Monday, August 16, 2010

Best of OWP: Total Eclipse: The Literary Merit of the Burger King Whopper

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project. We were assigned to write an essay, and this was what, er, came out.

Total Eclipse: The Literary Merit of the Burger King Whopper

Walk into any Burger King, and you’ll be drowned in a tsunami of images from the new movie Eclipse, the third part in the Twilight series. To say this is unappetizing is a wild understatement. However, the association with fast food is all too apt. I read Stephanie Meyer’s whole series, and it ran through me much as a Burger King Whopper might.

The series was recommended to me in the highest terms. My students loved it. My colleagues loved it. Like the Whopper, it was ubiquitous, and like Burger King’s advertising, it was pervasive. The marketing barrage was the literary world’s equivalent of a fast food ad campaign. Pundits for the industry were talking about the series as the next Harry Potter, the next savior sent from heaven to stave off the imminent death of reading. “Look at all these kids reading,” they said. “Any reading is good reading,” they said. Imagine a PR ad wherein the Burger King, complete with his creepy, fixed-grin plastic head, came riding through the sky, swinging from the cables carrying giant crates of Whoppers, airlifted and then dropped into the barren fields of some famine stricken African nation. Because all Whoppers is better than no Whoppers, right?

But I bought it. I picked up the first book, tore through it, and enjoyed the pure speed of it. I’d purchased a Whopper, and, sure enough, it had come to the counter still heat-lamp-hot in less than thirty seconds. Twilight recreated that regret I often feel right after buying a burger and forgetting to tell them to hold the mayo. The first portion revolved mostly around romance, which just isn’t my thing, but I recognize that reasonable people can disagree about the virtues of mayonnaise. Sure, I can make a reasonable argument against mayonnaise (it spoils quickly, it can carry salmonella, it looks remarkably like puss) but it’s just a condiment. Short of a localized disease outbreak or contributing to the national obesity epidemic, romance literature poses no social ills either. Twilight was a vampire story, and some measure of whipped up, possibly infectious, puss-filled romance is to be expected in such stories. Still, I like vampires for what their stories can tell us about; the dangers of forbidden love, the curse of immortality, the Faustian bargain of power for soul. It seemed Twilight might have some things to say about these dilemmas re-set in an American high school, with all its issues, and I thought that might be interesting.

Like the Whopper, it tasted pretty good at the time. The second book introduced werewolves, predictably, but then, much about a Whopper is predictable, too. No avocado or pineapple or gruyere cheese hiding between buns made of some strange, organic whole grain. A Whopper is what you expect, and New Moon followed the same path, complete with the vampire pretending to dump the girl in order to protect her from himself. Sometimes you might belch while eating your Whopper, and this kind of schmaltzy melancholy plot twist is the hint of nausea one expects.

By the time the beef is gone and you’re wrapping up that last bite of bun and American cheese in the wax paper, you start to wonder why you bought the Whopper in the first place, and by Eclipse I was realizing the same regret. The werewolves and vampires had fought which was the event I’d come for, and I should have stopped there. But at this point I was invested. The Whopper was mostly in my gullet, though the lack of development of Bella’s character stuck in my throat like a bit of that smooshed, dry bun. I had to swallow the rest and hope for the best.

And I did. I read Breaking Dawn, desperate to know how Meyer would resolve the story (down, damned Whopper, down! Settle!) all the while hating every plot twist. I can spoil the story for you here because, like a Whopper, you’ll forget that it’s an unpleasant experience and revisit the books in a moment of weakness. To summarize, Bella, the protagonist, has been begging to be turned into a vampire by her boyfriend, but he wants to abstain until marriage, so she marries him when she’s just turned 18, she gets knocked-up on the honeymoon, and then she gets super-mom powers that save the day.

At that point the Whopper was mostly only giving me indigestion. I could feel a gurgling in my gut because of what had been done to one of my favorite myths; dangerous creatures of the nights defanged and turned into morose, whining adolescents who can’t walk around in the daylight, not because it would turn them into piles of ash, but because their skin would sparkle in the sun like they rolled around in body glitter. And the werewolves can change at will and aren’t cursed by the full moon! I tried to remind myself that myths, like Whoppers, are made to order each time they’re retold. But I also remembered that one Whopper is often one too many.

As the Whopper proceeded through its journey, the experience got worse. The further I got from that Burger King, the more I regretted my choice to enter in the first place. Sure, the vampire community had a right to be pissed about the way they were depicted in the books, but I became more and more concerned with the messages the books sent to my young female students. I hesitate to even mention the word “diarrhea”. There’s just no mature way to discuss “the runs”. Maturity is expressed in our culture by refraining from discussing diarrhea above all else. But Whoppers can have a stool-softening effect, and Stephanie Meyer’s series was a Whopper that sat under the heat lamp just a little too long. Bella, the protagonist, begins by describing herself as perpetually klutzy, and throughout the series she always requires rescuing. In fact, her first meeting with Edward, her vampire love interest, is the occasion of her first rescue when she walks across a parking lot without paying attention to oncoming traffic. From then on, she’s being saved, and not just from cars, enemy vampires, out of control werewolves, and her boyfriend’s own dangerous passions. More than anything, Bella needs to be saved from herself. For every admirable thing she does, she makes three boneheaded decisions, fails to communicate openly and honestly with the people who care about her and can help her, and stumbles into life-threatening danger because she’s swooning about a boy. But the biggest danger of all, we’re told, is Bella’s own sexual desire. Sex is simultaneously represented by the metaphor of a vampire bite and by sex itself, and Bella wants both. While some might say it’s a kind of progress to depict a girl who wants sex, this is always presented as negative in that it’s life-threatening. If Bella gets her boyfriend too turned on, he’ll kill her. Luckily, she’s rescued from this by his strength of will. She’s found a boyfriend who will say no to a hot girl begging to have sex. This might be a fantasy of a particular kind of religious, conservative girl, but I would bet good money that girl will find a vampire before she finds a human boy with such restraint.

Of course, if abstinence is the real conflict, then marriage is the resolution, and when Bella gets married the danger of her sexual desire disappears. Now sex is the vehicle by which she can find satisfaction, right? Ha! She gets laid once. Once! Then she’s knocked up and… wait for it… her pregnancy is really dangerous. I wonder how Bella will pass through that danger. Oh yeah, she’ll be rescued, once again, by her husband.

And then she’s a mom, and since motherhood is the measure of a woman’s worth, she gets super-powers and saves the day. Yea.

If you aren’t sympathizing with the burning sensation yet, check this out: The boyfriend who keeps saving Bella from herself because he loves her so much is 87 years older than she is. That’s right, girls, if you want to find a nice guy who will protect you from your own sluttiness, make an honest woman out of you, and then give you the baby and super-powers deluxe package, just keep your eye out for the town pedophile.

Now those clever marketing guys in Hollywood know that it’s important to keep the Twilight films dribbling out just slowly enough that you can’t quite get off the toilet before the next wave hits. So here I am, still on the pot, my elbows propped on my knees for so long I’ll have bruises. But I’m over-analyzing the situation, you yell through the door. Why can’t you just enjoy it? I’ll tell you why. In the long run, the Whopper is generally not the pleasurable experience we’re told to expect. And Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series really chaps my hide.

3 comments:

Kelsey said...

Haha I love the comparison. I couldn't think of a better way to describe the series.

Alicia Brown said...

I love how you keep coming back to the Whopper point, although you could almost have gone into the 'leaving the restaurant' experience as well--looking around with the sneaking suspicion you've been duped by the advertising and that you're about to be really sick, but you don't want to believe it quite yet. Just like people didn't quite want to believe that Twilight was as ridiculous as it was becoming by the end of the 3rd book going into the 4th.

To quote what you said as you read the first book when I was in your class a few years ago "It's just so awful, I know what she's going to do in ten pages...but...I just can't stop turning the pages!" You looked kind of horror stricken back then...

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