No, I won’t just shut up and enjoy it!

Note: this was written (and posted at half past twelve at night) as a piece for a new feminist-minded zine in Brisbane, eFEMeral. Bear with me while I find the right references for the quotes. Feedback is much appreciated, as this isn’t due for two days and still may need some work.

I’m going to admit it straight up: I am they type of person who can’t shut up when watching a movie. I will rant on stereotypes in TV shows, I will jump with excitement at a queer subtext that isn’t vilified,  I will even ramble at length about semiotic codes and symbolism in the latest book I’m reading. I know there are a lot of people out there who would hate me for it. People who will say to me “just shut up and enjoy the movie, will you?” or the ever famous “no-body cares, it’s just a book!”

Thing is, books aren’t just books, and TV shows and movies aren’t just mindless entertainment. They’re not an escape from the real world – they’re a reflection of it. And the way the world is reflected in books and movies doesn’t just wash over its readers and viewers and disappear without a trace. It’s entertainment, yes: but it’s more than that. Whatever the themes and messages of the book are, they remain inside our minds long after we finish the book, whether we realise it or not. They become part of our own lens for viewing the world. And it’s up to us to realise that and engage with it.

There are people who argue that texts don’t always have messages. That they don’t affect who we are, that they don’t have to make us think about things. Well I’m going to disagree. A novel that doesn’t have something for us to think about is not worth the paper it’s written on. A TV show without ethics is not worth watching. We are thinking, feeling beings, and I think it’s a bit of an insult when people come out and say that their work isn’t meant to have a message. I believe that as a writer or any sort, you have a moral obligation to your audience. People create because they want to say something. Creating and then not saying something is just insulting.

An ethically apathetic author’s work doesn’t equate to a work without messages though. From a feminist perspective (or any critical perspective for that matter), it does something a lot worse – it normalises and institutionalises the status quo. A text that doesn’t challenge, normalises. And in many cases that has horrific  results.

A glaring example of what I’m saying is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Having worked in bookshops for over three years, I’ve always been astounded at the popularity of this series, and the lack of criticism it’s received from its readers. When asked what messages she wants her readers to take away from her novels in an interview with Time Magazine in 2008, Meyer’s answer is unambiguous: “I never write messages.” But where, then,  does that leave her novels? Because one thing is for sure, those novels are not free of messages.

Rather than going on a complete anti-twilight rampage, I’m going to look at one aspect of the series in particular – the relationship between power, gender and the institution, as evident in Bella’s marriage to Edward and her transformation into a vampire upon giving birth. I’m going to compare it to Joss Whedon’s  cult TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show with a similar paranormal setting, but a clear authorial intent and set of ethics. I’ll focus particularly on the fifth season episode “Checkpoint.” So here we go.

Bella Swan is described as a loner, shy, not particularly beautiful, clumsy; yet the gaze of the entire male population of the school is on her. Her actions throughout the novels portray her as feminine and weak, reflecting traditional patriarchal values. Though Meyer claims that the series is all about Bella’s choice, the only real choice she has to make regards her marriage – and by default, the only choice the reader gets to make is whether to support “team Edward” or “team Jacob.” What’s a girl like Bella to do? Her “choice” is to assimilate into the institution of patriarchy by getting married and having a baby. In Meyer’s world, women are powerless before marriage, and motherhood (even when life-threatening) is the highest a married woman can aspire to. Bella’s transformation into a vampire can be read as her accepting her place in the traditional vampire society and submitting fully to its patriarchal values. Only then does she achieve her dream: to raise a family, and become stunningly beautiful.

Bella’s transformation from “ordinary” girl to “powerful” vampire comes only by submitting to a highly patriarchal framework and accepting its dominance over her. Let’s compare this to a somewhat similar scenario. In Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy is also portrayed as an ordinary girl, yet one imbued with the  supernatural power of a slayer, one who kills vampires. Buffy’s power is female-based, passed down from one young woman to the next. Whedon intended the character to be a deliberate subversion of the horror genre’s young blonde victim cliché, to “create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim.”

The season five episode “Checkpoint” shows just how far this premise carries. Buffy is desperate for information about a new evil that’s arrived in town, and resorts to the Watcher’s Council – a group of stuffy white men who claim the slayer as their “tool”  – for help. The Council represents the institution of male knowledge and power, which Buffy threatens by refusing to accept their orders. They attempt to “test” her to make her prove herself worthy of the knowledge they hold, but set her up to fail. But in the end, it is Buffy who has the power. She operates on her own terms and refuses to subject herself to the patriarchal council. And without Buffy, the Council has no meaning.

Think about it. Buffy’s character is meaning, while Bella Swan’s life has no meaning without Edward Cullen (whose patriarchal values are literally from a hundred years ago). While Joss Whedon was aware of what he was writing and the ethics he brought to the table, Meyer seems oblivious to what she’s actually done with her series. Because she never writes messages, does she? The messages write themselves. And frankly, as a young woman living in the 21st Century, I expect more from a novel. But apparently, I should just shut up and enjoy the wonderfully romantic (read: creepy and abusive) story.

Now tell me that ethics don’t matter in books and television and movies. The subtext, the messages, the implications of everything we read and watch forms our own base of knowledge, and whether it’s fiction or not doesn’t really play into account. If Joss Whedon can have a positive feminist perspective as a male, why can’t Stephenie Meyer, a woman? And furthermore, how can you tell me to shut up and stop criticising what obviously needs to be criticised?

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6 thoughts on “No, I won’t just shut up and enjoy it!

  1. Hi, Jo. Me again. I first read this early this morning as I was going online to judge poetry … brain a bit tired … now I have some thoughts together.

    Interesting post. What Meyer doesn’t perhaps realise is that when you write, your values and opinions are embedded in the work whether you intend it or not. I’m another writer who’d say that I don’t write messages – but I very much hope that my world view comes through in the work – I think it must.

    So yes, we’re getting messages every time we read something or watch something – that’s why we often dislike a book or film, even if the ‘message’ is subliminal. So it’s not ‘just entertainment’, as you say. Trouble is, when something upholds the status quo, such as sexism, people don’t notice it, as its so much part of the paradigm they live with. And challenging works are often disliked because they do offer an alternative way of seeing things – it makes people uncomfortable.

    Hence why the work of the Brontes, for example, shocked people at the time. Women weren’t supposed to be like that – they were ‘women worthy of being avoided’ as one critic at the time put it. (Didn’t stop it from being popular, though).

    So perhaps the popularity of Twilight says something about our culture and the way young women (presumably the primary readers) think of themselves. Sad.
    (But then Buffy is a cult figure!)

  2. Trouble is, when something upholds the status quo, such as sexism, people don’t notice it, as its so much part of the paradigm they live with.

    Thanks for the comments Jo!

    Hmm, maybe I should find another way of talking about messages in regard to what the author puts into a novel – I’m definitely trying to point out that works have messages no matter if they’re intended or not, but maybe talking about worldview is better than talking about messages. Maybe I’d be better phrasing it in terms of ethics and worldview only? That authors have a responsibility to realise whether they reproduce or challenge the status quo? (Or in this case, something that was the status quo two hundred years ago?) What do you think?

  3. Oh, I liked what you said. Actually, afterwards I thought that what I’d done was only iterate your position. I don’t know that ‘messages’ is such a good word, though most people would understand what you meant by that – a ‘message’ can be quite a crude thing, whereas novels, even ones like Twilight, are quite subtle in the way they convey values. And yes, the point is that authors should realise that they do this –

    In the bit you quote from my reply above I should have said that people ‘often’ don’t notice it, because many do.

    John Stuart Mill said something about how when values change, people look back and are amazed that society ever felt that way (look at slavery). As a young feminist I used to think that people would feel that way about sexism – and we do – a bit – but obviously still have a long way to go.

  4. I too am notorious for giving out a running commentary on practically everything XD The importance of media in shaping our worldview absolutely CANNOT be understated, and as an aspiring creator of fictional works I know I have to pay particular attention to absolutely every element of my creations. (Hurr durr creator creations I can write good <_<) People always think they personally aren't affected by media or advertising, but all the other proles are, whereas in reality they shape everyone. The only way to ensure you aren't being changed is to actively question and analyse everything.

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