Relationships and gender roles in Twilight, The Hunger Games, Buffy… and Scooby-Doo?

I’ve got lots of delicious links today, focusing on gender roles, relationships and the portrayal of young women in various pop culture franchises:

Sound On Sight has a very insightful article on Scooby-Doo of all things and its influence on Buffy. By the way, am I the only person in the world who shipped Shaggy and Daphne? Because Fred certainly never was on my radar at all, to the point that I keep forgetting his name. I suspect I subscribed to the Fred is gay theory early on.

Talking of Buffy, there’s been something of a resurgence in Buffy discussions of late (as if they ever died down, sigh), mostly to point out Buffy’s utter wonderfulness and superiority to Bella Swann of Twilight. Sometimes Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games is drawn into the discussion as well.

At Movie News, Monika Bartyzel compares Bella and Katniss and comes to the conclusion that they’re not as different from each other as conventional wisdom would have you believe and that Bella is a lot stronger than she seems. Monika Bartyzel also mentions that she once wrote an article comparing Bella favourably to Buffy and was almost crucified by rabid Buffy fans.

At the Atlantic, Noah Berlatzky also compares Bella and Katniss and wonders whether the rampant dislike of Bella is due to our general social discomfort with the feminine. He also wonders whether Katniss is really a better role model than Bella, considering that she kills a whole lot of people and keeps getting used by others for propaganda purposes.

There is another interesting point made in those articles, namely that Bella only puts herself in danger to protect the ones she loves, i.e. Edward, her parents, her baby, the Cullens, Jacob, etc… Meanwhile, Katniss fights for abstract ideals such as freedom and justice most of the time, though we should not forget that she only ends up in the Hunger Games in the first place, because she wants to protect her sister. Nonetheless, our culture often puts a higher value on fighting for an abstract ideal than on fighting for a very personal goal such as protecting friends, family and loved ones. I also touched on this dynamics in my Misfits post yesterday, since in traditional superhero narratives, the heroes fight mainly for abstract ideals (the example I gave was Batman, where this dynamic is particularly strong), whereas the kids in Misfits don’t much believe in abstract ideals (and the rotten world they live in has pretty much evaporated any ideals they might once have had) and only become active to protect friends and loved ones.

Monika Bartyzel and Noah Berlatzky also get into a discussion of Bella, Buffy and Katniss at The Hooded Utilitarian. Many good points there, including that Bella haters are usually quick to dismiss or ignore any flaws in Katniss or Buffy. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say that Buffy fans are often unable to see any flaws in the show or the characters at all, though there are plenty.

Interestingly, Monika Bartyzel also points out what an unpleasantly hypocritical character Xander could be and how he would often attack Buffy for being supposedly selfish and cut her down to size. This comment really resonated with me, because it reminded me how I disliked Xander much of the time for exactly this reason, because he spent much of the show being a condescending arsehole who attacked other characters, mostly girls (it’s not just Buffy either, but also Cordelia, Faith and Anya, even though he had relationships with several of those girls). It’s not just Xander either, Angel also had the moral superiority complex down to an art in his own show.

Indeed, one of the first episodes of Buffy I ever watched was an episode early in the third season (I had previously watched one or two episodes, but didn’t care for the show and was trying to give it another chance, because so many people were raving about it) where the whole gang, led by Xander, keeps yelling at Buffy that she is selfish for daring to be depressed about killing Angel and for wanting some time alone. I was absolutely horrified – after all, these people were supposed to be Buffy’s friends – and promptly stopped watching again. Whatever you think of Twilight, nobody ever treated Bella the way Buffy’s supposed friends treat her in that episode. And it’s not an isolated occurrence either, something similar happens when Willow becomes addicted to magic later on. And of course, Willow is not allowed to grieve for Tara either.

Noah Berlatzky seems to be one of the rare male defenders of Twilight, because here is an earlier article on Splice Today in which he dismantles and counters many of the common Twilight criticisms. I particularly like that he points out the flat-out hatred for teenaged girls that lies behind many Twilight bashings. Indeed, I wish that a lot of Twilight bashers would remember that they are not the target audience for the books.

Berlatzky’s article was a response to this Atlantic article by Alyssa Rosenberg in which she disfavourably compares Twilight to Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest series, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon and two YA novels by Monica Furlong. No, it would not have occurred to me to compare those works to each other either, because all they have in common is that they feature the supernatural and have female protagonists.

Alyssa Rosenberg responds to Berlatzky’s response here.

Finally, here is another older Twilight defense, also from The Atlantic, by Caitlin Flanagan. I find this one more rambling and less well argued than the articles by Noah Berlatzky and Monica Bartyzel.

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11 Responses to Relationships and gender roles in Twilight, The Hunger Games, Buffy… and Scooby-Doo?

  1. After following your links, I read more of Berlatsky’s output, because I discerned consistent apologia for a particular subset of values. Summation: feminine stereotypes are actually good for women, passivity and obedience in particular.


    • Cora says:

      Based on these articles (I didn’t get around to reading the others yet), I actually found Caitlin Flanagan’s more problematic. But then Caitlin Flanagan is known as a promoter of traditional feminine values.

  2. Jodie says:

    It looks like Noah Berlatzky is characterising their conversation as the a clash of one variation of valid choice feminism (chosing to be more concerned with family than wider politics and the same for romance vs career) vs another version of valid choice feminism (choosing to be more concerned with the wider world than family, choosing career over romance). And that means he get to imply that Rosenberg is dismissing one kind of female choice as less important than another.

    My problem with his idea that Bella’s story pushes a different way of choosing is that Bella’s narrative rarely presents her with the full range of choices that modern women in America have to choose from. She doesn’t choose between love/marriage and career, she choses love from the options of love. The option of having a career is never even an option hinted at in the text. And she’s never able to choose love/marriage AND career, because of the way the narrative is structured, when, in real life that’s a perfectly valid choice for modern American women (and present day women from many other countries). She makes choices, but she makes them from an incredibly limited range of options: abort, or die; marry, or miss out on sex with the man of your dreams; love and death, or life and despair.

    That’s not Bella’s fault, not at all, it’s the fault of her narrative which sets her up in situations where she can’t make choices like a normal, modern girl. I understand that there’s a drammatic reason behind the way the narrative operates and defines Bella’s choices, but I can’t deny that the drammatic ‘needs’ of the text seem conveniently in line with retro politics about women.

    Were Bella to be presented with two reasonable, realistic choices, for example ‘life of the stay at home mother’ and ‘life as the career women’ and she chose mother that would be a choice that could be celebrated. Many women make that choice every day and the fact that they’re making a choice is an action of agency. As a feminist I have no problem with that (and any way it’s not my place to say what others should do with their lives). But when Bella, a modern girl, is presented with ‘choices’ that look more appropriate for a woman in the 19th century (for example love, or family, not love, or career) and isn’t really given any other second option to a course of action (career never being even mentioned as an option she might consider) then I have a problem viewing Twilight as a pro-choice narrative.

  3. Laran says:

    I am just in the middle of watching Buffy for the first time and follow you in your critique of some bad character traits. I am not happy with many dialogues and gender issues either, but most times I can acknowledge the series for its impact on popular culture and gender roles therein.

    However, the single episode you mention early in season three isn’t such a good pick to watch randomly on its own. You need to know a lot of episodes in season two to put everything into context. The behaviour of Buffy’s “friends” then makes more sense – even so it is exaggerated to caricature, I suppose to enable even the slowest teen target audience to follow. (They do that a lot an that show.) To me it seemed to advocate, in a somewhat clumsy way, talking with your friends and sharing your experiences and grief instead of running away leaving them in bewildered bafflement and danger (Buffy) or instead of coming to your own conclusions about matters while being caught up in your own grief (friends). Some more talking and sharing all around and everything is going to be great! – problematic too, to be sure, but in a different way than your first conclusions.

    About the whole comparing characters of different provenience: I don’t get it. Isn’t the only reason someone wants to put Bella and Buffy together as “similar” their being very different? So that some of Buffy’s positively regarded traits rub off on Bella? But isn’t that just a trick to further your argument instead of substantial reasoning?

    • Cora says:

      Oh, I definitely agree that that particular episode isn’t a good pick to watch randomly on its own, and I subsequently watched most of season 2 during a summer rerun, which put the whole episode into context, but didn’t necessarily make the actions of the supposed friends a whole lot better. But then, every given episode of a TV show is someone’s first episode and that was even more the case in that pre-DVD-boxset era of the mid 1990s. And if that one episode turns a viewer off, he or she is unlikely to return for a second helping. Indeed, I only gave Buffy more tries after disliking the first episodes I tried, because it was on right before or after a show I liked, so it was convenient to watch.

      As for the comparisons, I suppose it’s because of the superficial similarities. Both stories are focused on teen girls who move to a new town, find their way around and get involved with two dangerous boys (Edward and Jacob for Bella, Angel and Spike for Buffy) who are not human. Of course, the similarities end there (and there are even fewer similarities for the Hunger Games) and the only thing that unites Bella and Buffy is that both are teen girls who get involved with vampires, but it’s still seductive to build a case how one is so much more superior than the other based on that. Though I’d argue that Bella is not as weak and passive as many adult critics seem to think that she is, since Bella decides what she wants and goes after it. The only problem is that what Bella wants (Edward, marriage and babies) aren’t exactly the smartest of choices. Meanwhile, Buffy is not the paragon of female strength that many critics claim she is. Indeed, Buffy is annoying whiny much of the time and particularly in the early seasons, the reasons for her whinyness are mostly that she can’t go to the prom/homecoming party/whatever, because she must hunt vampires. Those aspects of Buffy are conveniently forgotten in favour of the blonde teenaged girl who kicks vampire ass.

  4. Laran says:

    I agree that there is lots of whininess in Buffy, quite annoying actually. I suppose they wanted to make her character both “believable” – everybody needs some weaknesses – and on target for the juvenile audience. But I don’t think that teens get fooled so easily and don’t recognize whining about the prom as whining about the prom – or do they?

    This reminds me about something very peculiar I recognized in Buffy – so many episodes in the early seasons are so very educational: The dangers of the internet! The dangers of drugs and booze!! How bullying is bad and leads to grave danger! And of course the classic: Beware of Sex! Your boyfriend might turn into someone nasty and migth not be able to control his evil urges and instincts.
    There we are back to Bella, aren’t we?

    • Cora says:

      I guess the whininess was supposed to make Buffy believable and relateable, but to me it had the opposite effect. Because if someone had told me at sixteen that I had superpowers and was the chosen protector of my generation, I would have been over the moon and certainly wouldn’t have whined about missing the prom. I don’t know if you’ve read my posts about the British show Misfits about juvenile delinquents from a council estate who gain superpowers, but they do the whole thing a lot better. The kids’ powers are often very inconvenient and downright awful, but they all delight in them at some point, too. And while those teens often prefer to spend time with their boy/girlfriends over doing something heroic and sometimes plain get distracted from whatever important thing they were doing, they don’t whine about having no normal life either.

      I suspect the educational aspects may have been necessary to get the show past conservative US TV executives and religious watchdog groups. Besides, a lot of people seem unable to produce any entertainment aimed at young people without the proverbial raised forefinger.

      The “Beware of Sex” aspects are extremely strong throughout Buffy’s run, though. Sex always has horrible consequences in Buffy. Buffy’s first night with Angel (they even wait until she’s of legal age, i.e. they are responsible) causes him to turn into a bloodthirsty monster, Xander makes out with Willow (even though he’s in a relationship with Cordelia) and Cordelia is almost impaled on a spike of some kind, Buffy’s divorced Mom has one violent boyfriend, who turns out to be a robot, and later dies after having sex with another boyfriend. Spike and Buffy have violent sex which brings a whole house down and the violent sex is deemed “bad”, even though both enjoy it and are not physically harmed by it due to their powers, etc… Angel was even worse, since he cannot have sex at all without dire consequences and the one time he does in his own show, he gets his partner pregnant, while Cordelia ends up suffering two supernatural miracle pregnancies. But then plenty of US television contains the unspoken message that sex is bad and dangerous.

  5. Laran says:

    Whining about not being normal – it ties into the whole group pressure thing: nothing is more important than being normal like everyone else. I have problems myself to buy it – but I can recall the urge to be normal just in every way from my own youth. But it never outgrew the urge to be special.

    Just last week, I read some of Jürgen Link’s “Versuch über den Normalismus”. Its hypothesis is that being normal is the defining topic of modern society and therefore the main reference point for identity for people in our times and culture. I was puzzled – being normal definitely isn’t my overall interest in life. And I can simply not understand why any thinking person, even literature professor Link, can see it as defining for their selves. And to assume it as something all of us have in common! I don’t think so.

    But it shows that the urge of being normal is assumed by quite some people to be very strong. Easy to assume that for teens who get mostly settled with the most stupidest behavioural treats imaginable…. imagined by grown-ups, of course. But we all know how the most-beloved characters in books etc for kids are special or chosen or in some other way marked for greatness. I think this “urge” for specialness is often forgotten because everybody likes to have nice and normal kids around, fitting well into society and its rules and not making any “noise”.

    The “Beware of Sex” thing is very sad.

    • Cora says:

      I’ve never really gotten the desire to be normal either, probably because I never really fit into my classes and peer groups from very early on. As a teenager, I was very consciously different, only listened to opera and classical music, didn’t wear jeans and didn’t care for contemporary fads and fashions. Nor did I join the “different” groups such as the heavy metal fans at my school, though I was friends with several of them. It wasn’t until university that I started wearing jeans (I think I bought my first jeans the summer before I started university) and openly listened to the pop and rock music I had secretly liked all along. So Buffy’s attempts to be normal never really spoke to me. Besides, she looked just like those girls who made my life hell in school.

      I have somehow managed never to read the Jürgen Link piece, even though I had sociology as a minor subject. It does sound interesting, though.

      As for the “Beware of sex” thing, I think the main reason I like British films and TV programs so much is that sex is not treated as something bad in British films and TV shows. Characters can have sex, even a lot of messy sex with different partners, and still be good people who find happiness. In US films and TV shows, they’d be villains or dead.

  6. Hey Cora. Thanks for your thoughtful response to my article.

    Not sure if this is the best place to ask, but I’d love to have you do a guest post for my group blog, if you were interested. Email me?

    Oh, and re: Xander; Monika Bartyzel did a lengthy post about him and sexism here.

    • Cora says:

      Hi Noah.

      Glad you liked my post and also many thanks for the Monika Berlatzky link.

      Yes, I’d love to do a guest post for you sometime. I’ll email you over the weekend.

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