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Tag: Twilight

Let’s get reading: The power of fiction to shape girls’ lives

The books we read have an incredible power to shape our thoughts, and our view of the world and our place in it. Fiction delights, enthralls, infuriates, inspires. It transports us to other realities. Sometimes we escape into it for entertainment and relaxation; other times we seek out books that stretch our minds beyond our boundaries. A few simple words on a page can bring us to tears — or provide the deepest kind of solace. Books raise questions that only we can answer for ourselves; they pose dilemmas that nudge us to reconsider our own beliefs and attitudes.

All of this is especially true for children, who are still forming their identities, still getting to know who they are — and most importantly, everything they can become.

That’s why I love the picture book Ruby Who?, which is the brainchild of a talented Queensland woman, Hailey Bartholomew. She came up with a creative way of explaining to her two daughters that “wishing to be like others, or have what other people have, can be a trap and will not make you happy”. She got together with her friend Natala Stuetz and made a short film, which has since been made into a primary-school-age picture book illustrated by Alarna Zinn.

Ruby is a little girl who “wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others”. That is, until she goes on an adventure and rediscovers her own identity, and the joy of just being herself. Hailey says:

Ruby Who? was created as a way to explain to children that having more ‘stuff’ doesn’t make life better; looking like the other kids won’t make you happy; it’s who you are when you’re being yourself that counts.

What makes Ruby Who? such a special book is that not only does it have an awesome message, it’s very cute and colourful, filled with playful rhymes, and kids love it. I asked Francesca Kaoutal, Enlighten’s co-founder, to read it with her 5-year-old daughter Bianca. This is Bianca’s review (which is also very cute!).

I like Ruby. She has lots of colours like me. She is funny with her rolly shoes. You can’t jump in rolly shoes. It’s a good idea that she took them off. She goes on swings and I love swings and jumps and playing outside with the birds in my rainbow and sparkle clothes. I love the picture of the sausage dog because it is so silly. Sausage dogs don’t have hats and balloons! That is so funny. It is a good picture for laughing.
Five-year-old Bianca, daughter of Enlighten's co-founder Francesca Kaoutal, with her drawing inspired by Ruby Who?

There are a host of great books for tween and teen girls, too, and I am looking forward to reading two that were just highly commended by the judges of the Barbara Jefferis Award: Kelly Gardiner’s Act of Faith, and Meg Mundell’s Black Glass. The Barbara Jefferis Award is worth looking out for each year, as it bestows a prize for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”. (This year’s winner was Anna Funder’s All That I Am.) Act of Faith will especially be embraced by girls who love history and books. Set in 1640, its heroine, Isabella, flees Oliver Cromwell’s England and discovers a whole new world of possibility in the publishing world of Venice, “where women work alongside men as equal partners, and where books and beliefs are treasured”.

Black Glass is more for the girls in your life who love science fiction or gritty fantasy. A work of speculative fiction, it follows two resourceful sisters, Tally and Grace, as they make their way through a dystopic future urban landscape.

Some people dismiss the books that are the most popular amongst teen girls at the moment, picking apart the literary value of series such as The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and Twilight (Stephenie Meyer), not to mention the slew of vampire-themed books that the latter has inspired. But is it really our job to be the arbiters of taste? As I’ve discussed on this blog before (in relation to Twilight and The Hunger Games), I think that no matter what our own taste in books may be, we should try to celebrate the books the teen girls in our lives decide to read. Rather than being judgmental of their reading choices, let’s just get them reading! I find it heartening to see so many young women reading these series passionately — and deconstructing not just the books, but their worlds, as they go. And let’s not forget that girls have wide-ranging tastes.

When I was a teen girl, I became obsessed with the Sweet Dreams series of novels, which were like Mills and Boon for teen girls. My favourite was P.S. I Love You. I thought the author’s play on words (the P.S. also stood for Palm Springs, where the book was set, and for the name of the main character’s love interest, Paul Strobe) was literary genius! And oh, how I howled at the end when Paul died of cancer.

Yet during the same period, I also devoured Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a speculative fiction that was a chilling social critique of totalitarianism and the backlash against feminism that was gathering force in the 1980s. It was a complex, thought-provoking book that was, and still is, considered a literary masterpiece.

Today your girl might be devouring a bodice-ripping vampire romance. Fight any urge you may have to roll your eyes, because it really is okay — and anyway, tomorrow she might be deep into Jane Eyre. There is a book for every mood: sometimes we read primarily for a momentary escape, other times because we want to engage in the world of ideas. But no matter what, let’s keep reading!

Girls have been hungry for this revolutionary heroine

My post below was originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald, 24/3/12.

If sales of the books and early movie tickets for the new teen fiction series The Hunger Games are anything to go by, it seems teen girls are starved for a heroine with real fire. Author Suzanne Collins quite literally dishes up spark with her character Katniss Everdeen; a reluctant leader of a revolution who becomes popularly known as “the girl on fire”.



Comparisons to the wildly successful Twilight trilogy are inevitable, because the heroines in both find themselves torn between two lovers.

But this is where the comparisons should end. Bella and Katniss would have little to talk about. While Twilight’s Bella is the quintessential damsel in distress, Ms Everdeen is far more likely to protect, rather than need protecting.

Katniss kicks butt. Frequently.

After reading the trilogy, I admit I didn’t quite understand the extent of the fervour. When yearning for a female rebel, I prefer the home-grown heroine of the Tomorrow, When The War Began series, Ellie Linton, to the rather emotionally limited Katniss. And while interesting enough, the premise is not particularly original. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic North America where children are made to compete in a brutal, televised fight to the death. The world depicted is incredibly corrupt, the adults all seem absent or deeply flawed.

But it wasn’t written for me, so I’ve asked girls why it resonates with them. The New York Times attributes some of the buzz to the clever use of social media by the film’s marketers. But that alone does not explain it. The answer is more simple – girls are looking for an alternative to the limiting stereotypes our culture keeps dishing them up. And on this point, I hear them loud and clear.

Emily Maguire, feminist and author of the book for teen girls Your Skirt’s too Short, makes this striking observation about how we culturally treat young women.

“About five years ago, I found myself increasingly annoyed by the overwhelmingly negative, often completely, stupidly wrong media coverage of young people, particularly young women. As I’m sure many of you have noticed, almost everything written or screened on TV about teenage girls presents them as either sex-mad airheads or sweet, delicate flowers. Either out-of-control tarts ruining society or innocent angels being ruined by society … No wonder so many girls feel misunderstood. The version of their lives presented as news is a salacious cartoon; the characters meant to represent them are sexually loose magnets for trouble, not necessarily because they’re bad, but because they’re morally retarded and culturally illiterate.”

If the times we live in are toxic for girls – think of the huge pressures on them to be not only thin and hot but to be smart and successful; to be everything, all at once – then equally toxic is how the media and society choose to engage with young women. We lecture and lament, police and patronise. Rarely do we acknowledge that we struggle with many of the same issues our girls struggle with and many ordinary girls are doing extraordinary things and making sensible, admirable choices.

Katniss is too busy surviving to send provocative messages of herself via text, too committed to leading the revolution to engage in mean-girl gossip. If she goes hungry, it is because she cannot find food rather than because she is dieting. And she is ultimately determined to take down her society rather than let it take her down.

Girls no longer wish to be dished up sugar, spice and all things nice. Nor do they want to be offered faux empowerment via raunch culture.

So what if I found parts of the series laboured and pessimistic? These books have tapped into the real need teen girls have to be viewed as multi-dimensional and fierce and have got them thinking and talking, about leadership and loyalty.

And that’s a win

 

Instead of mocking teen Twihards, try talking to them

Criticizing the latest film in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn, is child’s play. As columnist Jordan Baker writes, “I worry for girls who will grow up with Bella Swan from Twilight. Bella is self-absorbed, clingy and willing to give up everything – her education, family and mortal soul – for a man.”

It’s a common concern. And others have raised many more. Are the books and films romanticising stalking and controlling relationships? Why is Bella always in need of rescuing – often by more than one hero at a time? Is this yet another fable designed to teach girls that sex is an inherently corrupting force, where – once again – male sexuality is constructed in terms of the danger and risk it poses, while female sexuality is characterised in terms of deficiency and loss – loss of virginity, innocence and reputation?

Thousands of centimetres of column space have been dedicated to critics bemoaning the insipid and sullen Bella, and this latest film has triggered yet another flurry of exasperated screeds all taking aim at the Twilight franchise and, more specifically, at the fans who are ridiculed as mere “Twihards”.

And therein lies the problem. While the criticisms of the film may be legitimate, the subsequent worrying over teen girls, and criticism of those who enjoy Twilight, is not productive. When we roll our eyes at the cultural goods which appeal to teen girls and when we dismiss texts that manage to speak to them, we miss out on an opportunity to better understand and engage with girls.

As teen educators, we see this all the time. Parents like to repeatedly carry on about the “trash” that their teen girls are into (mind you, these same parents probably grew up on a diet of genies in bottles and Stepford-like domestic witches who both aimed only to please their masters). These same parents then act surprised as to why their daughters might be reluctant to share other parts of their lives. We can hardly expect our children to open up about the things that matter most to them when we dedicate so much energy to insulting the cultural goods they identify with.

As insightful as the critiques of Twilight might be, the problem is that they don’t in any way help to explain why teenagers like it or how it manages to speak to them. Instead of arguing the reasons as to why teenagers shouldn’t watch Twilight, let’s turn the problem over and try and understand why they do.

According to 15-year-old Elena Burger, the appeal of Twilight is that it marries up the fantasy of eternal youth with the fantasy of having access to adult privilieges, minus adult responsibilities:

“Bella gets to stay a ‘child’ forever. She doesn’t need to worry about the adult things that we teenagers know we’ll have to worry about: she doesn’t need a university degree, a car, or a mortgage. Plus, she still gets all the advantages of adulthood: sex, freedom, and a honeymoon. This is the ultimate fantasy for teenagers, and probably what a lot of adults hunger for as well.”

Other girls comment that they like the fact that Bella is decidedly not interested in dieting, cosmetics, fashion or other superficial trappings. Others seem to revel in their power to read resistently and deconstruct the text. One twelve-year-old girl we know leaned over to her mother while watching the latest film and commented, “Um hello? Domestic violence, much!”

The real power of the series is that, like it or not, the film seems to tap into a number of themes that resonate with the lives of young women. It is unsurprising, then, that they would wish to discuss and reflect on those themes.

Twilight presents us with an opportunity to springboard into discussions about some very sensitive issues. Ask a bunch of teen girls what a healthy relationship looks like and they will probably roll their eyes. But say to them, “Edward and Bella: a tale of domestic abuse. Discuss,” and you’ll unleash a passionate and thoughtful discussion as to what a healthy relationship is and how gender and power operate.

The latest film invites discussion on matters including premarital sex, abortion, consent, rejection, crushes, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, male competition, body image and secrets.

Teen films create “teachable moments” where we can connect with young people and engage them in discussions using the cultural goods already familiar to them. It’s far easier to debate the motives and actions of a removed, fictional character than it is to discuss the behavior and motives of your child or one of their peers. Young people enjoy expressing their opinions about the former, but will often become defensive or guarded about the latter.

You don’t have to love what your child likes. But if, instead of dismissing it, you view it as an opportunity to engage with your child, you just might learn something.

 

This post was co-written with Nina Funnell. Nina is a social commentator and freelance opinion writer. She works as an anti–sexual assault and domestic violence campaigner and is also currently completing her first book on “sexting”, teen girls and moral panics. The post was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald. 

 

Making Sense of Twilight

new_moon_poster_cullensThere has been a kind of hysteria surrounding the Twilight series of late. With the release of the second movie, New Moon, bloggers, commentators (and just about anyone with an internet connection) have rushed to vent their opinions—not on the quality of the movie but on whether the main female character, Bella, is a good role model for girls.

The consensus is that Bella, with her angst-ridden relationship with the vampire Edward, is one of the worst examples our daughters could emulate. Bella is clingy, helpless and self-doubting. She is willing to withdraw from life and sacrifice everything—self, friends, family—for an obsessive romantic attachment to Edward, who while being handsome and chivalrous also just happens to be a stalker battling a powerful urge to consume her and destroy her. Author Stephenie Meyer was inspired by classic literature—Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights—for the first three books, but it is not difficult to see examples in real life of young women who are trapped in a world like Bella’s. Only for them it’s not a dreamy romantic fantasy but a nightmare of poor self-esteem and abusive, self-destructive relationships. No parent in their right mind would like to see their daughter aspire to any of this.

But ironically, in standing up for strong teen-girl role models, what most of the blogs and columns have underestimated is just how strong teen girls are in their opinions and critical reasoning abilities. I think one of the worst things we can do as parents and educators is to dismiss or belittle girls’ love of Twilight, or assume that girls lack the ability to form their own valid opinions of it. Just because Bella makes dubious choices, it doesn’t mean girls are automatically going to do the same. Girls are often highly articulate about why it would be utterly wrong to take the same path as Bella in real life:

I don’t like Bella’s character. Nothing can ever please her. Ever. She whines about absolutely everything, and the only person who seems good enough for her is Edward, which I think is a wrong view to have. —Cherie

Bella experiences crippling depression after she is dumped by Edward . . . If someone wanted to kill me because I smelt delicious, I don’t think I would feel never-ending numbness or pain—maybe more like happiness, joy or relief even. The fact that she can’t function and feels the need to block emotion really does not send the right message. But it’s not just this that I object to; it’s the controlling nature of the relationship. When Edward comes back, he won’t let Bella see her best friend. Turn this situation into a real relationship without vampires—well, that’s domestic abuse.—Maxine

I ended up hating Bella because she is SOOOO needy. But the boys creeped me out too—I could NOT handle having a partner up in my face like that the WHOLE time.” Kris, commenting on Mia Freedman’s blog.

Given the passionate views that so many girls and women have about Twilight—both pro and anti—I actually think it has the potential to be hugely beneficial to girls. It provides the perfect opportunity to communicate with girls and raise crucial issues. One teacher I know who works with a group of 12–18-year-old girls as part of a church youth group started a discussion session after the New Moon movie came out:

When I asked them what they thought of Bella, it took a while to get them to see her faults, but eventually they realised that she was not really that nice after all. She used Jacob relentlessly. She bailed on her friends all the time. She lied to her parents. She put herself in ridiculous danger to prove a point. She endangered the lives of her friends. We were able to discuss these points and talk about what would have been better choices for her . . . They led the discussion themselves and were able to identify the problems . . . We were able to have a great discussion about friendships, loyalty and safety.

Plenty of grown women are Twilight fans and besotted with Edward. Perhapsd_bella_edward_kiss that’s because Twilight takes them back to their own teenage years and the intense emotions of falling in love for the first time, with its almost inevitable pain and drama. What a powerful reminder these books can be for women of the ups and downs teenage girls are going through. Teenage emotions are so overwhelming and big, but as adults it’s easy to lose sight of that and try to minimise what girls are going through. But when we underestimate or make light of teenage crushes, first relationships and first breakups, we can create even more despair and conflict.

I do also think that Stephenie Meyer has instilled some positive values in the Twilight characters, and it can’t hurt to chat with girls about those as well: Bella does not embrace raunch culture; she dresses almost like a tomboy. She doesn’t diet or talk about weight, and she is largely uninterested in her appearance. Yet she is singled out for attention from the other characters, reinforcing that girls don’t have to dress provocatively or obsess over their looks to be loved and valued. Another positive you might have noticed is that Bella doesn’t feel the need to drink alcohol; nor do any of the other characters. And you certainly couldn’t call their alcohol-free lives uncool or boring.

While I don’t suggest for a minute that the Twilight books and movies are works of artistic genius, I do think that there is a benefit in anything that gets girls reading. It is even better if it encourages them to read the classics that inspired Stephenie Meyer.

 But most important of all is the chance Twilight brings women to bond with girls over something they feel strongly about. One of the reasons fantasy fiction is so popular is that it provides a safe space to indulge in fantasies that should have no place in the real world. We can look at the Twilight series as a safe place to let hormones and wild emotions reign for a moment, mothers and daughters alike. Most importantly, it can be the impetus for mothers and daughters to talk. To talk about what a good, nourishing real-life relationship is. To talk about the mistakes we grown-up women have made. The compromises it’s okay to make in a relationship, and the ones we should never make. That it is healthy to develop independence and resilience. We can revel for a time in Bella’s intense story—but talk about the ways in which she could look after herself and respect herself so much more.

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