Jessica (I will use fictional names throughout to protect my students' identities) is a smart girl. At eighteen, she attends a state university, plays volleyball, and loves her hometown’s football team, the Steelers, with a fierce, unswerving pride. For her freshman composition class, she writes a research paper challenging the unfair treatment that star male athletes receive at her university and questions why she, a hard-working female student, cannot qualify for equal privilege. Yet, when I, as her teacher, ask in an email interview her opinion on the recent teen girl literary sensation, the vampire-romance Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer, Jessica responds in this way: “I LOVED the books. I couldn’t seem to put them down. It was like a drug. You had to keep reading to find out what was happening next. I’ve always enjoyed love and romance as well as ‘mysterious’ stories. I’ve read ALL 4 and as soon as I finished one I picked up the next one right away.” Hence, would she consider herself “in love” with fictional character Edward Cullen, the human female protagonist’s dazzling yet undead romantic interest? “Absolutely in love with him! […] He was completely sexy, smart and lovabl[e]. Every girl’s dream.” Does she likewise identify with the first-person narrator, an otherwise “typical” high school girl, Bella Swan, who finds herself swept away into a world of werewolves, vampires, and literally undying love? “Yes, Bella was like the ugly duckling turning into the ‘swan.’ She couldn’t even imagine that Edward would want her like she wanted him. The two misfits are perfect together (her being the clumsy awkward type and him being the vampire). In the end fairy tales DO come true. It’s what we all hope and dream!”
Well, isn’t it? Author Stephanie Meyer, a Brigham Young graduate and first-time novelist who has skyrocketed into unbelievable popularity in merely four years since the debut Twilight book was published, is not the first to write a conflicted vampire-human romance. Neither, as a matter of fact, was Bram Stoker, creator of literature’s most famous blood-sucker, Dracula, although Edward Cullen may be giving him a run for his money after the Twilight series has thus far sold forty-two million copies worldwide, and after the first movie adaptation, released in November 2008, grossed 177 million in its opening seven weeks. Rather, vampires, defined by Joan Acocella in her article in The New Yorker, as “the undead - spirits who rise, embodied, from their graves to torment the living,” have haunted human imagination and superstition for centuries. Long ago, Acocella adds, “vampires were grotesque creatures. Often, they were pictured as bloated and purple-faced (from drinking blood); they had long talons and smelled terrible.” Hardly the dream object of a modern teen girl’s romantic fantasy.
Thanks to Meyer’s novels, however, our idea of a contemporary vampire has shifted from the monstrous and corpse-y, and even from the “suave, opera-cloaked fellow of our modern mythology,” Acocella describes, to the impeccably dreamy Edward Cullen: tousled bronze-colored hair, pale skin that sparkles - yes, sparkles - in the sunlight, and eyes colored “a strange ocher, darker than butterscotch, but with the same golden tone,” forever frozen at seventeen. Moreover, according to his young female fans, specifically the eighteen-year-old girls in the two freshman composition classes I teach, he typically receives a reaction not of disgust and loathing, but of the very opposite: “He is amazing and such a good guy to girls"; “He seems too perfect to be real"; “He definitely brings chivalry back.” And, finally, to put it simply by one: “Edward is a summation of everything a girl would want in a man.”
This last quote from one of my female students says it all: what I am most interested in exploring here is not necessarily Edward Cullen’s mass appeal to teenage girls as a fictional, fantastical vampire, but instead his extreme attraction to them as a man. To these young women, Edward represents a male image as far removed as possible from the sloppy-dressed, Nati Lite-chugging, sex-crazed young male peers they are surrounded by nearly every day. Instead, Edward Cullen drives a now famously described shiny silver Volvo, effortlessly plays the grand piano (he even writes his own music!), holds true to old-fashioned courting rituals (after all, he has been “alive” for more than a century), and has skin that literally glitters in the sun. Speaking to this dissimilarity, Bridget, an International Studies major and one of the strongest writers in the class, remarks, “I can relate to [Bella’s] lack of interest in dating guys who just didn’t appeal to her just for the sake of dating. What’s the point of putting so much effort and part of yourself into something that won’t last forever?” Contrasted against the frat brah crowd, then, what girl wouldn’t at least be somewhat enchanted?
However, I don’t accept this comparative explanation quite so easily. In fact, the aspect of all this Twilight mania that both disturbs and fascinates me the most is exactly that - that all these smart, capable young women would assert that Edward Cullen is their idea of the perfect man any girl would desire, who claim that they are “in love” with him. Genuine romantic passion for a fictional character is certainly nothing new; besides, for a particularly non-literary youth generation (“I’ve read ALL 4,” Jessica writes proudly, purposefully capitalizing the word ALL) such an obsession about a character in a book may seem like something rather celebratory over concerning. And, yet, reading these texts myself as a young, twenty-first century woman, as well as from a feminist perspective (for, yes, there is a difference), I find the general female response to Edward Cullen’s character endlessly problematic.
Furthermore, the first-person narrator of Meyer’s Twilight series, Bella Swan, presents a source of identification for her teenage girl readers that is perhaps even more discomforting than that of her undead lover. I instead read Bella as a backwards, passive, and otherwise weak female character, hardly a positive role model for practically a generation of young women who claim that they admire, relate to, and so desperately wish to be her. Thus, here I propose an alternate reading of the Twilight series in hopes to reveal them for what I believe to be anti-feminist texts that offer a backpedaling and potentially dangerous vision for the young women who fall in love with - or, rather, fall prey to - their message.
Immediately, after I finish writing these words, I can just anticipate the first response: calm down. They are just books, and fantasy ones at that. What does it matter? Yet, as a writer myself and a steadfast believer in the power of literature in society, I must wholeheartedly disagree. As theorist Patrocinio P. Schweickart asserts, “For feminists, the question of how we read is inextricably linked with the question of what we read.” Hence, I think back to the books I read growing up, the ones either for my own pleasure or were forced to read for my school’s curriculum, typically works included in the so-called “canon.” From all these “classics” that we had to read from middle school through my senior year, the only ones I can remember having a female protagonist were To Kill a Mockingbird, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Jane Eyre. Those were probably the only ones written by female authors as well. As a child I also shunned Nancy Drew and The Baby-sitter's Club; they bored me. Whether it was tinkering out backyard puzzles in Encyclopedia Brown or fighting epic battles in The Hobbit, for the most part the boys always got to do the cool stuff. In my personal re-imaginings of such stories, then, I always positioned myself as male because I had no other options. And now, as the Twilight series - literature hardly worthy of the “canon,” but still, books starring a female protagonist and written by a female author - have reached rip-roaring, nearly unprecedented success among readers, I cannot help but feel just a little betrayed.
This, then, is my main problem with Twilight - Bella’s consistent passivity in the face of Edward’s almost unnaturally active nature. She doesn’t do anything. Alright, sure, she does things: she wonders about Edward’s secret until she finally figures it out amidst obvious clues, she falls in love with him nearly against her will, she gets chased around and beaten up by his enemies, she mopes for nearly all 563 pages of New Moon (the second installment) after he dumps her, she ping-pongs as the object of sexual desire between Edward and his werewolf rival Jacob Black, she agrees to marry Edward, and she accidentally becomes pregnant with his half-vampire kid that practically claws its way out of her. All of these events position her as a character to be acted upon, not one who acts herself. And, what it always comes down to, Bella wants to become a vampire, desperately, obsessively. Above all, she wants to give up her mortal soul forever to be with Edward.
Also, she falls down (literally) all the time. Turning back to Jessica’s depiction of Bella as “an ugly duckling” and “the clumsy awkward type,” this is how Bella describes herself at the very beginning of the first book: "I had always been slender, but soft somehow, obviously not an athlete […] I didn’t relate well to people my age. Maybe the truth was that I didn’t relate well to people, period. […] Sometimes I wondered if I was seeing the same things through my eyes that the rest of the world was seeing through theirs. Maybe there was a glitch in my brain."
Any competent writer knows that creating a character with recognizable flaws will make her more relatable to readers. Additionally, these flaws will provide her with certain failings to struggle with and possibly overcome throughout the arch of the story. And, here, Bella’s melodramatic feelings of loneliness and low self-esteem do seem rather on par with any teenage girl’s high school diary. However, this particular way that we read Bella from the first chapter on only serves to frame her as a weak character, both literally and figuratively. As a mortal, before Edward ultimately saves her by converting her into a vampire as she is dying while giving birth to his child, she does not overcome these flaws throughout the course of the series. Instead, she constantly reminds me of the swooning damsels in distress from Victorian literature who pass out at nearly every moment of high drama. Given how many times Bella stumbles, trips, and falls throughout the four novels, I sometimes began to wonder if the girl could manage to walk in a straight line without breaking a bone.
Even during the climactic moment in all four books, moreover, Bella herself does not act but merely observes the highest point of excitement from varying states of consciousness. In the first book, Twilight, one of the Cullens’ enemy vampires effectively lures her into peril in what reads as almost a creepy stalker-rapist scene. Edward saves her life while she watches his family kill off the bad guy before she slips into unconsciousness. In New Moon, perhaps the most maddening book of the series, after she sulks post-breakup for hundreds of pages, Meyer attempts to convince us that Bella “saves” Edward this time around during an act of desperation when he believes her dead. Still, all Bella does is fly to Italy with Edward’s foster sister and run to him to make herself known. She spends the rest of the climactic scene limp and whimpering in his arms. Eclipse, furthermore, presents us with a climactic scene where Bella literally watches the pivotal fight take place and freaks out crying afterwards (“I staggered forward another step, and then tripped over something - my own feet probably. Edward caught me, and I buried my face in his chest and started to sob”). Finally, in the last installment, Breaking Dawn, even after chapters of preparing herself for impending doom from the enemy vampires, it turns out that Edward’s foster sister Alice is the one who saves everyone, not Bella. Based on what occurs in these climactic scenes alone, within Meyer’s alluring fantastical world Bella becomes merely a pawn among the more powerful, never really an equal player.
Bella’s initial self-description from the first book, then, sets her up for the upcoming four novels as someone who needs to be caught when she falls, needs reassurance when she constantly self-blames, needs protection from a terrifying world, and as someone who, in the end, just needs to be saved. As Simone de Beauvoir once wrote of this traditional yet constraining female passivity, “For a great many women the roads to transcendence are blocked: because they do nothing, the fail to make themselves anything. They wonder indefinitely what they could have become.” Is this all - her consistently passive role within these novels - really enough for Bella? For us?
In stark contrast to Bella’s continual passivity, we see Edward Cullen, who is all about the physical extremes that make him so dreamy: he runs like the wind, whips through highways at a James Bond-like speed in his shiny silver Volvo, shows up night after night - soundlessly and stalker-like, at first without her even knowing - in her bedroom to watch her sleep, and fights off, or, at least threatens to, any menacing force, including Bella’s werewolf “best friend” Jacob Black. It is interesting, then, that when it comes to their sexual life, Bella is the one who desires - no demands - sexual intimacy between them. And, yet, Edward denies her, over and over again, until she finally agrees to marry him in Breaking Dawn. Thus, as Acocella notes, Edward and Bella’s premarital abstinence is “compensated by the romantic fever that the sexual postponement generates. The book fairly heaves with desire.” Before they marry, Edward remains the reasonable one, keeping in mind not only the conversion risk from the book’s fantastical world but also, from his appeal as a man, his old-fashioned “moral” values.
To me, this in-your-face abstinence message communicates a highly troubling morality for teenage girl readers in a virginity-obsessed world. For Bella, Edward’s cool-headed denial of her sexuality, coupled with his domineering insistence that they marry, launches her into yet another guilt trip. She constantly sees herself as “a terrible person” and blames herself for what she sees as inherent mortal flaws, namely, her unquenched sexual desire not only for Edward, but also her much more complicated feelings for her friend Jacob Black. Meyer hence makes every attempt in the Twilight series to link premarital sex with impurity, even to the point where Bella and Edward refer to their virginity as their “virtue.” I find this connection here, force-fed to thousands of teenage girls who are unknowingly lapping it up, immensely disturbing. As sociologist Deborah L. Tolman notes in her 2002 study Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality, in our virginity-equals-pure society, “To act upon one’s own sexual feelings and desire is still, for girls, to invite the risk of being known as a ‘bad’ girl, a girl who deserves any consequences she suffers.” While I certainly agree with Meyer that sex and sexuality are topics that should be treated seriously, I wholeheartedly disagree that women and girls (or, men and boys, for that matter) should automatically equate their sexual lives with their morality. The issue is vastly more complex than that. But, by the twenty-first century, shouldn’t we know all this already?
After Edward and Bella finally do have sex, even under the cloak of matrimony, after Edward literally blemishes her body (so, now is she physically impure?) from his sheer strength, Bella blames herself when she becomes pregnant with his half-human child, nearly killing herself and putting Edward’s entire family at risk in the process. Is this a healthy reaction to consensual sexual experience that nearly an entire generation of teenage girls will read? In Tolman’s words, “We create an impossible situation for girls: Healthy sexuality means having sexual desire, but there is little if any safe space - physically, socially, psychologically - for these forbidden and dangerous feelings.” To an inexperienced young reader, here, quite clearly, sex equals danger. Besides reinforcing a black-and-white, cut-and-dry abstinence ideology, how can these books provide a model for a healthy sexual relationship for young girls who may just be beginning to question and explore their sexuality?
What’s more, I wonder, despite Bridget’s earnest claim that “Edward and Bella’s love is the kind of love everyone dreams of having even though [it] doesn’t seem possible,” how can these books provide a model for a healthy relationship in general? Again, I can just hear skeptics clamoring for me to calm down, that these are merely works of fiction. And yet, what worries me much more here is not the text itself, for any text has the potential to be read and forgotten, or never read at all, but the overwhelming reaction to what Meyer has written. Thousands of young women today are reading Twilight when many of them will read nothing else, and they are falling in love, believing Edward and Bella’s relationship to be the perfect, equalizing example of a romantic relationship. However, this love only seems perfect to them because it relies entirely on sexual and romantic binaries and roles that these girls have had ingrained into them as “romantic” their whole lives. And despite Bella’s simper to her vampiric lover, “There isn’t much that’s traditional about you and me,” the way they play out the highly traditional male/female, active/passive binaries of their romantic relationship leaves young female readers with little options to imagine otherwise.
If nothing else, take a moment to consider the striking contrast between Bella’s initial self-description, pre-vampire, pre-Edward, back when she was endlessly clumsy and awkward among her human peers, and her later self-description after she becomes immortal, becomes saved in Breaking Dawn: “So this was really different. I was amazing now - to them and to myself. It was like I had been born a vampire. The idea made me want to laugh, but it also made me want to sing. I had found my true place in the world, the place I fit, the place I shined.” To put it bluntly: before man, after man. Bella only became this “amazing” because Edward made her that way. Is this truly the end goal to which today’s young women should aspire?
Still, regardless of all this troublesome Twilight mania, I am not entirely pessimistic about the outlook of today’s generation of young women. In particular, one of my freshmen students, Natalie, a bubbly, driven, Theater major, is not quite as captivated by the Twilight series as are her classmates, namely Jessica and Bridget. She instead answers my questions with the trademark sassy attitude I have come to recognize from her papers: “I would NOT say that I am in love with Edward Cullen because he is very static. […] Sometimes [Bella] is just pure stupid, but I think that goes along with the way the story is poorly written and so I just laugh. I am overall kinda meh about the Twilight series.” She, at least, has managed to see through it.
Myself, I couldn’t help but wonder while reading these novels: besides Edward Cullen, what does Bella want? Not a job, not college (“College was Plan B. I was still hoping for Plan A, but Edward was just so stubborn about leaving me human…”), not travel and adventure. Rather, after she transforms into a vampire to be with Edward, with eternity as her future, Bella is satisfied with this as her aspiration: “Maybe I would just love Edward more than anyone in the history of the world had ever loved anyone else. I could live with that.” Yeah, Bella, that’s great, but what else? If a young woman in the twenty-first century has all the world ahead of her, is loving a man really the only thing she chooses to do? I would hope that, for as far as we have come, it would be more: an education, a career, hobbies and passions, a chance to travel and explore. We deserve more. A whole world open for a strong, willing female with all the possibilities ready and waiting before her: this is what I wish for the young women in my freshmen classes, for Jessica, Bridget and Natalie, and, in the end, for myself.
From guest contributor Anne Barngrover