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climate change panel

“The Monstrously Vacant Bella Swan”

Sarah Bernstein, Experience Congress 2011

Part of a larger project tentatively titled “The Twilight Quartet: Romance, Porn, Pain and Complicity”, St. Thomas University’s Dr. Kathleen McConnell presented a paper that traces what she calls the “trajectory of author and audience complicity in the Twilight series.” McConnell positions Bella Swan, Twilight’s heroine, as part Harlequin figure – referring to the sketchily-drawn character, McConnell notes that “the human heroine takes nonentity into the realm of the uncanny” – and part female gothic heroine.

Bella Swan, McConnell says, is “terrifyingly available for interpretation”: like harlequin figures before her, she is vaguely-drawn, so that a reader might impose her own fantasies onto, or even inhabit, Bella. On the other hand, Bella’s blandness and passivity ensure her inability to articulate or even recognize her sexual desires and that inability, McConnell says, is culturally-enforced.

Similarly, McConnell sees the gothic heroine as masochistic – she revels in victimhood by obsessively repeating destructive behaviour and she recruits other women to engage in like behaviour in order to confirm her own agency. The popularity of the books, McConnell says, indicates that Bella recruits among her readership, converting the Twilight audience, likewise, into victims. For McConnell, this trajectory sees that: “masochism and passivity are natural to good women, and women who have agency will do what other women have always done. That’s not a presentation of a woman who’s had choices,” referring, of course, to the series’s author, Stephenie Meyer.

Critics have written off Twilight, its author and its fans, as silly and shallow, but harmless, really. McConnell’s research suggests that, in fact, Twilight’s vast popularity ensures that female masochism becomes normative, the logical end-result of a cultural training and “ideology of romance” that has women remember pain and suffering as love and recognition. “The recent progress [of women] is retrograde,” says McConnell, half-joking.

That said, McConnell insists her project is not to slam the series. “Stephenie Meyer is good with plot, and she has also opened the fantasy genre by successfully recasting the vampire. But I think all her critical thought was expended in those areas, with none left to question the cultural implications.”

McConnell is not yet certain what those implications might be for teenaged girls, but, anecdotally, she admits that when parents have asked whether their children should be permitted to read the series, “I say no, though I’m certainly not for censorship.”

For McConnell, there is, perhaps, something dangerous or, indeed, monstrous, about the level of audience complicity the series invites, particularly from young women who have not yet developed a critical capacity.

Dr. Kathleen McConnell (aka Kathy Mac) is a professor of English and Creative Writing at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. Her 2001 book Nail Builders for Strength and Growth was a finalist for the Governor General’s award and won the Lampert Award for Best First Book of Poems.

Photo courtesy of Pascal \o/


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