Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Distressing Damsels

by Michelle Gagnon

First of all, if you haven't taken advantage of the free download of John Gilstrap's Thriller nominated book NO MERCY yet, it can be found here. You won't regret it.

Apparently we're in the middle of a movie-themed week, ranging from Jaws to Predator.
So here's my contribution.
I made the mistake of watching the film New Moon the other night (I know, believe me, I know. It wasn't by choice. I lost a bet.)

Fresh off my post on the incomprehensible hype surrounding The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, I figured there was so much hoopla surrounding Stephanie Meyers and the films based on her books, there must be some fire to that smoke.

Apparently not. Now, I haven't read Ms. Meyer's books (and I'm unlikely to, since watching the films was less enjoyable than a double root canal). I can see where they might appeal to teenage girls-all those strapping young men, barely clothed- and hey, apparently they can't even indulge in carnal relations with you, since that would result in death- likely yours. It's all terribly romantic.

But good Lord, the dialogue- stilted to the point where someone says something, someone else responds, yet there's no evident correlation between the two statements. I liken it to conversations between four year-olds, where one says, "The sky is green," and his friend answers, "I like cake," and we're supposed to believe they're having a conversation. I kid you not, the repartee in the film is that abyssmal and stilted. If they'd pushed the envelope a bit further, it could have qualified as a Dada masterpiece. (Another example: check out the tagline on the movie poster above. "Love. Life. Meaning. Over." Huh?)

But that's not what I found most disturbing. No, apparently the bill of goods that millions of teenage girls (and their mothers) are currently subscribing to is that Bella, the female heroine, is, in fact completely weak and needy. Without male assistance, she can barely get through the day. Forget saving herself- whenever danger strikes, she pretty much curls into a ball and waits for one of those strapping men to show up (which they continue to do, with annoying frequency, for no apparent reason).

Now, I understand that the damsel in distress holds a hallowed place in our lore. But this was impotency and weakness to an extent that I found extremely unsettling. Maybe it's because I personally am a fan of strong female protagonists. In a pinch, I'll even settle for moderately capable ones. But this image of the female as a creature constantly putting herself in danger (stupidly: think naked girl wandering into the woods in a slasher film-that stupid), and wallowing if there wasn't a man around, was disconcerting. At one point, a woman who had been the victim of abuse by her werewolf fiance was lauded for sticking by him because "he couldn't help it."
All of this struck me as a giant step backward.
Am I the only one who felt that way?


  1. It's what Gail Simone coined as "Women in Refrigerator" syndrome and it drives me absolutely batty.

  2. You are not the only one that thinks this way. My daughter is nineteen and head over heels in love with all books and movies from Stephanie Meyer. I am seriously concerned at the ideals engendered in this series. It is a huge step backward for women.

  3. I haven't read the books or seen the movies, but I'm pretty sure I'd agree with you, Michelle.

    I HATE damsels in distress! One of my pet peeves is a female protagonist who needs to be rescued. Drives me nuts!

  4. Movies often dumb down perfectly good books in the quest to make some sort of a film about something or other for some obscure reason. The majority of movies are a waste of film in the same way that the majority of books are a waste of paper and ink. At least with electronic books no trees will be threatened.

    I've never read any of the TWILIGHT books and all I know is that Stephanie Meyers' writing ability has been assailed by Stephen King and her work involves good and bad vampire kids and good and bad werewolf kids. It seems vampires are fine to go out in the daylight as long as they do it in the northwest where the light is extremely weak. And werewolves are merely ultra-huge wolves with human brains. I must profess I have never been much of a vampire or werewolf fan, unless we're talking about politicians.

    I am at that stage in my life where I am skeptical of just about everything, and critical of everything. I leave no stone unturned in my guest to bitch about whatever you've got.

  5. I haven’t watched the movie or read the books, but I do have a few thoughts about Damsels in Distress. While it may not be true for all women, I think there are plenty of women who are looking for that knight in shining armor, whatever form that armor may take. This kind of story plays to those women. However, the strength of the knight is revealed by the strength of the villain he defeats and the strength of the villain is revealed by the strength of the victims. If our damsel is going to be completely helpless, she’d better have some strong people around her for the villain to defeat or the knight will come across as weak.

  6. Up to this point, I've been able to avoid all things in the current vampire craze just like I avoided all things Harry Potter. I have no plans to change. And just like Miller, I grow more critical as each day goes by. I don't even like this comment.

  7. I haven't seen or read any of TWILIGHT, and doubt I will. I've heard too many of the kinds of comments Michelle makes here to have any interest.

    I have no patience for the stereotypical damsel in distress. That doesn't mean I don't like a story where there is a character (gender is less important than situation to me) who needs help though no fault of her/his own. It's people who stupidly place themselves into jeopardy, or who show themselves to be weak and foolish once there, I have no time for. I have even been known to root against saving a character if they're just too dumb to be allowed back into the gene pool. (Grab the dog; let her fall.)

  8. Since I have read ALL of Stephenie Meyer’s books, I feel compelled to say something. Many of her readers feel the movies do a great injustice to her books, all of which (with the exception of the Short Second Life of Bree Tanner) go on for hundreds of pages.

    In the books, Bella is portrayed as a typical teenage girl with many of her actions being hormonally and emotionally driven. However, Bella is also portrayed as extremely stubborn, rebellious, and not interested in marriage. Meyer spends many pages helping her readers get to know and care for her Twilight characters none of which comes through in a 120-minute movie. So much is left out. Left unsaid. Unexplained.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the Twilight series because of Meyer’s skill at developing her characters and tying up the storyline by the end of the trilogy in a fantastic twist of fantasy and fate. While many writers may not be impressed by Meyer’s writing skills, her readers obviously are. And in the end, doesn’t every writer seek to satisfy their readers rather than fellow writers?

  9. I meant to say series not trilogy. I do know the difference....

  10. Kendrea-Interesting, thanks for chiming in. I guess the question I have is does Bella become more proactive in the books?

    If so, then what they've done with th films is really galling. My friends books were translated to the screen a few years ago, and he was shocked to realize that the screenwriter had changed the ending so that rather than the girl saving the day, the boy did. Maybe something similar is happening here?

    It makes me nostalgic for Buffy, that's for sure. There was one series where the girls kicked some serious butt.

  11. I'm on your side, Michelle. I remember seeing the first Princess Diaries movie and the first Harry Potter movie around the same time. (I have kids.) In both, the protagonist discovers that s/he is the heir to a great legacy and is presented with challenges to live up to it. In the Princess Diaries, things go wrong and Mia curls up into a ball in her VW and a man comes along to save her. In Harry he fights the evil wizard himself. Was not too crazy about what this was telling my daughters.

  12. What all that abstinence is, Michelle, is not terribly romantic but terribly Mormon.

    But if you read the first 100 pages of Twilight, you will probably understand why teenage girl readers are swooning - it's safe sex. A boy (well, okay, a 200 year old man, ick) pining over you but not forcing anything disturbing like sex.

    My whole theory about the popularity of vampires has to do with women's sensitivity in the neck area, but that's a different post.

    Bella does not get more proactive, she gets married and pregnant.

    But you can't really ever analyze a Black Swan, can you?

    I do feel your pain.

  13. What? You didn't like a movie with a really bad script with really bad acting based on a popular (but IMHO - based on the excerpts I read at the bookstore - really bad) book that was aimed at teenage girls??! I'm shocked! The only thing that makes those movies bearable is Taylor Lautner's naked torso (oooh if only he were about 15 years older).
    Bella is certainly the female lead, but she barely qualifies as a true protaganist. She's certainly not active. She sets action in motion by her sheer stupidity and weakness and it's the other characters who then do the heavy lifting. She's not merely a damsel in distress, but a Damsel in Dunceland.
    In my opinion this portrayal of the female as weak and stupid and needing men to solve all her problems is embarrassing to women, and I think it's sad that teenage girls are falling for this.
    Vampires can be great characters. Completely fictional creatures like these can have all sorts of attributes and issues that you might not be able to pull off with an actual fictional human. But these sparkly, daywalking do-gooder vampires just make me roll my eyes.

  14. Nicely put, catfriend. I have the same issues with True Blood- Sookie is too much of a dolt for my taste (but then, I also find Anna Paquin to be inherently annoying).
    Why didn't Meyers provide a way for humans to kill vampires, or at least be capable of defending themselves against them? Are wooden stakes and holy water passe these days?

  15. There's an upside -- one of my nieces had always flinched around the word "feminist" until the first Twilight movie. Her exact quote was "I don't know if I'm a feminist or what, but that movie pissed me off!"

  16. Out of curiosity, why "women in refrigerator," Josh?

  17. I have to kick in one of the single funniest tweets I've ever seen.

    "Twilight is like soccer. They run around for two hours, nobody scores, and its billion fans tell you that you don't get it."

    That about sums up the movies for me. My nieces all love the books and someday I may partake. However, like Justin Bieber, I just may have to accept that "I just don't get it."


    PS: When do I get to see another of your books? "The Gatekeeper" had such a shocking ending that I'm still not sure I read it right!

  18. I LOVE that analogy, Terri. Next book is coming out in November, all questions will be answered then, promise.

  19. Terri: Loved the tweet!

    Michelle: I read all the books. Meyer won't win any writing awards for craft with the first book, but she does get better. What she excels at is delivering an emotional experience.

    I'm sorry you were introduced to the Twilight saga with the worst movie/book. The others are all better. It's worth your time reading the first book before you pass judgment. Despite the lack of craft, it's a book you just can't put down. Borrow it if you can't allow yourself to purchase it. It's got a sagging middle (I liked how the movie fixed this) but otherwise it's a real page-turner.