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May 26, 2010

(Spoilers for Uglies here, and probably Vampire Diaries as well.)

So, first off, I think I should really work on post titles, because the auto-permalinker is all “huh-3.”

Secondly, I accidentally-for-reals came across some criticism of my recaps, the first I’ve ever seen.  I wasn’t Googling myself or even looking up Vampire Diaries stuff, go figure.  It’s just that “bookslide” is a name I use for a lot of accounts, and so it came up in the course of looking for something else entirely this blog-unrelated.  The criticism is that–I hope I get this right, because I don’t even know if I could find the page again if I wanted to–I’m too focused on Elena as a negative role model.

The thing is, I don’t see Elena as being her own self in a lot of ways.  One of these ways, probably the most major way, is that she’s an ’80s/’90s stereotype of the Blonde Good Girl.  The second most major way is my memories of my emotional connection and interaction with her as a young reader.  When you merge these two lenses (like when you’re at the eye doctor!), and you’ve got the adult perspective going on, a lot becomes clear.

The message in these decades was that these were characters to look up to. These incredibly flawed characters were held as pinnacles of Teenage.  Now, there are a lot of incredibly flawed characters in the past ten-plus years who are protagonists and (sometimes arguably) heroines, Katniss from The Hunger Games and Vivian from Blood & Chocolate springing immediately to mind.  Heck, if you want to get into it, Tally from Uglies is the perfect example, really.  Whereas Katniss and Vivian’s flaws are more subtle and might take a more sophisticated reader to distance herself from them, Tally is filled with flaws that she can’t stop thinking about, not just physical flaws but emotional ones.  The difference between Tally’s flaws and Elena’s is that Tally and the other characters in the series notice and interact with these flaws, whereas in TVD, Elena rarely admits to flaws and generally sees them as unchangeable aspects of herself, while managing to see small or negative amounts of change as real growth.

When you think about Shay vs. Caroline, it becomes a little more clear.  Shay is never REALLY the bad guy–that’s always Dr. Cable.  And yet Shay always seems to be on the opposite side of the fence from Tally, no matter what Tally’s choices seem to be.  And in Specials, she tells Tally that she’s narcissistic.  She doesn’t even say this in anger.  She accepts that this is who Tally is–Tally is incapable of seeing situations from perspectives other than her own.  That’s why the end of the series, abrupt as it is, makes perfect sense.  Tally can’t see the system from inside; she sees it from her own worldview and is determined that she and David will enforce that worldview.  Whether it’s right or not doesn’t matter–Tally has shown over the course of the book that she doesn’t comprehend expansion for the sake of humanity, because it was drilled into her head as a child that expansion=bad. If David creates a counterbalance, great, but even without David, Tally would be doing what she’s doing, based off of her own Tally-centered motivations.

Caroline, on the other hand, is set up as the Mean Girl/Bad Guy from the beginning.  She’s so jealous of Elena.  She wants Stefan.  There’s nothing about their relationship that isn’t antagonistic, and nothing we see in Caroline for a long time that’s worthwhile, so we’re meant to use her as a metric: Caroline, Bad; Elena, Good.  This is aided by Meredith and Bonnie–even when Bonnie complains about Elena getting all the guys, Meredith’s response is that life isn’t fair, suggesting that life favors the Elenas.

We’ve seen this come up on The Dairi Burger and 1BRUCE1.  Elizabeth and Jessica (blondes, by the way) are set up to the heroines, despite their personalities being apparently polar opposites.  Even though Jessica is, by all accounts, a sociopath, and Elizabeth is incredibly condescending, the entire series is built around basically worshiping them.  Todd is held up as the standard of the perfect boyfriend, but the drama of an ongoing series demands conflict, so he’s thrust into the role of crappy person for about 50 pages to make some kind of point that seems to disappear at the end of every book, thus negating his worth entirely for everyone but a young reader who can’t yet make that distinction.  Other “good” characters, like Enid, are props to hold up Elizabeth’s perfection, and give the impression of being doormats, whereas “good/bad” characters like Lila are scheming and conniving shoplifters with daddy issues.  But don’t worry, those daddy issues with be dealt with, until the plot needs them again, when they start from the beginning.

The thing is, it was what it was.  We can’t go back into the past and change our role models.  We can’t hop in a time machine and say “Francine Pascal, stop what you’re doing right now and THINK.”  And why would we?  Jessica and Elizabeth are fantastic examples of ’80s heroines.  To deny that would be to deny the times that created them.  As a lit major, that is nowhere near my intention.  But as someone who’s looking at these works at least somewhat critically, I can’t help but find this to be a huge aspect of rereading and mention it appropriately.

Elena is, after all, in retrospect utterly ridiculous.  She has bizarre expectations about social norms and the opposite sex; no interests other than boys, clothes, party planning, and her friends; and never once considered a life outside of high school.  She’s an upper middle class white girl from a town in Virginia not far from some major cities–the exclusion of college from the narrative makes the Bella/Edward college argument seem downright realistic.

But when I write, I’m not here to say “But what about the children who are reading the reprints now??”, although as a parent I of course care what my kid reads (and she didn’t read this series until she was old enough to discuss it, as is pretty much the rule in the house).  What I’m writing is more like “But what about my childhood?” along with “What do my adult eyes see?”  If I find in Elena so many flaws, it’s because I’m a different reader than I was twenty years ago.

Did depictions of thin, beautiful blonde girls who treat people horribly influence my young worldview?  Absolutely.  Are these characters, with their reissues, doing the same thing now?  Absolutely.  Do I care?  Sort of.  I mean, I’m not willing to start a revolution in part because I don’t approve of censorship on a major level and in part because…it’s not something worth giving much attention to, other than from afar and with much snark.  Do I wish I’d seen Elena for what she was when I was twelve?  Yes.  Do I wish she were more like Poppy from Secret Vampire, who has interests and friends and pays attention to her family members, even the ones she doesn’t always get along with?  Sure.  But ultimately, her worth as a role model is an aspect of the distanced perspective, not an alarmist criticism of the work.

I mean, there’s a lot going on here in my head, and to say that I’m writing from the perspective of “What about the chiiiiildren?” (which is what I think I was directly accused of?) is pretty laughable to me.  It’s more about the shock of coming back to a series where I looked up the heroine and now find that she’s someone I dislike intensely.  In fact, if there’s one major perspective here, for reals, it’s something like “I, I, I” and “What about meeeeee?”

Like I said, Elena was an influence.

…Well, here’s hoping that was more explanatory and interesting and thought- and discussion-provoking than defensive.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2010 3:40 pm

    I’m curious as to how old the person doing the critiquing is.

    That may sound incredibly patronizing, but I think there’s some validity in the “the younger you are, the less you notice things” trope.

    When I was younger, I thought Elena was so incredibly strong and brave and…nice. WHAT WAS I THINKING? Now, I just think she’s just kind of sad. The only reason Stefan was intrigued with her was her looks. Her looks would eventually fade and she would not look like Katherine. That connection would be lost.

    YA books basically led me to believe that if you were not conventionally attractive and people treated you like crap, that was just what happened. I went with that for years because that was the script I had been given and I followed it because I had no other.

    There are so many things to critique about YA books and I can’t imagine it’ll stop anytime soon. There’s so much to get wrong.

    • bookslide permalink*
      May 26, 2010 4:17 pm

      No clue.

      But yeah, the younger we are, the more we’re expected to buy into the goodness of the hero/heroine. That’s why we don’t learn about “unreliable narrators” until we’re in high school. And then, of course, the more you go back in time, the more likely it is that the protag is someone who’s supposed to represent good, because of the whole “OMG! Children need POSITIVE ROLE MODELS!” In Smith stories, you have distinctively Good and Evil, with some characters (some you wouldn’t expect) representing sort of Fair-to-Middlin’-Bad-Who Can-Be-Turned-Around-By-Love-and/or-Friendship (Caroline, Julian, Ash, Damon…Nick, Faye, actually, the list goes on quite a while) . So when Smith creates a heroine, especially pre-Night World, that person–and her friends–are all Representatives of Good. Bonnie and Meredith, for example. Stefan, although he has poor poor fate against him. Aunt Judith. Margaret. These are not generally conflicted characters. They’re just…good. Therefore, Smith is presenting narcissism as Good too, cuz who’s more narcissistic as Elena?

      It’s just an exercise in keeping myself lit-major busy when I don’t have papers to write, in the end, and yes, it does have SOME application in real life (how many relatively healthy kids are called “fat” by their classmates because of media, including book, portrayal of thin as fit, rather than, you know, fit as fit?), but…but…it’s not like I’ve gotten emotionally invested or have some sort of feminist or anti-feminist (anti-choice) agenda here. So I don’t really get what the person was going for. It was all sort of…unnecessarily negative, like being in a certain comm all over again. Heh.

      • May 26, 2010 8:53 pm

        I think TVD should be put under a feminist lens as many times humanity will allow.
        Here’s why: The scene in The Struggle where Damon breaks into Elena’s house and threatens to kill Margaret? When I was a kid, I thought that was romantic? I mean, here’s this glamorous vampire stalking, breaking & entering, and threatening to murder her sister . ISN’T that ROMANTIC?

        Seriously, I did. It makes me think so much. Like, what if Elena were to tell him to go to hell and he did kill Margaret. Would she still be the hero? Now I would say yes, but back then? I really doubt it.

        I think everything has flaws and I seriously doubt that LJS set out to write a guidebook for how teenagers should treat each other, but she kind of did. I mean there’s a lot of really troubling stuff and it shouldn’t go unacknowledged.

  2. bookslide permalink*
    May 27, 2010 6:41 am

    Exactly. And writing about the book through an adult (and, by default, feminist) lens doesn’t actually mean…well, anything, except that I’m writing about the book. When I wrote about how terrible the Christopher Lambert Beowulf movie was for one of my lit classes, it didn’t mean I wanted the thing pulled from shelves. It’s criticism for entertainment’s sake, this and that. I’m not even sure what they expected–my hero is Jacob from Television Without Pity, not, like, the TV Guide blurb writers.

    • May 28, 2010 10:41 pm

      NNNGGGGHHHH, Jacob. I used to really like his writing, but the latest Who ‘caps have totally turned me off. His constant use of the word “retarded” to mean stupid is just…..uuuuurrrrgggghhh.

      I’m seriously tempted to send him an e-mail asking what happened in his life to retard his vocabulary so.

      • bookslide permalink*
        May 29, 2010 7:55 am

        DO EEEEEET.

        I haven’t even read anything of his since ages after Galactica ended, to finish up with him and Galactica, but I really love his early Galactica stuff. Okay, so maybe I should’ve said “early Jacob.” You’re not the only person who’s complained about what he’s written lately, and since I haven’t kept up…

  3. Serena permalink
    July 29, 2010 1:38 am

    Hmm… I’m all for being critical/analytical… and I’m prone to ranting about the lack of female role models for young girls in literature/movies/etc. (Even though I don’t have, and don’t want children – go figure.) and I never *loved* The Vampire Diaries (I preferred Night World and Dark Visions…I think L.J.’s writing got better after TVD, less “juvenile”.) … having said that, if I may defend TVD and Elena a bit? 🙂 Maybe it’s just me, but I never thought Elena was supposed to be a positive role model… until the end of the series, after she evolves. I didn’t get the impression that L.J. was trying to say Elena’s earlier behaviour was good and something the reader should emulate. Maybe there was a bit of a “pretty/popular/self-centered/vain teens might not be all bad and might grow up into better people/rise to meet the challenges of life” message. Which I don’t find *too* hard to believe because hardships or crises do sometimes change one for the better… I’ve seen it happen to a girl who was selfish, spoiled and downright mean when she was younger, and became less self-absorbed and more considerate of others as she matured. Anyway… even though Meredith has that line about life being unfair, I didn’t see it as: we should all worship girls like Elena and accept that we’re inferior. Life *is* unfair. And those who fit the blonde/thin “ideal” do tend to have it easier in many ways. And having it easier, usually means a lack of empathy for those who have it tougher. Should we all aspire to be like Elena/hate ourselves if we don’t fit her mold? I don’t think so. I didn’t feel like the books were trying to make me feel bad about myself for not being like the protagonist. For whatever reason, L.J. wanted to explore the positive flip-side of a girl like Elena’s negative qualities … for instance, someone who feels entitled and has always gotten everything she wanted, might be more tenacious/less willing to give up if she’s fighting for something…which can be a good thing in certain situations…like going up against supernatural evil or something. 🙂 I don’t know. I think the author was trying to get inside Elena’s head, especially for the character’s diary entries, so maybe writing from her perspective can look like a celebration of her narcissism. But what I got out of the series was: girls like Elena might have hidden strengths, if something happens to disturb their charmed lives. Maybe she can *do* something that makes her more worthy of admiration, and become a heroine, leaving behind her more shallow, vain life. If anything, maybe the books were targeted at the popular girls who might relate to Elena… and maybe L.J. was trying to teach them to channel their gifts/good fortune in more selfless directions? Since I couldn’t relate to pretty, popular princess characters, maybe that’s another reason why TVD wasn’t my fav L.J. series. 🙂 Would the books have been so successful if the main character was an awkward outcast? I don’t think so, since most teens seem to want to enjoy escapist glamour…ditto with the Sweet Valley books. But I wouldn’t put TVD in the same class because I felt there was more of an attempt to send a positive message through this girl who starts out as the sort of person most of us would dislike or envy, who *gradually* becomes a decent role model, after learning self-sacrifice and thinking more of others.

    • July 29, 2010 7:40 am

      “I didn’t get the impression that L.J. was trying to say Elena’s earlier behaviour was good and something the reader should emulate. ”

      I don’t think there’s anything specifically that I could point to where she crosses the line into Mean Girl behavior (because have Caroline for that) and she’s rewarded for everything she has and does–she doesn’t lose Matt’s friendship even though she treats him badly; she “gets” Stefan even though she’s been manipulative; she has nice friends, a nice family, she has the respect of her classmates and, we assume, her teachers. She discusses “changing” I believe in the second book, not even toward the end, and the argument is that her life actually gets WORSE for not being the perfect blonde high schooler: she can no longer see her family; her relationship with her boyfriend becomes oddly asexual and disconnected; she can only see her friends briefly; she can no longer go to school. While yes, those are all directly related to her becoming a vampire, they also come after her personality shift, which I see as an adult as being far less of a shift and more of a declared shift than anything else. After all, she doesn’t stop manipulating everyone when she’s a vampire (Stefan and Damon, for instance, and telling her friends what to do, and her issues with Matt); she’s just more inclined to whine about it afterward.

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