Another Feminist Reading of Twilight

This was a response to a question of my own creation that I answered in my application to be a beta-tester for Facebook. Here is the full text of the rant that ensued. If you’re wondering why I took a large part of my afternoon to write this at all…well, so am I. I’m of course, not the first person to make an argument of this nature against Twilight, but it’s about time I condense all of my thoughts on the subject into a single critique. Or, okay, some of my thoughts. This is a shorter, informal version of what I wanted my Twilight portion of my first honors independent study idea (women in the culture of vampire fiction) to resemble. Also, this post appears on two WordPress blogs, my own and my college newspaper’s blog.

The Twilight saga books and their byproducts (films, t-shirts, posters, glittering, ice-cold erotic aids, etc.) have dominated visions and discussions of American popular culture in recent years. Whether or not they like the books or movies, no one can deny this. As a young woman who avoids the option of “liking” Twilight or anything Twilight-related on Facebook, I am obviously in the “not” camp.

Many people are surprised by the fact that I do not like Twilight. I’m a fan of vampire fiction, so why would I wrinkle my nose at the most popular vampire novels in recent years? Though I really hate to admit it, I love to hate Twilight. I started an entire blog with the intentions of promoting “good” (and by good, I mean feminist) vampire novels  (Fledgling by Octavia Butler, The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomezthe Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, etc.) versus Twilight.

Before you ask why I do this and why I don’t just get a life, keep reading.

Stephenie Meyer‘s vampire novels present and promote harmful images of both young women and young men (and vampires that appear to be young men). Bella is your plain, Gothic romance novel-reading, everyday girl. Her existence seems ordinary until she meets vampire Edward Cullen and his vampire family made up of Esme, Carlisle, Alice, Jasper, Emmett, and Rosalie. Edward is every bit the late Victorian vampire. He’s stoic, calm, well-read, cultured, but, of course, he is a vampire and can be violent when provoked. Meyer portrays him as “heroic” in that he thinks he is a monster and does his best to distance himself from Bella out of fear that he will harm her. He loves her this much…well, at least for part of the novels’ storyline.

Bella’s existence is transformed once she meets Edward. No longer is she the loner, seemingly unsure about how to socialize with the “modern” kids her age who spend their time partying at the beaches of the nearest Native American reservation instead of dreaming about the Heathcliffs of the world. But, once Edward becomes a fixture of her life, she (kind of) blossoms. She can talk about the erudite things (Wuthering Heights and Debussy) that she thinks no one her age would want to talk about. And, because he can be nothing other than the refined and cultured young man he has spent nearly a century trying to become, Edward provides her with the proverbial light to wage battle with what Bella views as the black hole-resembling void of her life (unfortunately, Twilight breaks the laws of the universe and Bella’s black hole does not rip Edward to pieces).

But there’s one drawback. Okay, there are several drawbacks. Bella is going to grow old while Edward will stay forever young. Bella wants to experiment with her sexuality, but Edward urges her to wait until they are married; he does this for no apparent reason other than his belief that he is damned and will not tie Bella to his existence. Obviously, once she has sex with him, she’ll be more hooked than she already is and because marriage wouldn’t be condemning her to hell with him either. Read my dripping sarcasm here, please. I digress. Another drawback: in a Ricky-loves-Lucy-but-won’t-let-her-be-in-the-show kind of plotline, Bella wants to be included in efforts to save her own life, but Edward pats her on the head and tells her, “This is vampire business, honey. Go eat your hot pocket and leave the neck-breaking, body-shredding, and burning to us” (okay, he doesn’t really say that, but this is the jist).

Oh, and there’s Jacob. Ah, poor tortured, furry, abandoned, forgotten Jacob. When I first read the Twilight novels, Jacob and his cronies were the thing I most wanted to like about the juvenile plotline. Kudos to Meyer for including a Native American aspect, for creating what I believed was a unique rendition of the werewolf myth, I thought. For a couple of weeks after I read Breaking Dawn, I even wanted to justify Jacob’s imprinting on ‘Nessie, the vampire humanoid who is the result of Bella and Edward’s at-long-last-and-violent-but-it’s-okay-because-he-loves-her-and-it’s-within-the-confines-of-marriage sexual union (how creepy is this?) because Jacob (yeah, the same guy who attacked Bella with his slimy kisses in Eclipse) deserves to be happy too.

I was wrong. What I once saw as the redeeming point of Meyer’s creation is actually a plotline to further confuse Bella and isolate her from a more healthy discourse on sexuality, feminism, masculinity, domestic abuse, and self-esteem. I’m definitely not saying that this is the type of discussion that, if not for Jacob’s and Edward’s manly battle for Bella (Edward “wins,” in case you live under a rock,  or are smart enough to stay away from the series, and wondered), Meyer would have included within the pages of Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, or Breaking Dawn. Rather, I’m saying that, in an “ideal Twilight” world (which of course doesn’t and will never exist), these perspectives would have been readily available to Bella. Instead, she’s stuck with a flighty, irresponsible and absent mother whose only advice (in the movies) is to “be safe,” and a bumbling, incompetent father who can’t even take care of himself, but instead relies upon his daughter to make him food and be the adult. The only individuals Bella can really, truly rely upon are vampires and werewolves. Her boyfriend is a vampire and her best-friend-who-wants-to-be-more is a werewolf. The few girls in her life never discuss sex as something real versus something over which they can giggle. I would say this is a conservative take on what it is to be a young woman to the point of almost being Mormon (Meyer is).

So, as Bella is left to stumble around in the emo quagmire that is her life, she is not only victim to the hunter James and his vengeful mate Victoria (along with her army of new vampires) and the Volturi, she must also struggle with her teenage hormones that are urging her to do things that her boyfriend tells her are only appropriate when they are married. She must also contend with the sleezy, smelly werewolf Jacob who would just love to get his paws on her.

And no one tells her that it’s okay to be single. No one tells her that masturbation is an option. No one tells her that it’s okay to just tell Jacob to “back the hell up.” Instead, she’s left to marry Edward and wake up on the first morning of their honey moon with bruises and feathers from the pillows covering her body, wondering for a moment why the bed post is broken; not only is she a victim of Edward’s violent lovemaking, but so is the furniture. Meyer skillfully avoids revealing the “naughty” details of what sex actually is, what really happened, or anything else about what happened once the lights were off. Once again, there is no healthy discussion of how Bella might have better prepared herself. For an author (notice I did not say “writer”) who makes sure her central characters wait until marriage to have sex, she is eager to reveal the dirty little secret of what happened, but not brave enough to reveal the actual details or to deal with the implications of the violence that occurred.

There’s nothing wrong with “rough sex” (though what the “morning after” suggests occurred borders on the bestial) or BDSM as long as it occurs between two consenting adults who are mentally, emotionally, and physically ready and willing and who have discussed the “borders.”** Of course, Meyer includes none of this. Edward reiterates that he is a monster throughout the series, but Meyer never constructs a dialogue through which he and Bella might discuss ways to assure that they both are ready for what is about to happen. Edward and Bella do not decide together how far they are willing to go, what they are willing to do, nor a “safety word” that he or she might use if the love-play goes too far (these are healthy ways to approach sex outside of the “vanilla” realm). Edward is sorry, repentant, and self-deprecating on the morning after (Meyer can write him with no other emotion, it seems), but “out of love,” Bella quickly assures him that she’s okay and that what they experienced was magical and a symbol of their eternal love.

Later, Bella feels she must hide her unexpected pregnancy from her parents. Edward’s first thought is that it’s too dangerous and that she must not go through with the pregnancy (interesting that the male who was until this point unwilling to be responsible for his actions in the bedroom now hints at abortion, isn’t it?). But, Bella’s only thought is that she must, if necessary, risk her life for the vampire-human child growing inside of her. There is no other option. Birth control wasn’t an option. Condoms weren’t an option. The morning-after pill wasn’t an option. Don’t even mention the no-no word: abortion. And, surprise, surprise, she does risk her life (if this isn’t coming from a radical anti-choice perspective, I don’t know what is–the child BREAKS HER RIBS IN UTERO and still, STILL abortion [there's that naughty word again] is OUT OF THE QUESTION) The final scene of Bella’s human life is appalling. Yes, the final scene of her human life. I’ll let you figure out for yourself what happens next.

The rabid explosion of Twilight into popular culture since its publication in 2005 has spawned a tween-sensation that rivals the likes of the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber. Young girls who are reading this series (and, in many cases, reading it at the same time their mothers are) and watching its movies receive several key messages: Edward/Jacob are the way “real” boys should act, Bella needs a boyfriend to be happy, sex is a topic that should be avoided until it’s “too late,” and, ultimately, that if he hurts you, it’s okay because he did it out of love. And, in a country where abstinence-only sex education sadly remains the norm, these types of myths about gender and sexuality are scary, to be quite honest.

This is obviously my feminist perspective on the Twilight series and maybe you think I still need to get a life (I assure you, I have a busy one), but I would love to hear both similar and contesting points of view. Post them in the comment section below, write them in your own blog and link it to me via popculturephile@gmail.com. Only serious attempts at critiques/arguments, please (example: do not post or e-mail me with  “OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DON’T LIKE TWILIGHT”).

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 29, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Believe me, I’m not defending Twilight here (I REALLY am not), but I read it as Edward didn’t want to have sex with Bella because he assumed he’d rip her apart and it was too dangerous when he’d ‘lose control’. Bella had to talk him into it. At length. Over the course of SEVERAL passages where she was basically begging him. Which has its own issues.

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