Why I Love Bella Swan, part 1: Feminist Reading

This is a tidied-up version of a talk I gave to UOW’s Feminist Society’s Free School in October, with bonus content like:

  • full sentences
  • proper references
  • Chicks on Speed videos

It was an hour-long talk, which comes in at around 5000 words, so I’m going to split it into a few parts. This first part sets up some of the political-theoretical background to my reading of Twilight – and specifically Bella Swan – with some ideas about how feminism works and how reading works. It’s also the part with the embedded Chicks on Speed video.

So talking about Bella involves talking about feminism and reading, and about the ways they intersect. Feminism and reading are two of the most important things in the world to me: they’re the way I make my living, as an English lecturer, and they’re also  perpetual sources of sustenance – rage, energy, surprise, conflict, and joy – both professionally and personally. And they intersect, also, in complex and interesting and challenging and sustaining ways. So I want to kick off by writing about where I stand in relation to feminism, where I stand in relation to reading, and what I think about their interrelations.

One of the key things about feminism, to me, is that it’s both very broad and very specific. Feminism should be, and is, a vast and broad movement: broad enough that the plural ‘feminisms’ is probably more accurate, but I like to keep the singular, for the sense that there’s something we’re all in together, even if we’re not quite agreed on what that something is, or even exactly what we’re opposing (patriarchy? heteropatriarchy? white heteropatriarchy? gender binarism? kyriarchy? rape culture?) It’s important to me that when I speak as a feminist, my voice is heard as one of many: that the movement includes many, many diverse positions.  And it includes them not in a kind of dialectical way, so that as each person speaks she corrects the person before her and eventually we all get to THE RIGHT WAY to be a feminist (and can finally kick out all those pesky BAD feminists), but in a way that genuinely allows for the coexistence of many overlapping, incommensurable, even, sometimes, mutually exclusive positions. This was something I found really energizing about Roxane Gay’s book, Bad Feminist, where she writes:

We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.

My vision for feminism, like (I think) Gay’s, is one where we all speak from our own positions, we all advocate as passionately as we can for our own ideas and beliefs – our own feminism – but we are aware of, and we respect, the existence of other positions. Aware and respectful to the extent that our passion and advocacy doesn’t – as far as possible – turn into an attempt to suppress or silence or drown out other feminist voices, other women.

Here is where Chicks on Speed come in! My embedding is broken for some reason, but here’s the link. Go watch, then come back.

Chicks on Speed: We’re standing on stage with our microphones

But we don’t play guitars…

We like to use gaffer tape! But we don’t play guitars!

Give us your gaffer tape! But we don’t want your guitars!

Peaches: Well, you may not play guitars, but I do.

Well, maybe C.o.S. don’t play guitars, but P.E.A.C.H.E.S plays guitar.

And I love it!

That right there, people, is my vision of feminism. (Well, actually, my vision of feminism is not solely inhabited by young skinny white people, but let that pass for the moment.) The Chicks’ refusal of guitars is a source of energy and joy to them (and, via the song, to us). It doesn’t lock them into any other, connected refusals – you might think that if they don’t play guitars, they won’t like gaffer tape, but they do! They totally want your gaffer tape, they just don’t want your guitar! And the infectious energy and joy of their refusal is not diminished one bit by Peaches’ diametrically opposed position: they are DELIGHTED that Peaches plays guitar and she loves it.

Doesn’t mean they’re wrong, though. They still don’t (have to) play guitar.

So this song, for me, is a vision of how to do feminism: hold hard to the sources of our energy and our joy – including our anger and our refusals of certain ways of being – but do it in a way that fundamentally leaves open other positions, other energies, joys, refusals.

So feminism for me is broad and multiple. It’s also specific, though, in that it is about women. (Sara Ahmed has a fantastic post – which I now can’t find – about encountering a feminist theorist saying that it’s very dated, very old-fashioned, to think that feminist work has to engage with gender – that feminism has something to do with sex/gender, or sexism, or the oppression of women – and I’ve heard this a few times myself, too). The thing is, though, that ‘women’ is a really complicated term – much more complicated than it sounds – and feminists tend to run into problems when they use the generic term ‘women’ when they actually mean ‘middle-class white women’, or, indeed, ‘young skinny white women’, to pick a not-at-all-random example. And it’s simply impossible to make a statement about women that is true for all women, across differences of nationality, race, class, sexual orientation, motherhood or childfreedom, cisness/transness, etc.

But – given all these glorious and crunchy complications –  for me, at its heart, what feminism means is being on the side of women.

That doesn’t mean that I agree with all women, or that I like all women, or that I think every individual woman in the world is better than every individual man in the world. But it does mean that my default position, as a feminist – as the kind of feminist I am – is to be in favour of stuff that’s important to women and to question the universality of male culture.

Both of those things inform the way I feel about Bella Swan.

The second Big Idea in this discussion is reading, but fortunately for my word count, I basically feel exactly the same about reading as I do about feminism. What’s good about reading is that it’s inherently plural: there is no right way to read, and reading is not about trying to get to the One True interpretation of a text so that you can definitively crush everyone else who is WRONG about, for example, Bella Swan. That plurality is challenging: it can be exciting and pleasurable, it can be infuriating and distressing. But it seems to me – and I’ve been thinking about this quite hard for about ten years now – that a ‘good’ reading is one where you can unpick its premises, explain why you read a text the way you do, and share that reading with others. What I do for a living and for a hobby is read books and then talk about and write about the way I read them, and the readings I find boring or non-useful or frustrating are usually either ones that strive to be objective (‘this text is bad because it uses ADVERBS and that is AGAINST THE RULES OF GOOD WRITING’) or ones that are so subjective they aren’t even making an effort to communicate (‘I just didn’t like the main character’). Readings I like – not necessarily those I agree with – are those that make something new visible to me: something about the text, or about the assumptions I’ve brought to a text, or both.*

So, then: feminist reading. Bearing in mind that I don’t think there’s a right way to be a feminist – but I do think it’s important to let there be lots of ways, not just coexisting but conflicting and that I don’t think there’s a right way to read – but I do think it’s important to let there be lots of ways, not just coexisting but conflicting – obviously I’m not going to be arguing that there is a correct feminist way to read Twilight and an incorrect feminist way to read Twilight. There are ways that hating Twilight can sustain your identity as a woman, as a feminist; and there are elements of Twilight – its racial politics, particularly – that I would not defend (here is a clear, concise take-down of the representation of the Quileute Nation in the books, films, and broader franchise). I do think, though, that there are also ways that loving Twilight sustains me as a woman and a feminist. But I don’t want my sustaining love for it to take away your sustaining hate for it: I don’t want to take away anything that sustains a woman’s way of being a woman, being a feminist, in this world.  There are enough people and forces and institutions doing that all the time and everywhere and every day, and it’s the first duty of a feminist not to join in with them.

But.

There are two things here.

The first is that, as I’ve said, I think the best way to let all these readings/positions coexist and clash creatively is for everyone to argue their own case as passionately, and as respectfully, as they can: so in the two posts that follow, I’m going to make as strong a case as I can for Bella Swan as a feminist icon. That doesn’t mean trying to prove other people wrong: it just means trying to show you as clearly as I can, and in full awareness that you won’t see it that way, what I see.

(Maybe C.O.S. don’t read Twilight, but I.K.A. reads Twilight. And I love it!)

And the second thing is that I don’t want to take away anything that sustains a woman’s way of being a feminist in this world unless ‘feminism’ is being used to denigrate or hurt other women.**  And I think that certain kinds of ‘feminist’ readings of Twilight are being used in that way – or at least are proceeding without awareness of some of the anti-girl forces that they are, potentially, complicit with. This is always going to be a judgement call, and it’s not something you can solve in the abstract, but that’s precisely why I want to stop talking in the abstract and move on to the particular case: so, in Part 2, we’ll talk about Twilight itself.

* Since giving this talk I learned the word ‘dissensus’ from Ruth Barcan, which I think might have saved me most of those words up there. Dissensus is what feminism and reading is all about! Here is how Bill Readings defines the ‘community of dissensus’ in his 1997 book The University in Ruins (p.187):

In the horizon of dissensus, no consensual answer can take away the question mark that the social bond (the fact of other people, of language) raises. No universal community can embody the answer; no rational consensus can decide simply to agree on an answer.

** This, of course, is where it gets complicated, because the term ‘women’ covers so many constituencies and kinds of people, who have some interests in common but many, many interests that conflict, and so, really, almost anything that you do to help or sustain ‘women’ is, in fact, going to help and sustain some women and denigrate or harm other women. There is no way around this: as Derrida says in The Gift of Death, there is always ‘the other other’, and anything you do in the name of the ‘other’ involves turning away from the other other. While I am trying to rescue Bella Swan and the woman and girls who created her and who love her, I am diverting my energy from all the other women in the world. That’s why we need there to be a strong, broad feminist community, so that the impossible burden of being right all the time doesn’t fall on each of us at once, separately and individually, and SQUASH US FLAT. (See Caitlin Moran on feminism as a quilt, here). Because, like I said, the whiteheterokyropatriarchalrapeculture is squashing enough of us already.

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