First, I have to come clean and admit that I never read past the first few pages of the Twilight books; I did, however, sit through the entirety of the movies. As for 50 Shades, I made it to the second half of the second book, and then looked up reviews and summaries online. Still, I think my argument is relevant, because I’m criticizing the concept as a whole, not the details of the story or the writing. Women obsessing over those shitty books and movies is like going back in time, to Snow White or Belle…
The above is not a trivial critique, each Disney princess’ characteristics and story respond to the time they surfaced in. For example, Snow White’s prince doesn’t have a name, probably because back then marrying someone was all that mattered… The Little Mermaid gave up her whole world and voice (yes, literally) to be with some guy she had seen twice; Belle was the Beast’s prisoner, as was her dad; who was also gravely mistreated by the same hairy monster (a beast, in the most literal sense) she ended up with. When we take away the sugar coated love stories, a dark picture of tortuous interactions is drawn quite clearly. Those are the images of femininity that an entire generation grew up with.
The first mildly independent princesses were Pocahontas and Mulan. In the end of her story, Pocahontas chose to stay with her father and tribe, after stopping a war and deciding who to love, it was the first film in the history of Disney movies in which the princess decided to stay by herself. For her part, Mulan was strongly pressured by her family to get married, she eventually fought the Huns, saved the emperor, brought honor to her family… and got married, so the contradiction in the message is clear: you can be a badass, but happily ever after means getting married. The argument they made around it was absurd and included Captain Shang kinda crushing on a male soldier, who turned out to be Mulan.
Finally, the first princess with a goal other than marriage in her mind was Tiana from the Princess and the Frog, who wanted to be a chef and own a restaurant. But, let me point out that there’s more than ten years between Tiana and Mulan, so in a decade, we basically went from a badass that fought for her country and brought honor to her family, to a girl that wanted a restaurant. In the end of her movie, Tiana got married and was able to pay for her restaurant with the money she got from kissing the frog in the first place.
The issue here is that Disney Princesses have always been marketed as aspirational characters; which means we basically bombarded an entire generation with frail, shallow and obnoxiously beautiful female idols, whose sole purpose in life was to find “true love” –regardless of all the torment that came with it– and get married in a big and ridiculous ceremony. I wish I could insert Facebook pictures here of my acquaintances’ recent weddings, and then of those who have already signed divorce papers…
The progression of the Disney princesses happened at the same time as female liberation rights fought and won the hardest battles (parity in wages, penalties for battery, abortion… the list goes on), so in some sense it balanced out liberalism with staunch conservative values, marketed in shiny packages and spun out as sick love stories. Since the hype around Disney died down, other female icons have taken their place; that’s exactly why I have an issue with Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray.
Bella, the main female role from Twilight, belongs to a generation where women with strong characters were a common place. The books and movies were read and seen by kids who were familiar with Harry Potter, where Hermione was the smartest witch who went to war against the Dark Lord with her friends and eventually ended up with one of them; and the Hunger Games, where Katniss fought to the death twice to save her family from starvation, brought down tyranny and ended up with the good guy who protected her the entire saga. So we have women who saved entire nations, fought the Dark Lord, were great friends, witty, strong, smart… and Bella crying and getting suicidal for an entire book and movie because she doesn’t have a boyfriend.
The issue goes deeper: the first time Bella had sex with Edward she woke up filled with bruises, from the sheer brutality of him; and regardless, she went back for seconds. Afterwards, she was impregnated with a baby that started killing her from within, and never considered terminating it; she eventually died giving birth, and was brought back as a vampire. Evidently, Twilight without the great soundtracks, angsty looks and model-like actors is downright morbid story.
As for 50 Shades of Grey (Twilight fan fiction, turned into a bestseller), I’m all for sexual liberation, but I can see women getting hit and, after reading the book, thinking “he’ll change” or “he must’ve had a rough childhood”… That’s one of the central arguments in the saga: Anastasia goes back to Christian AFTER he beat the crap out of her (Rihanna and Chris Brown, anyone?) and the author makes a very compelling argument on how with some patience and cuddling, even a psycho sadomasochist will change.
So yeah, I’m not OK with those books on principle, and I’m sick of how young audiences remain passive not only towards bad writing, and filming; but towards destructive messages. Women no longer need to be put down, authors, directors, producers, movie-goers and readers need to realize that.