let’s talk about damaging books

Like all thirteen-year-olds, I loved Twilight. I thought Bella and Edward were the be-all-end-all of love stories. I read those books ferociously and argued with anyone who tried to tell me they weren’t the next great American series.

Then I got older.

Aside from the fact that the books are written so poorly a monkey could’ve made them, they’re hurtful to the young girls who read them. And I’m not being sexist (marched for women’s rights and everything in January), it’s just statistics. Young girls picked up those books faster than a new LipSmackers lip gloss. Overwhelmingly, these were young girls going through a difficult and confusing time in their lives, looking for something to escape into and idealize. I know several people who, as they’ve grown, have realized just how much these books messed them up.

The character of Bella. She’s blank. I’ve heard it often said that the reason so many girls loved her character was because she didn’t have one. She was this amorphous blob that any young girl could put her own personality onto Bella and feel understood. Here’s why that’s a problem: you start to think you’re her.

As a twelve-year-old, I was feeling weird and shy, generally of the “look at me and I’ll spontaneously explode” variety. I didn’t think I was particularly pretty or funny, although I had some moments, and I loved to read. I had brown hair, brown eyes, pale skin, you know the drill. Bella not only looked like my physically, but she acted like me. Nervous, uncomfortable with attention, she’s every preteen girl. Not only that, but everyone wants to date her and be her friend. She comes to a new school and in a matter of days has three boys falling over her, and that’s not including Edward or JACOB.

I’m sure Stephanie Meyer didn’t mean for this to happen, but she included Bella’s weight in her description.

The problem here is that when you’re specifically writing to younger girls, you have to be careful what you include. For instance, that horrific mess of a book, Beautiful Disaster, shows a textbook abusive relationship as something to yearn for. Although Meyers does the same thing, she also creates damaging beauty expectations for girls.

For instance, I and at least one other person I know started dieting to reach the weight of 110 pounds—Bella’s weight. Because if we could look like her, people would want to be our friends, too…right? Boys would want to date us, we’d be popular and universally liked. As a preteen, that feels like the most important thing; being accepted. At a time when your limbs feel like rubber and your face looks like an angry over-heated bagel, someone giving the perception that a certain character with very specific body measurements sticks in your head. I would have made myself grow to five foot four, if it were possible. Alas, I’d have to stick with not eating to get the goal Bella weight.

Now, let’s get into that abusive relationship.

It’s played off like he’s just protecting her, and of course he has to! How is she supposed to deal with rogue vampires and werewolves? It calls for extreme measures.

Like removing parts from her car so she can’t see her friend. Or WATCHING HER SLEEP by breaking into her home for months before they’ve even had a real conversation. It’s downright disturbing. It’s the stuff you see in thriller films, where the love interest is secretly a freaking psycho.

But, young me thought this was the epitome of love. That was what I was searching for in everyday life. The impression those books and characters made on me was so strong, it was actually damaging to my development. I was withdrawn and moody because that was how Bella was, and apparently people liked that. I was starving myself to get to what I thought was the perfect weight. I was completely changing my personality to fit what I thought people wanted, getting my cues from Twilight.

I think authors often forget the affect literature can have on the audience, especially the unintended audience. But, at the same time, I’m really not sure how they’re supposed to consider that. At what point does it become censorship, or a limitation of freedom of the press? Where is the line between protecting kids and smothering them? How are they supposed to account for a very young girl taking too much out of a book? And does the blame lay entirely with the author, who simply wrote a story, or does it lay with the culture in general? I’m inclined to lean towards the latter.

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book review: Scandalous Women

While Heathrow Airport in London, waiting to board my flight back to the States after several amazing months travelling and studying in Europe, I found myself in the worst situation known to reader-kind.

I had nothing to read.

Thankfully, there was a shop with books only a few feet away. My plane was delayed and I needed a distraction. Into the shop I went.

Among all the bestsellers and YouTuber books was a section about history. As I’d just spent three months going to historical sites, I was drawn to this section for a few more moments of history before I returned to the US. On the shelf was a book that caught my eye: Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women. Bingo.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon’s short, historical book was very enjoyable. Firstly, it was about some pretty badass women, which I will absolutely always enjoy. Joan of Ark, Cleopatra, Calamity Jane, and Ida B. Wells are only a small selection of the historical figures covered.

Second, it told the truth about these ladies. Cleopatra got the reveal she deserved. After centuries of old men turning her into a sex symbol, she got the credit she was due as a statesman and leader of her country. The woman was willing to do anything to keep Egypt independent, and she succeeded for quite a period of time. This is in comparison to countless other countries that fell to Rome quite early on. And then she was erased by men who were threatened by her. Ask anyone who Cleopatra was, and they’ll reply that she was the lover of Mark Antony. Ask them about her skills as a leader, and you’ll often come up with nothing.

Can you tell I’m a fan of Cleopatra?

Finally, the book was short. The stories were nicely condensed. Despite only being less than 300 pages long and covering over thirty fascinating women, Mahon is able to make each story easily readable and quick.

That said, the ratio of white women to women of color in the book is a little staggering. The section that features the most women of colors, “Amorous Artists”, is very near the end Even the section called “Warrior Queens” has only Cleopatra listed, when in fact there are countless queens around the world who could have been used.

The issue with this lack of diversity is not only that there are people whose stories are missing, but also that the stories begin to sound…similar….after a while. Most of the women were born into poverty, found love and fortune, then lost it and ended up alone and desolate. There are only so many stories I can hear about the same situation in one single book. Asian and African women are completely missing. I attribute that to a lack of intense research, as it cannot be hard to find pioneering women who stand out from history in either of those continents. I feel like the book missed an opportunity to talk about women who aren’t quite as well-known in the West, but notorious in other geographic regions. I would be insanely interested in reading something like that.

Scandalous Women is an interesting work. It covers so many periods and countries (in the West, mostly). The book is great on many accounts, but I did begin to feel the stories were repeating themselves. In addition, the writing style wasn’t that sophisticated (I’m a firm believed that slang doesn’t belong in anything not written in first person). But, I would definitely read another book by Elizabeth Mahon, especially since I think time will help her writing style grow and improve. The more you write, the better it gets. Simple as that.

I also really appreciate that she picked a topic that many people dismiss. These are women that actually had immense power and influence, and they are often pushed aside for the male figures, or to extol their sex appeal. This was a refreshing change.

the essay.

Image result for the mortal storm book cover

I’ve submitted an essay to a competition. I’m terrified. It’s just within my college (I think the winners get $150) and it’s for a paper on women—sponsored by the Women’s Studies program, but the paper doesn’t need to be for a Women’s Studies class.

For some reason, I’ve never sent an essay into a competition. Not sure why. Could be something to do with my low self-confidence when it comes to my own work. The world may never know. But, I’ve officially emailed in my paper, and I’m nervously shitting myself while I wait for two weeks to pass so they even start reading submissions. I don’t even know how many people can win.

The paper is from my sophomore year, written about Phyllis Bottome’s The Mortal Storm (now that picture at the top is finally making sense, huh?). It was, in my opinion, a fantastic book despite being pretty melodramatic. I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed reading it until my parents brought my flash drive of old essays with them to visit on Saturday. I was looking for things I could add to my portfolio of work, but when I came across this particular essay I started feeling the excitement for the story again.

In short, Bottome was writing at a time when fascism was on the rise (World War II), and her book was a reaction against both the anti-Semitism of the period and the tendency of some formerly militant feminists to turn to fascism. There were so many women who, after suffrage, ran for office and weren’t elected. They had these rights, but they didn’t seem to be able to really use them. Typical. So, many of them gave up on democracy altogether, believing it had failed them as an institution. Apparently the natural next step was fascism? Still not entirely convinced about it, but fascists had this terrifying way of making things that were terrible seem wonderful. The emphasis on a woman’s place being “in the home” was twists to mean that women were valued.

Bottome’s book has fantastic commentary on this. Her main character, Freya, is studying to be a doctor when the book begins. She is first prevented from continuing her schooling for being a woman, and then given further obstacles because she’s Jewish. She is most of the issues of fascism wrapped into one character.

She goes on to fall in love with a Communist, have sex with that Communist (which she does not regret in the least), watch that Communist die, and then have that Communist’s baby. Basically a huge “eff off” to fascists. Freya then leaves the baby to be raised by the Communist’s family and goes to England, where she studies to be a doctor. Badass as hell.

Rereading my essay brought a fire back to me that I had kind of forgotten. I attended the Women’s March, and I’ve been supporting women’s organizations all my life. With all this, reading Freya’s story again made me desperately want to do something more, especially right now. The world needs people who will tell fascism to eff off, in all its forms.