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4 Eliciting Student Responses as a Pedagogical Strategy: What the Student’s Say About Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl with
Teen fiction, fantasy, romance
novel about a teenage girl who
falls in love with a vampire who
is over 100 years old. US based
Erotic romance novel about a
young college woman who falls
in love with a powerful
businessman. The books started
as an erotic spinoff of the
Twilight series. US based story.
The story is a crime novel based
in Sweden. Throughout the
series Lisbeth and Mikael
Blomkvist work together to
Dyed black hair, thin, many
piercings, and many tattoos. She
has a large dragon tattoo on her
back. She is intelligent, has a
photographic memory, and is a
computer hacker. Lisbeth had a
traumatic childhood and has
difficulty connecting with others.
Desexualized, plain, and chaste.
She is unaware of her beauty, but
many men find her sexually
Desexualized, plain, chaste, and
unemotional. She is unaware of
Table 14.1 Summary of Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Smart journalist, has feminine
qualities, is sensitive and kind. He
is divorced and has a child. In the
series he has five lovers, one being
Handsome, aloof, powerful, rich,
and a very good lover. Many
references are made in the book
about childhood abuse that
emotionally scared him.
Male lead’s characteristics
Handsome, aloof, strong/powerful,
rich, and he does not make sexual
advances (though references to his
“animal nature” are made)
14 Pulp Friction: How College Women Navigate Identity, Sexuality and Gender…
S.M. Walters and M. Kimmel
Student Responses to Twilight
Students said Bella Swan appeared to be plain and they found that appealing. Bella
being a “Plain Jane” allowed for women readers to fantasizing about the male characters and gave them a reprieve from female sexualization. One respondent said, “I
guess she is a lot less sexualized, which is nice that she doesn’t, you know. I feel like
whenever women are in movies they pop up and it’s like big boobs. At least the
leading character that the really cute guy falls in love with it’s kind of like, I don’t
know, they never look they are covering themselves up and she definitely looks like
that. Like she is always wearing long sleeves, probably because they are in
Washington but, and I like that I like that she is not over sexed.”
Even so, women often did not identify with Bella. This may seem contradictory,
but it is not. The women found themselves to be prettier and more interesting than
Bella. Seeing themselves in this way further allowed them to project themselves
into the story, including believing that they could (like Bella) attain men like Jacob
and Edward (the stories hunky heroes).
Students were able to identify the resemblance to domestic violence in Bella and
Edward’s relationship. However, for most it was not enough to turn them away from
enjoying the story. Even so, this was an entry point to begin conversations about
sexual violence and assault.
Student Responses to Fifty Shades of Grey
Similar to student responses about Bella, students thought Ana was plain and uninteresting. For female students this was appealing and identifiable. When asked why
women identify with Ana, one female student said, “Most girls are insecure about
the way they look, about the way they are. They don’t believe that somebody will
actually, especially someone that attractive, ever want them.”
Students found Ana to be more appealing then Bella because she was employed
and valued her career. Female students identified with Ana’s career goals, but at the
same time desired to be loved and to make a family. In this way, the book reflects
the contradictory (gendered) desires that women feel. Ana was able to resolve this
by having a powerful career, great sex, a loving husband, and in the end two children. Women in our classes expressed a desire to have a life similar to Ana. Their
desires for sexual liberation and a career defy gendered norms, but are still embedded within the larger societal context of gendered norms. The women readers want
liberation, but in a heteronormative context (marriage and children). By talking this
through in a classroom we were able to dissect desires from a sociological perspective and explain how desire can be constructed using Queer Theory.
Another important topic in the classroom is the male characters. Looking at how
the class perceived the male characters is an entry point for talking about gender.
Often perceptions are embedded in normative notions of gender. For example,
14 Pulp Friction: How College Women Navigate Identity, Sexuality and Gender…
women discussed how they perceived (and desired) the male characters in both Fifty
Shades of Grey and Twilight. This again allows for an analysis using theory.
The erotic nature of Fifty Shades of Grey was a hot topic in our discussions.
Women in our classes loved that Ana was able to have lots of good sex! However,
they generally were conflicted in their opinions about the sex that Ana and Christian
had. We attribute this to normative notions of gender and sexuality. Even though
women expressed a desire for independence and equality, they often fell into normative notions of femininity and masculinity. The women in our classes reported
enjoying reading about Ana’s sex, but they particularly enjoyed it as it led to marriage and children. Both women and men felt that Ana was “doing the wrong thing”
by agreeing to have BDSM sex. For some, because of BDSM, Ana was not chaste
enough. Others explained that they viewed Ana as chaste because she was a virgin
before having sex with Christian and because she married him.
The love students felt for the female protagonists in Twilight and Fifty Shades
(Bella and Ana) highlights the contradictions that women often feel. Women want
to be independent, but at the same time they still embody normative notions of gender and sexuality. Economic independence is appealing to women, but at the same
time so is a rich husband and a happily ever after marriage. Again, this is something
that we suggest be discussed in class. Acknowledging feelings associated with the
story allows for teaching moments in class.
Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey follow the typical romance novel formula.
Both series end with a happy marriage and children. To the reader, men like Jacob
and Edward in Twilight or Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey are now possible
partners for them. The women see that “normal” girls can get the prince and they
begin to think that they can too. This script is different in The Girl with the Dragon
Tattoo and therefore provokes a different reaction.
Student Responses to the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Women reacted to Lisbeth as an individual, not in relation to her sexual partners. To
women, Lisbeth is strong and independent in her own right. For the readers of
Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, Bella and Ana are strong, but their strength is
often seen in their ability to obtain and/or “fight for their man.” This may be why
women report being irritated with Bella and Ana for being naive and not irritated
Lisbeth provides women readers with sexual agency in a different way than
Twilight and Fifty Shades. Lisbeth is a strong, independent (despite being under the
care of a legal guardian), and has a fluid sexuality. All of these things women desperately want and are often constrained by society in their ability to attain. Even
though the sex is not explicit in these novels, the sexual relationships are a draw for
women readers (Schippers 2012). Where these novels differ from Twilight and Fifty
Shades of Grey is that they do not follow the traditional heteronormative script,
instead they allow for sexual freedom, which is a draw for some women readers.
S.M. Walters and M. Kimmel
Lisbeth has good sex with men and women, including BDSM sex, and is not monogamous. The sexual relationships in the books depict trusting and loving friendships
with non-monogamous lovers (Shippers 2012). Just because the sex is not monogamous or following the traditional gendered script does not mean that the relationships suffer. This allows the reader to safely insert herself into a sexual fantasy
where the heroine is supported and loved by her lovers, allowing her the support to
resist patriarchy and societal constraints.
Lisbeth is physically strong and takes revenge on her sexual assailant. Her
strength is different than Bella and Ana’s. Although Bella and Ana are physically
strong in the books, in the end their male heroes show up and save them. For Ana
this is when her supervisor tries to sexually assault her and Bella has a number of
physical attacks that Edward shows up and saves her from. Women identify with
Ana and Bella as strong women who fight back, but Lisbeth is in a category of her
own. Lisbeth gives women the courage to confront sexual assault independently.
Women also identify with Lisbeth as an outsider and a loner. Her character makes
them feel like this is okay and sort of cool (Stewart 2011).
We argue that because the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo strays so far from the normative script, in that it blatantly challenges patriarchy, the movies did not make as
much in the box office as the Twilight films. The result of this is that this series did
not reach as broad of an audience as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact, we
have found in our classes that most women who enjoyed the Girl with the Dragon
Tattoo already identified as feminists and were critical of patriarchy. Yet, in Twilight
and Fifty Shades, the audience is broad and women who read these books and
watched the Twilight films do not identify as feminists. Thus, the audiences for
these series are very different. Women who read Twilight and Fifty Shades embodied gender and sexuality norms, but the books (particularly Fifty Shades) helped
them find agency in a patriarchal world.
In this way The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo differs from the other two novels.
The reader still finds pleasure in inserting herself into the story, but the fantasy is not
for sexual pleasure and marriage. It is safe for the reader to insert herself in the
Twilight and the Fifty Shades of Grey because the romantic relationships positively
impact the heroine. The men that Lisbeth chooses in The Girl with the Dragon
Tattoo are different from the other series. They are loyal and gentle, with a softer,
less masculine appearance and demeanor. They do not force themselves on her, but
when she is ready they provide her with satisfying sex and much love. The reward
is friendship, however, not marriage and this can be very liberating for women who
are always pressured to be in monogamous, heteronormative relationships and to
become mothers. Lisbeth does none of this and some women desire a life like that
Using The Dragon Tattoo as a contrast to Twilight and/or Fifty Shades of Grey is
a powerful teaching tool. First, we suggest using Twilight or Fifty Shades, as they
are more palatable for students, especially because they are so embedding in normative gender. Yet, slowly, throughout your course you can challenge their beliefs.
Once you finish the Twilight or Fifty Shades lessons you then can challenge more by
using The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.