Bella Is a Lousy Role Model, but Do We Only Care Because She's a Girl?

As I've written before, whenever any movie not primarily involving white males and/or geek-friendly genres becomes a big hit, the moralizers come out in full force about how dangerous or unhealthy said movie is for the target demo in question. Sex and the City: The Movie presents adult women in a terribly materialistic light so it's just unhealthy. And Precious isn't just about one person in a singular situation. Oh no, Precious is about each and every person who happens to be black, poor, female, or overweight, so it's obviously perpetuating one stereotype or another. And we can't have movies starring black people (Obsessed) that are just as sleazy, trashy, and stupid as the kind of thing that white people take for granted, because we can't present black characters, especially black women, in such an unfashionable light.

Needless to say, this is the kind of thing that the Twilight series has had to deal with. Because the lead of the books (and movies) is a teenage girl, she's been held up or brought down on her ability to be a positive role model for girls everywhere. And since she doesn't always make the healthiest choices possible, she's been condemned as a dangerous role model for young girls, which has been used as a weapon to condemn the series beyond the normal realm of 'are the movies any good?' Well, I wholeheartedly agree with the naysayers. Bella (played by Kristen Stewart in the films) is a terrible role model for young girls. She constantly needs to be rescued while being told that she is a danger to herself and others. She falls head over heels with a cold and aloof stranger who keeps her at a distance and constantly warns her that her feminine wiles could cause him to hurt her. She is willing to sacrifice her safety and her family's safety to be with him. Then, when he breaks up with her, she basically becomes suicidal and goes through a physical reaction resembling heroin withdrawal. So yes, Bella is a crappy role model. But, let's take a minute to run down some lead characters in male-driven franchises that also fit the bill. After all, if we're so upset that girls are being represented in a bad light, then should we not be as concerned about the boys? And can I, as a responsible citizen, enjoy these male-dominated blockbusters even though the lead character is a poor example to set for young men everywhere? Oh dear, the conflict!

Tony Stark (Iron Man)
Played by Robert Downey Jr, Tony Stark starts the movie as a greedy, ammoral, self-centered arms dealer who cares not one wit about the destruction and death that his product causes. He uses his friends and co-workers, keeps everyone at a distance, and profits off global strife. After creating a perpetually-rechargeable energy source that basically keeps his own heart beating, what does he do? Does he mass-produce this device and revolutionize the entire energy structure of the planet, causing an end to oil-based wars, planet-wide strife, and climate catastrophe? Nope, he uses it as the main energy source for his own personal play suit, which he builds with the intent to... well, he's not really sure. Sure, he eventually uses this 'iron man' suit to avenge his own kidnapping (which, to be fair, saves countless lives) and take down the corrupt leadership of his own company. But before those circumstances force his hand, Stark doesn't seem to want to use his world-changing technology for anything other than his own selfish whims. What a tool...

Sam Witwicky (Transformers)
While Sam, played by Shia LeBeouf, is generally a decent if obnoxious motor-mouthed teen, he does get one moment of shining douchebaggery. After spending the first 2/3 of the film attempting to win the heart (or other part) of his high-school crush, Sam is shocked... SHOCKED to learn that blue-collar Mikaela (Megan Fox) has a troubled past, mainly that her father is doing time for auto theft. Despite the fact that Sam knew nothing about this girl other than that she was hot, and despite the fact that it was her father and not her who was the primary guilty party, he is furious with her and rudely blows her off for several scenes afterward, until SHE has to apologize to HIM for her father's criminal history. She deserves better and should have dumped his nerdy butt on the spot.

James T. Kirk (Star Trek)
Played by Chris Pine in the JJ Abrams revamp, the legendary starship captain is rebooted as a selfish, obnoxious, entitled prick of a man who feels that he should get whatever he wants because he has daddy issues and comes from famous lineage (sound familiar?). He cheats purely out of spite, uses and harasses his female colleagues, and takes command of the starship from his more logical, intelligent, and principled superior via a virtual coup d'état. (wait a minute...) Sure he saves the day in the end, but it's mainly because the future version of his would-be rival shows up and tells him what to do every step of the way. This new James T. Kirk is a schmuck. Jean-Luc never would have tolerated this arrogant little mouth-breather playing captain on his ship.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2, and 3)
Sure, he's a delightfully funny cad, played with charm and off-the-wall whimsy by Johnny Depp. But, at the end of the day, he's a pirate. Pirates steal stuff. Pirates rape women and girls. Pirates kill people. Besides, even if we buy that he was a less-evil pirate, his actions in the second and third film belay a nonstop odyssey of treachery, betrayal, and selfish cruelty to the very people who helped win his freedom at the conclusion of the first film. He may not be the worst of the pirates (although even the villainous Barbossa is a 'good guy' in the third film), but he's still a dirty, rotten little scoundrel.

The Jedi (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith)
As a staunch defender of the prequels, I must admit that the Jedi are all complete and total imbeciles. The biggest shock of the new prequels was that the legendary Jedi turned out to be a group of pompous, pretentious, self-defeating, useless idiots who couldn't smell a galaxy-threatening conspiracy that was hatching right underneath their noses. They are also mean and petty. Yoda initially refuses to teach Anakin Skywalker because young Skywalker has the gall to miss his mother. Thirteen-years later, when Anakin tries to confide in Yoda that he fears for the life of his wife and unborn child, Yoda's advice is basically 'people die, shit happens, be one with the Force.' Oh, and Anakin himself? Mitigating circumstances aside, he's still a hotheaded, irrational nutcase who actually has at least one genocidal mass murder under his belt before he even turns to the Dark Side. I repeat, Anakin Skywalker, pre-Dark Side, is already a mass murderer.

Obi-Wan resents having to train this young boy who he doesn't entirely trust, and treats him with condescending scorn during his initial apprenticeship. He also cock-blocks Anakin's pursuit of Padme at every opportunity. Even in the final months before the Jedi are wiped out, he can clearly see that his friend and colleague is in pain and torment. Does he ask him to talk about it? Does he put his arm around Anakin and offer to grab a drink to discuss the somewhat disturbing machinations of both the Jedi Council and Chancellor Palpatine? Does he seek insight from Padme, the woman that he probably knows is secretly married to his close friend? Nope, he just sits back while Anikan gets corrupted by Palpatine and abused by Mace Windu. Oh right, Mace Windu. Aside from bullying and constantly second-guessing every step in Anikan's journey, he also is singlehandedly responsible for Anikan turning to the Dark Side. Well, even after all the abuse and lack of trust thrust upon Skywalker, Anikan still turns to Mace Windu when he discovers that Palpantine is one of them Sith lords. So Windu repays the favor by putting Anikan in the position of having to either stand back as Windu executes a defeated and (apparently) incapacitated subject, or raise arms against his fellow Jedi. Whatever Anikan's reasons for saving the would-be Emperor, he was absolutely in the moral and legal right to stop Windu from slaughtering his surrendered prisoner. Point being, if Yoda, Windu, or any of the Jedi council hadn't acted like rigid, emotionless fundamentalists and hadn't treated Anikan like a contagious disease from his first day at Jedi school, if Obi-Wan had made even the slightest effort to reach out to his troubled friend, then Anikan would have remained merely a Jedi with a murder rap, rather than the key instrument in a plot to overthrow the Republic. Let's be honest. Jedi are losers and terrible role models for our nation's youth.

So let's lay off poor, madly-in-love Bella for the moment. She may be a terrible role model, but she's hardly alone in the world of blockbusters. Compared to a selfish arms-dealer turned selfish energy-hog and monk warriors who have a habit of slaughtering innocents, a naive, romantic teenage girl looks pretty upstanding. Besides, she's a bra-burning feminist compared to the princess in Enchanted, but that's for another day. What is worth noting is that all of the above male characters are basically users and abusers of their friends, family, and lovers. Yet Bella is being attacked in various circles because she basically allows herself to be abused and used. So the question we really ought to be asking ourselves is why we're so intolerant of female characters who get abused, while so gleefully accepting of male characters who do the abusing?

Scott Mendelson