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  1. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Gender, power, feminism, patriarchy...

    Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by Steerpike, May 31, 2011.

    To elaborate on a post I made in another thread.

    I think a big mistake people make when dealing with feminist points of view, or what they consider to be strong or weak female characters, is that they often do so by tacitly ratifying the values of a patriarchal system. In other words, for many, to be a more liberated, strong female character, that character has to adopt values and attitudes seen as those of power in our traditional patriarchal system. In other words, they have to adopt roles, attitudes, values, and the like traditionally associated with males.

    This is a mistake because it assumes (again implicitly) that the patriarchal value system is the correct one, and that the best way to judge a female is by use of these values.

    For example, physical strength, determination of a specific sort (for example in business, antagonistic settings etc), and knowledge through reason to name a few. Of course, all people have these traits to one degree or another, and I'm not saying a strong female character should lack them. But they stand in contrast, in many writings, to de-valued traits in patriarchal systems, such as nurturing, knowledge through intuition, etc.

    So when you look at many (most?) books that are considered to have strong female characters, what you generally get is the same positive value on traits traditionally associated with males, and the same devaluation of traits traditionally associated with females.

    Again, let me stress that I am not saying it is right that one set has been associated with males over time, and others with females, I'm just stating the fact that it is the case, historically, and the reaction by many when attempting to produce a liberated, independent, and valued female characters is to emphasize as much as possible traits valued highly by patriarchy and de-emphasize those traits that are not valued. In reality, we all know that people across gender share all of these traits and others.

    I'm sure I'll elaborate on anything that is unclear or misunderstood based on what I've written above, but the general point is that people tend to assume that depicting a woman as having characteristics that are highly valued in patriarchy automatically results in a strong or feminist character, when in fact you've given up half or more of the battle right off the bat by assuming the patriarchal value system is the one that should be used to make assessments of worth.
     
  2. dizzyspell
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    dizzyspell Active Member

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    What about the concept of a "supermom"?

    A supermom typically juggles her maternal role with a career, and there are a good number of female characters who do this in popular fiction.

    Also, your initial post concerned Twilight being sexist, no?
    To me, the reason Twilight is sexist is because Bella (a woman) relies on Edward (a man) for her happiness and emotional well-being.
     
  3. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    Interesting point, but I find two things to be the case.
    A. While patriarchy values are hardly the right ones necessary, some of them are necessary to a good character, like self-determination and the willingness to absorb pain. However, so are maternal traits, for example the ability to emphasize and seek diplomatic solutions also shows how a character has grown in maturity. But, so can things like emotional coldness, because it shows you know the world isn't all sugar and candy, so have adapted to it.
    B. To make the strongest character is the one that's most mature, which means to me someone who has reject BOTH paternal and maternal mindsets, instead seeking to have traits of both. To me, characters like Utena from Revolutionary Girl Utena and Lisbeth Salander succeed in doing this, which is they move beyond these archaic value systems, and create their own. An example of this to me would be the rejection of being led, instead being an individual refusing to become a cog in a machine.
     
  4. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    From the first book (which is all I read), and then what I understand of the rest, Bella and Edward are both the same in the regard, and she has her own exercises of power over the situation. The other thing about any vampire situation is that there are presumably supernatural factors at work, though I don't know enough about the Twilight books to comment on that. I look at the relationship there as one where they are both over-wrought in the relationship. So to judge Bella harshly on it, while giving Edward a pass, seems to me to be a sexist approach in and of itself. Edward was going to kill himself without Bella. That's pretty reliant on another person for happiness and emotional well-being. But you don't hear the criticism of Edward for that kind of probably unhealthy aspect of the relationship. It is only Bella that is viewed as weak because of it.
     
  5. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I don't know enough about Utena. To me, Lisbeth doesn't start out as you suggest, but by the end I see her having moved in that direction. Which is a good thing, because her transformation as a character is important to the story, and I think maybe she realizes by the end that she doesn't have to be as she was at the start of the stories to be strong.
     
  6. dizzyspell
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    dizzyspell Active Member

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    Ah, but that's because we only know Bella's POV. Edward may just be playing her.
    I agree that the themes of codependence in the book are worse than the sexism, but as we see through a feminine viewpoint, that is what we are drawn to. We know without a doubt that Bella cannot be happy without Edward. As charming as he may be to the reader, I would argue that much of his charm comes from mirroring her more "feminine" emotions.

    The second book is the worst, as far as sexism is concerned, in my opinion. That's the one when she goes all psycho/self destructive because he's left her.
     
  7. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I think it is sexist to view her having done so as a result of her gender. She and Edward have a mutual obsession, and a strange on. I think that's fairly clear, despite being in Bella's POV. But Edward's brooding obsession is seen in some ways as desirable while Bella's is seen as weak.

    People do become self-destructive in relationships like that. I've seen it happen with both men and women. So how come it is sexist for Bella to be depicted that way in book two? The only way it can be is if the person viewing it as such has some underlying assumptions about gender that lead them to conclude that Bella must be that way because she's a female, when in reality there is nothing to suggest that it is the fact of her being female that makes her this way. It is a personality trait of a human being, and one that appears to me to be shared by her male counterpart.
     
  8. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    btw - no offense intended. I find it an interesting subject matter. As you can probably discern from my comments, I find much of the critique of Bella to be vastly more sexist than Meyer's depiction of her.
     
  9. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's not sexist. That's called being in love. That's a major theme in Twilight, the obsessive quality of love.

    And Steerpike I agree... sort of. To call woman who assume more masculine roles pro-feminism has a touch of irony. But what is becoming the new face of sexism is the actual designation of those roles to a particular gender. So to say that females behave in certain way and males act in a certain manner actually contradicts the premise of gender equality. The new belief is that both genders have broken out of the shackles of the past and are free to assume whichever roles they please. If a man wants to be gentle and nurturing he has every right to be, just like a female can be assertive and aggressive. There are no molds anymore, only a level playing field. So those who favor female protagonists who step away from the meek personality that has been associated with woman in the past, do so because it these characters who epitomize the merging of gender traits and the demise of gender stereotypes.
     
  10. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I agree 100%. I tried to use the word "traditionally" in my original post, to indicate that the traits have historically been seen as more masculine or feminine and valued or devalued accordingly, but I think the real trick is to understand that all of these traits are human traits, present in varying degrees among all people, and that tying value judgments concerning gender to a set of traits is a mistake.

    As to your last sentence, I think that's the reason in some cases. In other instances, I fear that the reason is that the writer has bought into the notion that those traits are more highly valued, and is applying them for that reason.
     
  11. dizzyspell
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    dizzyspell Active Member

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    To consider that, you have to consider the target audience, in my opinion.

    We can agree that the target readers of these books are mostly young females? In that case, while a mature adult can read these books and see them as an interesting social commentary on codependant relationships, it is unlikely that that is what most readers are getting out of them.

    I think it is unrealistic to assume that this target market can approach this series - a romance series, no less, and one written from a female's POV - without any preconceptions about what it means to be a woman in a relationship. It is equally unrealistic then, in my view, to expect them not to take anything about that gender role from it.

    Also, I think that by writing romance aimed at this age group, Meyer must have (to some extent) considered this.
     
  12. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    This is true. Although I don't know that the target audience is as easily pulled in as we might think. I read the first one because my daughter (14 at the time) wanted to read it, and I wanted to see what it was about. She read the series and while she really liked it she thought Bella was an idiot and wouldn't want to emulate that behavior. She was entertained, but not influenced, I suppose.
     
  13. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    There's a really interesting and quite damning test you can apply to books, movies, etc called the Bechdel test, to see whether it treats female characters in a realistic and equal manner to males.

    The test consists of three questions:
    1. Are there two or more speaking female characters?
    2. Do they speak to each other?
    3. Do they talk about something other than a man?

    A lot of books and films with what are superficially pro-Feminist, powerful women protagonists still fail this test, which seems to indicate that these women are often treated in an almost hermaphroditic way. What I like about this test is that it doesn't rely on overt Feminism on the part of the author, but explores their subconscious conception of social structures.

    Interestingly, for all the Feminist rhetoric that can (reasonably) be launched at them, all of the Twilight books and movies pass this test.
     
  14. Jonp
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    Jonp Senior Member

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    Umm... what are the answers? :p
     
  15. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    They're yes or no questions...?
     
  16. Jonp
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    Jonp Senior Member

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    But what do the answers mean? If they're all yes does that mean according to the test the book is non-sexist? And do all no's mean it is?
     
  17. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    It's not quite as simple as sexist or non-sexist, but generally, if the answers are yes then it's more likely that the female characters are treated in a fair and realistic way, as opposed to those where the answers are no, where women are more likely to function merely as objects of desire or token characters. For example, every James Bond film has a woman prominently featured, but almost every James Bond film fails the Bechdel test, and with good reason. But the results are never that simple--take Sucker Punch: it passes the Bechdel test, but it still clearly objectifies and fetishises dominant/violent women. So the answers to the Bechdel test act as one of a variety of indicators as to the author's position towards women.
     
  18. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Interesting subject matter. If you want to read some excellent short stories, check out Angela Carter. Her stories are taught in some women's studies courses. The Erl King and Wolf-Alice are two that I really enjoyed.
     
  19. Jonp
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    Jonp Senior Member

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    That is interesting, but it seems a tad oversimplified. I mean, how about all those horror movies where a group of girls are chatting to each other about just how so gosh-darned uncomfortable their bras are right now, and how much better they would feel if they were to remove them? That would pass the test :)
    It seems like there could be a lot of exceptions to the rule, but it's a good place to start.
     
  20. darkhaloangel
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    darkhaloangel Active Member

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    Found your thread!

    Perhaps if you took Bella as a character (rather than imagining her as a real person) it would be easier to analyse. So where is the action? Most of the things that happen in the story, happen to Bella because of a male influence. This means that the centre of control is not Bella.

    It suggest to be passive is to be feminine - however I'm sure Steerpike would argue that it doesn't neccessarily mean that the writer is sexist merely some women are passive and fit into these traditional gender roles.

    But surely the passive approach to 'depicting' woman was sexist and still is sexist? And because of Meyers sketchy supporting characters (it's mostly Bella, Edward and Jacob) the balance is never rectified in other characters and certainly not rectified in the psyche of Bella.

    After all passive and woman are associated, but lets be honest passive and woman has never really been true. It has been something that male writers have written and fantasised about and it has become ingrained in the psyche of women that this is how they should act; who they should be. Surely Meyer, is writing with a masculine view point and not giving her character the 'realism' and ability to transcend this 'passive' personality which is being forced on her.

    Bella is not a character that deviates from her traditional roles. Woman are seen as one thing, men as others. In this case, women as passive, men as active. This could have been justified with balance, but the balance is simply not there, thus it is sexist. Just as if a book displayed all women as active and all men as passive - there is no balance and thus the text would be inherently sexist as well.

    Logic aside - I wouldn't want a young person reading that book and thinking that's who I want to be! I want to sit around and wait for things to happen! This isn't sexist, but it's frankly a terrible message to convey.
     
  21. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    Actually, I remember starting a thread on reactive characters, so it can be okay for a character to be nonactive. However, it still isn't okay for them to be passive, because that means they don't take action period. I'm just posting this to differentiate between a reactive character, and a passive character, something people forget at times.
     
  22. hiddennovelist
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    hiddennovelist Contributing Member Contributor

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    Can you explain to me how most of the things that happen to Bella are because of a male influence? Do you just mean that she does a lot of the things she does because of Edward? Or are you saying something else?
     
  23. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    This assumes the young person reading the book is stupid.
     
  24. Kio
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    Kio Contributing Member

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    Uh... no, just impressionable. Most teenagers are impressionable and being impressionable=/= being stupid.

    By the way, Bella was meant to be a pod for other girls to jack whenever they read the book. She was meant to be completely passive and nonreactive without much of a personality and the depth of a puddle because then she would be non-distinctive. When a character like her is completely nondescriptive and two-dimensional, it's so easy for anyone to just put themselves in her shoes. But I do agree that it is pretty sexist. Her behaviour is hardly examplary and her happiness depends on Edward.

    And, no, this is hardly called "falling in love". There is a difference between compassionate love or "true love" and "passionate love". When one mentioned falling in love, he or she is probably insinuating true love, where the partners are not only lovers, but friends. They are able to separate for moments at a time, they are not in a symbiotic relationship, and the significant other is able to see flaws and still be able to love his or her partner, despite that.

    Passionate love is a bit like a mental disorder that you're cursed with and, from what I've studied, Bella has most of the symptoms of passionate love. She is unable to be separate from him, she refuses to acknowledge any of his flaws, she completely ignores the risk of being around him (he's even told her that he's thought of KILLING HER and she still doesn't care), she doesn't want to hear about his flaws, she tolerates whatever bad behaviour he has, and her feelings for Edward are sudden, despite not knowing who he really is. All she knows about him is that he seems to hate her and he's handsome. Other than that, not much else.

    True love is progressive while passionate love is regressive. Those in a relationship based on true love only grow fonder of each other, whereas those who are in a passionate love relationship will spike in their feelings for their significant other, then suddenly drop.

    So Bella is not "in love", she is simply in a state of mindless passion that, in reality, should eventually blow over after a few months or a year with Edward.

    Stephanie Meyer makes passionate love look like compassionate love, where it's normal for a woman to feel complete without a man and that it's fine to go into months-worth of depression because her "other half" left her. Meyer presents no solution for Bella to cope with the loss of Edward other than to sit around and feel sorry for herself.

    Also, Bella has dumped her support because Edward told her, too. He spies on her at night (as if that's perfectly ok) and she's fine with that. He's way too clingy and doesn't like it whenever Bella is out of his sight. Edward is pushy, irritable, dangerous and controlling, yet Bella tolerates all of this. It's as if Meyer is telling teenaged girls that it's alright for your boyfriend to be like this because all these traits are seen as "endearing" or, well, "hot". This is sexist because Bella is almost always seen as the passive damsel in distress while Edward is the active, controlling hero in their disfunctional relationship. I'm not saying that having a damsel in distress as a protagonist is sexist (in fact, it could make for a good read if executed well enough), but making it seem as if that is the way things are and, in a way, should be, gives this book a sexist undertone.
     
  25. darkhaloangel
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    darkhaloangel Active Member

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    In reply to hiddennovelist - The difference is that Bella has things happen to her, and she reacts because of other male characters. Even decisions which you think were soley hers - really are just reactions toward Edward. Killer300 makes a good point about reactive and passive protagonists, but the line between these two states in incredibly difficult to draw, and they still show characters that do not act without others. A successful life approach is usually because of action - it gives power to the person - it enables them to act under their own steam.

    Sexism is treating males and females differently based on their gender - unforunatly Meyers does base her decisions on the genders. There is no balance in her books.

    Nicely said!
     
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