The trope of the female weakling has developed in various romantic comedies and young adult novels of yore. From the constantly tripping Bella in Twilight to the fainting swoons of the eponymous character in Charlotte Temple, the stereotypes of the “weaker gender” are exaggerated to the point of ridicule.
Why do girls lose all sense of themselves, physically and intellectually, when it comes to acquiring some fine piece of man hunk? The logic of being rendered immobile to get a man plays into this sort of sly sexual fantasy. The role of the damsel-klutz is emphasized by psychoanalyst Joan Riviere’s theory,“Womanliness as Masquerade,” where femininity is performed and emphasized as to not threaten male masculinity.
Take Edward’s bemusement at Bella’s ironic aversion to blood during an experiment in Biology class: ‘So you faint at the sight of blood?’ he asked. He seemed entertained by this. I didn’t answer. I closed my eyes again and fought the nausea with all my strength, clamping my lips together.” (Meyer 98)
Bella’s role as “entertainment” for Edward plays into the appeasement of male sexuality and dominance, as Bella becomes the silent and immobile spectacle to Edward’s voyeur. Bella’s role as the damsel subconsciously allows her to put on the mask of womanliness, “to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it” (Riviere). By withholding her strength, and teasing Edward with this sense of withholding (the “clamping of the lips”), this could be one of the first of many forms of sexual foreplay that the characters perform within the series.
Bella’s usage of fainting as a form of flirtation is even channeled in the classic tragic girl, Charlotte Temple. For example, when Charlotte is forced to follow Montraville to America, she relinquishes her agency to him in the vein of the old-fashioned damsel:
“‘Alas! my torn heart!; said Charlotte, ‘how shall I act?’
‘Let me direct you,’ said Montraville, lifting her into the chaise.
‘Oh! my dear forsaken parents!’ cried Charlotte.
The chaise drove off. She shrieked, and fainted into the arms of her betrayer.” (Rowson 48).
Asking for permission from her male dominator on how to act highlights John Berger’s message in Ways of Seeing, on how visage operates for the female image: “men act and women appear” (Berger 47). Charlotte’s relinquishment to her “betrayer” gives this sense that Montraville is the dominator, and Charlotte is the submitter. Unlike Bella, Charlotte has no authority over Montraville, especially after relinquishing her “torn heart” (read: virginity) to him. What mystery she had in her hoo-ha has diminished, which highlights this sense that withholding sexuality yields more reward than just giving it away at the heave of a bosom.
While it may seem that Bella and Charlotte suffer from iron deficiencies that belie any sort of feminist subtext, the trope also plays into the lives of healthy, strong-willed teenage girls to prove that it’s not just a trait of the weak-minded.To give a fair comparison to these damsels in distress is the romantic comedy heroine seen in Louise Rennison’s series of young adult novels starring the sardonic, boy-crazy teenager, Georgia Nicholson. Georgia has a quick wit and tells it like it is, but revolves her life around boys, whose “brain turns to soup” when in the sight of her crush, the hyperbolically named “Sex God.” Bodily facilities shut down when sex comes into the equation, sort of like when Taylor Swift’s sense of self-awareness disappears when she’s writing a rant about her past lovers.
In the first book of the Nicholson series, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, Georgia literally loses her mind when the Sex God comes over:
“The Sex God has landed at my door.
I was wearing my Teletubbie pajamas.
“He said, “’Hi.’”
I said, “’Nhhnnnnnggggghhh.’” (Rennison 222).
Georgia’s loss of speech in her encounter with a boy highlights this sense of adolescent hyper-awareness and performative gender roles, which plays in Berger’s Ways of Seeing. According to Berger, “A woman must continually watch herself…From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually” (Berger 46). For Georgia, this notion of acting a fool in front of her paramour doesn’t mean she’s normally a slurring person; in fact she is the contrary, but performs (almost uncontrollably) the role of the stupid girl in the presence of men to validate the appropriately-named Sex God’s superiority.
This rewarding of such misogynistic behavior is troubling, to say the least, since Bella, Charlotte and Georgia all acquiesce to the men in their lives, and are rewarded with all sorts of making out and sexually-pleasing touching. By teaching young audiences that being weak is a sexual mechanism to win over male suitors, the issue of misogyny starts rearing its head. That problem is exacerbated when girls are stuck in relationships where they don’t choose to be weak, but are forced to; that was Charlotte’s problem and now she’s dead, which ultimately provides the argument that the performance of weakness is powerful when sexual virility is still thriving and present in the relationship.
As Georgia Nicholson said about kissing another one of her crushes in the seventh book of the series, Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers, “I felt like the blood had drained out my body and I would have stayed there all night attached to his mouth” (Rennison 232). The lack of agency is what gives the feminine masquerade so much power and reciprocation at the same time; giving into the performance of the weaker sex makes way for the fantasy of further male dominance. While it would be easy to scream out for more overtly strong “I don’t need a man” type of young adult heroines in the Katniss vein to inundate the young adult shelves, truth must be reluctantly told, there’s sexual power to be had in being a weak dummy.