Friday, August 16, 2013

Remember how I said in an earlier post that I was willing to trash Twilight?

Remember when you were a seventeen and you were dating that guy (what’s his name again?), and you were so sure that you would never break up because THIS really was TRUE LOVE, and your parents were totally WRONG about him, he really was in love with you, and no two people as deeply in love as you would EVER break up, and no one, especially not an adult, could possibly understand how in love you were?

That’s the world view Twilight endorses. It’s not alone. In fact, most YA romances do. I don’t find that surprising at all: when I was a teen, I totally endorsed that view myself.

What I do find bizarre is how popular Twilight was with mothers of teen girls. My own children are boys, but I have two tween nieces whom I adore, and Bella Swan is the last girl on earth I’d hold up as a role model. Think about it: she falls in true “forever and ever” love with the first guy she ever dates. She practically becomes suicidal when he dumps her. And in the final insult, after he comes back, she contentedly decides to skip going to Dartmouth—or college at all—so she can get married and have a baby at age 18.

I think some parents buy into the Twilight world view because they think it will encourage their daughters to avoid casual sex--or even premarital sex altogether. I don’t really have any time for the abstinence-only, “True Love Waits” propaganda, but even liberal parents might be seduced by the fact that old-fashioned Edward doesn’t pressure Bella into having sex. I can see why he might seem like a reassuring character. Of course I don’t want my nieces dating boys that pressure them into doing things they’re not ready for, any more than I want my sons to pressure the people they date (or be pressured themselves).

But I still don’t buy it, and I think the impulse to hold up Edward as a model boyfriend is driven more by understandable but unhelpful parental panic over teen sex than a sober consideration of what advice might actually enable our girls to negotiate healthy, mutual sexual relations. How on earth can it help them to promote such utterly unrealistic notions of male behavior?

All this being said, I concede that so long as the depictions are talked about frankly not wishfully, the Twilight books could play a useful role in helping parents talk to their teens about sexual relations. However, I have another problem with Twilight, a more serious one in part because I see it in a lot of YA books (as well as Fifty Shades of Grey that was based on Twilight) that otherwise don't have any time for Meyer's religious conservatism.

I CANNOT STAND the way the author holds up for praise Bella’s lack of ego. It’s repeatedly made clear that Bella does not realize how physically attractive she is. Moreover Meyer plays this as a big part of the reason Edward loves her so much—she’s nothing like the vain, snobby, mean girls who think they’re going to win the class Prince Charming. But really CinderBella deserves him because she’s so adorably humble.

Yuck Yuck Yuck!

Like a lot of romance novelists, Meyer succumbs to the temptation of piling on the superlatives with her hero: the Adonis-like good looks, the classy wealth, the soulful piano playing. But since the novel is narrated in first person, what we get is Bella’s endless musings on how lucky she is and how she just can’t believe someone this amazing would want her—as if she doesn’t believe she really deserves him. The implication is that the only way for a girl to know she’s attractive is if a highly desirable male wants her.

All I can say to that is what a godawful notion to impress on a teenage girl. Fuck humility. A healthy ego is not the same as a fat head. I want my nieces to have a strong sense of self-worth—like Jane Austen’s Emma strong! Or Elizabeth Bennet, who scornfully tells an extremely handsome and much richer guy he’s not good enough for her because he doesn’t know how to treat her. And the best part is that it’s absolutely true—he’s not good enough, not until he learns how to respect her. As Darcy tells Elizabeth in an achingly beautiful scene of reconciliation: “I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”

Romantic, certainly, a fantasy, most likely, but one I would wish for the two young women who are most dear to me.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The apotheosis of the bitchy ex-girl-friend, or a review of Shattered Glass

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The biggest disadvantage of reading so many books so quickly is that the clich├ęs, like thrusting alpha males, tend to come hard and fast. They are more obvious and annoying in bulk. My background doesn’t help since I’ve been trained to identify and analyze literary patterns. And much as I love romance and erotica, they are definitely genres that are strongly driven by familiar conventions. Some like the Happy Ever After I don’t mind (because honestly what’s the point of reading a romance with a downer ending?)

Other conventions are more dubious, however. Villains are an especially weak point in most romance novels. An inordinate number of romance heroines (and heroes) suffer from obsessed, crazy, abusive ex-boyfriends-turned-stalkers. They are also commonly cursed with narcissistic, overly skinny, conventionally gorgeous mothers and/or sisters, who make their lives hell. (Though luckily, they usually have eccentric but loving grandmothers to make up for it.)

Shattered Glass, Dani Alexander’s superb debut novel, tells the story of Austin Glass (also the narrator), who discovers in the first scene that he is very attracted to a young man. The problem is that Austin is not only straight, but about to get married--to Angelica. By the rules of the genre, Angelica will have to be dumped, and our initial impression is a hearty “good riddance.” She’s a walking compendium of nightmare girlfriend attributes: Almost her first words to Austin are, “Just park anywhere. You can afford the ticket.” She’s a super wealthy trust fund baby, whom Austin describes as “elegant and beautiful.” She’s also a total Bridezilla, having changed the color scheme for their wedding six times and made Austin order five different suits from a custom tailor. Most ominously of all, she’s a LAWYER, and not just a lawyer, but a “barracuda” and workaholic.

In the land of romance conventions, a woman like this exists for two reasons, to drive the plot by creating obstacles for the real couple and to make clear how the new love is a more genuine, lovable, completely superior human being. To achieve the first end, she stalks, persecutes, or deceives the hero and/or his new love. To achieve the second end, she compulsively watches her weight and wears expensive designer clothes.

But here’s the thing: Angelica is not a villain or even a bitch. None of our first impressions are fair or tell us who she is. Among other things, she’s Austin’s best and most loyal friend in the world; far from persecuting the new love, Peter, she puts aside her own pain at her break-up with Austin to save Peter’s foster brother, which she is able to do because she’s a kick-ass defense attorney. She is decent, honorable, and smart. Her money and beauty are part who she is, certainly, but do not make her an awful person. Austin describes himself as the “douchebag of the year” towards her, and he’s not exaggerating. That’s exactly the right term for a man who dumps his girlfriend of three years, eight weeks before their wedding.

Alexander’s approach is artistically a triumph, but it is also deeply ethical. Angelica is not the only character in this novel who defies easy assumptions. In a move she repeats again and again in this novel, Dani Alexander sets up a stereotype only to add nuances and complications until it is no longer recognizable. The evil-ex, the homophobic father, even the gang-banger rapist are portrayed as actual human beings with good and bad qualities.

It parallels the hero, Austin’s, own trajectory of discovering all-of-a-sudden at age 26 that he’s gay. “Not bisexual. Not a passing interest in someone of the same sex. Straight--so to speak--to gay.” Austin’s brilliantly funny snarkiness is both true to him and deeply misleading, a cover for the wrenching upheaval he undergoes over the course of the novel, as he is forced to reevaluate and jettison just about every assumption he’d made about his life, past, present, and future.

There’s another parallel here: with the romance form itself, a genre that has been marginalized and dismissed because of longstanding assumptions about its readers (many of them relentlessly cultivated by the old established publishers of these works). With the advent of indie-publishing, their reign is over. Like Austin, both readers and writers of erotica and romance are waking up, accepting our desires, proudly coming out of the closet. We are emphatically more than we seem—as evidence of this I offer the novel Shattered Glass.