Saturday, May 19, 2012

Why 'is Kristen Stewart's Bella a Good Role Model?' is an irrelevant question.

Kristen Stewart as Bella in Twilight

Kristen Stewart was interviewed in The Guardian yesterday, mostly about her new film Snow White and the Huntsman but also about the thorny subject of Twilight and its suitability as an important text/film for young girls. For those who don't know Kristen Stewart was one of the stars of the Twilight series of films. The first film was a low budget affair directed by Catherine Hardwicke which escalated into a huge money spinner for all concerned. The following films are slicker and less interesting but have nonetheless been massive blockbusters the world over. Interviewer Kira Cochrane says about the character Stewart plays in Twilight:

'Bella Swan might be devoid of any obvious interests beyond her lust for vampire Edward Cullen and werewolf Jacob Black, but her very blankness has allowed a generation of young women who are in love or would like to be to live out their longings for dangerous, unattainable men.'

and goes on to say:

'She (Stewart) plays a character who is a terrible role model in Twilight, but in person is a blessed relief.'

I think that this misses the point that she was interestingly edging towards in the first quote. Bella is a teenage girl who has led a pretty ordinary, unhappy life; she is socially awkward and does not fit in anywhere. She is intelligent and good at her school work but her real love (before meeting Edward) is the escapist world of fiction and she is a voracious reader. She is blank in the way that any teenager is blank, the experiences that form their character are still to come. In Twilight she meets a man (who yes does happen to be a vampire which has all sorts of metaphorical meanings) who she falls passionately in love with. This happens in life (although admittedly it tends not to involve a vampire) and critics who disapprove just need to try and remember back to how it was. Bella does not act stupidly - she is very sensible mostly, and like anyone would be, is excited by the new opportunities that this first love opens up. So why is she a bad role model? And why does Cochrane think that Stewart, the woman and actress, should be anything like the made-up character she plays in a film?

Interestingly in the print version of the newspaper there is an ad for a recently released French film whose English title is Goodbye First Love. Presumably this placement is not accidental. The film covers very similar ground to Twilight with the exception that fifteen year old Camille is sleeping with her older boyfriend and he is not into her as much as Edward is into Bella. Camille's feelings are intense and she relishes the misery of being in love. The director, Mia Hanson-Love, has said that the story is autobiographical - so these things do actual happen. 

Lola Créton as Camille in Goodbye First Love

Twilight has been such a huge success because it taps into feelings that are really felt and elevates them to a situation of heightened romanticism (maybe like Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre etc etc). Rationally the conclusion can only be that Bella is a much better teenage role model that the mooning, un-criticised by the press Camille because she is much, much stronger willed. But ultimately why does she have to be seen as a role model at all. She is, as Cochrane pointed out, a blank canvas and as such we can project our desires onto her. Every James Bond style action hero is not pushed as some kind of role model for young men. So please leave Bella alone and let Kristen Stewart get on with her career.

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