Sunday, May 22, 2011

I feel for Rosalie and Leah like I feel for characters in a bad fanfic

(This post has spoilers for the later books in the Twilight series.)

For a long time now I've tried to make my way through the Twilight book series, but it's been hard, mostly because I can't stand them. While I could read 100 pages in one sitting I often feel I do not want to do so. As of this writing I'm a little past the second book in Breaking Dawn, the final novel in the series, and while I've long been planning to write on the series as a phenomenon I figured that while I'm not done I'd like to talk a little bit about two characters whose depictions really bother me, Rosalie Cullen and Leah Clearwater.

Rosalie Cullen. You know she can't be trusted because she's blonde.

Most people who read the Twilight series and don't like them focus on the problematic relationship between Bella and her suitors, and while there's plenty to say about that I find Rosalie and Leah's stories more jarring as a feminist and as an aspiring fiction writer. For those not in the know, Rosalie is one of Edward Cullen's "sisters," a vampire created by their "father" Carlisle to be a companion for Edward, except Edward didn't love her that way and now Rosalie has her own squeeze, Emmett, and Edward is the primary love interest of Twilight heroine Bella. Leah, meanwhile, is a cousin to werewolf Jacob Black, Bella's secondary love interest, and the only female werewolf in a pack of mostly-shirtless men.

Both Rosalie and Leah belong to that class of characters that probably have a cute name on TV Tropes but I'll just call them "dislikable allies." Both characters are coded as bitches by not only the viewpoint characters - Bella doesn't like Rosalie because Rosalie doesn't like her, and when Jacob narrates in Breaking Dawn large portions of the narrative are dedicated to how loathsome the both of them are. None of the characters seem to disagree with them, either. Rosalie has a husband but while he doesn't diss her we never at any point in the narrative see him stick up for her. And Leah is apparently so loathsome that when the wolf pack splits into two and Leah joins up with Jacob's pack of him and Leah's little brother, Seth, Seth is disgusted at having to be in a pack with his own sister again because she's just that much of a pain.

What is it that sets these characters so apart? Well, Rosalie doesn't like Bella so she's cold to her sometimes. Also, Rosalie is bitter that she can't get pregnant. As for Leah, she's bitter because Sam, the head of the wolf pack, doesn't love her anymore. And ... that's about it. In paragraphs upon paragraphs in this book, author Stephenie Meyer urges us to hate these characters, loathe these characters, laugh at their humiliations, feel triumph at their sufferings and sneer at their joys, all because they have the gall not to be totally happy with the hand fate has dealt them.

Leah Clearwater. Because she's from the First Nations a werewolf she's forever damaged.

Reading the passages with Rosalie and Leah in Breaking Dawn gave me the odd sensation of reading fanfiction where the fanfic writer clearly doesn't like one of the cast members who were meant in the original work to be protagonists. In this common phenomenon, characters who had once been friends become enemies, what in the original work were annoyances and bad decisions become in the fanfic become cruelties and abuses, and the writer seems hellbent on telling the reader any goodwill they have for these characters is wrong, wrong, wrong and we are meant to delight in their repudiation. (This is a frequent occurrence among both fanfics with original characters AND slash fanfics, and the disdained characters are usually but by no means exclusively female.) For those who don't like these characters, these fanfics can provide vindication, but usually I come away from them feeling sad and pitying the characters no matter how I felt about them in the original work. When the fanfic writer, in this instance the equivalent of God, hates you so much, you're automatically an underdog.

What makes it worse is that Meyer, remembering that even negative characters need reasons for the things they do, gives both Rosalie and Leah tragic pasts. While Rosalie's origin is written with this infuriating rose-colored (pun not intended) view of the past where things were so great back before the Internet and the civil rights movement because people cursed less and wore dresses or something, her essential story is that Carlisle made her a vampire because Rosalie's former fiancee and his friends gang raped her and beat her until she was near death. Since she was dedicated to having a normal life with a family and children, she's not very happy about being a vampire, either. Sam used to be in love with Leah, but after he became a werewolf, he "imprinted" on her cousin Emily, a weird and creepy phenomenon where werewolves become obsessed with their "soulmate" after they meet them and said soulmate, always a woman in Twilight, has no choice in the matter. After Leah also becomes a werewolf, her mind is linked with Seth's and all the other werewolves. So she not only has to hear how Sam no longer loves her and doesn't want her around anymore, but how the other, all male, werewolves, wish she would shut up and go away. Also, she may be infertile because she's a werewolf and the males wish she would shut up about her periods because that's gross.

Of course, one could argue that a bad life doesn't necessarily make one a good person. Yet most of the time being unhappy and voicing their unhappiness is these characters' worst sin. I know many have issues with the second part of Breaking Dawn, where Bella becomes pregnant with a half-vampire baby that may possibly kill her but nevertheless wants to keep it, and see those chapters as implying that women should be prepared to sacrifice it all for a baby. Now, I'm pro-choice and think doctors should have a moral imperative to save mothers when pregnancies become dangerous and should always respect the mother's personhood, but in this instance Bella does want her baby, and Rosalie is the only one who completely supports her in that decision. Carlisle helps medically and Edward worries over her, but Rosalie is the one who acts as 24 hour nurse and does favors for her while Alice, who is coded as Edward's good sister and usually plays the role of Bella's best friend, can't stand to be near her because the baby disturbs her psychic powers. Yet because Rosalie is more invested in the baby and Bella, all that work is considered moot if not actively malevolent. Also, Leah should stop whining about being second in someone's heart because only Jacob is allowed to do that. Although if Leah confronts Bella on stringing him along, that's also evil. Granted, she probably shouldn't have done it when Bella was sick from the deathbaby, but I didn't really want to see two powerful men threatening to beat her up for it.

In fact, only men are allowed to be angry and even vengeful against the ones they love. Jacob can want to kill Bella's baby and Edward can disable Bella's truck, but their acts against the heroine don't count. Even among the minor characters, Sam can disfigure Emily and still be the love of her life. Carlisle can turn a woman who tried to kill herself into a vampire but nobody questions his choice and said woman is now his happy wife. We know their theft of a woman's personhood is just temporary and they know best so it's okay, but somehow a woman being bitter can't be tolerated. It's a frustrating, sexist dichotomy, made all the more frustrating because I had to read more than 200 pages of Stephenie-Meyer-as-Jacob whining about how he couldn't have Bella but talking about how Leah was such a bitch for being upset about Seth, capped off with Jacob being gleeful when he got to beat Rosalie up.

Maybe I'm off-base. Maybe everyone else finds these characters as irritating as Meyer intends them to be and I'm the equivalent of those creepy Harry Potter fans who see the Death Eaters as a noble race of aristocrats who have been unfairly maligned by the bullying Gryffindors and not as a rather-obvious metaphor for Nazism. Yet I can't help but look at these characters who've had a harder time than the main characters, and aren't happy about it, and can't help but sympathize as they rage against their clearly unsympathetic creator who set them on that path.


  1. If I understand you, you're saying that Rosalie and Leah are sympathetic despite Meyer's best efforts? I don't think that's right...or at least it wasn't the impression I got. Leah is very sympathetic. She's presented as being in a completely untenable situation and acting out because of it; when she's given an out to join Jacob's pack, she's able to get things together and shows herself to be a responsible and loyal ally.

    Rosalie's a little trickier...but she's the one Bella turns to when she needs to protect her baby...a decision that Meyer certainly supports. Her past is tragic...but it doesn't make her an evil person. It makes her feel that vampirism is bad (a perspective which seems really reasonable) and that she wants kids (a pretty reasonable emotion.)

    I'd agree that Meyer is ambivalent about them, and it's reasonable to suggest that that ambivalence is tinged with misogyny. But the sympathy you're feeling for Rosalie and Leah is part of the ambivalence that Meyer herself puts in the book. She has sympathy for those characters too.

  2. Noah:

    The reason I can't see it that way, as much as I'd like to, is how vehement the other characters are in their dislike of Leah and Rosalie. I was really uncomfortable with passages like where Jacob said the pack was hard on Leah but she deserved it for making everyone miserable. I agree that Meyer doesn't make either of them evil, they're both still on the "good" team and have positive qualities, but I think they spend a lot of the book punished and scorned by the other characters for crimes that are minor, and I really disliked that about the depiction. You and I might find them sympathetic, but it seems like the other characters largely don't from the way they're written.

  3. Jacob comes around to Leah though...and Bella definitely comes around to Rosalie.

    I don't think we're actually disagreeing that much. I definitely think you're right that there's a lot of animosity in the series towards those two characters, and I think it is as you say linked to misogyny. I just think that the sympathy is in the books too, not entirely extrinsic to them.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your post! Thanks for writing it.

  4. Yeah, as I've gotten later into the book the relations between those characters have gotten better, I'll give you that. (And I'll talk about that when I write a follow up.)

    And I'm glad you liked the post! Come back anytime!

  5. In the Guide series it was mentioned that Leah also feels guilty because her phasing led to her dad having a heart attack