Oh, What Pretty Hair She Has!

Venue: The Hairpin

            It may just be me, but does anyone else notice how often Bella touches her hair in Twilight? Or the countless “Get the Katniss Braid!” articles circulating the Internet? I must confess, however, that I’ve checked out an article to try and master this signature braid. While I understand having an attachment to one’s hair, what’s all the commotion about?

Hair plays a major part in giving women a sense of identity. Talk to the hoards of young teenage girls who have watched The Hunger Games or read Twilight, and many of them will tell you that Katniss’ single braid helps characterize her as a ruthless hunter while the scent of Bella’s locks is what makes her so attractive to Edward Cullens. Interestingly enough, moments of high sexual tension in both stories correlate with moments of hair touching, suggesting that hair is also associated with a woman’s “sexual power” (“Ways of Seeing” 55). This came as a surprise to me, because I’d expect men to place more emphasis on a woman’s chest or her natural curves ala Miles’ admiration of Alaska’s body in Looking for Alaska. The strong reactions both Katniss and Bella elicit from the opposite gender simply because of their hair suggests that a woman’s hair may define identity and sex appeal more so than her exclusively female traits. Think about the outrage that ensued after Emma Watson shed her golden waves for a dramatic pixie-cut! This association of a woman’s hair with a sense of identity and with a particular way in which society views her harkens towards the notion of women as, John Berger puts it, “an object of vision” (“Ways of Seeing” 47).

While both girls’ self-consciousness towards their own hair epitomizes Berger’s claim that the way a woman evaluates “the success of her life” revolves around how men view her, Edward’s infatuation with the scent of Bella’s hair reverses this power structure (“Ways of Seeing” 46). Edward declares to Bella that “the scent [of her hair] would stun” him (Meyers 272). While this statement wins an award for being one of the cheesiest lines of the novel, it is important in our discussion for Edward attributes Bella with the ability to “stun” him, a vampire with superhuman power, with her hair. Despite the notion that his continual gaze on Bella makes her his “object”, her ability to “stun” him with her hair actually makes him an “object” she performs an action upon. Perhaps this power to “stun” is what those Garnier Fructis shampoo commercials capitalize on…Although both the book and the movie depict Edward and Bella’s relationship as one where he constantly watches her, Bella utilizes her hair as the only shield behind which she can hide from Edward’s eyes (Meyer 227-8). When Edwards sweeps her hair away from her face, Bella notes that he does so “somehow still hesitantly” (Meyer 228). Could it be that something about touching Bella’s hair diminishes the aura of confidence of the typically suave Edward Cullens? His treatment of her hair aligns him with teenage boys facing hormonal imbalances rather than the hundred year old man he actually is. Go figure. The power that Bella draws from her hair thus contends with feelings of annoyance towards her constant fainting. Seriously though, she faints a lot.

Note: Major ending spoiler alert in the following paragraph. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Katniss’ character does not have much trouble in being viewed as a strong and proactive woman, so her “trademark braid” proves empowering by depicting her femininity and “sexual power”, as Berger would say (Collins 145). The story initially introduces Katniss as a hunter, an unorthodox occupation that exemplifies her character’s overall rebellion against society’s expectations for women. Thus, her hair, when put into its trademark braid, symbolizes a union of femininity and strength. When Katniss has her hair done nicely, however, she feels alien to herself (Collins 86). Her attachment towards putting up her “braid” suggests a sense of self-identity and power she associates with it (Collins 378). Thus, Katniss’ feelings often tend to be dictated by the way her hair is fashioned. She feels strong and comfortable when Cinna created her “trademark braid” before releasing her into the Hunger Games but “like a [young] girl” when her hair is “loose, held back by a simple hairband” (Collins 145-6)(Collins 355). While this correlation between Katniss’ confidence and her hair appears to attribute an independent sense of agency to her hair, Katniss manages the way her hair looks throughout most of the story, so don’t fret about Katniss being unable to control her own hair. Seems silly now, doesn’t it? In my opinion, the moment that truly epitomizes the sexual tension between Katniss and Peeta Mellark in this text is when he “tucks a loose strand of her behind [her] ear” after basically confessing his long-term romantic feelings towards her (Collins 382). Again, he may not have grazed her breast, but this relatively simple action of Peeta touching Katniss’ hair, I’m ashamed to say, made me feel as giddy as a schoolgirl. His confession that he “remembers everything about [Katniss]” also draws back to Berger’s belief that women are always watched. Like Bella, Katniss elicits an unexpected control over Peeta despite being watched by him. Furthermore, note that Katniss hears Haymitch’s approval in her head and is literally rewarded with food from sponsors for seeming to reciprocate Peeta’s feelings. While we can debate how genuine her actions reciprocating Peeta’s feelings are, the fact that Katniss embraces their “romance” to gain popularity with the audience illustrates how a woman can manipulate her femininity to exhibit greater agency over her own life.

In conclusion, I would say that a woman’s hair, can be one of her most powerful assets. Think about that the next time you want to get someone’s attention. A hair flip will go a long way.


From shelf to screen: Keeping an eye out for what sells

Venue: Entertainment Weekly 

With the close of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, filmmakers are hunting for the next big Hollywood hit, and what better place to look than in the young adult book section where it all began? With narratives and whole worlds already snatched up by loyal fanbases, the young adult genre is a treasure trove for starving box offices. Movie trailers are already out for “Beautiful Creatures,” “City of Bones” (“The Mortal Instruments”) and “Catching Fire” (“The Hunger Games”) to name a few young-adult-novels-turned-film. It’s crazy how much power young adult audiences have in determining the direction of Hollywood’s next projects.

But when those stories get turned over to the silver screen, what does it mean to put a physical face on a book and its characters? More importantly, on its leading ladies?

Here, as in every other venue, it all comes down to spectator gaze. The women of novels and their film adaptations are constantly shaped by the ones viewing them, whether in print or in person. In the words of John Berger in his text on art, “Ways of Seeing,” a woman is forced to “[turn] herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight” (47). And we certainly see this happening with the two most recognizable female protagonists of young adult literature these days: Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen.

The two characters boil down to what would seem like extreme opposites: Twilight’s pale, awkward Bella stumbling alongside Hunger Games’ dark, stoic and righteously angry Katniss. Yet despite their stark differences, Bella and Katniss share the status as objects of vision in both novel and film versions of their narratives.

In “Twilight,” Bella describes herself as “ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair” (10). Aside from this, we get that she has brown hair and is slender. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary. But Edward’s words change our perception of Bella and Bella’s own sense of self-worth in the novel: “You don’t see yourself very clearly, you know. … You didn’t hear what every human male in this school was thinking on your first day” (210). In a few short lines, Bella’s image has shifted to match what every human male constructed of her. Her own vision is dismissed as unclear. And critically, it is Edward’s vision that matters most, not only to Bella’s attractiveness as a person, but also to her ability to survive. She ultimately fulfills Berger’s claim that how she appears to men “is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life” (46). Her life, indeed. If she held any less interest in Edward’s eyes, she’d be sucked dry of her blood.  

Similarly, Katniss must rely on an audience’s gaze to survive in the Hunger Games. When she protests against Peeta’s public declaration of his love for her, Haymitch snarls that Peeta has “made [her] look desirable” (135). Without Peeta’s male gaze objectifying and showing his appreciation of her, Katniss was “about as romantic as dirt until he said he wanted [her]. Now they all do” (135). And as Katniss watches herself later on television, she sees herself “made beautiful by Cinna’s hands, desirable by Peeta’s confession, tragic by circumstance, and by all accounts, unforgettable” (138). The shaping of male actions transfers the qualities of beauty, desirability and tragedy onto her, reiterating Berger’s point that “all images are man-made” (9).

And the construction from gaze doesn’t stop there. The books may have been written in first-person narrative form through Bella’s and Katniss’ eyes, but Hollywood needs them in the frame as those precious objects of vision. The end result? Kristen Stewart cast as Bella and Jennifer Lawrence cast as Katniss. And audiences had a lot to say about these decisions as well.


Jennifer Lawrence – Too robust for Katniss?

Some were upset with the casting of Jennifer Lawrence for a number of reasons based on appearance: In their eyes, she was too white, too blonde, too old, too big-boned to play the young, olive-skinned Katniss from the Seam. Katniss had to be darker. Skinnier. Less of a starlet. Fans criticized the decision to cast a woman who played the sexy shapeshifter Mystique in “X-Men: First Class.” In their eyes, the “man-made images” of Lawrence didn’t mesh with their ideals for the Girl on Fire.


Kristen Stewart – Not clumsy enough?

Similarly, I felt estranged when I saw the first “Twilight” movie and Stewart’s portrayal of Bella. In a strange, patronizing way, I found she wasn’t nearly clumsy enough for me to see her as endearing. She slips perhaps twice in the film, each instance coming across as extremely staged and therefore almost calculating for our supposedly naïve Bella. But was this not another construct of the gaze in turning Lawrence and Stewart into sights to critique? Lawrence and Stewart may not have matched the leading ladies some fans envisioned, but the bottom line was that both actresses are undoubtedly attractive. These are films. This is Hollywood. They have to sell, right?

Katniss. Bella. Hell, even homely Jo from Louisa May Alcott’s beloved “Little Women” gets put through cinema’s beautification filter to come out as Winona Ryder in the 1994 film version, and the sultry, pouty-faced Keira Knightley plays a sensualized Elizabeth Bennett in the most recent “Pride and Prejudice” (2005). It’s a tough call for Hollywood to cast women who are described as plain or even unattractive in books, but if said women are the objects of desire in the plot, directors have chosen to make sure that audiences are, well, on the same page. 

Hazy Gaze Love Craze

Venue: Gawker (“Today’s Gossip is Tomorrow’s News”)

Have the ambiguous gazing roles in the popular Young Adult Literature novels Twilight by Stephanie Meyer and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins opened the floodgates for books like Every Day by David Levithan and Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff, both of which construct their love stories without assigning the protagonist a specific gender? By blurring and deconstructing the gendered stereotypes of Bella, Edward, Katniss, and Peeta, Meyer and Collins erase the need for gendered or bodied protagonists. In the 19th century, a typical Young Adult romance novel would introduce a female character as the object of a male gazer, as seen in Little Women by Louissa May Alcott and Charlotte Temple by Suzanna Rowson. Now, even though Bella and Katniss represent ‘the gazed’ quite often, they also possess the faculties necessary to gaze at men, including both male external and internal entities. This attribute forces both Peeta and Edward into John Berger’s feminized role of not only being publically gazed at, but aware of that gaze and their open vulnerabilities.

Berger states: “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at (47). This statement rings true in the case of Bella and Katniss for most of their respectful novels. In Twilight, Edward’s existence spans across more than a century, meaning the majority of his actions occur before Bella appears into the realm of existence. In one sense, this love story unfurls as a classic male-gazed romance would. Edward controls his innate desire for human blood as a means of exhibiting his undying craving for humanity within his monstrous existence and like magic, Bella appears as a gift for his efforts. Edward even describes his yearning for her as an addict rewarding himself with a product specifically designed for him, he states: “you are exactly my brand of heroin” (268). Heroin functions as a means used for another’s end, thereby placing Bella in Berger’s objectified female role. Additionally, Edward demonstrates power and ownership over her by employing the possessive term “my.” However, an empowered female silver lining subsists even in this initially objectifying depiction. Edward reveals himself as an addict for Bella, allowing Bella a dash of power over him. Furthermore, this disclosure exposes Edward’s internal and external vulnerabilities towards Bella and grants her sight into his feelings.

As much as Bella maintains awareness of Edward’s gaze on her, Edward also demonstrates cognizance for the way Bella sees him. He constantly addresses the notion that she shouldn’t see him the way she does, as an object of love, but as a monster, the way he believes others see him and the way he often sees himself: “I began to see the monster in my eyes” (343). This confession places Edward directly into the typically female role of the gazed or surveyed. Berger claims: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself… And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman” (46). This definition fits Edward perfectly, making him a new kind of fictional male character. This kind of love involves two individuals both aware of their roles as the gazed and the gazer and creates a relationship where both members maintain acute awareness of how every action they execute will affect the other and the other’s interpretation of them. When the gazing roles remain dynamic, the love created evolves into a much more internal place where the minds controlling awareness govern the love much more than the bodies and subsequent physical desires do. The Hunger Games employs a similar format by highlighting the way Katniss and Peeta express awareness of the audience’s gaze on their actions and on their gazes on each other. Peeta does not possess the sole power of the gazer. Both genders must be gazed at, gaze at others, and maintain attentiveness towards their inner interpretations of how others see them. The intense amount of gazing would usually evoke a lot of physical importance in the novel; however, it is the internal growth, awareness, and consequential love that shine through.

This concept leads into David Levithan’s Every Day, a novel that depicts a touching love story with an interesting catch. The protagonist, A, doesn’t have a body or gender of its own, but still manages to fall in love with a girl named Rhiannon. Every day A wakes up in the body of another person and must live that day according to the circumstances at hand. The notion of the gaze develops into an intensely interesting concept with the body of the protagonist constantly evolving. How does one physically gaze at A when the bodies do not represent the entity within? It seems an internal gaze constitutes the only method of evaluating A through the faculties of a gaze. A follows a self-invented set of morals to live by when inhabiting bodies, since they are distinct from A’s own existence. A knows what each body looks like and therefore predicts how others will gaze at A’s physical entity for the day. It seems like a love would be impossible through this way of life; however, A does fall in love. A genderless entity falls in love and the book has received praise and adoration for the protagonist, bravo. A doesn’t end up with Rhiannon; however, by connecting with how others will gaze the exterior and interior workings of individuals, A does get Rhiannon to love him/her. Rhiannon’s physical gaze of A doesn’t match up with the way she sees A’s feelings and morals. But the genderless romance exists, and I find its existence largely in proportion to the way Meyer and Collins focus on internal gazing and non-gender-biased self-awareness of how others see you.

If I Am Not Like You, Dad and Mom, Then Who Am I? : Revisiting the “Absent Parent” Motif


VENUE: Los Angeles Review of Books

Surely, a world without a constant watchful – controlling- parent would give a teenager the ultimate sense of freedom, right? No authority figure to set the rules or limit the ever increasing need for independence and power. It could easily open up new adventures and experience for a teenager. Typical in YA literature, the absent parent motif merely allows for the quest of the young heroine/hero to occur and develop; however, both Sherman Alexie and Steve Brezenoff invert this motif. Reverting the function of the motif, both authors trigger a change in their protagonists’ individuation, for they now confront a dualized identity. In Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Arnold Spirit must confront and synthesize both diverging Spokane and Reardan halves. Similarly, Brezenoff’s Brooklyn Burning reimagines the teenager’s coming-of-age journey into one of reconciling two different parts of an already ambiguous identity. Both novels reinterpret the absent parent motif as a problematic absence of the home (represented by the parents) caused by the assumption of an outside threat or “other” force destabilizing the home. Such conflict is embodied by the protagonists whose reward comes in returning  home as a new person, effectively constituting his/her independence and identity within an accepting home.

Born with various medical problems in poverty at the Spokane reservation, Arnold Spirit believes that getting a better education will save him from the suffocating poverty; unfortunately, doing so means moving into another social and intellectual world called Reardan. Arnold’s relationship with the other Spokane natives is difficult and, mostly, violent because of his body’s inadequacy to physically support him. From the beginning, Arnold explains: “ I was born with water on the brain… with ten teeth past human” (1). Detaching himself from an alien body that is “past human,” Arnold opts out of using “my,” the possessive noun, for the distant article, “the.” His most useful weapon, as it turns out, is his brain, which he earnestly makes use of to learn and declare his self worth. The surplus of teeth and fluid signal Arnold’s uniqueness, but also, is the logic behind his  peer group’s rejection of him. In choosing to attend Reardan high school, Arnold moves even further outside the boundaries of tradition or the status quo of Spokane reservation. Yet, Arnold is the unifying piece between the “broken dams and floods,” the Spoken world inhabited by his loving albeit defeated parents. The hope he seeks outside of home, he brings back to Spokane at the end. His situation at home is not a healthy or ideal situation, and it pushes him outside the physical boundaries of the reservation into another social world untouched by poverty or violence.

No Direction Home

No Direction Home

The geographical distance from home, not only isolates him from other Native Americans, but it also metaphorically splits him in half. The diverging cultural practices seemingly depict inherently different worlds;  one in which  Arnold is a member of Spokane, and the other provides him with an ambivalent sense of hope, as poignantly portrayed in cartoon of the crossroads (43). At Reardan high school, “whose mascot was an Indian” (56), his existence dims under the shadowy misrepresentation of Native Americanness; so, Arnold enters into this new world as “the only other Indian in town” half existing in this new social world. Arnold travels through dangerous territory when neither place fully accepts him nor his dreams; he wanders in between a liminal state that hinders Arnold’s individuation because he’s directionless.

Similarly, Brezenoff’s protagonist, Kid, experiences a spatial dislocation caused by an already unstable home. Disturbed and threatened by Kid’s ambiguous body, Kid’s father believes he has “the only kid who doesn’t know whether to be straight or gay or a girl or a boy or what” (121). Kid’s own home and parents marginalize and alienate her/him, pushing her/him away from the home into another strange and mysterious territory. Being in Brooklyn is a testament to his fragmented self. While wandering the streets of Brooklyn and facing possible incarceration, Kid realizes that he longs for an accepting home, a place where Kid could be free and safe. Throughout the novel, Kid lives as a dual self. One part of Kid rebels against gender constrictions,  it is the authentic self that cannot be integrated into normal society, according to the father. The other half of Kid’s identity comes in the form of her/his father’s redefinition and labeling of his ambiguous sexuality as “Other.” It is in constant contrast with the other half, because  it is the only kind of gender identity accepted by the home, particularly,  Kid’s father.  In Brooklyn, Kid must cope with the isolating effect of being an outsider, literally being homeless, and reconciling both elements of her/him-self.

Now, both Arnold and Kid cannot forever live on the fringes of an outsider community, because, as both authors show us, it is a painful, dangerous, and lonely world; therefore, both protagonists must undergo what Susan Stryker — in her essay “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix” — explains as “the hard work of constituting [them] selves on [their] own terms, against the natural order.” In Brooklyn Burning, Kid validates her/his self worth by forming a close and romantic bond with Scout. Through the concept of love, Brezenoff strengthens Kid’s true self.  With her/his mother’s compassion, Kid finds acceptance and triumphs over the half that was in conflict with her/his true self. It is a sort of reconciliation, actually, between the part of that desires freedom of expression and the other part that sought acceptance at home.

Alexie’s character takes the distinct parts of his dual self — parts that have emerged out of life at Reardan and Spokane — to “articulate [him]self” and create a new hybrid American. However, acceptance from the tribal members comes at painful exchange; through his sister’s death, Arnold comes closer to his origins, surrounded by members of the reservation in his time of grief. While mourning for his loss, a community united by grief and loss is recreated. In a more permanent manner, Arnold realizes he cannot be just “a Spokane Indian” (217). “I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants,” he says, “I was not alone in my loneliness.” Arnold reclaims his loneliness as independence, a power that will allow him to move to other spaces, while maintaining his Spokane identity. He successfully constitutes the divergent parts of his double identity into a hopeful and unified consciousness inhabiting one body. This new self-made identity allows Arnold to call the whole nation, America, as home, establishing his worth as a true and whole American individual within an accepting space. Arnold is no longer an outcast.

Though both authors treat the absent parent motif in different ways and styles, both acknowledge the powerful effect that its presence in YA literature can have. A return to the home provides that warm and safe feeling of belonging and validation. As a literary motif, the present parent (or home by extension) allows the reader to explore the ways in which origins hinder and facilitate the process of finding our individuality and independence when we are caught between more than one world and not everything is black or white. Characters such as Arnold Spirit or Kid demonstrate that we don’t have define ourselves by pre-existing traditional notions of identity; rather, we can struggle but construct our own selves in a new fashion.

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.


Boots With The Fur: Clothing and Selfhood in YA Literature [Los Angeles Review of Books]

Ali Fitch
English 177 | Mesle

Boots With The Fur: Clothing and Selfhood in YA Literature [Los Angeles Review of Books]

What girl can honestly say she hasn’t spent time agonizing over which outfit to wear out, or lusting after that perfect pair of pumps, far beyond reasonable price range? But to what extent is our identity and understanding of our place in society tied up in considerations of presentation and commodity? In contemporary young adult literature, for such heroines as Bella Swan in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Alina in Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, their relationship to clothing mirrors the struggle to fit in, find their own sense of self worth, and come to terms with the power of social hierarchy. Their clothing options define and frame these issues in their respective lives.

For both Bella and Alina, clothes exert control over them and help other characters in the novel to do the same. While Bella uses clothing to blend in among the other students at her high school, always choosing inconspicuous articles, frequently black, Alina’s initial situation as a poor orphan allows her no choice regarding her apparel. For both, this represents their place at the beginning of their character arc in the novel, both with so much to discover about themselves. Bella’s clothes in the beginning tend to have a limiting or menacing relationship to her: her jacket, for example, “had the feel of a biohazard suit” (12). Bella’s use of clothes to disappear amidst her peers shows her powerlessness as a character; she can do nothing to set herself apart from everyone else, nor does she want to do so. For Alina, her initial powerlessness takes a different form: authority figures consistently tell her to remove articles of her clothing. The Darkling, for example, commands her to push up her sleeve, so that he may help enable her powers. Later in the narrative, a Grisha Healer instructs her to remove her shirt to be healed. Both Bella and Alina find themselves at the mercy of others’ choices and imperatives.

Alina worries that, if she does not even recognize an image of herself, she has no grip on her own identity. Though she protests the idea of Genya using her magic to make her more beautiful, she makes it clear that she does not consider herself beautiful, she simply feels that her “‘life has gotten confusing enough without seeing a stranger’s face in the mirror’” (95). Alina would rather be plain and be herself than start figuring herself out again from square one. This connects to John Berger’s argument in his essay “Ways of Seeing,” where he posits that “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself” (46). Alina, as the Sun Summoner, finds herself the object of the gaze of so many others that she understands how much her appearance is of the utmost importance.

Bella lacks a positive image of herself just as she lacks power. She only sees herself as beautiful once Edward does; before she meets Edward, Bella thinks of herself as awkward, plain, and clumsy. Additionally, though she hates the fancy dress and complicated makeup regime Alice forces upon her, she allows herself to be a canvas in order to look beautiful for Edward at what turns out to be her Prom. She submits to Alice’s manipulations in order to cater to the expected and accepted image of beauty in the novel.

Both protagonists’ experience of awe towards a group of characters with far superior garments helps construct a sense of class hierarchy within the novel and juxtaposes characters who deem themselves worthy of extravagant clothes with the self-conscious and self-deprecating young heroines. For Bella, this is the Cullens, who always have fine designer clothes. For Alina, it is the Grisha, whose fine robes she has admired since childhood. The clothes represent a glamorous lifestyle to which the main heroines do not have access. Both Bella and Alina doubt themselves and have low self-confidence, thinking their sudden special treatment must result from some confusion. As they come to accept their elevated role in the novel, however, they begin to wear more of this fine clothing themselves.

By wearing the clothes of their idols, the two protagonists mark their maturation and individuation, but also grant the respective men in their lives ownership of them. Bella wears Edward’s jacket when they go out for dinner in Seattle, but has to push up the sleeves before she can wear it properly. She can’t quite handle the burden of wearing his jacket without alteration, but with a minor change (the sleeves), she too feels justified wearing his finery. Alina earns her Grisha robes by exhibiting her power, accidentally at first. Her response to wearing Grisha robes, however, is to be reminded of her low socioeconomic origins, as she wipes her dirty fingers on the beautiful fabric (77). Alina does not consider herself worthy of the beautiful Grisha robes she has always admired and considers it a mark of her low class status that she must denigrate them in such a way. Aware, to some degree, that clothing in the two novels functions to show ownership, over one’s self or other characters, Alina holds off, at first, wearing robes of the Darkling’s colors so as not to set herself apart from the rest of the Grisha and so as not to allow the Darkling power over her. Even once she escapes from the Darkling for good and starts her new life with Mal, however, she must wear clothes he approves of and provides: “‘I bought the first clothes I could find. … I never want to see you in black again’” (351).

Clothing is a multi-valent element of both novels, representing acquisition of power, class hierarchies, conceptions of self-worth, and individuation. Clothing reinforces ideas the narratives impose that mark The Cullens and The Grisha as somehow more special then the rest of the characters in the novels. Both heroines, however, are dressed (by others) to be pleasing to their love-interest, Bella to Edward and Alina to the Darkling. This is in accordance with another of Berger’s claims, namely: “The essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. … the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him” (64). Has clothing in today’s day and age come to help us express our own identity or has it led us to allow others to exert their power and control over us? An answer may take more than a good look in the mirror.

The Lyin’, the Bitch, and the Wardrobe: The Femininity of Revolution in Harry Potter and the Hunger Games

We love to hate them.

Dolores Umbridge and Effie Trinket of the Harry Potter series and Hunger Games trilogy, respectively, are representative of the emergent trope of the “refined bitches” readers delight in condemning. After all, it is relatively difficult not to hate them. With their annoyingly delicate and self-important propriety, their sense of duty always seems to get in the way of a desperately needed revolution. But what exactly is it about these women that is so frustrating? There are many who stand in the way of progress, so why do we react so strongly to them?

The “Bitch” is easy to spot. She gravitates towards posts of authority and loves to respect the unreasonable rules that come with it. Blinded by her privileged position, she seems wholly unaware she is nothing mor
e than a cog in a larger, oppressive machine. The Bitch’s self-absorption is her greatest vice and the ultimate source of readerly frustration.

In the first moments we meet Effie Trinket, we know her type. After all, her name speaks for itself. “Effie” literally means “to speak well” and represents her obsession with decorum. When Effie observes Katniss and Peeta eating the decadent food offered to them by the Capitol, she comments, “The pair last year ate everything with their hands like a couple of savages. It Imagecompletely upset my digestion.”  She is clearly ignorant to the fact that the Tributes behaved the way they did because they never had as much to eat–a woe completely outside her world of comfort and security. It is this mindless dedication to properness that makes her such a despicable character. While her first name tells us quite a bit about her, her last name reveals even more. “Trinket” forces the reader to imagine a shiny, ornament of little value. With her “white grin, pinkish hair, and spring green suit” she is a vision of unnatural adornment. When her hair “ […shifts] off center” her beauty is revealed as artificially constructed and highly performative: proof of a conscientious commitment to femininity. But not only is she concerned with her appearance, she is also invested in how she is perceived by others. Just as she was off-put by the previous Tributes, she is disgusted by Haymitch’s apparent disregard of formality and she remarks that he, “ […] has a lot to learn about presentation.”  Appropriately, with just two words we know most of what there is to know about the shallow woman who is nothing more than a tentacle of the Capitol.

The Bitch must be easily discernible, so just as Effie’s constructed appearance is a dead-giveaway of her character, so is Dolores Umbridge’s. Under the guise of the newest Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, she arrives at Hogwarts as the eyes of the Ministry. Always in her proper post, during her first class she is, “seated at the teacher’s desk, wearing the fluffyImage pink cardigan of the night before and the black velvet bow on top of her head.” The images of pink and the bow are conventional modes of feminine appearance and foreshadow her disgust with anything counter-culture. Her name, too, tells us quite a bit about her. A fragment of her full name Dolores, “dolor” professes the distress and sorrow her presence brings. Her last name’s similarity to the word “umbrage” pins her as a great source of aggravation–an expectation she certainly lives up to.

Overall, The Bitch is simply an extension of The Man’s power. Governing institutions are consistently run by males (with the Capitol controlled by Snow and the Ministry of Magic headed by Fudge and other men). In these artifacts of young adult literature, conventional and conscientious femininity stand symbolic of the rules and expectations set out by the patriarchy.  The Bitch is one because she, be it consciously or not, plays by the unfair rules set out by the men who lead her.

She stands at the center of her own world. The Bitch is too distracted by her own privilege and pseudo-influence to question where it came from. According to John Berger’s Way of Seeing, to look is an “act of choice”. Preoccupied with whetherthey, themselves are seen–they fail to look beyond their small spheres of existence. Positioning themselves in the spotlight, both Trinket and Umbridge become blind to the realities that surround them. The Bitch’s focus on herself is downright antagonistic, for while there is so much injustice to correct, she is not simply ignorant or ambivalent, but she is pleased with her participation in the status quo.

Opposite The Bitch stands the antidote: The Heroine. Katniss and Hermione, with names that indicate their cunning and ability to send a message, are females who stand as true agents for change. Rendered the tomboy and nerd, they typically pay little mind to their own femininity and more concerned with matters with higher stakes. In his article, Berger argues “men act and women appear”. The Bitch acts according convention, she merely appears. Meanwhile the Heroine acts–she does what must be done. Inattentive to traditional expectations and wholly unconcerned with whether/how they are seen by others leaves her free to focus on the larger and more grievous problems of her time (i.e. the competitive murder of children for entertainment or the rise of the darkest wizard of all time). Ultimately, while The Bitch sees the world as it is, The Heroine fights for what it ought to be.


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