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John Lamb, Published November 15 2009

The trouble with Bella

It doesn’t take a literary agent or a publishing magnate to figure out the “Twilight” franchise.

One teen girl who doesn’t fit in + one angelically beautiful teen vampire who actually shimmers + a tortured emotional relationship = a four-book series that has sold more than 70 million copies worldwide.

Fans have fallen for Stephenie Meyer’s love story of the mortal girl, the immortal who loves her and their inability to get too close, though Bella is all for surrendering herself to Edward’s adorable dark side.

The chasteness of their relationship has been celebrated by many readers who view it as a pro-abstinence message.

“I know (the abstinence theme) is why people like it, but I think they should look deeper,” says Jamieson Ridenhour, chairman of the Division of Humanities at the University of Mary in Bismarck and a scholar of gothic fiction. “The stuff I don’t like about ‘Twilight,’ I don’t think was intentional on Stephenie Meyer’s part, but I think it’s there.”

He sees Bella as a poor role model, frequently needing to be rescued yet pursuing the bad boy against his wishes and insisting his murderous nature will subside for her.

“I think she’s a very weak heroine. She gains strength through the series, but particularly in the first book, she erases a lot of strides women have made in the genre.”

Kathy Smith, program services coordinator at the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center in Fargo, read the first three books to see what all the buzz was about. While she liked that Bella was unglamorous and insecure, like a real teenager, Smith winced at Bella’s obsession and dependence on Edward.

“It kind of played up that being weaker than your partner is a good thing,” Smith says, calling the story “a romanticized view that women need someone to look out for them, someone to rescue them, someone who is stronger than they are both emotionally and intellectually and physically.”

It’s a view shared by many critics who have targeted the heroine for being a poor female lead since “Twilight” hit shelves in 2004.

In Elizabeth Hand’s 2007 review of “Eclipse” for the Washington Post, she wrote, “All (Bella) wants is for Edward to make an honest vampire of her …” and that her passivity “has repellent undertones to a reader and hardly seems like an admirable model to foist upon our daughters (or sons).”

“It’s written to appeal to teenage girls, but I don’t think it sends that great a message,” says Sarah Hassell, a feminist activist formerly of Fargo now living in St. Paul.

“(Meyer) tried to make (Bella) seem strong and make her seem like she knew what she wanted and went after it, but to me, it was pretty obvious this was a woman who was way too dependent on someone else for her happiness … That you can’t be happy until you find ‘the one’ and he’s going to do all these traditional, chivalrous things for you and you just sit back and be worshipped.”

Meyer keeps pretty quiet about her literary intentions, giving few interviews outside of Friday’s appearance on “The Oprah Show.” But she has posted answers to frequently asked questions on her Web site, www.stepheniemeyer.com.

When discussing the final book, 2008’s “Breaking Dawn,” the author responded to the question, “Is Bella an anti-feminist heroine?”

“I never meant for her fictional choices to be a model for anyone else’s real life choices. She is a character in a story, nothing more or less,” she writes. “But do her choices make her a negative example of empowerment? For myself personally, I don’t think so.”

Fans, or “Twi-hards,” will point out that Bella wants to become a vampire so she can spend eternity with her beloved and in smaller displays of authority chooses to move to Washington as the series begins and even becomes the decider in her father’s house.

But critics counter that all too often Bella is a damsel in distress waiting for her pasty dark knight.

Edward’s refusal to take Bella as a vampire may seem chivalrous, but his repeated warnings that if she doesn’t stay away from him he’ll hurt her and he won’t be responsible strike the wrong chord for some.

“It seems a really insidious message for young girls,” Ridenhour says. “It feels like every domestic violence case you read about.”

“There’s something distinctly queasy about the male-female dynamic that emerges over the series’ 2,446 pages,” Hand writes. “Edward … talks and acts like an obsessive controlling adult male,” while “Bella consistently describes herself as stupid, accident-prone and unworthy of her beloved’s affection.”

“Talk about the controlling behaviors,” Smith says. “He watches at night, without her knowing about it, then later with her knowing about it. He disables her vehicle so she can’t go someplace (in “New Moon”). He watches her and follows her, ostensibly to rescue her from herself.

“It feels to me like it’s being touted as this incredibly deep, wonderful relationship, when in fact there are so many disturbing things about it,” Smith adds. “The power differential, the obsession that both of them have and the controlling behaviors he has. I don’t get the sense, at least in the books, that she knows she’s being manipulated, which makes me sad for her as a character.”

“There’s a lot of manipulation, there’s a lot of deceit and a lot of poor, poor communication. But at the same time, that’s a teenage relationship,” says Hassell, like Meyer, was raised Mormon.

Unlike Meyer, she’s left the church and doesn’t care for themes of abstinence and dependence, but says the books, which she read in less than a week, are still fun.

“These are not the greatest messages to be sending to teenage girls, but who knows if they pick up on those messages,” says Hassell, who adds that she was raised on “Sweet Valley High” and “Flowers in the Attic.” “It’s the same stuff. It’s teenage pulp. It’s supposed to be fun. It doesn’t have to be that big a deal. If you want to sit down and analyze it, you can, but it isn’t really worth getting that upset over.”

“It’s no more abusive than ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ They kill themselves,” Hassell says, acknowledging that Meyer is no Shakespeare.

Still, both authors tap into teen angst.

“This is teenage (stuff). It’s all hyper-dramatic,” she says.

"Twilight" primer

For those who haven’t read the series or seen the 2008 movie and want to catch up before the next installment, “New Moon,” hits screens Thursday night, here’s a brief summary:

New girl in town, plain, 17-year-old Bella Swan, falls for mysterious classmate Edward Cullen, whose interest, in turn, runs hot and cold. Bella discovers he and his family are vampires who feed on animal blood instead of human blood. He reveals that while he likes her, he needs to stay away for fear he would lose control and turn her into a vampire. While she wants this, he fears she’ll lose her soul.

The first installment of “Twilight” ends with Edward and Bella dancing when he leans into her neck and … gives her a kiss.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533