking sexy and being catty. In 'New Moon,' you don't see a single kid texting and there is barely a sassy remark. The 'Twilight' saga ends up being a refuge from the 'mean girl' behavior that girls supposedly love to pay to watch."

Well, yeah, Bella's not mean, I'll give her that much (although Team Jacob might disagree), and I can appreciate the desire for an alternative to vicious social power games. But then, that reminds me of another favorite from twenty years ago, "Heathers," which skewered mean girl culture (and certainly hit on the extremes of adolescent emotion) with brains, black humor, and a heroine who's not sorry to see her manipulative, homicidal boyfriend blow up at the end. Maybe after worried parents have finished going through Simmons' suggestions for discussing "Twilight," they should try arranging a screening of that. The female protagonist swears, drinks, has sex and kills people, sure, but I'd still pick her as a better role model for teenaged girls than Bella Swan any day.


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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