Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Squee Factor

I figured I'd jump in and start up our discussion of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight-- and where else, really, could one start such a conversation than with the book's obvious appeal: the Squee factor.

For the uninitiated, i.e. those of you who don't frequent internet message boards, "squee" is web-shorthand for the deafening cries of pure female adoration you'll hear any time any kind of teen idol (real or fictional) is seen or discussed by his rabid fans. Think of the noise the audience made at the Beatles' famous Ed Sullivan Show appearance as the ultimate personification of SQUEE. More generally, the word can be used to describe any kind of interaction/character/relationship/situation in fiction that would cause its readers to go "squee." The on again/off again, possibly forbidden romance, and all its concomitant sexual tension (see Wuthering Heights, Pam and Jim's relationship on The Office): SQUEE! The tall, dark, handsome, mysterious, slightly arrogant, seemingly distant-but-actually-secretly-in-love-with-the-heroine romantic hero (see: Mr. Darcy, Edward Rochester, Bruce Wayne, ... like every Harlequin romance novel ever)? SQUEE! The concept now defined, its relevance to Twilight must be completely apparent: it is a novel/series of books whose highest aspiration appears to be making its readers go SQUEE as often as humanly possible.

On a certain level, it's impossible to dispute its success. Just look at the books cultlike following-- Edward Cullen could easily give The Beatles a run for their money, squee-wise. I mean, just think about it-- he's this impossibly beautiful, super-humanly strong, witty, urbane, sophisticated, magically wealthy, excellently dressed, courtly, romantic, almost dangerous teenage vampire whose skin GLITTERS IN THE SUN. Capable of saving Bella from rapists, taking her out to an Italian restaurant, and having eyes only for her-- in a single night! When Bella faints, he picks her up in his arms, and all across America the post-feminist teen masses swoon. And yet, here in Boston-- or rather, down the Cape, where I actually started the book-- there was no swooning to be had. I didn't smolder, and my heart didn't throb. While I may have responded differently had I been a member of the book's core audience, i.e. a hormone-addled 15-year old who came of age in the era of the anti-Romantic naughts, the whole notion of this perfectly enthralling creature existing only to treasure Bella might have had a more profound appeal. But I don't think it would. Even at 15 I liked my romance with a healthy side of gender-bending ass kicking and sword fighting, as my adolescent obsession with Tamora Pierce indicates.

My biggest problem with the book, aside from its stomach-churningly retrograde gender politics, is that although Meyer knows how to name-check her "inspirations" (witness Bella reading both Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice for fun), she either doesn't get or is incapable or replicating the *real* key to the lasting appeal of such novels: the heroes of those books aren't simply flawless embodiments of male perfection, they are also well-matched with women of equal quality or passion. While I'm no big fan of either Heathcliff or Catherine Earnshaw, I can at least concede that they suit each other, and that the thrill of their relationship comes from the sense that they are equally matched in passion and fierceness, as well as beauty. As for Darcy and Elizabeth, while far more is said about him in this particular pop-culture moment, the book is (and has been) beloved by bright, articulate women everywhere as much for Elizabeth as for Darcy. She is neither so perfect that she is unrelatable, nor is she so devoid of spark or character that she's flat or dull. Even more critically, however, for my continued appreciation of the book, Elizabeth and Darcy both possess flaws, some which they must overcome to be together, and it is only through a process of mutual growth and change that their romance is possible.

Stephenie Meyer makes absolutely no attempt to turn Bella into Edward's equal in... anything. Bella's not particularly bright, she's not particularly pretty, she isn't spirited or funny, she has no defining interests or friends. Her only salient characteristics, as far as the book is concerned, are the intoxicating scent of her blood and her knack for falling down/getting nearly crushed by cars/attracting rapists. While the feminist in me appreciates this, a little, as the teenage girl's answer to the Unbelievably Hot Chick-Schlubby Guy pairings so popular in in movies and TV, neither trend does much for me. While it's good on some level to know that even if Seth Rogen can snag Katharine Hegel, Bella Swan can at least lock down Edward Cullen, I'd still rather see the kind of tension, spark, growth, and change engendered by the pairing of two characters of equal vigor. This kind of insipid escapist fantasy just makes me tired.

7 comments:

meaghan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Meaghan said...

Hmm. Well, you said everything I was going to say, only you said it better. I was continually frustrated by Bella's inability to do anything other than cook and get herself into predicaments from which she needed to be saved.

I sum up the relationship like this:
Bella: Oh Edward! You are crazy handsome and your vampire mystique makes me hot!
Edward: Your blood smells SOOOOOO good.
Bella & Edward: I love you!

To which I say: lame. Maybe I've been in a real (and awesome) relationship long enough to know that they are DOOMED if they don't find some common interests other than themselves. Maybe I'm just too old.

I will say that I enjoyed all the steaminess - I'm not a reader of romances, and this took me by surprise.

Random gripe - Jacob breaks this sacred pact between the vampires and his tribe and ... nothing happens. Isn't that the kind of thing the gods come down and smite you for? Maybe that happens in a later book?

Finally, I hate how Bella does whatever Edward wants.

Bella: Edward, I really don't want to go to the prom.
Edward: But you have to go. I want you to go.
Bella: Ok then.

And my book had the special bonus first chapter of the second book.

Bella: Edward, I don't want a birthday party. I don't want birthday presents. Don't even say happy birthday.
Edward: Ok. By the way, we're having your birthday party at my house. Vampires never get to have birthdays so we want to celebrate yours. Cool?
Bella: Ok.

Dear Bella,
Grow a backbone.
Love, Meaghan

Cassandra Mortmain said...

About the steaminess-- I'll admit to being there a little bit. Following the publication of Breaking Dawn there are all these articles insinuating that boys should start reading these books as guides for how to treat girls (see this one, which makes me queasy:http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB121815501342422553.html?mod=2_1580_middlebox).

On one level, obviously, this is a seriously worrisome suggestion, because stripped of his super fictional romantic trappings, Edward resembles nothing so much as a seriously abusive boyfriend. On another level, it might be kind of exciting-- if more boys had, at age 17, understood that doing things like kissing their way down a girl's jawline was, you know, ridiculously hot, high school might have been a more profitable time for me, dating-wise.

Dawn said...

Bella is pretty much the worst 'heroine' ever. She doesn't... do anything. She doesn't care about anything but Edward and no matter how pretty he might be he's kind of a nothing too (when he's not being sir-boss-a-lot - good call on the abusive comment, Cassandra). Everything about these books (I'm halfway through New Moon) drives me insane. Yet I feel compelled to finish this series. Why?

Julie said...

This has been an interesting conversation and one that has given me lots of food for thought. I'm usually sensitive to how relationships are portrayed, especially when they hit on old stereotypes (weak, hapless female needing to be saved by big strong man). Those conventions are definitely there in the Bella/Edward relationship, but I find myself fond of both of them. Bella can't get out of her own way, but I didn't see her as helpless. Instead, she's plagued by low self-esteem and dealing with lots of vulnerabilities. I had some of those struggles in high school myself - and I suspect I'm not alone - so maybe that is one of the reasons Bella is appealing. I forget now exactly what exactly motivated her to move to Forks and be with her dad at that time in her life, but it took some guts to uproot her life and move to a place she had little connection to. As the new kid in school Bella muddled along as well as she could in a new place, given her own insecurities.

If anything, I blame the writing. Meyers has an engaging, readable style, but is also heavy handed. We're reminded again and again (not just here but in all the books) of Bella's insecurities and penchant for accidents. To me that is a result of an author not trusting her reader, like Meyers is thinking, "oh no, better make sure they really remember how accident prone Bella is so I'll tell them AGAIN" every time she comes close to having accident, rather than letting us remember for ourselves.

Still, I did find Bella frustrating when she gave Alice and Jasper the slip and went to the ballet studio alone. It was a big, fat DUH moment. And Meyers sets it up so that the vampires are all so strong that no human has a chance against them, thus there wasn't even a possibility of Bella doing anything to defend herself. That was aggravating to me - that even if Bella tried to defend herself, we all knew she had no chance.

I'm still an Edward fan and it's not just for the "squee" factor (although there is some of that - plus "squee" is just a fun word to say and type). He has restraint, wisdom, and genuinely cares about her. Perhaps the extra 100 years or so helps, although this also raises an uncomfortable convention for me, that of the young woman needing to be cared for by someone older and wiser. Hm.

The meta-messages and prescribed conventions are intriguing, though. I wonder how prevalent this somewhat outdated view of romantic love is among high schoolers today. Do some of them read it and think, "this is exactly how relationships should be?" By the way, I've read the rest of the books and some of the conventions and messages about romantic love only get more entrenched, which does bother me a little. Also, if you ever really want to get me going on a rant, just ask me about Jacob's behavior in book 3...

deborah said...

I have to confess to having been an emotional lover of the first two books, even though intellectually I saw all the problems everyone else is talking about. When I read the first one (in galley, so there wasn't any buzz, yet), one part of my brain was busily cataloging all of my problems with the characters and their motivations: Bella as a personality blank, willing to do anything that the sparkly boy asked of her, and unwilling to speak to any teenagers who didn't meet her standards of sparkly awesomeness; Edward the domineering jerk, attracted to his girlfriend mostly because she smelled tasty. In the second book, it was even worse, with Bella completely willing to off herself because she couldn't have a boy she wanted. But at the same time, I went through both books like cans of Pringles, unable to sleep until I'd finished each one. I could see what was going on, and I was bothered by it, but I was also completely enraptured by what my housemate has coined the Unresolved Vampiric Tension.

I was kind of grateful to be train wreck of the fourth book for freeing me from the thrall, actually.

Jess said...

Meaghan, EXACTLY. And I agree: lame. Argh. I'm still (still!) working my way through Breaking Dawn, and Deborah, I'm sort of excited to see just how train-wrecky it is.