Some time ago, Laura Miller of Salon.com wrote a compelling critique of the Twilight series. She had a particularly insightful comment to make of Bella:
Bella is not really the point of the Twilight series; she’s more of a place holder than a character. She is purposely made as featureless and ordinary as possible in order to render her a vacant, flexible skin into which the reader can insert herself.
Anyone who has read Fifty Shades of Grey will recognize a doppelganger in the main character of the novel, Anastasia. She is equally blank, equally unaccomplished at anything except biting her own lower lip.
And these are the sort of things that make these heroines apparently absolutely irresistible to the novels’ male protagonists: Bella is clumsy, Anastasia gnaws her own mouth. Because, after all, what else might a real man want?
I have encountered the very same adorable lack of substance in a great deal of erotica and romance recently. Some of the most successful titles sport staggeringly vapid heroines.
I’m finding their overwhelming popularity frightening. These characters are not badly drawn portraits of everything men lust after. They are written by women, for women who, for the most part, are perfectly well educated in terms of feminist theory. How is that that so many women relate deeply to these vessels of emptiness?
It might be argued that the popularity of these ‘empty vessels’ stems from the evolution of other media. Story-telling in game-culture is heavily dependent on creating empty characters in which role-playing gamers can insert themselves in a 2nd person POV narrative experience. Reality TV takes the concept of mediocrity and marketizes it: you don’t have to actually be accomplished at anything to be famous, you just need to get lucky enough to stumble into the glare of the spotlight to get your 5 minutes of fame.
I’ve heard the term ‘cypher’ characters used in this context. But these are not cyphers. Cyphers are mysterious and potentially undecodable. Cyphers are challenging puzzles. Here there is nothing to decode. Here we have a portrait of a female who has no life, no aspirations of her own. She is a vessel waiting for the male character to fill and make significant through the act of filling. Nothing else. These are the Sleeping Beauties of the 21st century.
In the past, literature has been criticized for its poor representation of female characters at the hand of male writers. From Shakespeare to Hemmingway, they’ve been pilloried for their creation of female characters who simply act as plot points for male protagonists. But even Hemmingway never wrote such an insignificant, agency-less woman.
Post-modern theorists would argue that these characters are empty in order to be filled by the minds of the readers. Narrative vessels for the reader’s own creativity. The fictional offered as remix material for the real lived-experience of the consumer. If I believed this were true, I’d feel better.
What I fear is that these empty women are as popular as they are because they reflect how many women feel about themselves. If fashion magazines have succeeded in making most of us feel terrible about our bodies, something else has led us to believe that all our other dreams, goals, ambitions are equally worthless.
And it is easy to see the lazy allure in fantasizing that we might be sought after, adored, lusted after for the simple reason that we have a vagina and a bottom lip to gnaw on. It relieves us of the pressure to strive to be fuller, rounded, complex human beings.
The possible narrative conflicts that can arise in a situation where, for instance, you have a focused, self-directed female character are enormous. Great love affairs, and especially D/s love affairs will, by necessity, engender great frictions with pre-existing career goals, personal aspirations, etc. From a writing perspective, the conflicts arise almost by themselves, believable and compelling.
When you have female characters who have no envisioned life goals, no passions of their own, there is nothing to clash with when they meet with the dominating male character. And so the narrative conflicts have to be manufactured and implausible. Unbelievable misunderstandings of emails, rogue interpretations of reaction, suspect circumstantial hurdles.
And yet, the ridiculously implausible conflicts the authors present us in novels like the Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey series don’t seem to bother the readers. And it is interesting that as these series evolve, the serious conflicts actually belong to the male characters, not the female heroines. The women in these novels seem to be nothing more than the banal and dumbstruck bystanders in the only realistic conflicts that we’re presented with.
Why are we, as women, writing ourselves into insignificance?