In What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund says that when you picture a character in your head, she stays deliberately out of focus, but the more you concentrate, the more she appears to look like a co-worker or distant cousin, someone from your life whom you know for sure is not that character.
Then again, some books are so popular that Hollywood executives can change that vision for you. The dissonant vision I had of Ron Weasley—gangly limbs, fanned-out ears, narrow face—did not hesitate to become Rupert Grint. Further into the social-media age, when the opinions of fans could be a force, Fifty Shades of Grey readers started a change.org campaign that received 100,000 signatures just to oust movie-cast members that did not fit their vision of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.
The presence of a story outside its pages—in Saturday Night Live skits, psychological studies, and newspaper op-eds—can’t help but influence the way we read or remember characters. When you realize that plain Bella Swan is deliberately plain Bella Swan, Bella Swan stops being a character and becomes a mirror. For women who grow up reading and reflecting on these popular books, it could have a strong influence on who they are and who they become. After all, reading is personal, and the personal is political.
We gathered five women who read the Harry Potter series as teens, the Twilight saga in college, and the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy in their 20s (more or less) to share their experiences of reading these iconic books at the height of their popularity, being condescended against for enjoying them, and grappling with the books’ feminist quagmires.
Seema is an ER doctor in Toronto, Canada.
Cynthia just finished hiking the Appalachian trail and currently teaches English in Korea.
Davida is a college student who blogs about reading at Contemplating Reason.
Sarah is a fiction writer and journalist who covers gender and activism based in New York.
Debbie is an administrative assistant and mother from Queensland, Australia.
Do you feel that you grew up with these books?
Davida: Yes, the first Harry Potter book came out when I was in elementary school and the last one came out when I was in high school.
Cynthia: Harry Potter was hitting puberty the same time as me; Bella was finishing up High School; and Ana had just gotten her bachelor’s degree and was looking for an internship about the same time I passed those milestones. I feel I’ve matured with these books.
Seema: I definitely feel that I grew up with Harry Potter. It came out when I was in elementary [school] and the series wrapped when I was in university. The books also became more advanced in terms of reading level and complexity. I don’t feel that same connection with Twilight or Fifty Shades though. They just seemed like pop culture books of that time that I jumped on a bandwagon to read.
Sarah: I can’t say I feel this way, and that’s because the quality of these three series decreased as I got older.
I think we can agree that of the three, Harry Potter is the least sexually charged. Did you feel that reading the books in the order coincided with your own sexual maturity?
Seema: The Harry Potter books definitely did coincide with my sexual maturity but didn’t influence the way I think about sex. At least I don’t think they did! The Twilight series continually pushed the agenda of saving your virtue until marriage, rivaled with this seemingly intense relationship—both things I didn’t believe in or relate to. Fifty Shades (despite my reading it in my mid-twenties) was beyond anything I had experienced at the time I read it. I felt so innocent reading it. While it piqued my curiosity, it was too late in the game to really influence me.
Since I was a kid, sex seemed like some conspiracy grownups tried to cover up, and I was fascinated to solve the mystery.
Sarah: In a sense. My reading of Twilight and Fifty Shades was through a feminist lens, so I read them looking at the problematic ways our society thinks about sex and gender roles and doing some self-analysis on that score.
Cynthia: Since I was a kid, sex seemed like some conspiracy grownups tried to cover up, and I was fascinated to solve the mystery. I’d think I knew everything about sex and then find out something new every year. These books seemed to coincide with my increasing awareness of sex and alternative sexual behavior.
Debbie: I really lived under a rock when it came to sex. I found Twilight to be not sexual at all, and I am kind of a prude when it comes to all things BDSM. So Fifty Shades really opened my mind. I had no idea that this happened in real life to real people. I found myself googling the “utensils” and props used, so it was easier to see in my mind.
All three series have robust fanfiction tributes. Have you written or read any?
Debbie: I really enjoyed others’ takes on Christian and Ana story. I still dabble in reading them now.
Cynthia: Mostly for Harry Potter. Someone showed me fanfiction about pregnant Snape, which was pretty hilarious.
Seema: Umm, fanfiction seems too hardcore. While I find all three of these series to be fantasy and escapism, I didn’t really desire to further develop these fantasy worlds at all.
Davida: They just weren’t as enticing as the books. I lost interest quickly.
Stephanie Meyer said that Bella was written as deliberately plain, so that readers could more readily imagine themselves as her while reading the Twilight series. Did you ever imagine yourself as Bella? This might be more the case for Ana from Fifty Shades: did you ever imagine yourself as her?
Cynthia: I think Bella and Ana just think they are plain because they’re sexually naïve. Various male characters are strongly attracted to these kinds of protagonists. I don’t identify as plain, but like Bella and Ana, I enjoy reading; Bella and especially Ana read romance novels just like their audience.
Sarah: I’d more say I definitely was fascinated by how Bella was created as this cipher that readers could project themselves into, particularly her hatred of her body, which is sadly prevalent among young women.
Watching Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow up was exciting because “classic” fantasy books are almost asexual.
Seema: I didn’t see myself as either character. I think their “plainness” made the otherwise outlandish story lines seem accessible.
Davida: I appreciate Meyer making Bella plain, but I could never imagine myself as her because she was too plain. It was kind of annoying, honestly. I mostly identified with Bella because she moved to a new place and made a sacrifice for her mother, which is something I feel like girls do at least once in their life. I tried to imagine myself as Ana but it didn’t work. I read the Fifty Shades books just to read about the “hot kinky sex.” The plot wasn’t that good in the second book, due to Ana losing interest in BDSM.
The book appealed to women because a CEO of a company just had his way with a random girl. I think that’s almost every girl’s fantasy—to be told by a young, very attractive, successful CEO that he wants to date her.
Cynthia: I hadn’t realized the Cinderella aspect of Fifty Shades before Davida just alluded to it. Christian is like a prince, economically and in his charity to others. While the idea of a handsome prince going after an average girl is seen as a trope in women’s fantasy, the BDSM aspect adds another dimension. Generally, people who feel powerful in their lives are turned on by losing their power in sexual fantasy. In college, one of my roommates worked as a dominatrix and she told me the majority of her customers were businessmen.
Sex is alluded to but never overtly mentioned in Harry Potter and Twilight. Did you scrutinize it in your reading of them?
Sarah: I was fascinated and obsessed with all of Twilight books’ sexual symbolism with the vampire bites, and the politics of desire and boundaries. My theory is that the big appeal of Twilight is that the man (Edward) is the sexual gatekeeper who has to determine when things are going too far for everyone’s safety. This is the opposite of what many girls are told (to preserve their chastity, to stop aggressive boys) and so it makes a lot of sense that this fantasy—in which Bella can be the sexual aggressor and Edward keeps her purity intact—would appeal. Even if purity is bullshit.
Davida: I never scrutinized it because sex is a cultural norm for teenagers.
Seema: In Twilight (the last book), they talk about sex quite a bit after Edward and Bella get married. It was written in such a way that you had to think about it. In fact I think one of the reasons I read the entire series and didn’t stop at the first book was because this sexual tension between the main characters kept me engaged.
Cynthia: Even though Twilight preaches abstinence and the readers are never given too many graphic details, the series is written in the language of fetishes.
I felt that the Harry Potter books had a new energy once the characters hit puberty. Watching Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow up was exciting because “classic” fantasy books like Lord of the Rings and Narnia are almost asexual. In Narnia, characters like Susan and Peter are banned from the magical world once they hit puberty.
As a female, which character in any of the books did you identify with the most?
Seema: I was a bookish, nerdy kid growing up, so I really related to Hermione. I found the other two characters hard for me to relate to. They were too plain, too average at everything and were not really special until they found their male counterparts. That really bothered me.
Cynthia: Hermione, because she is a nerd and doesn’t need no alpha male.
Davida: I personally identify with Hermione the most. I too favor male companions over females, and my life would not be complete without books and education. I’m also resourceful like her and see things that other people do not notice.
Sarah: I was a total Hermione. I was the girl with my hand raised in high school, and agitating for sweatshop workers’ rights as she does for House Elves. People made the comparison all the time, and I found it somewhat embarrassing at the time but now I love it.
Do you feel bashful about having read any of these books?
Debbie: I was originally. I hid it from others and never discussed it with anyone. But as I looked further into it I noticed that so many people read and enjoyed talking about it. Now I am an avid romance reader for both erotic and normal romance.
Seema: I actually retrospectively feel embarrassed about reading Twilight, although at the time I didn’t really care.
Something about the books hooked me and now I’m a huge reader, going through two books a week on average.
Davida: Never with Harry Potter. With Twilight, people (usually males) judged me because it was “poorly written” With Fifty Shades, it was due to the sexual nature of the book. I read Fifty Shades on my kindle, so no one knew I was reading it.
Seema: Me too—I read it on my iPad for maximum privacy.
Cynthia: I felt I had to explain myself every time I mentioned the Twilight series. I’d say something to maintain my street cred like, “I enjoy the book as a pop culture phenomenon, but the writing is terrible.”
I would not brandish a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey in public, but when it was first published and people were buzzing, it was an interesting conversation starter.
Sarah: Initially, I felt a kind of shame about Twilight in feminist and writer circles. Pleasure reading, particularly of something retrograde and even offensive, was frowned upon. But I feel like internet culture has allowed the ironic enjoyment of this stuff much more recently.
Was the fact of the series’ popularity something that attracted or made you hesitate to pick it up?
Seema: It attracted me. I love to read. I think any story that engages a nation like these three series did is worth my time to read.
Cynthia: The popularity of these books attracted me. I love to talk to people about stories and it’s depressing when you’ve read a book and you want to share your experience, but no one knows enough about the subject to have a conversation. Similar to watching Netflix series, you’ll find you’ll be able to connect with a lot more people after reading these books.
Davida: I always hated things that were popular, even back then. But I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the 5th grade, and I fell in love. I’ve wanted to go to Europe ever since. I read Twilight in high school just before the movie came out. I absorbed the book, quickly searching for more. I even made my boyfriend at the time drive me around to all the stores in the area so I can get the next book in the series after I was done. With the Fifty Shades books, I got them on my Kindle as soon as I heard about it. I knew this new series would not go away and everyone would be curious about it. I also knew that reviewing this series before more people would make my blog attract more readers.
Debbie: I got hooked into both Twilight and Fifty Shades through work friends. I hadn’t read a book since high school and had no interest in reading. Something about the books hooked me and now I’m a huge reader, going through two books a week on average.
So, reading the books make you feel more a part of your generation—in other words, it was a communal activity rather than just solitary reading?
Davida: Definitely with Harry Potter. I saw all the movies in theatres; I read all the books within days of buying them. I also live in Florida, so as soon as Universal opened up the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I got the annual pass. Harry Potter is my past, present, and future. It was a solitary act of reading with Twilight and Fifty Shades. They’ll never have an awesome theme park.
It’s more socially acceptable for a guy to watch porn than it is for a twentysomething woman to read these books. There is something that bothers me about that.
Cynthia: Harry Potter especially felt like a “voice of a generation.” In Harry Potter, a war happened in the past and the older generation left unfinished business. The early battles against Voldemort remind me of WWII and the Civil Rights movement. In Harry Potter, the younger generation picks up where the grownups left off and save the world. This feels like a shared fantasy among progressives of my generation. Twilight and Fifty Shades connect me with readers, but also start conflicts with haters, to whom I have to defend both series.
Seema: I actually read Harry Potter and Twilight early, before the pop culture phenomenon took over, so no for those two. Fifty Shades I felt was a rite of passage. I read it because my girlfriends were talking about it and I wanted to join in.
Davida: After thinking about it, Twilight was a fad. No one talks about it anymore since the saga and movies are over. I personally feel it’s going to be the same way with Fifty Shades. Both of the series are trying to live up to the Harry Potter hype, but they can’t. Both series lack the captivating imagery and complex relationships between characters.
Do you have a problem with the way women are portrayed in these books, particularly Twilight and Fifty Shades? What about the way women who enjoy Twilight and Fifty Shades are stigmatized?
Debbie: I think it is unfair the way women are portrayed as less than equal in a man’s world and I struggled with that the most in relation to Christian and Ana. I wanted to reach into the book and shake her, tell her to grow some balls and speak for herself.
Seema: I don’t like that both Bella and Ana were plain-janes who became externally desirable only when very attractive and successful men paid them attention. I think that perpetuates the societal stereotype that women are defined by the man they are with.
It’s more socially acceptable for a guy to watch porn than it is for a twentysomething woman to read these books. There is something that bothers me about that.
Cynthia: Edward and Christian are endowed with supernatural and financial power while Ana and Bella can barely survive without their boyfriends. Disproportionate power is essential to both stories, but I wish that the female characters had stronger personalities.
The stigma bothers me more. When a woman reads a book like Twilight or Fifty Shades, it’s an excuse for some people to belittle the woman’s intelligence. Some people act like women readers, especially young ones, will mimic whatever they read. Readers of poorly written masculine genre novels do not face the same stigma.
Davida: I don’t have a problem with the way women are portrayed as I am a very open and non-judgmental person. Some people can be bland like Bella, some people can do whatever their love interest tells them like Ana. It’s all personal preference and perspective. [But] I find it a little hard to understand the “Twimoms”—as no woman with children should have a crush on a vampire that is technically a minor.
Sarah: I do think it’s important to actively discourage some of the ideas contained in the books—like the idea that women should die for problem pregnancies or forego college for marriage. Yet I also think we are allowed to get pleasure out of things that are regressive without being trivialized. Everyone should be allowed to escape, and women’s escape culture shouldn’t be treated as worse than, say, a Grisham or Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum novel.