Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An entirely absurd argument about YA fictional heroines

Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic is demonstrating his independent, contrarian side by joining Team Bella instead of Team Katniss:
[W]hether it's in a fist fight or in the hearts of critics, butch beats girly every time. The relative discomfort with Bella, then, can be seen as reflecting a larger discomfort with femininity.
Berlatsky is MOAR FEMINIST THAN FEMINISTS, as he demonstrates by defending Bella, icon of femininity, from evil hordes of second-wave critics. Unfortunately, he attempts this by setting up insulting false dichotomies and then misreading the books to support them.

He argues that Bella is emblematic of femininity because she is "girly," as evidenced by the fact that she's "in touch with her desires—she wants to marry and screw Edward, not necessarily in that order." Katniss, on the other hand, is "masculine" and "butch" because she is "smart, fierce, independent, and sexually restrained." At one point Berlatsky contends that "what [Katniss] desired all along was domestic bliss with her nice-guy suitor and a bunch of kids running around the cottage," and Bella is in fact "competent" by virtue of her becoming immensely powerful through vampirism.

The root of this absurdity can be grasped when Berlatsky frames the two characters in terms of their relative endowments of power and desire: "Power and desire have to separate. Katniss has the first only because she doesn't have the second; Bella's got the second only because she doesn't have the first."

This is bollocks. One could view Katniss as a classically maternal protective figure throughout The Hunger Games: she takes the place of her own mother in caring for and providing for her sister, she sacrifices herself to protect her sister from selection for the Games, and she acts as a caretaker for two of her "competitors" during the Games themselves. Her kills during the Games are often indirect (as when she draws a pack of murderous pursuers into a hornets' nest). Katniss is a mama bear, not a macho death junkie, and her power is not conferred by subordination of sexuality but from skills honed through necessity.

More importantly, though, Katniss lacks desire because sex and romance rank somewhat lower on the hierarchy of needs than food, water, and not being executed as part of a televised entertainment. Her competence in certain specific areas lends her power in the narrow context of the Hunger Games, but part of the reason why the last two books are so boring is that it is painfully clear that she is not competent in the political arena and is instead used as a powerless tool. What Katniss wants is freedom: Only with freedom can she have the autonomy necessary to become a lover and a mother.

Bella does not lack power because she feels desire. She lusts for Edward even before he's revealed to be super-strong and practically immortal.* Bella lacks power because she cannot or will not assert herself in any way except to express her "love" for Edward. She could become competent in some meaningful way that required her own effort and agency. Instead, she even attains power through passive means: getting bitten, smelling delicious, and being endowed with thought-shielding abilities.

Bella, as one commenter notes, does not have any conventionally "girly" traits or interests beyond a liking for 19th century fiction and in fact is a consummate failure at the more conventional manifestations of high school girliness like fashion, hairstyling, dancing, and the like. To argue that she is seriously girly (in some manner presumably predating second- and third-wave feminism) because she is in touch with her intense sex drive is very strange, especially given the books' repeated emphasis on the dangers posed by this drive and Edward's constant harping on her to suppress it.**

But all this is ancillary (or is it?) to the question Berlatsky purports to be addressing, which is whether Bella or Katniss would win in a fight. The idea that there would be a fight is absurd, but the reason for peace is not that Bella and Katniss "might understand each other's desires and each other's strength" and walk away in mutual respect. Katniss wouldn't fight Bella because Bella is not an autocratic totalitarian dictator. Bella threatens exactly nothing that Katniss values, and thus Katniss, a user of violence who is not inherently violent, would probably shrug. Katniss's political consciousness and promotion of self-rule does not threaten Bella's tiny microverse of loved ones and would likewise be a non-issue to Bella.

If, however, Bella did think that Katniss made eyes at Edward and attempted to attack her, Bella would be shot before she had any chance to "flatten Katniss with a flick of her perfect pale sparkly wrist." A bow and arrow is effectively a long-range staking machine. I can't believe this is even debatable.

ETA that apparently Twilight vampires are not killed by stakes.They are, however, vulnerable to fire. So: fire arrows, anyone?

* Contra Berlatsky, it is laughable to read Bella's desire for Edward as secondary to her desire to be a vampire---if Edward died, would Bella want to become undead? I think not.

** For her own safety, of course, and eventually she does, waiting for marriage as the true old-fashioned girls were supposed to.
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