First, it is important to say that the matter is not as simple as “good” and “bad” role models. For mainstream feminists, entry into the world of work and politics is the hallmark of a “good” model; for some radical feminists, the capacity to nurture is what makes a character “good.” In my field, rhetorical studies, we are more likely to talk about how women in media and politics negotiate the double bind between femininity and power in complex ways and in historical context.
We cannot take a character like Juliet or Daisy Buchanan out of their historical and political context and expect them to represent adequate models of women’s empowerment in the here and now. Every text offers a perspective on its characters. In Gatsby, for example, I believe that Fitzgerald is calling attention to the limits of Daisy’s power as sexual object; therefore the text encourages modern women to resist such a subordinate role even if the character does not model such a role. I hope that this makes sense. While the Daily Beast calls the character“infantile and impressionable, and at worst, possibly selfish to the point of pathology,” we are not meant to accept her as a role model but to do the opposite: Because she is represented as unsympathetic, women readers and viewers can misidentify. She is not intended to be a role model, and indeed the book’s critique of Gatsby might indicate that Fitzgerald was operating from something of a feminist sensibility and also one critical of the equation of money and love, and the representation of women as property.
If Daisy is histrionic, capitalism is represented as pathologically disordered and she is a symptom of it. The book is cautions us against a too-easy acceptance of the promises of the American Dream. Daisy is a symbol of that empty mystery and a victim of the shallow role she must play in a shallow world.
When characters meet a tragic end, it is hard to say that they were supposed to be role models. (Juliet, I would argue, plays a very different role as a symbol for internecine conflict. I can’t really comment further. My point is that we can’t look to the character as a model without asking whether the author or text is encouraging us to do so.)
(I also think we cannot conflate the current film and the book, since each operates in its own historical context and has its own persuasive devices and nuance.)
I wouldn’t want to be quoted unless some mention of the complexity of this issue would be included among my remarks.
All of that being said, I find nothing redeemable in Bella Swan. TheTwilight texts have none of the thematic complexity of Shakespeare or Fitzgerald (or of the Brontes), and Bella herself is rewarded for being basically an empty vessel of melancholy attachment, even enthrallment, to forces more powerful than herself.
A number of scholars have written about the complexity of the Victorian melodrama, and have argued that characters like Bella give girls license to explore emotion in excess of what is conventionally sanctioned. But Bella has no interiority (at least in the films; a friend told me that the novels are guided by a diary, in which she expresses actual thoughts), no self outside of the romantic role. She is literally vapid, willing to sacrifice herself to love and motherhood. I’m extremely glad that my daughter, now 22, did not linger over Twilight (favoring the Hunger Games and the intelligence and power of Katniss Everdeen).
Girls and women, however, are not dupes of popular culture. There are many resources in culture, literature, politics, and family life for cultivating a whole self.