Katniss Everdeen v. Bella Swan, Or, There’s Not One Perfect Way To Be Feminine

Noah Berlatsky and I have a running and I think generally friendly disagreement over the Twilight books, but I don’t really appreciate him strawmanning me and other female critics in what I think is condescending piece about the relative merits of Katniss Everdeen and Bella Cullen-nee-Swann and lecturing us on femininity. According to Noah:

Critics have expressed the Katniss-would-beat-the-tar-out-of-Bella dynamic in various ways…Alyssa Rosenberg laments, “Bella’s overriding passivity,” while Yvonne Zip at Christian Science Monitor enthuses that “Katniss is too much of a fighter to go serenely to her death.” Bella, on the other hand, is stereotypically girly, and as Melinda Beasi argues, even women and feminists (especially women and feminists?) are nervous about being “associated with anything ‘girly.'” Thus the appeal of Katniss, who is a badass. Because whether it’s in a fist fight or in the hearts of critics, butch beats girly every time.

The relative discomfort with Bella, then, can be seen as reflecting a larger discomfort with femininity. That discomfort is prevalent not just among men, but (as Melinda Beasi says) among women as well. In fact, feminists have long struggled with how to think about and value femininity. Second-wave feminists (to generalize wildly) tended to be down on the feminine; they saw frills and pink and bows and childishness (or even, in the case of radicals like Shulamith Firestone, pregnancy itself) as part of the patriarchy’s effort to infantilize and denigrate women. Third-wave feminists, on the other hand, have been (in general) more interested in reclaiming the feminine. For writers like Julia Serrano in Whipping Girl, the negative association with femininity is just another way through which the patriarchy devalues women…

And yet, for all the critical accolades…is masculinity really categorically better and more feminist than femininity? Would we really rather have our 17-year-old daughters kill dozens than have them carry a baby to term? Certainly, there are aspects of The Hunger Games that make the butch ideal seem problematic at the very least…At the end of Twilight, Bella actually does get power. She turns into a vampire who has the physical and magical wherewithal to save her entire family from death—not to mention flatten Katniss with a flick of her perfect pale sparkly wrist. Katniss, conversely, finds that what she desired all along was domestic bliss with her nice-guy suitor and a bunch of kids running around the cottage.

First, there’s something really profoundly weird and limited about this definition of femininity — and condescending in the piece’s sense that a totalizing devotion to motherhood, to relationships, to sex, to girliness is the only, or most worthy, definition of femininity. The second-wave feminists who produced Our Bodies, Ourselves may not have done the research into a groundbreaking medical text that changed the relationship between women and the medical establishment while wearing pretty dresses*, but that doesn’t mean that their work wasn’t deeply attuned to the feminine. Creating space for women’s voices in hip-hop, and suggesting that women have something specific to offer the form, may not be explicitly attuned to the state of romantic and sexual relationships, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an exploration and assertion of the feminine. Choosing to have a baby even if it means you have to be on bed rest or endanger your life might mean you’re devoted to motherhood, but it doesn’t actually make you more of a woman than casting off your cloak to duel the holy hell out of Bellatrix Lestrange or climbing into an exo-suit and doing battle for a little girl’s life — and by extension, the continued existence of the human race.:

Feminism is about protecting the right of women to choose everything from staying home to raise your adorable vampire-human hybrid, or staying single to defend a magical institution of higher learning. If, as Berlatsky suggests in comments to his piece, where he says “A moral universe in which you would rather be strong than loving certainly has a lot of advocates (they’re called “pagans”),” he’s really writing about a Christian ideal of femininity, that’s one thing, and it’s fine, though I think he’d be better off saying that. But I think that’s a false dichotomy, and one advocated from a position of real privilege and misunderstanding of what conditions guarantee autonomy and the genuine freedom to choose your domestic arrangements.

The conflation of the feminine and the domestic here isn’t just retrograde — I think it’s a substantial misreading of Suzanne Collins’ novels (and as Amber Taylor points out, among other things, in a righteous response, he’s wrong in his analysis of Katniss’s use of violence, too). In fact, one of the things that The Hunger Games does well is explain the ways in which the public is private. The Games themselves interfere with the integrity of families, tearing children away from their parents, forcing children to take on extra shares and extra risk to protect their siblings. In order to survive, Katniss turns Peeta’s love for her into a commodity that wins her gifts that help her survive, and the Capitol turns the perception of their relationship into a grotesque dog-and-pony show on their victory tour. When she is finally able to settle down with him at the end of the trilogy, it’s only because her role in the rebellion helped create a domestic sphere that won’t be torn apart by monstrous public policies, because she can choose a partner on the basis of affinity rather than protection, because the end of state surveillance in the form of marketing means she can truly have a private life. The personal is political for Katniss, as it is for the rest of us.

Bella lives in a world where there are no obstacles to what she wants — her parents don’t really object, Edward has so much money that she never has to worry about whether she’ll be able to support herself, and there are never any compelling alternatives to life as an immortal vampire — and ultimately no real choices, either. I can see why that perfect freedom of choice is compelling, but it’s also profoundly unrealistic. I don’t like Bella Swann much because living in her head is boring — so are most people who want only one thing whether they’re men or women, investment bankers or poets. And I don’t think that the idea that you can or should prioritize love alone is some sort of truth that’s been obscured by sour feminists like myself. It’s a fantasy that ignores how much law, custom, and economics get in the way of true personal autonomy, in matters of the heart and anything else. My problem isn’t really that Bella makes her family with Edward her main priority—it’s that she makes it her only priority. There’s nothing wrong with getting strength from the people that you love, but it’s awfully undependable to rely on them as the main or only source of your extraordinary abilities. If it works perfectly, that’s wonderful, but that kind of obsessive reliance is also the stuff of which abusive relationships, of desperation post-divorce, of unhappiness if you don’t happen to find love, are made. Self-sufficiency may be a masculine value in Berlatsky’s schema (and goodness would I like to see it diagrammed out), but it’s also one that women have been striving towards for centuries in an effort to make decisions with greater integrity and clarity.

And while those values are worth examining further, Twilight‘s also eminently critiqueable on narrative grounds, something Noah gives very little credence. Complexity is the stuff of genuinely compelling decision-making, as well as compelling storytelling. What’s troubling about Twilight is less the idea that Bella picks Edward and more the inevitability of their eventual union. Once Edward walks into Bella’s science class, she never really considers anything else, never gets presented with any other truly compelling options, she treats the humans in her life who are graduating and going off to their own adventures with dismissiveness and disinterest. Tough choices are fascinating. Defending the world’s kindest fate is rather dull.

And just as I’m bored by Bella’s certainty and dismissive attitudes towards people who set other priorities and take other paths, I don’t appreciate the idea that I don’t live up to Noah Berlatsky’s very particular standards of femininity, I’m doing it wrong. There may be effective arguments for a Christian focus on love rather than strength. But a strident and myopic lecture to women with a variety of priorities isn’t likely to be one of them.

*And as a side note, femininity is not simply a matter of style. And even if it were, there is a vast difference between disliking the stylized trappings of femininity inherently, and disliking the idea that they’re mandatory — and it’s intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge that, or to dismiss it with a handwaving acknowledgment that you’re generalizing. The point of something like the Miss America pageants is not that female beauty ought to be rejected, but that the idea that there’s only one very narrow standard for female beauty should be rejected. It is entirely possible to enjoy wearing makeup and to be wildly frustrated by the idea that whether or not you wear makeup determines how competent people will think you are in a workplace.