A Difference of Gaze: Female Agency in YA

Venue: Hairpin


While discussing Twilight recently, a classmate of mine said, “I just can’t see a woman whose whole life revolves around romance as empowered or strong.”

Of course, I see exactly what my classmate was saying. People whose lives revolve around another person, and another person only, can’t possibly be empowered–and especially not girls and women in general.

The question of female empowerment–especially in young adult novels–has always been answered by “strong female protagonists” who show no fear and are calm, cool, and calculated. The Hunger Games’ Katniss comes to mind. But in novels where the protagonists have time to think and to panic, empowerment becomes a quagmire to navigate. When we consider the “gaze”–not only the characters’ gazes, but our gaze on the characters–then the issue becomes even nastier to determine.

In examining female empowerment in novels, however, there is no way to avoid discussing Twilight’s Bella Swan. She is constantly being carried and driven around by others, especially Edward. Even the beginning of the novel has Bella being driven by her mom to the airport to Forks. For the twenty-first century, she seems to embody every classic damsel-in-distress. The only things that seem extraordinary about Bella is that she has “the perfect scent” and that her mind, unlike everyone else’s, is impenetrable to Edward’s telepathy.

Take this in contrast with the narrator of Malinda Lo’s Adaptation, Reese Holloway. Whereas Twilight’s opening line set Bella in a moving vehicle, Reese isn’t even present in the first paragraph. Her full name is only mentioned in the second paragraph, when she reacts to the falling birds. Reese is trapped at an airport due to delayed flights with her debate partner and crush, David Li. Unlike Bella, who has no problems accessing her feelings, Reese is much more out of touch with romantic feelings: “Maybe other girls liked that nervous, fluttery feeling in their stomachs, but she hated it. It made her feel out of control.” Reese’s nascent powers give her the ability to sense David’s feelings, his anxiety, when he worries about her–a strong contrast to Edward’s inability to feel and sense Bella’s feelings.

Both of these female protagonists clearly come from different places, but the last scenes of their respective novels invoke the “gaze” and how young girls come into the public sphere. At the end of Twilight, Edward takes Bella to the school prom. Before this, she’d expressed no interest in going to the prom. Yet now, with Edward, the prom one of the most public places a high school girl can be: it puts her relationship on display for the other students. Even if the other students were to judge Bella, Edward would protect her with his presence. The gaze is reflected off of Bella onto Edward, whose immortality shields him from any criticism. Bella fulfills Berger’s theory: “men act and women appear.” Bella appears at the prom, and Edward acts on her behalf. He protects her while she yearns for him and his immortality. At the same time, Edward is also seen by the other students as part of a unit with Bella, and not separate from her.

For Reese, her public appearance with David is less overtly romantic. The government has been pursuing and watching over Reese and David for the duration of the novel, and they must break out of the impasse. It’s not David who defends Reese and her to the government and to the alien race that gave them their powers, but Reese herself, who says, “We do this on our own terms.” Like the prom in Twilight, meeting the press is a way in which Reese appears and is seen. But David is also seen and examined, just like Reese: “[The reporters] began to shout questions at her. They wanted to know what had happened to her and David.” In this instance, Reese controls the information that is given out to her. Unlike Bella and Edward, who are trapped in their bubble, Reese feels “the force of [the reporters’] curiosity” on her. It’s David who calms her down with his presence, just as Edward calms Bella down, by reaching out and taking her hand. The novel thus ends with a “snap,” the sound of a camera flickering, as Reese and David are captured on film and turned into what Berger would call a “sight”: an object of vision.

I understand that most readers would consider Reese to be more empowered. She has more than just David and Amber to confuse her feelings. She also has to deal with her family, her powers, and her memories. But at the same time, doesn’t Bella have to deal with those obstacles too? The reason Bella even leaves Arizona in the beginning of the novel is so that her mother can be happy with her new husband, Phil.

So what is it that makes Bella so much different from Reese? I feel as though the novelty of vampires has worn off on people, and perhaps Adaptation just masks the turbulent feelings of female adolescence much better through the metaphor of alien powers. Twilight is more straightforward, and, as a result, perhaps more uncomfortable to face. Bella’s desires are apparent from start to finish. Bella occupies her own space so fully and comfortably that she may seem unrealistic. Reese, on the other hand, stands on unsure footing throughout the novel. Reese acts according to how people–the government, reporters, aliens–see her.

I’m not trying to say that one novel is better than the other. I love Adaptation on a deeply personal level, and I feel lackluster about Twilight on a good day. But I question the validity of pointing to Bella and saying, “She is not empowering,” when, in fact, I find someone who is so able to clearly and articulately express their desire quite the opposite. Some of those same people uphold Adaptation, a book about a changing world that is hard to understand and difficult to navigate. Both of these books have their merits. I wish that, instead of merely gazing upon the apple imprinted on the cover of Twilight, people would look instead at the half-submerged face of the woman on Adaptation, gazing back at them, and realize that female adolescence is not always about showing others how to be a strong woman, but it is about sorting through one’s feelings–whether they are rational or not, empowering or not.



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