Monday, May 10, 2010

Mamas, Don't Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be Bella Swan

A friend of mine tells me that "Isabella" is now the most popular name for baby girls. In itself this news isn't too alarming; "Isabella" is a pretty name, one of those charming cognomens that can be found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels. But my friend follows up with the information that two of the top names for baby boys are "Jacob" and "Cullen."

Now I must roll my eyes, as I learn the resurgence of "Isabella" is aprt and parcel of that mad craze, Twilight fever.

One need not be a feminist to be bothered by the gender politics of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, in which female helplessness and subservience are romanticized without an instant's question. Its weak, insipid "heroine," Bella Swan, fainst and falls over at the drop of a proverbial hat, stands in perpetual need of rescue, and centers every ambition and desire on her grand passion for the brave, dashing vampire hero, Edward Cullen. The series is wildly popular with girls partly, I'm told, because while Bellla is distressingly ordinary, with no gifts or talents, no special qualities of any kind, she manages to inspire desperate love in both Edward and hunky werewolf Jacob. If such an unexceptional person can be so adored, anyone can, and this is ostensibly reassuring for the books' target audience.

But I can't help thinking back to my own teenage years, and the sorts of books and characters to which I was drawn. I did not want to step into the shoes of an unexceptional person. I wanted to imagine doing great things, conquering difficulties with wit and imagination, and winning battles that mattered. I wanted to live through remarkable minds, not vacant ones. And I can't help questioning what it means that such a vast number of girl readers accept a nonentity like Bella Swan as a heroine -- and even more, what might motivate new mothers to name their daughters after her.

I hope it's just because they like the name.

As a reader I still love the thrill of vicarious experience and search for novels (mostly in the historical fiction or fantasy genres) that feature remarkable heroines. But books' power to sway the decisions or influence the identity of an adult reader is minimal. The girls who are reading the Twilight books are still quesitoning what life and love and the world might hold for them and are therefore highly susceptible to the messages in the stories they absorb. I want to shake them and tell them they don't have to be Bella Swans. They can daydream higher and farther than that, and better books can help them.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden has lost none of its power over time, and part of it comes from the plain, unpleasant female protagonist's initiation into beauty and joy. Lucy Maud Montgomery's titular Anne of Green Gables goes on wild flights of fancy and carries her audience with her. The heroine of Gene Stratton Porter's A Girl of the Limberlost overcomes parental abuse and neglect and discovers her worth in her love for science and music. I don't really have to mention Alcott's Little Women, do I? Well, I will anyway, because both fiery Jo and scatterbrained Amy tap into their artistic powers as they move from girlhood to womanhood. These are girls with personalities, with the potential to be exceptional.

Want something a little more modern? The novels of Gail Carson Levine and Tamora Pierce feature smart, active heroines who can save the kingdom and get the guy. Robin McKinley's protagonists in The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown make Xena Warrior Princess look like a wimp. The heroine of Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl is quieter and far less martial, but she discovers the keys to saving herself from a murderous impostor and her people from an unnecessary war. These girls are real heroines, not walking vacuums waiting to be filled by an all-consuming passion for a sparkling vampire.

Even a girl named "Isabella" may aspire to their heights.

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