I just finished Stephenie Meyer’s rambling, overwrought, vampire saga turned girlie phenomenon. I have to say, I’m speechless. No, not breathless, in the Bella Swan sense, but completely taken aback by the unexamined, creepy, 19th Century take on paternalistic romantic love this series represents. First, to give credit where credit is due, the writing may not be the greatest but the story was gripping enough to have me on the hook for all four books in one week-long sitting. That’s my last bit of charity, however.
The Story: Spoiler Central, All Four Books
Bella Swan is an absence. All we get to know about her is what she is not. She does not care about sports, clothes, the prom, or cars. If there are any other interests teenage girls might have, Bella is not aware. She is a good student but apparently never gives any thought to anything deeper that she might actually care about, such as the world outside her depressing little coastal Washington town. She does not mind her father treating her as a convenient domestic servant. She doesn’t care if she lives or dies. Her only defining characteristic is her love for Edward, who is controlling, dangerous, and manipulative. She is so loved for her tolerance and vaccuousness that his cult-like family immediately embraces her: they recognize that she will keep their secrets at all cost, that her family is too self absorbed and absent to do anything about her suffocating new lifestyle. As long as she keeps serving up a tasty lasagna and doesn’t interfere with his game schedule, her police chief father is happy not to question why she so often comes home bruised, or “falls down the stairs” and is nearly killed when she runs off with Edward for the weekend.
All of this sounds like a Lifetime movie of the week depiction of a girl in an abusive relationship, except that we learn that Edward is really a good guy after all. You see, despite continually wanting to kill her, he doesn’t. Not only that, but he won’t have sex with her or even kiss her too hard. He is completely happy to do nothing but sit by her bed and watch her sleep day in and day out, while she trembles at his touch and makes weak attempts to tempt him away from chastity. See? No sex! He’s great. When he leaves her, (to protect her, you see) making her believe that he does not love her anymore, she wanders lost in the woods for a week, and is found curled up completely catatonic as her non-self tries to figure out what she could possibly do without him.
Her father responds to this alarming development by doing nothing, until he discovers one day that she has decided to awake from her “zombie” state through the only catalyst that seems to really do it for her: another boy. He is overjoyed, sending her off happily to spend her days building motorcycles with a giant teen with an apparent pituitary dysfunction. Now that Edward is gone, Bella can only be happy when she is with Jacob, a Native American boy who turns out to be decendent from a race of “spirit warriors” and becomes a kind of werewolf. Whatever. Bella hangs out with Jacob because she wants to do risky things which get her adrenaline pumped. (Which then prompts her to hear the voice of Edward in her head, telling her to be careful. Ick.) Unable to come up with any other way a 17 year old girl might get a little thrill hanging out with a hunky 16 year old werewolf, naturally Bella decides to spend months watching him rebuild a motorcycle so that she can be adorably incompetent and crash it a few times.
Tragically, the motorcycle just isn’t enough of a thrill. So, one day when all of the werewolves are out risking their lives to protect her from a homicidal vampire, she decides to throw herself off a cliff. Underestimating Stephenie Meyer’s ability to crank out another 3,000+ pages of creepy neo-victorian “romance” Edward thinks she has killed herself and through a long and tiresome plot device returns to her life, never to leave her again. Naturally, the werewolf is a little pissed off, transforming himself suddenly into a complete asshat and forcibly kissing her. She breaks her hand, punching him in the face. Her father looks up from his game for long enough to let her know he thinks that’s really funny.
500 or so pages later, it’s finally time for Bella to become interesting. Or so we think. Edward’s family has agreed to make her a vampire, but she wants Edward to do the deed. Predictably, he refuses to unless she agrees to marry him. After all, if she’s going to become sexy, strong, and interesting in her own right, he’d better stake his claim now. Freshly married, they finally decide to be intimate. Despite thousands of pages of buildup, we don’t get to hear anything about that other than Bella awakening in the morning, covered in bruises and absolutely thrilled about it.
Since a good beating is really not enough punishment for having sex in a gothic romance novel, Bella conceives a demon baby. Although she’s never so much as hinted at an interest in children, suddenly, she’s plotting with a sister in law to help her keep the child who grows at a freakish rate, forces her to drink blood, and breaks her ribs when she kicks. Ultimately, the baby completely obliterates whatever was left of Bella, snapping her pelvis and ripping her body apart.
Completely cleansed of her physical being as well as her personality, she is ready for Edward to give her immortality. She becomes beautiful, strong, fast, and thirsty, but she barely has a second to give her magically delicious baby a really stupid name before a raging mob of vampires is on its way to punish them for doing the nasty. While they are waiting to be slaughtered, she learns that Jacob has “imprinted” on her weeks-old daughter, meaning he’ll be her creepy daddy friend figure until he one day marries her. Edward and Bella think that’s gross but forgive him anyway, because he’s such a swell guy. Meanwhile, Princess Breaksyourpelvis wins over the bloodthirsty ubervamp crowd, and they all live happily(?) ever after. The end.
The Ick Factor
This story disturbs me on so many levels, beginning with its popularity. Picking it up after watching grown women screaming and swooning at the sight of Robert Pattinson (the English actor playing Edward in the Twilight movie) I was immediately sad to read about the kind of relationship that got them so hot and bothered. Devoid of sexuality or even much of a plot, the first novel is a retread of a couple of scenes in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but without the Victorian context to explain what all the big fuss was about.
While the sexual aspects of the books did make me wonder if many American women secretly yearned for the perfect gay male boyfriend, I’m not too worried about the grown women who read them. Unfortunately, they are on the “young adult” shelf, not wedged in with the Harlequin Romances. Twilight is not Harry Potter, and a lot of parents might not realize what their tween and teen girls are reading. Here, I am not being paternalistic. I like to think of it as “maternalistic.” As a mom, I’d rather my kids didn’t read these books, at least not without a whole lot of discussion.
Why do I care, if there’s so little sex? Because the Twilight novels are all about sex, and love, and how to navigate the intense first relationships of adolescence, and they are sending all the wrong messages. Bella experiences violence countless times and keeps this from her family. Ultimately, this turns out to have been the right thing to do. She completely disintegrates when Edward leaves her, only to discover in the end not that he isn’t that into her (which would be the case in real life, 99.999995% of the time) but that he secretly still loves her and is ony being gentlemanly. She discovers his love through a thinly veiled suicide attempt. Giving these books to a teenage girl going through a bad breakup is like offering heroin to an addict.
Add in the promise ring on the toddler, the violent first sexual experience, and the totally self destructive pregnancy, and I think you can understand why 10 year old girls probably ought not to be unwrapping a Twilight boxed set this Christmas.
I don’t understand. Or I do, I guess, but I don’t understand why these novels would be marketed so unquestioningly as young adult fiction. 190 years after 19 year old Mary Shelly (child of a feminist who died in childbirth) wrote Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, and explored the depths of natural vs unnatural reproduction, why does a 34 year old mother write something so laden with mysogynistic subtext and claim it is just story she came up with about a hot guy, written between swimming lessons and diaper changes? She is rumored to have run them all by her (Mormon) bishop for approval prior to publication. Why are her publishers and her adult fans so quick to jump to the “it’s just a story” defense? It’s not as if vampire stories, madonna myths, science fiction, feminism, or literary citicism are new.
Why are we making like its the 19th century? I can understand finding these novels entertaining, I can even understand getting a little titillation from them. What I can’t understand is pretending we don’t see what’s wrong with the tale of Edward and Bella. Because if we really want our daughters to grow up accepting violence in their relationships and serving dinner with a smile while they are passed from one manly authority figure to the next, until they are ready to marry and produce a baby, maybe we’ve already turned the clock back to Mary Shelley and beyond.
More Twilight Criticism Around the Interwebs:
Twilight Star Robert Pattinson calls Author Stephenie Meyer “Mad” and Perhaps a Total Quack
The Twilight Books as Fundie-Girl Fantasy
Twilight Sucks, and Not in a Good Way
Twilight: A Follow Up, and a Promise