So I read Twilight. Well, three-and-a-half books of it.
I read it despite suspecting I would have a strong aversion to it because, as you may have noticed, one of the areas I’m continually thinking about is the presence and representation of women in imaginative work. And because I’ve been sort of working up to a hypothesis about male/female aesthetics in that particular sphere, I’m sort of stuck with, on occasion, reading and/or watching stuff I wouldn’t ordinarily touch.
(I would also be lying if I didn’t admit that my penchant for contrarianism led me to rebel against the growing consensus that These Books Are The Antichrist and I wanted support for my nagging desire to trip the haters up, so to speak.)
Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown wrote about the disproportionality of the negative reaction to Twilight recently in The American Prospect, and I don’t want to rehash what she said there. She is utterly correct to say that female-oriented fantasies like these are treated with a derision that one doesn’t see with respect to male-oriented fantasies. (When was the last time one heard the culture agonize about whether G.I. Joe was sending young men the right message?) What I want to do instead is talk about the books themselves, and what’s redeemable about them. I want to talk about the things that are, frankly, a little surprising about them.Before I read these books I, like most people I know, assumed they were some kind of neutered Mormon version of vampires, which would account for the fact that, as I’d also heard, the contained no sex whatsoever. But then someone sent me this link, in which a somewhat asshole of a writer declares that the last book, Breaking Dawn, ought to be filmed by Cronenberg, due in part to the emergency C-section Edward gives Bella with his teeth. (Yeah, really.) And I thought to myself: hold the phone. There’s something else going on here. Not something I necessarily aesthetically like either, but this isn’t just Christian teen lit with some vampires in it.
Don’t despair. I still think many criticisms of the books are quite valid. The writing is terrible (someone is described as having an “invisible laugh,” for example – if your laugh is visible, please call 911 immediately); the sparkly-vampire stuff is pretty boring and annoying; and remarkably little actually happens in these books. (Even large plot developments are often shunted offstage because they are “too dangerous” for Bella.) Bella’s so-called klutziness wears pretty thin after the first couple of broken bones. Edward, her suitor, has the kind 0f vapid mooniness native to NYU film students. In general, the treatment of the Quileute (the Native American/werewolf tribe to which her friend Jacob belongs) smacks of racism and essentialism. There are some yucky erotic overtones attributed to domestic violence. The first book is thin on redeeming factors.
And yet… and yet. Even when I was in high Twilight-avoidance mode I wondered if I could possibly be getting the whole story on the thing, because there were any number of young women who were reading it who did not, to me, appear to be the usual teenybopper sort. And the more of it I read, the more I could see what it was they related to in it. There were three things in particular that caught my eye:
- Jacob’s entire function in the series is to remind Bella that she shouldn’t just lose herself in a guy. While I get the impression from the film marketing that the love triangle aspect is emphasized in the movies, in the books there is very little question at any point as to whether Bella will end up with Edward. Why is there so little doubt? Because Bella identifies Jacob as her friend, and not a potential lover.* She is so deep into Edward she can’t see the forest for that one damn melancholy tree in the first book, and it is infuriating. But when Jacob comes into play in New Moon (he appears only briefly in the first book), he becomes the avatar (apologies) for everything in Bella’s life that isn’t Edward. (Werewolves like Jacob instinctually despise vampires, which adds another wrench into the mix.) And he pushes her to hold onto the rest of her life, to not define herself exclusively as Edward’s beloved. Having been friends myself with more than a few women I’ve lost to dudes, and who later tried to reconnect with the complaint that they had gotten too wrapped up in one person, I can’t help but be sympathetic to a series of books aimed at young women which emphasize the importance of not losing yourself in your drama-filled romance, of forcing yourself to have a life distinct from – and in this case, rather antagonistic to – your relationship.
- The no-pre-marital sex is Edward’s idea, not Bella’s, and in fact her reluctance to marry is palpable. I had sort of wondered, having studied Dracula and vampire mythology in college, how one could possibly write a non-sexual, pro-marriage vampire romance in an age which, while still sexually restrictive, would have seemed like unbridled freedom to Mina Harker. It just struck me that, assuming the audience isn’t from the Purity Ball set and are, themselves, largely sexually active, the whole sexual tension of the vampire narrative – the need to resist succumbing to desire – is empty. It turns out, in fact, that Bella herself isn’t the one who declares desire to be sacred – it’s Edward. (Meyer explains this away by claiming that it’s a relic of his old-fashioned upbringing at the turn of the century, which is a bit too pat – but then this isn’t great storytelling in any event.) Bella, in fact, resists getting married because she thinks she’s too young for it, and as the child of divorced parents, hasn’t much faith in the institution. She only agrees, in the end, because she wants to become a vampire, and Edward only agrees to that on condition of getting married. Bella, in fact, seems rather nonplussed by the wedding ritual. For her, the high point is the honeymoon – which is fraught with its own problems given that Edward bruises her when they have sex and she brushes it off as no big deal. (To Meyer’s credit, Edward is less sanguine about that.) But it is still a much more affirming portrait of female desire than I expected.
- This is the only book aimed at teenagers I can remember reading in which an unwanted sexual advance is unequivocally termed “assault.” At one point, Jacob, in an attempt to convince Bella that she really is in love with him, forcibly kisses her. Not only does she not do the traditional romance thing of eventually succumbing to it – you know, that half-hearted thump on the back so common in Hollywood movies followed by limp ecstasy – she herself calls it “assault.” It’s sad that we live in a world where this is a very big thing to hear come out of a teenage girl’s mouth in reference to an unwanted kiss, but it is, and Bella firmly makes Jacob understand how wrong he was.
I point these out to you not to make an argument that Twilight is, can or should be a feminist classic, even in a gateway drug kind of way, but to say that sometimes you can find narratives of female agency in the strangest places, and also to reassure you if you have friends or family reading these books that they are not wholly retrogressive. Even in bad art there are possibilities, one supposes, and I just think it’s important to point this out. The girls reading Intercourse in high school don’t need us to help them own themselves. But the girls reading Twilight just might, and perhaps it’s valuable to emphasize the way in which the books aren’t totally unrescuable from the bounds of misogyny.
* It’s true that at some point Bella decides she loves Jacob too, but this is also after she has decided there’s no turning back with Edward. But up until then she’s in full, “He’s just like a brother to me,” mode.