I’ve gotten into a bit of a back and forth about the Twilight series with pop-culture blogger Alyssa Rosenberg. It started with Alyssa’s article on the Atlantic website in which she argued that the Twilight is a poor excuse for a fantasy series because Bella is overly passive:

I don’t imagine that I was alone when I was young in wishing there was something magical about me – or in reading Talking to Dragons until it became dog-eared or keeping The Mists of Avalon perpetually on renewal at the library. What girl doesn’t wish she could discover some special attribute about herself that would smooth her way through the demons of junior high school and beyond—particularly if that something would get her noticed for the first time by a boy or girl with special attributes of their own? But earlier this week, when I stumbled over the Twilight finish line, reaching the final page of Breaking Dawn, the series’ last book, it seemed clear to me that even in my younger days, Bella Swann would never have captured my imagination in the same way Cimorene, or Juniper, or Wise Child, or Morgaine had, and still do. Those heroines understand the joy of being loved by someone else. But their stories make the case that being a witch, or a warrior, or a queen—even without a king—might be better than an eternity as a metaphorical princess in a metaphorical tower, no matter how much the vampire company sparkles.

I responded in an article on Splice Today:

The real issue is, as Rosenberg says, that Bella’s actions are all inspired by her love for family and friends, rather than by a desire to save entire kingdoms and uphold “justice and freedom.” Of course, by this standard, Elizabeth Bennett isn’t much of a role model either—why, she never saves anyone! And what about Jane Eyre, refusing to sacrifice herself by going off to do mission work among the poor and heathen and benighted. What kind of model for young girls is that?

Rosenberg might as well just come out and say, “You know what? I don’t really like romance—and, on top of that, I’m kind of a liberal do-gooder who thinks that abstract notions like justice and power are more important than love and family.” Rosenberg accuses Meyer of turning Bella into a “metaphorical princess in a metaphorical tower.” But she’s not a princess in a tower; she’s a wife in a family, and one who at the end is not only equal to her husband in strength and magical powers, but actually superior to him. That hardly seems rabidly anti-feminist to me-but I like Pride and Prejudice too, so what do I know.

Rosenberg came back on her own blog to tell me that I’m still wrong, most pointedly because she does in fact like romance novels. Assuming makes an ass out of me as they say…though, as I’ll argue here, for somebody who likes romance novels, Alyssa is awfully uncomfortable with some of the central points of the genre.

So first, on a couple of interpretive points. Alyssa takes me to task for overestimating Bella’s achievements and power. In my Splice Today essay, I argue that Bella has to practice to master her magical vampiric abilities in the last volume, and that she ends up being stronger than Edward. Alyssa responds:

I think Noah’s actually mistaken: when Bella finally uses her powers, she exerts them much farther than she’s ever been able to in her practice sessions, which kind of defeats the point if you’re trying to make an argument about “determination and commitment.” (Also, to the point Noah makes in a paragraph I pull out below about Bella being more powerful than Edward, Meyer seems to establish pretty clearly that that’s just because she’s a new vampire, not that it’ll be permanent.)

Bella does become much more powerful at the end of the book all of a sudden; the rationale is that her loved ones are threatened, and that gives her the inspiration to exert an extra oomph. But it’s not clear to me that therefore all the training and work was worthless. Surely the point could just as easily be, you put all the effort in, you exert yourself to the limit, and maybe that will be enough to get that miracle you need. It’s a little overly pat, sure; but I think it’s a stretch to argue that it’s not about Bella working to achieve success.

As for the strength thing — Bella’s natural vampiric strength will fade after she’s a newborn, sure. But her power seems to only be getting stronger — and it’s her power (the ability to negate other vampires’ powers) which really makes her more special, and more powerful, than Edward. (It’s also worth noting that Bella is unusuall self-controlled for a new vampire, which is a big part of the reason she’s even able to use her physical strength in a way that’s at all useful to her or anyone else.)

To move onto more substantial disagreements: Alyssa responded to my comparison of Bella with Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre by saying this:

I think Noah forgets that I’m writting a critique of Twilight within the realm of fairy tale, and about why it’s a step backwards within the innovations of that genre. But I absolutely agree that I would be completely and utterly freaked out if teenage girls wanted to emulate Jane Eyre. Less so if they wanted to be little Lizzy Bennets, since she’s an intellectual and stands up to class prejudice (to the extent capable within her constraints of course). But I do think those books are regularly read with the acknowledgment that a) they’re about an era when women’s choices were substantially limited, b) frequently read in a context like a classroom where those roles can be discussed, and c) presented social criticisms in the times they were written. Twilight is neither set in another era (although it’s curiously removed from the technology of today) nor is it mostly read in a critical context like a classroom. And while I recognize that many, many Twilight readers can distinguish fact from fiction, I do think that some of the book’s themes demand a critical context, particularly the obsessiveness of the love affairs. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think it’s important, especially with young girls, to have a conversation about the fact that sometimes, no matter how much you love someone, if he leaves you, he is never coming back. I don’t think this is a trifling point: Bella never experiences permanent romantic loss, something a lot of contemporary fairy tales have managed to incorporate into the genre, and that’s a genuinely valuable lesson in a society where most people date before they marry.

So there’s a bunch there…but let’s start at the top.

First, I wasn’t saying that Jane Eyre was a bad model. On the contrary, I was saying that, at least in the incident I referenced, she’s a fine model. At the end of the book, the aptly named St. John tells Jane that she should marry him and come with him to be a missionary in some far away, benighted land. Despite great pressure, from St. John and her own conscience, Jane eventually refuses to go, putting her love and family above the call to change the world for the better. That’s a choice Bella would agree with. Would Alyssa?

Alyssa is more willing to accept Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice as a role model…but even here, she’s leery. Elizabeth, after all, isn’t really sufficiently independent; she doesn’t save the world, she marries to devote herself to the estate and her husband — not quite independent enough, for all her spunkiness. So, to make Pride and Prejudice safe, we need to read it in a classroom context, where girls can be taught what to think and what not to think about their chosen romance.

As someone who spent 14 years developing curriculum for high school students, I can say with some certainty that this is utter nonsense. The only thing students get from studying a book in school is bored. If Pride and Prejudice ever had any relevance, the fastest way to denude it of same is to relegate it to the classroom. And Alyssa’s comments on Twilight in this connection are almost Kantian; the problem with the books is that they’re not read in a classroom context, and as a result, girls actually enjoy them! The fall of society and/or feminism is certainly at hand.

I also find this point kind of bizarre:

“Bella never experiences permanent romantic loss”

It’s true; Bella gets everything she wants. At the end. Along the way, though, she experiences intense, brutal despair, not once, but multiple times. Edward rejects here and she really thinks he doesn’t love her, causing her to be almost nonfunctional for months.Then Jacob rejects her, making her miserable for an extended period. And it’s those experiences, as much as (or more than) the eventual triumph, that are really the heart of the series. To suggest that Bella needs to be *more* depressed really seems kind of ridiculous. I do get the point that most girls are going to not get the first guy they love, and that it’s useful to point that out . But at the same time, Twilight is not shy about acknowledging, and even reveling in, romantic disappointment.

The real heart of our disagreement is here, though:

As for the assertion that “I’m kind of a liberal do-gooder who thinks that abstract notions like justice and power are more important than love and family.” First, it’s a mistake again to conflate the abstract concepts of justice and equality as they exist in fairy tales with contemporary politics. And one of the things I find fascinating about contemporary fairy tales of all stripes is the ways they’ve managed to make the condition of societies and of individual marriages co-equal. In a lot of contemporary fairy tales, the main characters have to establish peace or societal equilibrium in order to craft a space where a marriage can thrive….I actually think it exalts love to tie it to larger societal concerns, rather than to isolate it entirely from society, and it makes for wider-ranging and more interesting stories, too.

Abstract justice in fairy tales doesn’t map exactly onto contemporary politics, of course…but it isn’t divorced from them either. And, indeed, in the rest of her argument here Alyssa goes on to make parallels between how life and politics work in a fairy tale and how they work in the real world. She likes certain fairy tales, she says, because they present an image in which men and women fall in love and work together to save the world (or work together to save the world and fall in love.) The dream Alyssa wants is one in which social and political engagement maps onto romance, and the two enrich each other. That’s why she doesn’t like the message in Jane Eyre, where political and social engagement is shown as existing in contrast to love; it’s why she’s uncomfortable with the message in Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth Bennet never really thinks all that much about social or political engagement (Alyssa says at the end of her essay that Elizabeth engages in rebellion…but really, calling a little satirical wit rebellion seems fairly desperate wishful thinking.) And her enthusiasm for great social change and rebellion is also why Alyssa absolutely hates Forks, the little town where Bella spends her life.

There is no larger world beyond family and Forks in the Twilight books, and if I were immortal, I think I might get kind of bored with that after a while. But then, I was never the kind of girl who could stare at a guy’s face for that long.

Okay, sure, I get that the treacly romance eternal love thing is irritating. But what is wrong with Forks? And why, as Alyssa repeatedly insists, is it lame, or passive, to save your loved ones and your entire family? Why exactly is Bella a failure? Because she doesn’t want to rule a kingdom? Because she doesn’t want to save the world? Because she’s chosen to care for those she loves and not impose her passing messianic dreams on the rest of the populace? Because her story — which is much more romance than fairy tale — ends in private happiness rather than public triumph?

Alyssa reminds me that she works as a political reporter, and is therefore not a liberal do-gooder at all, but instead is non-partisan. All right. Then she should be fine with the following argument, hopefully. Most people — girls, boys, what have you — they’re not going to save the world. Most of them don’t even want to save the world, you know? Is that because they’re victims of false consciousness and read too many Twilight books? Or is it because wanting to save the world is a kind of megalomaniacal sickness that most people just aren’t especially afflicted with? Or is it because there are different strokes for different folks? In any case, the fact remains; Bella, like most people, cares about the people she cares about. On their behalf, she’s able to do great things — risk her life, battle against evil, even perform miracles. But she doesn’t get off — and most of her readers don’t get off — on writing the wrongs of the world. Does that make her, and them, less virtuous or wrong? Are all those people in the Forkses of the world just not ambitious enough? I’m a liberal do-gooder myself, but still, that seems like a pretty presumptuous conclusion to me.

Update: It sounds like Alyssa is probably not going to respond further, so I should probably add that she’s been incredibly gracious and pleasant throughout the whole back and forth. So thanks, Alyssa. It’s been fun.