By: Nanditha Pillai
“Oh no, this bad,” I typed in my group chat. “This is REALLY bad.” My friend had sent me a personality test that matched you to a fictional character that was most similar to your personality. At the top of my list, with an alarming ninety-seven percent similarity, was none other than Bella Swan of the notorious Twilight universe.
Bella Swan–the object of countless jokes, derided as a disgrace to feminism, scorned as weak, passive and whiny. Everyone loves to hate her. Countless book reviews, movie reviews, and Youtube videos have pulled not just her, but her creator, Stephenie Meyer, and her actor Kristen Stewart, ruthlessly apart, as they read the books aloud in mock-agony because the writing and female representation was simply so excruciatingly terrible. One such Youtuber was Alex Day, in whose videos he reads Twilight, dismayed that the author could have possibly received a literature degree and yet produced such a, to loosely paraphrase him, “worthless piece of garbage.” It is difficult to find the exact quote because his Youtube videos have since been taken down after allegations of inappropriate behavior with women. Alex, under the guise of feminism, is just one of many people that partook in viciously putting down all the principal women associated with a successful franchise, undermining their qualifications, merit and skill.
In their incessant hatred for Bella Swan and her creator, men such as Alex in their enthusiastic “feminism,” as they instruct and remind Stepenie Meyer how to write women characters and tell other women why they should not be like Bella, forget the sheer popularity of the franchise. According to Forbes, at its peak, the franchise earned Meyer more than $40 million (Pomerantz 2010). People decried Meyer’s mind-numbingly horrible writing (their words) and engaged her in often unwarrantedly violent competition with other female writers (I remember one comment about how if she were placed in a ring with Suzanne Collins and JK Rowling, she would “get beaten to a pulp”). The hostility did not stop with Meyer, however. The lead of the movie adaptations, Kristen Stewart, was similarly ripped apart for her terrible acting, which, according to one writer, was “frustratingly emo” and “emotionally hollow” (Kim 2016). But despite the rabid, vindictive, violent antagonism towards the franchise, no one can deny its success. Its success speaks to the fact that as people were busy criticizing and disdaining it, the franchise, for whatever reason, appealed to millions of teenage girls across the country. Girls who felt drawn to the story, to Bella, who may have seen themselves reflected in her. But the people around them were too immersed in denouncing a fictional character as weak and insulting to pay attention to the actual resonances the character had with these female teen viewers.
Scorn is not a new feeling for women as a group, historically. Whether it was by scorning women who were interested in science, in politics, by demeaning their literature as “chick lit,” their interests as vain and frivolous, women are used to not being taken seriously—for wearing makeup, for not wearing makeup, for paying attention to their appearance, for not. The young members of the Twilight fandom got an early taste of their feelings being scorned and dismissed by those who felt morally and intellectually superior to them.
Even before the fateful personality test, the term “strong female character” had rubbed me the wrong way. Something about it bothered me and now I know why. In an effort to encourage and empower women, society is doing what it always has–setting an ideal for women to aspire to, telling them what qualities they should strive to embody, that one set of traits is more desirable than others, and in the process, undercutting, deriding, and dismissing all of the women that do not fit in to this prescribed profile.
I understand how the term came along and its possible motivations, but I am bothered by the word choice. Back when it was almost entirely male writers and directors creating the female characters we saw on screen, any woman that displayed basic human emotions such as anger, or basic human subjectivity through opinions, was lauded as “strong.” A historical example of this was how a 1688 murder testimonial was notable in the way that it presented its female defendant as a “self-conscious, speaking subject” (Dolan 35). This was seen as a subversive risk. For that time, she was a “strong” female representation, merely because the author of the testimonial made the decision to include her feelings. In this way we see how “strong” characters are different from strong people. The character’s strength rests entirely in the fact that she was more accurately depicted than other women of her time and not necessarily her own qualities. Therefore, this representation was “strong” for a female character at the time simply because it was human. But to continue to call female characters “strong” today seems patronizing as though women have a different or lower standard of strength, as though having opinions or expressing anger, something all women do, is something remarkable.
The “strength” is, therefore, seems to be an evaluation of the depiction and the responsibility lies with the male creator. So a more accurate term instead of “strong” female character, would be a more “realistic” female character. But does that responsibility still exist when female-identifying authors create female characters? What if she is drawn from personal experience, thereby automatically making her more “realistic?” I think a “realistic” female character can be any that is created by or in some way resonates with women.
Thus, by virtue of the fact that there are women out there that do like or relate to Bella, she is a realistic female character. And to tell women that they are weak for that connection is counterproductive and dismissive of their realities.
As someone who personally can relate to Bella, to her awkwardness, her quietness and her clumsiness, this judgement of strength in women is not limited to fiction. A family friend was once visibly upset by my shyness, saying my lack of assertiveness was frustrating to her as a feminist. I’ve been told that I need to “smile more,” “be more argumentative,” that I look sad all the time by friends as jokes. The irony of it all is what was funny to me. If a woman’s demeanor, natural personality or inclinations, if the choices she makes about how to present herself is offensive to one’s feminist sensibilities, then that is not feminist. If a woman feels pressure to prove her “strength” by changing her behavior, not out of her own volition, but to meet the approval of society, then that is not feminism. I myself work on being more confident everyday. But the decision to change myself should be my own, whenever and if ever I see a need for it myself, and not because my previous version of existing—notably one that was still kind and respectful of other people—was seen as unacceptable, purely because it did not fit society’s new definition of how a woman should behave. When I see shy girls, I also want them to feel safer to be themselves, more proud of who they are. But the way to do that is not by calling them weak as they are now. It’s by allowing them the space, time and patience to evolve as they choose, whether that means making the choice to change or stay the same because they accept themselves the way they are.
The idea of the “strong” female character also makes me think we should reevaluate our definition of “strength” as a society. Our conceptions of strength are heavily cultural and to create a sweeping, single definition of it which we use to evaluate all the world by is ethnocentric, racist, sexist, and exclusive. Back when gender was viewed as binary and gender roles were associated with certain qualities, traditionally “masculine” qualities of loudness, political leadership and stoicism were primarily associated with strength. I wonder if that same ideal for strength is what still exists today, just now for everyone. We see it play out today in quintessential “strong” female protagonists of dystopian stories, the Katniss Everdeens and Tris Priors, the glamorous martyrs, the faces of revolutions, the athletic risk-takers. But this narrow view of strength excludes strength expressed by everybody in different ways–by quiet people, by people who cry a lot, by people who are not leaders but are discerning, critical and thoughtful in who they choose to follow. Yet these qualities often are not associated with “strength,” even though emotional vulnerability and expression takes courage, silence can be powerful, and it is from followers that leaders derive their status. All people display resilience in their lives, all people navigate complex situations and make difficult decisions. All people are strong.
What we need is for female-identifying individuals to have the space to share their stories, create their characters, and for their audiences to have the freedom to identify with them or not identify with them as they wish, without judgement from society telling them because a female character does not fit into society’s idea of “strength,” she and all those for whom she resonates with are weak and unacceptable.
You can dislike Bella. You can disagree with her. Maybe you, personally, find her annoying. Maybe, you, personally, would not lead your life in the way that she did or make the same choices. Maybe you see her as heavily flawed, because she, like everybody, is flawed. But flawed should not mean unacceptable. Being flawed does not mean deserving of hate. In fact, I want to see more provocative female characters like Bella that evoke strong negative reactions, that spark discussion, that are full of behaviors that are looked down on by society but are seen as relatable by millions of women. Because the simple fact that they relate to her, even though millions of others might not, make her real, and therefore strong.
When I received the results of my personality test, I was not really all that surprised, because I had noticed the similarities myself. But for a moment it did make me wonder if I should be concerned. That reaction in itself made me realize the need to make a case in defense of Bella Swan, and by extension, myself, and all of the other flawed, unlikeable, clumsy, awkward, resting-sad-faced women out there. Because she is not weak, and neither are we.
So let’s leave Bella alone. And maybe reductive, exclusive, counterproductive labels, too, while we’re at it.
Dolan, Frances Elizabeth. Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Kim, Kristen Yoonsoo. “The Moment Kristen Stewart Stopped Being Hollywood’s Most Hated Actress.” Complex. Complex, April 20, 2020. https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2016/06/kristen-stewart-hated-then-beloved-now.
Pomerantz, Dorothy. “Inside The ‘Twilight’ Empire.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, July 11, 2012.https://www.forbes.com/2010/06/22/twilight-kristen-stewart-robert-pattinson-business-entertainment-celeb-100-10-twilight.html?sh=564b88e15761.