The Good, the Bad, and the Bella Swan: A Woman’s Place in the Modern Media

It’s a confusing time to be a young woman in America.

Whether or not we want to admit it, much of what we believe about ourselves and our place in society comes from the media. And right now, the media is a minefield of mixed messages when it comes to what we as women are supposed to be.

Be strong, but don’t be bossy. Speak your mind, but don’t be a bitch. Act sexy, but don’t act like a whore. Work hard to get a good job, but don’t be a cold, spinster “career woman.” Be proud of your femininity, but don’t be too “girly” or “high-maintenance.” Strive to be skinny, but don’t lose your womanly curves in the process. You are more than your body, but it is your most powerful asset. You don’t need a man to validate you, but every happy ending involves a Prince Charming.

It’s enough to make even the most confident, well-adjusted woman’s head spin.

Young women have more stress, body image issues, and doubts about their self-worth than ever before. They also have more options when it comes to media consumption than ever before. Is that just an unpleasant coincidence?

You would think that more options would lead to a more balanced depiction of women in the media, but it often seems that more channels, advertisements, and social media outlets are in fact leading to the increased reinforcement of damaging ideas about the female gender.

Sometimes it seems like it’s better to become complete hermits, taking the media and its negative stereotypes completely out of our lives. But eventually we reach a frightening conclusion: For as frustrated as we get with the media, we simply can’t live without it.

The key to developing a healthy sense of self as a young woman in this media-driven society is to remember something that we all-too-often forget: We have a choice. We can choose what media we consume, and we can choose to educate ourselves about the impact the media has on our lives.

Can we avoid negative stereotyping and sexism in the media? Sadly, the answer is a resounding no. But we can choose to focus on positive female role models in literature, television, and film. And we can choose to allow these role models to be the ones we introduce to the young girls in our lives.

There are intelligent, strong, and compelling women making their presence felt in the media. We just have to know where to look.

We can look to television shows like Parks and Recreation and Once Upon a Time, films like Bridesmaids, and books like Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. These examples are just a few of the growing instances in the media where women are no longer just a pretty accessory or helpful sidekick on a man’s journey; they are the whole story.

We can’t escape sexism in the media forever. However, we can educate ourselves about the media we consume so that we are able to think critically about the messages we are getting from books, movies, and television. If we allow ourselves to see the damaging views on women presented in the media; we can fight back against those views. And we should fight back. Because it matters.

It matters that women’s sporting events are hardly ever broadcast on network television.

It matters that the women on Fox’s hugely popular Glee are punished (often severely) for being ambitious while many of the male characters never have to answer for their actions.

It matters that many people still think women can’t be as funny as men.

It matters that millions of female readers want a life like Bella Swan’s.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad that Stephenie Meyer made those millions of female readers eager to pick up books. However, this is a case where being critical of the media we consume is a matter of extreme importance. It’s fine for young women to read Twilight; it’s not fine for them to aspire to be nothing more than Bella Swan, a woman whose existence is defined by her relationships with men and who is willing to change everything about herself (and effectively die) for a man who shows signs of abusive behavior towards her.

The Twilight Saga is a book series that demands to be discussed with thought, care, and concern. It’s a great book series for starting a dialogue with young women about their sense of self-worth, but we have to be willing to examine it with a critical eye in order to see its effect on many of its readers. There’s a reason these books are so popular, and that’s why we can’t just write off the media that we see as negative or frivolous. All of the media that we consume matters. All of it.

But for every Bella Swan there is a Katniss Everdeen. We might just have to look a little harder to find her. There seems to be a much greater obsession with highlighting the negative portrayals of women in the media than there is with shining a spotlight on the positive role models that do exist. Thankfully, The Hunger Games seems to be shifting that focus slightly, with more than a few respected media outlets discussing why “Team Peeta” and “Team Gale” matter far less than “Team Katniss.” As savvy media consumers, we can only hope this trend continues.

The best way to navigate the minefield of the modern media is to bring along a helpful guide, and that’s what I hope Nerdy Girl Notes can be. I hope we can help each other see the flaws in the media that we consume while taking time to celebrate the things the media gets right.

I love a good discussion, so let’s get one going in the comments or on Twitter (@kak01): Which television shows, films, or books would you want young people (especially young women) to see and be inspired by? Which would you hope they never see or read?

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8 thoughts on “The Good, the Bad, and the Bella Swan: A Woman’s Place in the Modern Media

  1. I find Diane Lockhart from The Good Wife incredibly inspiring. She’s a woman in power, she is good at what she does, she’s very passionate about the things she believes in, she wants to mentor other women, and she has a big heart, even if people don’t always see it.

    I could probably write an entire entry about the good and bad aspects of the portrayal of women in all of Joss Whedon’s shows (Buffy/Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse) but I really love each of the women in Firefly because they are all so different and, for the most part, they aren’t one-dimensional characters.

    • Can you believe that I’ve never actually watched a Joss Whedon series? I need to fix this asap! Hopefully this summer I’ll watch Firefly and blog about my adventures with it on here.

      And as for Diane Lockhart, you know that my love for her runs frighteningly deep. If she were real, I’d want her to be my mentor.

      Thank you so much for adding your examples, Heather! I knew I could count on you to come up with great ones.

      • I hope you do get a chance to watch Firefly this summer! It has some of my favorite characters in it and there is a fantastic book of essays about the show that I think you’ll really enjoy.

        I’ve only watched a couple episodes of the show, but Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights is a phenomenal female character. Just seeing some clips and reading her quotes makes me excited for when I finally get to watch more of the show. Also, Parenthood (which has the same creator) has 5 amazing leading women, all different but all strong. I’m sure I’ll keep coming back and adding things to my list of amazing women in fiction since it’s a subject I love so much. I’m looking forward to seeing what other people have to say!

        • Come back and add to this list whenever you feel like it because you know I’ll love reading your examples!

          I can’t wait to read those essays as soon as I watch Firefly – you know I have a weakness for things like that!

  2. Hey! Great blog post. This is an interesting topic that I’ve debated time and time again. I think it’s especially interesting given the recent success of The Hunger Games. Here we have a movie with a female action hero who isn’t sexually objectified in any way, and yet the movie is hugely
    successful with both male and female audiences. It kind of shoots down that long held theory by the media establishment that a movie that centers on a female, without degrading her or objectifying her, couldn’t possibly be financially viable.

    As for Bella, well I’ve long had opinions on that character and that series. I’ve only read the first book, but I wasn’t too fond of it, both because of the writing style and because Bella is kind of a blank character. She’s a slate for young girls who love Edward to project themselves onto, rather than a fully formed personality. I did enjoy the first three movies mainly because I have a girl crush on Kristen Stewart. But I found the last movie so disturbing in its messages and themes (the glamorization of violent, dangerous sex, putting your destiny as a baby vessel before your own life, etc.) that I didn’t enjoy it at all. It was kind of horrifying to me, and to be honest, it almost seems to me like Stephanie Meyer might be trying to deliberately subvert everything feminist with that kind of thing. I just can’t interpret stuff like that as anything but an intentional attack on feminist values, rather than just ignorance or indifference.

    Anyways, I’m really excited about your blog! There’s nobody I can think of who can tackle these kinds of topics like you. There’s actually another blog I read about similar issues, that I highly recommend. It’s called Feminist Frequency [http://www.feministfrequency.com/] and it’s all about feminism and pop culture. It’s excellent. She actually just started covering The Hunger Games and Katniss [http://www.feministfrequency.com/2012/04/the-hunger-games-katniss-part-1-the-novel/] so you’d probably find that really interesting.

    • I was so hoping you’d comment on this post because I knew you’d have great things to say, and I was right! Everything you said about The Hunger Games is right; it’s singlehandedly showing that a film franchise can be successful without pandering to what executives believe men want to see onscreen. I’m so happy that both men and women are gravitating towards Katniss simply because she’s a strong, interesting character.

      I also agree with everything you said about Breaking Dawn being a blatant attack on feminist values. The first books/movies were bad enough with their messages that men know what’s best for women and women have no value outside of how men view them. Then Breaking Dawn happened, and there is no way to see what happens in that book/movie as anything other than a deliberate attack on feminism (told with horrible writing and a poorly-contructed plot). I get angry just thinking about a lot of what happened in that book/movie.

      I’m also definitely going to check out that blog that you recommended! As you know, this kind of stuff is near and dear to my heart, so I love reading as much as I can about these topics.

  3. I’m back with another show recommendation! Not that you need any more added to your list 😉

    I just started watching Battlestar Galactica and not only is it an extremely well-crafted show, but it also has two amazing female characters that I think you’d really enjoy. Lieutenant Kara “Starbuck” Thrace is very much a strong action character, but she has so much depth and vulnerability to her character that she has been a really well-rounded character, at least in the first 5 episodes that I’ve seen. Laura Roslin is also strong, but in a completely different way than Kara, which I love. It’s a show that demonstrates that there isn’t a “right” way to be a strong female character. If this continues to be true throughout the rest of the series, I’ll definitely let you know!

    • I’m never leaving the house this summer after all of these amazing TV recommendations! 😉

      I really like the idea of showing that there isn’t one “right” way to be a strong female character. That’s why I love shows like Castle, Once Upon a Time, Parks and Rec, and The Good Wife; they feature a variety of female characters who are strong and dynamic without being replicas of each other. They show their strength in different ways, which is the way it works in the real world; there’s no one way to be a strong woman because all women are strong in their own way.

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