“Reclaiming the Beautiful Swan”
by Isa Hopkins, editor-at-large
“Love is a battlefield,” Pat Benatar told America thirty years ago. Nowhere has that battlefield been more evident in recent popular culture than in young adult literature, most notoriously in the “Twilight” series of books and novels, the story of an illicit romance between a teenage girl and a vampire centenarian trapped forever in the body of a sexy seventeen-year-old. By the series’ end, the girl is a vampire as well, and the two have a half-human, half-vampire baby who grows at such an accelerated rate that, after a couple weeks, all of the regular maternal demands of infancy had come to an end; it’s the happiest ending imaginable.
The common perception is that “Twilight” is, without question, anti-feminist garbage, trite romantic crap. Such a notion has a great deal of textual support: the series is sexless until after marriage (new bride Bella Swan is knocked up immediately), and vamp-lover Edward is controlling enough to break into Bella’s house to watch her sleep.
But while “Twilight” might be the best-known phenomenon in the YA genre in recent memory, there is an ascendant star in the YA galaxy: “The Hunger Games,” in which love is born very literally on a battlefield — heroine Katniss Everdeen is less passive than mopey Bella but she has earned her share of criticism as a reactive totem, active only when pushed into action by powerful forces. And of course, much like Bella, Katniss’s happy ending involves marriage and children, after — again, like Bella — a tedious multi-volume love triangle.
“In both series, there’s a false sense of empowerment,” says Mimi Lieb, a professor of feminist studies at UC-Santa Cruz. “But the narrative architecture is such that their only real choice is between two men, each of whom represent differing poles of traditional masculinity. It’s an incredibly limited sense of adventure for these so-called ‘heroines’.”
Lieb’s latest undertaking is the creation of a truly feminist young adult series. Hoping to capitalize on the immense popularity of both “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games,” she has concocted a plotline with elements of proven commercial appeal, although her story seems to rely more on “The Hunger Games” than “Twilight.”
“There are no special powers in this universe,” Lieb asserts. “There is individuation, but within the framework of radical equality; the very concept of ‘super’-powered loses its meaning in this narrative.” This is most notable when it comes, of course, to the very nature of gender. “The radical equality extends to reproductive capability. Reproduction in these stories is asexual, and so, without the biological necessity of sperm, lesbianism is an attractive way of life to the vast majority of women. A desexualized lesbianism, of course, because the point isn’t to induct these young readers too soon into the contemporary cult of sexiness.”
“That is the kind of shit that nobody will ever read,” laughs Twilla Benford, a Brooklyn sex writer who is also at work on her own feminist YA series. Benford’s is dramatically different from Lieb’s: whereas the latter prides herself on desexualization, the former proudly describes her work as erotica.
“Enough slut-shaming,” says Benford. “The problem isn’t that girls are having sex too young; the problem is that they’re learning to manage their own pleasure too late. Gentle lesbianism is fine and all, but fourteen-year-olds aren’t interested in chaste kissing and asexual reproduction. I give ‘em what they want: double-sided dildos, anal beads, jizz… jizz for days. The whole reason ‘Twilight’ blew up is because all those horny teens just wanted to get it on with that hottie Edward. In my books, they can.”
Not literally, though, of course.
“No,” says Benford. “Literally. You can order a life-size male blow-up doll of each of the characters in my book, with holes and vibrators and made with the highest-quality silicone. I want my readers to be sexually confident and informed.”
“That is not feminism.” Lieb is unceasing in her criticism of Benford’s efforts, but Benford says the same thing about her West Coast competitor.
“Frankly,” Lida Varnes tells me outside her home in Little Rock, Arkansas, “I think they’re all going to hell.”
Varnes, too, is writing a young adult series. (Brief Internet searches reveal that several million authors are attempting the same feat at any given moment.) Like Lieb and Benford, her mission is nothing less than to save the soul of her young readers; like “Twilight” scribe Stephanie Meyer, Varnes is a religious woman.
“Don’t compare me to that Mormon devil,” Varnes says, tapping her fingers against her kitchen table. “I thought they were decent people, until I read that ‘Twilight’ smut. Now, I know they wait until they’re married before they do it, and in today’s culture I know that’s at least something, but the — the sensuality of those books. It’s absolutely inappropriate for teens.”
And “The Hunger Games”? “Unbelievable. That girl, beating all those boys? Absolutely unbelievable.” In Varnes’s books, girls are girls, boys are boys, and lesbianism and sex don’t exist.
“I know a few other women in my church writing stories, too,” she tells me. “We all felt the call. These kids are finally reading books — now it’s just a matter of getting them to read the right kind.”
In that regard, Varnes is no different than Lieb and Benford. Each celebrates the fact of teen readership; each also believes that the current offerings for teen girls — “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games,” and their legions of clones — is, at some fundamental level, wrong. Too heterosexist, too asexual, too hedonistic — the charges leveled against each series are myriad. I was able to read manuscripts of each of the three women’s series, but then, I also read The Economist for fun; I am a poor judge of the adventuresome. I handed the stories to my fourteen-year-old niece and awaited a verdict.
On Varnes: “I get it. Jesus.” I asked for further elaboration; what did get, exactly? Katie spread her hands wide, a note of duh seeping into her voice. “Jesus. I mean, he’s everywhere in this book. Why is it any better for Jesus to break into a girl’s room and watch her sleep than it was when Edward did it to Bella in ‘Twilight’?”
On Benford: “This is gross. This is gross. This is so gross.” I asked if she wouldn’t be interested in a sex-toy of any of the books’ main characters, perhaps as a Christmas present? Katie stared at me for a long minute. “I’m going to pretend that you never said that,” she said. “Just get me an iPod. Not porn. Does my mom know that you’re letting me read this?”
I slipped my niece a twenty to keep her quiet, than gave her Lieb’s manuscript.
“This is the dumbest thing I have ever read,” she pronounced ninety minutes later. “It’s just… ugh. I’m going to go read in my room.”
What, praytell, would she be reading?
“‘The Hunger Games’,” she said, critically surveying the stack of stories I’d brought. “Those books are good.”