Monday, March 15, 2010

Do Books Teach or Reveal?

A common complaint you will hear about the Twilight books is that they are harmful to young girls perceptions of themselves. Apparently, the Twilight books send the message that girls should rely entirely upon their boyfriends for their sense of self worth and also find it perfectly acceptable when he engages in stalkerish behavior. They send the message that girls are nothing without boys. I've heard people say they would gladly burn the books if they could, people who normally would not endorse such action. (I think they are kidding, but it still ought to be noted)

I have to admit it really bugs me when I hear this. Do I think love as portrayed in Twilight is true love and romance? No, I don't. But I think that more than sending a message, Twilight is revealing a cultural condition. The popularity of Twilight to me is not that girls are gobbling up a new message and acting accordingly, but rather that Twilight affirms what they already suspect to be true.

I do not believe that books are dangerous, and I cringe whenever well meaning people make a book the target of their concern. Here's a bit from one of my favorite books so far this year, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark, that sums up my feelings on this issue.

The teenagers weren't responding, so the theater director took a different approach. "When is art dangerous?"
"Art can't be dangerous!" my student blurted out in an exasperate tone. The question had struck a nerve, and he elaborated with a boldness, that, I suspect, surprised even himself. Unless you're poking someone's eye out with a picture frame, braining them with a statuette, or suffocating them with a scroll, we hold this truth to be self-evident: art can't be dangerous. "It's somebody's expression," he insisted. "Any harm anyone decides to feel in response to that expression--out of a sense of offense, outrage, impugned integrity, or whatever--it is their responsibility and their problem. An expression is just an expression. You have to let it be. If we don't, everyone's muffled and nobody's free."

Yes, hush, I know it's a stretch to call Twilight art, but it is an expression, it's a story that existed first in a woman's mind that she called forth onto paper. And the way the story works together bothers some people. But when it's decided that the message is so strong it's better if girls don't read it, I think we're missing the point.

This has been brewing in my mind for quite some time, so I was interested to read this defense by Frankie Diane Mallis of another YA book I haven't read, Hush, Hush. I think the post sort of loses the plot a bit when the author talks about how fantastic Becca Fitzpatrick is but the following quote is a gem:

Most teens know the difference between a normal relationship and an extremely unhealthy one, which yes- it does often gets glorified and depicted in paranormal romance. And if there are teens or adults reading a book along those lines, believing it's sexy to threaten violence, believing its healthy for a person to want to kill themselves over you, dreaming of a guy who stalks you...I have a hard time believing that those thoughts and desires stemmed from the reading of a book. Unhealthy ideas about relationships stem from a deeper source than that and are often the fault of other factors, not a story.
(emphasis mine)

I absolutely believe this to be true. And that's why I think instead of fretting about girls reading books like Twilight and Hush, Hush, we need to take a hard look at what the popularity of such stories reveals about our culture, particularly about our young women. I tend to think stories reveal more than they instruct. They uncover our true selves. They connect with the longing inside of us.

So what can be done? I think instead of trying to keep girls from reading Twilight, we need to have conversations with them about it. I also don't think it's out of place to recommend other books that you feel are better written or portray positive relationships, but I think we shouldn't dismiss the huge cultural conversation Twilight's popularity invites. And we need to start even younger. We need to love our future women so that they know how much they are worth on their own. We need to love ourselves so that we're a good role model in the flesh.

The point is that books in and of themselves aren't dangerous. We shouldn't fear them but we can be proactive in figuring out what they are telling us about ourselves, about our society, and culture. So really I suspect...the only thing to fear is what we might learn.


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