How do I even begin to describe Bella Swan?
There’s simply no getting away from her. Bella has become a household name, much like the series from whence she came. The Twilight series – which I refuse to call a saga, because nothing bloody happens in it – has completely revolutionised the face of modern fiction. Before it was published, romances with vampires and the supernatural were a small but relatively niche market – you’d see a couple on the shelves at Waterstones, but they were easy to miss. Now, there are entire sections of bookstores dedicated to ‘Dark Romance’, where teenage girls can swoon over shirtless brooding vampires to their hearts’ content. Publishers, TV execs and movie producers were all desperate to cash in on the winning formula, which I have helpfully written out below:
(Misunderstood Teen + Brooding Supernatural Beefcake)
TOTALLY FORBIDDEN ROMANCE ZOMG YOU GUYS
Some people credit the Twilight series with the invention of the YA genre, as the teenage capacity for obsessing over stuff was spelled out in cold, hard cash. There are some who go further, and credit it with the revitalisation of the publishing industry as a whole, which was wobbling a bit what with the rise of ebooks, self-publishing and the Internet at large. It’s still having an impact – as I’m sure most of you know, some of the most successful books in human history are part of the Fifty Shades series, which are essentially repackaged Twilight fanfiction. And they’re not the only ones – in the ten years since its publication, we’ve been swamped with Twilight knock-offs featuring shapeshifters, aliens and angels, to name a few.
Some go even further than that. You don’t have to look far to stumble across a think-piece about fangirls, worrying depictions of romance in YA and the growing presence of female fans at conventions, book launches and premieres. Most of this has its roots in Twilight, whose fans catapulted these conversations into the public consciousness. At the height of the series’ popularity, you couldn’t go for more than ten minutes without tripping over articles about how the Twilight books have altered teenage minds, or how they’ve set unhealthy standards for teenage girls’ relationships, or just how bloody nuts everyone went for them. In fact, Twilight has effectively slipped into the lexicon of discussing pop culture – slip a snide sparkle reference into any conversation and everyone knows what you’re talking about.
But most of these conversations centre around the series as a wider whole, rather than the girl at its centre. Bella Swan – the heroine of the books – has a bit of a tendency to slip into the background while people talk about her ridiculous, overbearing, sparkly boyfriend. Most of the discussion tends to be about how she’s just really annoying and a bad role model, and doesn’t usually go much further than that. To be fair, it’s difficult to talk about an aggressively normal teenage girl when these little idiots are glittering away in the corner:
And now, I’m going to attempt to do just that. Pray for me – or at least promise not to stop me when I try and run away.
Ladies and gentlemen: welcome to Hell.
Watch out for spoilers.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
One of the key things that catapults Bella into the action of the series is the fact that she smells good.
This is exactly as weird as it sounds, and turns out to be quite a plot point. Bella’s blood is just the best-smelling blood in the entire world, and this is what draws Edward to her in the first place, what makes other vampires target her, and what generates most of the tension in the books as Edward attempts to choose between making out with her and accidentally tearing her face off. Of course, this is something that she has no control over. Another key plot point is the fact that Edward can’t read Bella’s thoughts. This is just something that happens to Bella – it isn’t a skill she has to work at, it isn’t due to the unique way she thinks, and it isn’t something she has to even think about at all. It just happens with her having absolutely no control over it.
These two things are really what drive Bella through the plot. Her tasty burger-blood and her total lack of (readable) thoughts are what draws Edward to her in the first place – even though she’s interested in him, she isn’t the one who initiates their meeting in the first place and he’s very much the one in control of the relationship. Her main goal throughout the series is to become a vampire – but she can’t become a vampire herself, the Cullens have to give her the metaphorical secret handshake before she can be in their club. She chooses to hang around with Jacob, and goes out of her way to find him, but she does so because of Edward’s absence, or simply just to spite him. At the very end of the series, when the Cullens are gathering their allies to fight against the Volturi, Bella simply doesn’t take part, even though it’s her child they’ll be defending. She lets her husband and her new vampire family do all the work for her, bringing the allies together and training them up without taking the lead once. Even when she goes to a shady lawyer to make arrangements for the safety of her daughter, she doesn’t seek him out herself – she goes because Alice tells her to.
Looking at all of this through a wider lens, it becomes abundantly clear that Bella doesn’t do a damn thing for herself. As I’ve discussed before, this is a common problem with monster stories, but it has much more to do with the frankly lazy way the Twilight series is put together. The story doesn’t come about because of her actions, her choices, or their consequences – stuff just happens to her and that’s the plot. Bella’s destiny – and her path through the books – is completely wrapped up in what other people make of her, whether that’s the Cullens, the werewolves or the Volturi. She waits for Edward to turn her into a vampire, she waits for Jacob to make up his mind about the werewolf pack, and she waits for the Volturi to become a threat before she’s forced into action. She never makes a decision more difficult than choosing what she’ll wear – and even that eventually ends up becoming Edward’s choice, when he buys her a new wardrobe.
Bella Swan makes no choices of her own. Her destiny is completely and utterly in the hands of other people. She bounces off other characters and events like a ping-pong ball, never once taking matters into her own hands. NO POINTS FOR YOU, SWAN.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Bella’s hobbies aren’t really all that well-developed. She enjoys cooking, but this is slightly undercut as she feels it’s her duty to cook her father’s meals. It’s stated all throughout the series that she loves to read, and that her favourite books are classics of English literature such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. However, we very rarely see Bella actually reading, or talking about books with her friends, or cracking open a book that isn’t a) assigned to her in class or b) a cheap tie-in to whatever’s going on in the plot. She constantly name-drops classic literature but we never actually find out why she likes it, what it is about these books that appeals to her so much or even what her favourite part of the books are. In short, it just feels like name-dropping to illustrate how smart she is – without displaying any actual intelligence.
Let’s look at her goals. She doesn’t really have any goals before she meets Edward – she doesn’t want to go to university, to get a job, or to have a family – she hasn’t really thought about what she wants from life before she meets him. Once she finally meets Mr Sparkle –
– this is when her goals all fall into place. She decides she wants to become a beautiful, sparkling vampire, even though this will mean leaving her family and friends behind. But she doesn’t really want to become a vampire: she wants to become a Cullen. It’s not immortality that appeals to her, it’s the prospect of staying with her sparkly boyfriend forever and ever. Truth be told, I do wonder if the Cullens’ enormous wealth hasn’t got something to do with it. The series is told from Bella’s point of view, and the frequent references to their designer clothes, custom-built house and expensive cars is very telling. In having Bella repeatedly describe these things in loving detail it seems as if she values the Cullens for their wealth more than anything else. As such, her goals aren’t entirely clear, but they are at least consistent.
It’s Bella’s beliefs that are truly the most difficult to untangle here. The readers are told – by Bella herself, no less – that she values her family more than anybody else, considers her mother to be her best friend, and that she doesn’t want to hurt her father’s feelings. We’re told that she doesn’t think all that highly of herself, that she’s naturally self-sacrificing, that she values Jacob’s friendship and doesn’t want to hurt him either. In short, we are told that Bella considers herself to be an unimportant sort of person, that she puts family above all else, and would gladly sacrifice herself to save someone she loves.
I don’t believe one damn word of this.
First let’s look at her family. She says she values them more than anyone else, yet considers faking her own death and letting them carry on mourning her even though she’s still alive – just to be with Edward. She says that her mother is her best friend, but she barely features in the story – we see her about three times (once in Twilight, once in Eclipse, and at the wedding in Breaking Dawn) and she’s only mentioned a couple of times per book. And lastly, her father: she says she doesn’t want to hurt hum, but she constantly does things that she knows will hurt him. She runs away from home twice, explicitly stating she knows how much it will hurt him, she carries on dating Edward even though she knows Charlie considers him to be responsible for her near-catatonic misery, and makes no effort to smooth over the tensions between them, and she is fully prepared to trick him into believing she’s died as a teenager in order to live out her sparkly fantasy life. For somebody who keeps saying how important her family is, she sure isn’t acting like it.
We’re told she doesn’t think very highly of herself – but she describes her skin as alabaster, her hair as mahogany, and her eyes as chocolate brown. We’re told she’s naturally self-sacrificing – but all the sacrifices she makes don’t really require her to give anything up as she still ends up with everything she wants. We’re told that she values Jacob’s friendship – but she keeps him dangling on a string for the best part of three books, using him to get what she wants (whether that’s information or motorcycle rides) even though she is fully aware about what kind of relationship he really wants to have with her.
Long story short? We’re told a lot of things about Bella’s hobbies, goals and beliefs but very few of them actually match up to what she does. In most of the other stories I’ve looked at, when characters say they have goals they pursue them, when they say they have hobbies we see them enjoying them, when they say they have beliefs we see them stick to them. But this isn’t the case with Bella Swan. The only goal we actually see her sticking to is her aim to become a super-sparkly vampire – and that certainly isn’t enough to redeem her.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
First, skills. For most of the series Bella doesn’t have many – in the first three books she’s characterised as painfully ordinary, so we don’t really see her demonstrating any exceptional talents. I’m not counting her anti-telepathy or her special smell, as those are essentially bodily functions that she has no control over.
When she becomes a vampire, it’s a different story. She gets god-like powers almost instantly, mastering them in a matter of days, and doesn’t have to struggle to strive to pick them up. She doesn’t have to work to resist the lure of human blood – it comes so naturally to her that it barely affects her at all. Similarly, her psychic shield – aka. the lamest power EVER – doesn’t take long for her to master, either. She uses it in battle against her most formidable opponents, the Volturi, without so much as breaking a sweat. This is a really lazy writing device. Bella effectively becomes a different species and adjusts to it in a matter of days, rapidly putting herself on the same level as vampires with centuries of experience, after a lifetime of resolute mediocrity. We don’t see her work for anything, we don’t see her fight for anything, and so her victory ultimately falls flat. There was simply never a chance that she would lose.
And now for her personality. I touched on this in the last question, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here, but we’ve already seen that Bella is a character who tells her readers one thing and then goes on to do exactly the opposite. I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but Bella Swan is a character who has one hell of an informed personality. For those of you that don’t know what I mean, an informed personality is when a reader is told that a fictional character possesses a particular trait – such as bravery, kindness, or cowardice – but never sees that character do anything that could be described as brave, kind or cowardly.
Bella is the textbook definition of this trope. Other characters in the Twilight series fall over themselves to describe Bella as intelligent, compassionate, humble. Bella describes herself as a bad liar, as someone who will “suffer in silence”, and as extremely clumsy. Throughout the books she’s also described as reclusive, a bit of a tomboy, and a very mature person for someone of her age.
IT’S TIME FOR A LIST.
- Intelligent: I don’t think so. Yes, we see Bella reading classic books, but we don’t see her thinking about them, looking for messages or even discussing them. What we do see are all the incredibly stupid decisions she makes – she always bypasses the easiest, most logical option for what would create the most drama. For example, when Edward believes she’s dead and tries to kill himself, she decides to race across the Atlantic Ocean and deliver herself into the hands of the vampire supervillains who think she’s a threat. A sensible person would leave this job to a vampire – who wouldn’t be restricted by human travel, the need to eat or sleep, or the fact that they’d be walking into a den of beings who essentially view them as a takeaway pizza – or at least, I don’t know, CALL SOMEONE.
- Compassionate: I stopped believing that Bella was a compassionate person when she found out that Edward used to eat people and was COMPLETELY OK WITH IT. She doesn’t express one ounce of sympathy for the people he MURDERED AND DEVOURED – or for any of the people his vampire friends are STILL murdering and devouring.
- Humble: Someone who spends all their time coveting designer gowns, flashy cars and fancy houses is humble? Bella has absolutely no problem accepting all the Cullens’ expensive gifts, even though she knows exactly how much they cost. If that’s humble I’m the Queen of England.
- A bad liar: This one just isn’t even true. Bella deceives damn near everyone in the series – her father, Jacob, Edward – and every single one of them believes her, even though they know she’s done it several times before. No-one who’s bad at lying could get away with that.
- Suffer-in-silence type: Please. The girl who threw tantrums when her parents tried to get her to move away from Forks, the girl who went off with random guys just to hallucinate her ex’s voice, the girl who deliberately seeks out dangerous situations just to feel something? This isn’t someone who gets on with things quietly and tries not to bother other people – this is someone lashing out.
- Clumsy: This is about the only one I could allow, but this just isn’t consistent. Bella’s clumsiness only surfaces when she’s tripping over the plot. It only shows up when it needs to – whether she’s falling into trouble or falling into Edward’s arms. Even before she becomes a vampire she demonstrates good reflexes: in Eclipse, she manages to catch a rock falling on her head from a landslide without even thinking about it.
- Reclusive: Would a reclusive person take such pleasure in having the Cullens throw big flashy parties for her all the time? Every single time they have one of these events for Bella a bunch of people turn up, it’s super fancy and she’s the centre of attention – and she hardly ever expresses any anxiety over it.
- A tomboy: With all the flashy clothes the Cullens buy her? With all the time she spends shopping and getting dolled up with Alice? I don’t think so.
- Mature: HA. This one takes the cake. We never see Bella demonstrate any maturity beyond doing the grocery shopping. She never actually shows a mature understanding of any of the decisions she makes, never considers the consequences of the risks she takes and frequently rushes headlong into situations without really thinking about it. This isn’t the behaviour of a mature person at all.
This would all be a fine and interesting personality for a YA heroine to have if the novels actually acknowledged it. If the other characters in the Twilight recognised Bella as a manipulative, materialistic and shallow character, and she still found love and growth in a relationship with an immortal vampire, this could have made for a much more interesting story. But this isn’t the case – everyone treats Bella like a saint with next to no flaws, when this simply isn’t how she behaves.
Long story short? NOPE NOPE NOPE.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
This literally is not possible. Aside from the fact that Bella’s personality is extremely hard to pin down – she behaves one way and is described another – her entire journey through the novels revolves around her getting to be with her sparkly vampire boyfriend. There is no other dimension to her story or her character – she has no other goals, no other interests, no other layers – so much so that it is simply impossible to separate her from it.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Bella’s love life undercuts every single decision she makes. She probably makes about two decisions that aren’t related to her love life in the entire series – coming to Forks in the first place and deciding to lead the evil vampire, James, away from her family. Everything else she does is directly related to Edward the sparklepire – whether she’s trying to find out more about him in Twilight, trying to make herself hallucinate his voice in New Moon, trying to juggle Edward and Jacob in Eclipse, or renouncing all her fears about marrying young in Breaking Dawn.
Even her decision to keep her half-vampire demon baby is effectively an extension of her relationship with Edward. When she’s pregnant, imagining what her unborn child will look like, she pictures what is essentially a miniature version of Edward. She imagines an angelic, beautiful, green-eyed and copper-haired boy – she doesn’t picture her child as having any of her own features. This is the child she expects to have, and this is the child she chooses to save – and it just so happens to be a miniature version of Captain Sparklepants. From a metaphorical point of view, in giving up her child she would be giving up him, too – and giving up the idealised life she pictured them having together. Her love for her child is inextricably tied to her love of Edward – so much so that once her daughter is born, the focus shifts back to Edward again and we see less and less of Renesmee.
I suppose you could make a case that she also makes some decisions that are influenced by her family, but on closer inspection these don’t really hold up. Bella thinks about her family so infrequently that looking out for her parents is more like an afterthought than a real motive – Edward is such a huge focus that he completely eclipses them. For example, when she goes to meet James thinking that he has got her mother, when she leaves a farewell note it’s not addressed to her parents, who she left with no explanation, but to Edward. She thinks of Edward first when her mother is in danger – her focus is completely on him. In the rest of the books she starts planning to fake her own death when Edward turns her into a vampire and hardly ever thinks about how this will affect her family. She doesn’t even try and spend more time with them, knowing that she’ll eventually have to leave them behind forever – she just waltzes off to be with whichever boy she’s currently stringing along this chapter. She doesn’t think about how her parents will miss her when she’s gone; she thinks about how much it would hurt her to leave Edward alone for more than five minutes.
The upshot of all this is that even though she does make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life, these happen so rarely that I just don’t feel that I can award her the point. What’s more, when they do happen, she goes back to thinking about Edward so quickly that the focus of her actions – her family – feels more like an afterthought than anything else. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Over the course of the Twilight series, Bella goes through quite a bit. There’s the standard stuff you’d expect to see in any YA book – such as coming of age, uncertainty about the future and learning to handle more adult concerns – but in Bella’s case she also has to deal with being in a relationship her father disapproves of, balancing two separate ends of a love triangle, and a teenage marriage and pregnancy. And that’s saying nothing of the supernatural stuff. She almost dies a couple of times, has a few immortal supernatural creatures stalking her, gets caught up in the centre of a werewolf-vampire squabble, survives a handful of battles and, of course, also ends up changing species to be with Mr Sparkle.
But the thing is, this doesn’t really change her.
Bella remains largely static throughout all four books, and a large part of this is because her actions are free from consequences. Bella may get herself into dangerous situations and spends a good deal of time messing with stuff she doesn’t really understand, but this never really comes back to haunt her. For the most part, despite all the bad stuff she goes through she still ends up getting everything she wants. She doesn’t have to change her behaviour to achieve her goals – and so she simply doesn’t change.
Take, for example, her transition into a vampire in Breaking Dawn. All throughout the Twilight series, Bella is constantly made aware of the pain of this transformation, and all the difficulties that come with being a newborn vampire. In the Twilight canon, newborn vampires typically find it very difficult to adjust to their newfound strength, are often violent without always meaning to be, and find it nigh-on impossible to resist the taste of human blood. As such, all the characters in the series describe this as a very difficult time, because of the incredible amounts of mental anguish it can cause – particularly as newborns would have to be taken away from any human family and friends in order to avoid hurting them. It would have been really interesting to see how Bella struggled with this – but of course, she doesn’t. She doesn’t accidentally smash things, or lose control and try and attack somebody, or have to keep her distance from her family. The self-control that other characters had to work at for decades comes so naturally to her that she barely breaks a sweat. The only change she really experiences as a result of changing species is a new eye colour and a bit more confidence – but seeing as this was a girl who even as a ‘shy, retiring’ human would describe her own skin as “alabaster”, I wouldn’t exactly call her lacking in self-confidence. And this isn’t just limited to Breaking Dawn; all the changes she goes through in the Twilight series are surface-level only.
This actually makes the whole series ring kind of hollow for me. Nothing really seems to make much of an impact on her, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Meyer’s attempts to be ‘scary’. Meyer usually raises the stakes through physical injury more than anything else, and so Bella is very severely injured on more than one occasion. In Twilight, she almost dies, receiving a broken leg, four broken ribs, a cracked skull, extensive blood loss and goes through unbearable pain when she almost transforms into a vampire. In New Moon she gets thrown into a glass table and almost eaten by a room full of hungry vampires. In Eclipse she cuts her own arm open with a rock to distract a couple of ravenous, vengeful vampires and in Breaking Dawn, she goes through a childbirth that leaves her with several broken bones and her boyfriend has to chew the baby out of her stomach like he’s on Shark Week. And that’s just the physical side of this – Bella also regularly has to deal with a certain level of pants-wetting terror. Immortal, immensely powerful creatures who are extremely difficult to kill come after her on a regular basis, and on multiple occasions she has absolutely no means of stopping them.
This is a hell of a lot for any teenage girl to deal with, and yet it has almost no psychological effect on her. Bella’s injuries are forgotten as soon as they heal. Her fear fades the second that Edward kills the big ol’ nasty vampires for her. All the things she goes through – which could be terrifying in the hands of another author – just bounce off her. They never give her serious cause for alarm, they never lead her to re-think her choices, and she never once stops to consider the full weight of what she’s going through. And as such, her choices don’t carry that much weight, either. She simply doesn’t seem to notice the risks of being with Edward, so their whole ‘forbidden romance’ seems more like pointless teenage drama. Her fear is so easily pushed aside that her choice to become a vampire doesn’t seem any more difficult than choosing what to have for lunch.
Ultimately, this makes her love for Edward seem manufactured as well. If her experiences had any lasting effect on her – whether in the form of a changing personality or perhaps something more serious, such as PTSD – and yet she still chose to be with Edward, the depth of her love would be made abundantly clear. If she was aware of the sacrifices she was making in choosing to be with him – and expressed real regret over what she had to set aside – then the readers would know exactly how much she loved him based on what she was prepared to give up. If she had doubts about their relationship due to all the danger she was placed in, took some time to think, and ultimately decided to stay with him, she would come across as a much more mature and thoughtful character, and her love for him would take on a decidedly adult flavour. But of course, this does not happen.
This is really one of the series’ biggest problems: Bella is never really tested. Part of this may be to do with the way it was written. As I’m sure everyone knows by now, Stephenie Meyer first came up with the idea of the Twilight series when she had a dream about Edward and Bella having a nice little chat about their forbidden romance while he was sat in a field, sparkling quietly to himself. She then went on to write the first draft of the series: Twilight, which is pretty much as it is now, and followed it up with Forever Dawn, which jumped right ahead to Bella’s marriage to Edward and eventual transformation into a vampire. None of the events of New Moon or Eclipse took place, Jacob had a much smaller role, and as it was intended to be a pretty personal project, it focussed much more on adult themes, rather than the high-school experience YA novels are so famous for. When the Twilight series took off, Meyer decided to spin out the story into two more books, but used a substantial amount of Forever Dawn to make up the final book in the series. The upshot of all this was that Bella’s various experiences in New Moon and Eclipse weren’t really taken into account when it came to writing Breaking Dawn, which is perhaps part of the reason her character changes so little.
But in truth, I think that part of the reason why Bella doesn’t really grow is because she just means so much to her author. Stephenie Meyer has been extremely open about how much her characters mean to her in interviews with the press. On her website, she explicitly states that by the time she started writing Twilight, she “loved [Bella] like a daughter” – and actually went so far as to give her the name she had been saving for her own daughter.
This attitude – while very endearing – simply isn’t conducive to writing well-developed characters. Unless you are writing a very wholesome, happy little story where the sun always shines on your characters, at some point they are going to have to suffer in order to grow. Authors throw all kinds of terrible things at their characters in order to see how they react to it, as this forms one of the cornerstones of fiction. Strong narratives depend on conflict, and this in turn makes strong characters. This is a hugely important part of literary theory and the driving force behind millions of narratives all over the world. Conflict is crucial to introducing doubt, to giving your readers a reason to root for your characters, to maintaining the excitement of the plot and to allowing your characters to grow as they embark on their literary journeys – and the Twilight series simply doesn’t have any. Meyer couldn’t bring herself to put her beloved characters through any kind of suffering that didn’t last more than five minutes and the books all suffer for it. Bella is never tested, she never struggles, she never fights: everything she wants is handed to her like the beloved child Meyer considers her to be. But this also means that she never learns, she never grows, she never develops – and she’ll never pass this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she have a weakness?
One of Bella’s most frequently-cited flaws is that she’s clumsy. I don’t count this as a flaw, as it has absolutely nothing to do with her personality. This isn’t a matter of opinion, either: there’s a general medical consensus that clumsiness is caused by poor motor co-ordination rather than any particular type of personality.
Aside from that, most of her weaknesses tend to be possessing too much of a positive character trait. She’s too caring, too self-sacrificing, too humble – and once again, the negative ramifications of these are never really explored. She’s never caring, or self-sacrificing, or humble to the point that it actually sets her back. Although her excessive goodness may put her in some difficult situations, I don’t feel that I can really count them as personality flaws as they only affect her personality in positive ways. Her humility makes her relatable, it doesn’t undermine her self-esteem. Her caring nature makes her sympathetic, but she never takes it to the extent where she forgets to take care of herself. She’s self-sacrificing when the plot demands it – not when it would mean giving up something she wants. All her flaws are essentially there to make her look good.
This is a hallmark of one of the most relentlessly irritating characters in fiction: the Mary Sue.
For those of you that might not have come across the term before, a Mary Sue is a character who is so perfect and flawless that she neither develops nor sustains the readers’ interest for more than five minutes. These are the characters who master lost arts in a thirty-second montage, who have hordes of jaw-droppingly hot guys fawning over them within two pages of their first appearance, who never put a foot wrong, who never make mistakes, who never get pimples and always have perfect hair. They are the centre of their fictional universe, and so unforgivingly perfect that they are almost universally reviled.
Mary Sues don’t have flaws, but their authors often pretend they do. Clumsiness is a perfect example of a flaw that an author will introduce in order to try and avoid falling into this trope. This puts our Sue into *~embarrassing~* situations, or sometimes literally just catapults her into the arms of her chiselled love interest – she never breaks a leg, or knocks out a tooth, or gets concussion. Bella falls (heh) into this category so often that it’s practically a plot point – but it’s got nothing to do with what’s going on her head.
One of the other ‘flaws’ that gets touted around when people talk about Bella’s weaknesses is her stubbornness. However, this is just as patchy as the rest of her personality. The other characters constantly talk about how stubborn she is, yet apart from a very few situations where she does stick to her guns, she almost always ends up changing her mind the second that Edward opens his mouth. When she does stick to her guns, it’s in situations that always work out well for her – her stubbornness never leads to a permanent setback, or a situation which Sparkles McMoneypants can’t get her out of.
She’s described as being physically weak – but this is more often than not when compared to supernaturally strong creatures like vampires and werewolves, and therefore not a ‘flaw’ that’s exclusive to her. She’s described as reclusive and retiring, yet she allows the Cullens to throw her lavish parties that she doesn’t really object to. Stephenie Meyer has said that Bella’s “tragic flaw” is her own lack of self-knowledge, but we never once see this actually hold her back, and for someone who allegedly doesn’t know herself all that well she’s incredibly clear about what she wants from life and can be quite perceptive about her own feelings when the plot demands it. The one uniting feature of all Bella’s flaws is that we see them being described by other characters far more often than we see her actually exhibiting them.
Once again, this is where the core problems with Bella’s flaws lie: they are fundamentally transient. They aren’t a true feature of her personality because their appearances are entirely dependent on the demands of the plot. She’s only clumsy, stubborn or reclusive when Stephenie Meyer wants to make a point. She certainly isn’t clumsy, stubborn or reclusive when being so might spoil her chances of happiness – which is just how flaws work. What’s more, all her negative personality traits simply vanish when she’s transformed into a vampire for no real reason – apart from Meyer’s belief that being a vampire just makes you better than other people.
Long story short? Her negative personality traits are described to us by other characters, only turn up when they’re necessary to the plot, and don’t actually hold her back at all. NO POINTS FOR YOU, SWAN.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
I’ve already touched on this to a certain extent when I answered the first question, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here.
As I already discussed, most of the plot of the Twilight series happens due to a series of events Bella has no control over. She comes to Edward’s attention because she smells good and he can’t read her thoughts, and from thereon in the plot revolves around the fact that she has come to Edward’s attention – if you can call it a plot at all.
But outside of that, does she influence the plot at all?
I’m not so sure. Bella isn’t a character who decides to do things; she is a character who’s driven to do things. When she acts, it’s not to satisfy a whim or to pursue a goal, it’s because the story has manoeuvred her into a position where her actions are inevitable. For example, she only decides to start researching Edward and his family when she witnesses him do impossible things literally two inches in front of her face – she doesn’t decide to look into something based on her own suspicions. She has to be shown immutable evidence that Edward is not human before she even thinks about looking into it. At that point, she has no other options to consider.
This carries on throughout most of the books. When she goes to save her mother, it’s because another vampire is forcing her to do so. When she falls into a depression in New Moon – and when she starts putting herself in dangerous situations and hanging out with Jacob – ultimately it’s because Edward left her, and she’s trying to fill the gap he left behind with placeholders and hallucinations. When she swings between Edward and Jacob in Eclipse, she doesn’t make a choice – she oscillates from one to the other based on who is most likely to indulge what she wants to do, or who was the meanest to her last. When she decides to marry Edward, it’s because he says he won’t turn her into a vampire unless she agrees to it. Bella is not a character who acts of her own accord – she is a character who reacts to whatever is immediately in front of her.
Bella’s inherent passivity as a character stems, in part, from the way that Edward is written. He is consistently shown to be a very forceful and aggressive pursuer when it comes to Bella. He’s constantly protecting her, hanging around her, and bringing her stuff, and this is meant to serve as proof of his devotion. I’ll touch on that in the next question, but what it also does is completely remove the need for Bella to actually do anything. She doesn’t need to pursue Edward because he’s so clearly interested in her. She doesn’t need to go after the things she wants because Edward will bring them to her. She doesn’t need to learn how to defend herself because Edward will always be there to protect her – and he’s just so much better at it, so why even try? All Bella really needs to do in order for the plot to keep moving along is to sit around and look pretty – and that’s essentially all she does.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
At the height of the Twilight hype, you couldn’t move for think-pieces about how she had single-handedly pushed all of womankind back into the kitchen, or opinion columns about how her decisions were actually a subversive commentary on post-feminist choices. Ultimately, it all comes down to opinion – both critics and fans alike cite the same incidents in order to back up their arguments, and the real clincher is in how they’re interpreted.
As I’m sure most of you know by now, Bella has been hailed as one of the absolute worst characters in modern fiction when it comes to the question of gender stereotypes. It’s easy to see why people might think this. Bella is a very traditional character. She says she feels she has to cook and clean for her father, spends most of the books not really thinking or doing anything for herself, and spends pretty much the entire series dithering over which boy she likes best. What’s more, she also ends up becoming a teenage mother and keeping a child which could have killed her, in a narrative that most people tend to interpret as pretty heavily anti-abortion.
It’s very easy to jump to the conclusion that Bella is therefore anti-feminist. However, this isn’t automatically the case. Let’s look at both sides of the argument. Fans of the series argue that the essence of feminism comes down to a woman’s right to choose. If any and all options are open to her, why should we pass judgement on the choices she makes? When this argument is applied to Bella, fans often cite her deliberate choices to stay with Edward and become a vampire as feminist, as she’s the one who chooses the direction that her life ends up taking. Many take this argument further, and say that demanding that all women act according to some ‘feminist agenda’ is in itself anti-feminist, as it’s restricting the choices that women can make based on their gender. In essence, Bella’s feminist credentials rest on the fact that she makes her own choices.
But is she really free to choose?
Let’s look at Bella’s journey through the series. She doesn’t choose to pursue Edward – she comes to his attention because of various physical characteristics she has no control over. She doesn’t choose for him to save her from the various scrapes she gets into – she never asks for his help, but he’s always hovering over her so closely that the second she gets so much as a paper cut he’s ready to whisk her off in search of plasters. She doesn’t choose to fall in love with a vampire – she frequently describes her own feelings for Edward as something that she has absolutely no control over:
“I didn’t know if there was ever a choice, really. I was already in too deep.” – Twilight, Chapter 7
And once she’s fallen in love with a supernatural creature, she effectively loses all control over what happens to her. She’s caught up in a world where everyone she encounters is stronger than her, smarter than her, wealthier than her, prettier than her. The result of this is that she’s always on the back foot. She’s never in a position of any real power because she’s just so overwhelmed by everyone she meets. The choices she makes aren’t really hers at all – they’re steered into place by the other supernatural characters who toss her between them like a tennis ball.
The classic example of this is Bella’s relationship with Edward. As I already mentioned, he is very much the one in control here. He pursues her, he makes the first move, he decides what’s best for her and adjusts his behaviour accordingly. Bella just trots along behind him – she may make a sarcastic quip while doing so, but ultimately she’s still following his lead. He follows her into town, scares some muggers away and insists on taking her to dinner – she agrees, even though she has a few reservations about him. He decides that she’s getting too close and might put herself in danger, so he breaks off their relationship – she has absolutely no input in his decision and simply has to deal with it. He decides that she’s getting to close to the werewolf, Jacob, and could put herself in danger, and so he stops her from seeing him – she doesn’t get to choose where she goes or who she sees. He decides that she has to marry him before he will turn her into a vampire – she agrees, even though she has very strong reservations about teenage marriage.
All of this is largely excused as proof of Edward’s devotion by Twilight’s many fans. Edward, they argue, is literally from another time, and would naturally behave in a more old-fashioned way. He would want to protect Bella because he loves her, and that’s how he was raised to treat someone he loved. Now, there’s actually something to this point. It’s very easy to look back at the ways that people behaved in the past and find something problematic in them – it’s how societies grow and change.
What this argument ignores is just how nasty he can be about it.
He constantly puts her down, saying some really nasty things that are passed off as jokes:
- “Ordinary people seem to make it through the day without so many catastrophes.”
- “Bella, it’s not my fault if you are exceptionally unobservant.”
- “Don’t be offended, but you seem to be one of those people who just attract accidents like a magnet. So try not to fall into the ocean or get run over or anything, all right?”
- “Must I always be the responsible one?”
He’s mocking her. These comments are just the tip of the iceberg – he’s constantly coming out with so many snide, niggling little comments calculated to wear down her self-confidence. He might not be calling her names, but hearing those kinds of comments every day from someone you love and trust counts as verbal abuse according to several psychological and legal authorities. No wonder she’s always talking about how little she thinks of herself.
And that’s not all. He exercises a frankly worrying level of control over her life, pushing her to do things which he knows she won’t enjoy and makes her uncomfortable – like making her go to prom with her leg in plaster. He keeps tabs on her constantly – watching her sleep for months before they actually start dating, and getting his clairvoyant sister, Alice, to keep an eye on her in case she might get into trouble in the future. And when he does catch her doing something that he thinks is out of line, he’ll actively stop her from doing it – like when he disables her car to stop her from seeing a friend he disapproves of, or getting Alice to flat out kidnap her instead. He constantly assumes that he knows what’s best for her, no matter what she thinks, and if she doesn’t agree with him he’ll twist around her choices until doing what he wants is her only realistic option. He’ll get jealous, he’ll prevent her from seeing her friends, he’ll make her feel isolated from her family until the only place she can run is into his arms.
He twists her arm into doing things that she doesn’t want to do all the time – whether that’s going to university, going to prom or getting married – and flatly ignores the fact that she doesn’t want to do any of these things. He manipulates her, using sex and expensive gifts to coerce her into agreeing with him – if they ever end up disagreeing about something, he’ll distract her with make-out sessions or presents until she forgets about whatever was making her upset. He constantly does things that make Bella uncomfortable, even scared – like when he drives at such high speeds that he frightens her. He’s also constantly threatening her, warning her that he’s just so strong and powerful that he could kill her without even meaning to, so she’d better do what he says.
And he actually does physically harm her on more than one occasion – when he pushes her into a glass table in New Moon and when he leaves behind bruises after they spend their first night together. What’s even worse is that in Midnight Sun – Meyer’s retelling of Twilight from Edward’s point of view – is that we know that within seconds of meeting her, he’s fantasising about killing and eating her, plotting the murder of her and a classroom full of students and blaming it all on the fact that she smells good.
And this is sold to us as the romance of the ages. It’s all dressed up in pretty words and wrapped up in the idea of dark, intense passion that it’s very easy to overlook the fact that this kind of relationship almost always ends up in bruises or bloodshed. Edward’s constant threats are explained away as a side-effect of his incredible strength, his repressive and controlling behaviour is passed off as old-school charm, and his frankly despicable behaviour towards Bella is simply ignored because he tells her he loves her.
It makes me sick.
The Twilight series revolves around the idea that intense is the same as good, and when it comes to love this is rarely the case. The pain, drama and all-consuming nature of Edward and Bella’s relationship is held up as the epitome of romance, but it has very little to do with real love. A strong, healthy relationship won’t cause you pain. A partner who respects you won’t call you names, talk down to you, or make you feel stupid. A love that is built on kindness, trust and respect won’t be a source of drama on its own.
But Edward and Bella’s relationship is nothing but pain and drama. They’re surrounded by supernatural creatures who want to pull them apart – sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally – and yet the bulk of their problems come from each other, not the people around them. Edward says he loves Bella, yet she spends the entire series questioning his feelings for her. They don’t communicate properly, they don’t listen to each other, and they hurt each other all through the books, and this is what is being sold to us as a sweeping, epic romance that will leave us breathless. It may well be an all-consuming relationship, but an all-consuming relationship will leave you with absolutely nothing.
I don’t think Bella and Edward’s relationship is love at all. I think that at best, it is infatuation, and at worst, it is abuse. With Edward hovering over her like some malignant bat all the time, she isn’t truly free to make her own choices. The way he treats her is officially classified as abuse on more than one count by several charities, helplines and government agencies in several different countries. There is no possible way this trainwreck of a relationship could come anywhere close to real love.
With this in mind, I cannot see Bella as anything but a massive stagger backwards for gender stereotypes. Her choices aren’t hers to make – they’re laid out for her by her boyfriend and she just barrels into them headfirst. Any agency she might have had may as well have been surgically removed. Her relationship is so unhealthy that the thought of it leaves me wanting to wash my hands for weeks on end. And Stephenie Meyer expects her readers to see this relationship as a love that could last until the end of time – as long as Bella shuts up and does what she’s told.
There is absolutely no way Bella could ever pass this round. There have been several studies conducted that suggest that young people look at relationships in the media in order to form their own expectations about love, gender and sex. Books, films, music and TV shows seep into our minds and the way we see the world filters through them. In Twilight’s case, it takes a passive, co-dependent girl and her aggressive, controlling, abusive boyfriend and makes it look like love.
This is not love. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Bella crosses paths with many different female characters over the course of the series. There’s her mother; her human friends Jessica, Angela and generic frenemy Lauren; Alice, Rosalie and Esme Cullen; her own daughter; the various women she meets from the reservation at La Push (including Leah Clearwater and Emily Young); and the assortment of vampires she bumps into (such as Victoria, Jane, Irina, Tanya, to name a few) that can roughly be separated into those that want to kill her and those that already ate. You’d think with so many other female characters, she’d at least be able to scrounge up a few relationships which leave some impact on her, or are at least consistent.
Bella’s relationships have absolutely no effect on her whatsoever. She says that her mother is her best friend, yet we rarely see them interact in the series at all, and Renee is quickly forgotten. She only spends time with her human friends when the Cullens aren’t around, and they’re quickly dropped when Meyer wants to squeeze in a few more sparkle scenes instead. She doesn’t even express any regret that she’ll have to leave them behind, or any concern that they might somehow get caught up in the massive supernatural battle that she ends up jump-starting. They don’t reach out to her, she barely thinks of them – quite frankly, Bella may as well be speaking to the furniture.
Her relationships with female supernatural creatures don’t fare any better. Leah Clearwater, the only female werewolf, is there as a plot point and little else. She reacts to the female vampires in pretty much all the same way – a generic mix of jealousy over their looks and fear that they might eat her or worse, steal her boyfriend. Even the Cullens fall into this bracket. She spends most of the series drooling over how gorgeous Alice, Rosalie and Esme are (all the while insisting to the audience that she’s definitely straight) but doesn’t truly share anything meaningful with them. They’re all quick to tell her their various tragic backstories, but there’s no sign from any of them that telling her about the terrible things they’d been through actually meant something. One minute they’re telling her about their experiences with insanity, or rape, or suicide, and the next they’re back to giggling and braiding each other’s hair. In the hands of a good author, this could be terrifying, and a real symbol of the price of immortality, but Meyer brushes over these incidents just as easily as her characters do.
The only possible exception to this is Rosalie Cullen, who starts off hating Bella but eventually comes to support her. But this isn’t through anything that Bella does – Rosalie only starts to tolerate Bella when she gets pregnant, and that’s because Rosalie always wanted a child of her own. Bella herself does very little to actually win Rosalie over – unless, of course, we’re going to count forgetting to use a condom. Their relationship doesn’t change gradually, as a result of more time spent together, or even after a few simple conversations – it changes instantly, simply because Meyer wants it to. And the second Bella’s baby is born, Rosalie pretty much goes right back to hating her guts again.
Then, of course, there’s Alice Cullen – the twee little idiot who’s supposed to be Bella’s best supernatural friend. I don’t buy this for one second. We never see these two have anything in common – we never see them share a joke, or go and see a movie together, or even just have a conversation which isn’t focused on either Edward, Jacob or whatever supernatural calamity they’re caught up in this week. All we see is Alice dragging Bella around the shops, or planning ridiculous parties for her, or subjecting her to endless fancy makeovers – all of which we are told Bella hates. Let’s not forget that Alice is also the one who Edward relies on to keep an eye on Bella when he’s not around, asking her to spy on Bella’s future self to make sure she doesn’t make bad choices, and occasionally going so far as to getting her to literally kidnap her because Bella did something Edward disapproves of. And yet these two remain ‘best friends’ despite having nothing in common, never doing anything that both of them actually like, and Alice actually being just as abusive to Bella as Edward is? No way.
And now we come to what should be Bella’s strongest relationship of all – the one she has with her daughter, Renesmee. Bella risks her life to give birth to Renesmee, but after she’s born she treats her as little more than an adorable accessory. She never has to raise her, never has to get up in the night, never has to feed her, never has to change a dirty nappy and never has to stop her crying – Rosalie takes care of that, Bella’s got to run around sparkling with Edward. Renesmee is a half-vampire child, which for reasons I’m not entirely clear on means that she ages faster than normal children until she gets to the point where she looks adult, and then stops aging altogether (which just reeks of wish-fulfilment). You’d think that this would mean that Bella would want to spend as much time with her as possible, to make sure that she doesn’t miss out on any of these moments which she knows will pass her by much more quickly – especially considering the fact that she thinks her daughter might be killed by the Volturi. But once her daughter is born she barely spends any time with the poor girl. She never sees her take her first steps, never hears her speak her first word, and yet constantly goes on and on about how much she loves her daughter. I just don’t believe this. Bella knows that there are millennia-old vampires coming to hunt and kill her daughter, who she believes might have an unusually short life span anyway, and who she almost died giving birth to. And yet she chooses to spend time away from her because tee hee, now she and Edward can have sex in this adorable little cottage they have now!
This is the problem at the heart of all Bella’s relationships with female characters – and also at the heart of her character as a larger whole. She says one thing and does another, straight through all four books. She says she loves her mother, but she pretty much forgets all about her the second Creeper McSparklebutt steps into the picture. She says she enjoys spending time with her friends, but we never actually see them do stuff together which isn’t strictly related to the plot. She says she loves her daughter, but she forgets about her as soon as all the daughter-related plotlines subside.
All Bella’s relationships are essentially interchangeable. They’re never given any depth, any unique characteristics, any real care. The female characters she interacts with aren’t there to influence the story in their own ways, they’re there to make Bella look good. Interacting with her mother makes her look like a good daughter, interacting with both her human and supernatural friends makes her look caring, concerned and well-adjusted, and interacting with her daughter makes her look like a good mother.
But Bella is none of these things. The books say she is, usually when other characters literally just talk about how great she is, but her actions tell another story. Her thoughts, opinions, decisions and actions show that all the relationships the book says she has are essentially false. She doesn’t act like a good daughter, a good friend, or a good mother, even though we’re constantly told that she is. The result of this is that even though she has many different relationships with a range of female characters, these are essentially meaningless. She acts one way, and then the characters react as though she has done something completely different, with no explanation provided. This is simply not how human beings work.
Bella’s relationships are like walking through a hall of mirrors. The characters she interacts with are there to provide reflections of herself. At best, they show Bella in a slightly different light. At worst, they are Bella, or at least extensions of her rather than independent characters with their own thoughts, feelings and emotions. They don’t challenge her, help her grow or hold her back – they are simply there to provide us with what Meyer wants us to see. These aren’t relationships at all.
FINAL SCORE: 0/10
And there we have it. Bella Swan is officially the first character ever to completely and utterly fail my test.
The one thing that’s really unique to Bella as a character is that it’s quite difficult to pin down who she actually is. It’s much easier to say what she’s not – and I have done so, in over ten thousand words. She isn’t in control of her own destiny, she isn’t consistent, she isn’t flawed, she isn’t well-developed…I could go on. But the characteristics she does possess are much harder to pinpoint, mainly because the description of Bella that the readers receive just doesn’t match up with her actions.
I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here, but essentially, the source of all Bella’s problems as a character – and a substantial amount of the wider problems with the Twilight series – is that consistency flies out the window on a regular basis. We are told that Bella is intelligent, kind, and self-sacrificing, and this would be perfectly good characterisation if we saw her acting in an intelligent, kind and self-sacrificing way. Equally, Bella’s actions suggest she is selfish, immature and fickle, and this would be perfectly good characterisation if the other characters acknowledged her behaviour as selfish, immature and fickle. When the readers are told one thing and see another, it becomes incredibly difficult to pin down what her true personality actually is.
This is largely due to the incredibly broad strokes Stephenie Meyer used when illustrating her character. Like many other characters before her, Bella is intended to be an Everyman – a character deliberately made in a generic mould to keep them relatable. This is actually a pretty common literary device used when writers want to explore supernatural worlds – it’s much easier telling a strange story through a ‘normal’ pair of eyes.
Meyer took this to the furthest possible extent with Bella Swan. She acknowledges on her website that she deliberately kept her description of Bella vague, and this allows the reader to see as much of themselves in her character as possible. If Bella’s relationships with other female characters are intended to hold up a mirror to her, then Bella herself is a mirror for the reader. In the quote, Meyer is only talking about a physical description of Bella, but I think the same is just as true for Bella’s personality. Bella is relatable because she’s the fuzziest outline of a human being – an empty vessel waiting to be filled with each individual reader’s interpretations.
I think that’s a large part of the Twilight series’ appeal. It was certainly why I enjoyed the first book when I read it as an impressionable teenager. There was so little of it expressed in concrete terms that it was essentially a blank canvas; I could imagine anything I wanted and it would still fit within the extremely loose boundaries of the plot. It was only when I read the book a second time – this time, looking at what was actually there instead of what I wanted there to be – that I realised how little actually happened.
What is actually there ranges from the simply unflattering to the frankly poisonous, and if it was acknowledged as such we might be dealing with a much better series. But it wasn’t – despite all the enormous potential for sheer terror that the series has – and so I will (finally) draw this review to a close.
I have one last message for Miss Swan:
And with that, I’m hanging up my keyboard for 2015. I’ll be starting the blog posts back up in the New Year – expect the first post of 2016 on the 9th January. I haven’t yet decided who my first post of the New Year will be on, but any and all suggestions will be considered, so please feel free to leave them in the comments.
See you in 2016!
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.