Eclipse, the latest cinematic installment of the Twilight saga, is out, and there are a lot of thought-provoking reviews cropping up. This one, from HitFix, had a lot of great things to say about the messages Stephenie Meyer’s books, and the films made from them, send to women. And it has spurred me to think about why love stories like that of Bella and Edward just don’t work for me.
Bella has no goals, no purpose, outside of being with Edward. She doesn’t even care about her parents or her friends or have passion about what she wants to eat for breakfast. She’s just a cipher, a cardboard carnival cut-out for readers and film-goers to stick their heads through so that they, too, may feel this inexplicable sense of longing and being longed for. It’s not her fiery personality that draws Edward to her (if you were stuck in Antarctica with nothing but Bella’s personality to keep you warm, you’d be screwed), and it’s not some deep quality within him that draws her to him. He’s gorgeous and she smells intoxicating. That’s why they love each other. They don’t love because of things that are unique to one another; they love because it just is. I need more than that. I like love stories where the characters have agency, where they antagonize and challenge each other, where there is more substance than sparkle.
And before I’m accused of dog-piling on Meyer because it’s the hip thing to do, I have the same criticism of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The title characters are a road map for what not to do in love. The thing is, I think Shakespeare, as a playwright, had more awareness of that, whereas Bella and Edward are sold as an ideal who do get their happy ending (complete with the vampire baby Eddie has to chew out of her uterus). Juliet, meanwhile, is a twit who kills herself over some schmuck she met at a party and barely knew. I feel that, for Shakespeare, that is the tragedy: not that they loved and died, but that they were so stupidly consumed with one another that it destroyed both the houses of Capulet and Montague and several of their friends! I mean, dude, it’s one thing if your soul-sucking, self-centered romance only impacts you. When there’s collateral damage, I really can’t get on board.
Sure, The Princess Bride is my favorite movie of all time, and it’s quite clear that Westley and Buttercup’s love story is just as based on shallow perceptions…but The Princess Bride is a satirical romantic comedy, and Buttercup is meant to be Too Stupid To Live. It’s not as explicit in the film, but in the book, William Goldman absolutely plays up the function of a fairy tale heroine…which is pretty much just to stand around being desired for no reason other than her looks. Still, Buttercup has flashes of spine. She tries to escape Vizzini, she calls out Prince Humperdinck. In the book, she uses endless hours of princess lessons to get Westley, Fezzik and Inigo out of the castle safely. But no one puts down the book or shuts off the movie and idealizes Buttercup’s place in literature and pop culture like they do Bella or Juliet. Her and Westley’s love story is not held up as the pinnacle of romance. Nor should it be!
You know what my pinnacle is? A pair more like Star Wars‘ Han and Leia. From the beginning, there is tension and conflict. “Into the garbage chute, flyboy!” she cracks, after blasting a hole in a wall grate. Few introductions between future lovers feature such a strong showing by the heroine. The cocky pilot is instantly set on edge by Her Worshipfullness, who is WAY out of his league. And between her inappropriate attraction to her twin brother and his issues with helping the Rebellion, it takes them until the end of The Empire Strikes Back to admit they love each other: right before Han Solo is dropped into carbonite. And does Leia curl up and die? Do seasons go by like blank pages because her man has left her? Um, no. Girlfriend dresses up as Boushh the bounty hunter, infiltrates Jabba the Hutt’s palace and ends up in a bondage bikini—all to rescue him! And did I mention she was holding a thermal detonator? Instead of gorgeous, Han is a “scruffy-looking nerfherder.” And Leia doesn’t smell intoxicating…at least not when they first meet, considering they end up in the trash compactor.
Why Han and Leia love each other becomes more and more obvious to viewers as the story goes on. Han Solo even breaks it down for us: “You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There aren’t enough scoundrels in your life.” But beyond that, underneath all the trappings of class and loyalty, they’re kindred spirits. They’re fighters who aren’t afraid to rush headlong into the unknown. As a reader, as a viewer…those are the kinds of things I want to discover about characters: what makes them tick, what draws them together beyond just the sparks…or the sparkle.