04 July 2010
Ah, Twilight. The perfect kind of saga for my two favourite worlds to collide - pop culture and gender theory, of course.
No, I haven’t seen Eclipse yet. And I probably won‘t for a while...at least until the teenagers (and their moms) have had their fill and I can sit in a cinema where there aren‘t high-pitched squeals every time someone takes their shirt off. That scepticism you’re sensing? It’s completely warranted! Somewhere along the line I had the opportunity to take a class for my Masters where I wrote a 25pg paper about the the Twilight series. This may have been the ultimate low (or high, depending how you look at it) in the merging of my two favourite worlds. Judge all you want - I got an A on the paper...and an offer to have my Phd supervised (should I choose to spend the next four years of my life writing about vampires).
As far as I’m concerned, the books have all amalgamated into one. I know bits of what I’m about to say don’t actually appear until the fourth instalment, but that’s beside the point - I’m simply taking the opportunity of its cinema release to enlighten the world on my view of this seemingly innocent tale of star-crossed love. And if you’re mad that I’m spoiling storyline details, get over it. It’s a low brow piece of fiction.
The Twilight saga, in a nutshell, presents certain messages (grounded in patriarchal ideology) that deals with the construction of teenage femininity- promoting traditional gender roles, a conservative view of sexuality, and most importantly, a reactive depiction of female sexuality, all causes for an otherwise informed reader to ask the following: do we really want teenage girls reading a story that promotes this kind of backlash whilst supporting some of the most damaging ideologies within our current culture?
As you can see, I wholeheartedly believe this series is capable of doing more bad than good. Why? Because I honestly think the targeted audience (females, aged 12-17) have the ability to consume these books without the knowledge of sexism in popular culture and the larger ideological powers of patriarchal society. And yes, I also believe that this could lead them to conclude certain things- namely, that Edward and Bella’s relationship is what romance, love and sex should look like.
Now of course the whole point of fiction is that the author can create a fantasy world (enter vampires and werewolves) but I think it’s also fair to say that Stephenie Meyer more accurately reproduces real and current patriarchal values and norms, ones that actually do permeate in real life. This, in short, is why I find it appropriate to label the Twilight series a literary backlash. A decidedly anti-feminist piece of fiction. There you have it. My opinion.
So - let’s get into it.
The topic of sex and female sexuality is where I want to touch base as it’s a bit of a tricky sitch between humans and vampires, particularly when the latter could quite easily kill during a moment of pure ecstasy!
Most important thing to keep in mind? Edward is first and foremost the ultimate predator...everything about him is meant to invite Bella in, in order for him to destroy her. But gee, what a guy- he makes the noble choice to be her protector instead. What. A. Hero.
(This might be a good opportunity to say that I firmly reside on Team Jacob.)
Because Edward is dangerous and Bella breakable (the playing out of male aggression and female fragility) and as we learn early on, that both are virgins, Bella’s physical safety becomes an immediate substitute for her virginity. And despite Edwards’ position as a constant threat to Bella’s physical safety, we find that she is all too willing to sacrifice this for the dangers associated with sex. So, in order to not be killed by her partner, purity and chastity (no sex!) remain the ultimate goal, hence the oxymoron ‘abstinence porn’ that some have used in describing the Twilight saga. And it’s through this exact juxtaposition, Bella’s fragility and Edward’s threatening appetite, that Meyer manages to sexualize abstinence while simultaneously romanticizing sex.
Think about it...the act of sex (even so much as kissing) can very easily lead to and/or equal death for Bella. So, it’s Edward who must takes sole responsibility for preserving Bella’s virginity (read: sexuality). So really, abstaining from the physical act(s) of intimacy become heightened and sexualized because it’s equated with danger (Bella’s death). And wouldn’t you know it, this is exactly what plays out...
“It” happens when Bella is still human so the possibility of death looms closely, permitting an otherwise critical thinker to read Bella’s overjoyed reaction to this sickening encounter as somewhat of a rape fantasy. The actual ‘scene’ is never even described- perhaps an intentional move by this otherwise conservative author (Meyer practices Mormonism..is that a word? Whatever - she‘s a Mormon. Birth control is sans appropriate as is sex before marriage...Yikes!). Anyway- Edward says something to the effect of ‘if I hurt you, tell me at once’...and through the magic of books and a few “* * *” centred on the page, we know that time has passed. The scene picks up the following morning where E and B have found a pillow torn to shreds, bite-sized chunks missing from the headboard and Bella is covered in bruises and welts. This is where things get unspeakably frustrating. Bella doesn’t even notice the marks until Edward points them out, and when she looks in the mirror, she describes herself as being ‘decorated with patches of blue and purple’. Decorated. You mean like a Christmas tree? Because those are the kinds of things I like to see decorated.
I remember reading that sentence for the first time and thinking Whoaaaa, back up the truck! The use of this word and the connotations associated are only enhancing the fact that Bella isn’t angry or fearful for her life (even though Edward almost killed her in the act of sex) but that she somehow feels more beautiful and complete, having shared something so intimate with him, something that has left these so-called ornamental, beautiful marks. Doesn’t stop there - this is what Bella says when she realizes how beat up she is: ‘I tried to remember the pain- but I couldn’t. I couldn’t recall a moment when his hold was too tight...I only remembered wanting him to hold me tighter, and being pleased when he did’. So what this seems to be suggesting is that they so perfectly belong together that any amount of pain becomes irrelevant and worthy of enduring. All in the name of love, right? And only her arms and legs were covered in bruises, correct? The act of penetration left no marks or excruciating amount of pain?
For Bella, the vulnerability associated with sex and the danger Edward poses are ultimately irrelevant because they are outweighed by a pleasure that’s obviously grounded on the basis of what she thinks love is; not only does this suggest that sex should be worth the risk of any dangers involved (uhh, pregnancy, infection to name but a few) but that it should be. Especially if two people are in love. Answer me this: does the targeted audience of these books really know what love is? Mmm probably not.
Does the targeted audience also know that a woman is much more likely to experience sexual violence by someone she knows rather than a complete stranger?
Do the readers know that partner-related violence stems far beyond the physical and that Edward manages to psychologically, emotionally and verbally abuse Bella?
Do they know that 1 in 4 female adolescents report these varying forms of violence each year? What about the girls who, for one reason or another, don’t report it?
Violence is violence. Whether you’re told you can’t hang out with your werewolf best friend because your boyfriend is jealous or whether you wake up battered and bruised from a night that’s meant to be special and memorable, it’s all violence. It’s all a way in which Edward controls Bella.
Speaking of power and control...
(Click on image to enlarge)
This wheel was developed from women who have experienced violence and is used in thousands upon thousands of domestic violence treatment centres. It acts as a way to place name to certain behaviours, something that Bella inherently refuses to do. But as you'll notice, many of these behaviours are portrayed in their relationship.
Don’t think I’m giving Twilight readers enough credit? On ‘Obsessive Edward Cullen Disorder’ (a fansite that had thousands of views when I referred to it last year), visitors were asked ‘Is Edward too controlling of Bella?’ Out of 3305 responses, only 5% agreed that he is. The vast majority (78%) were cast in favour of ‘No Way! I love him just the way he is!’ I think that says enough.
Numbers like this support the notion that, like Bella, the readers are completely unaware of how controlling Edward is and that their relationship does, in fact, blur the lines between love and intimate partner violence. And since 78% of the poll-takers don’t think Edward is too controlling, doesn’t this just prove that the readers may not know that partner-related violence goes beyond the physical? Mindboggling. And truly, truly sad.
To recap, not only do we know that Edward has to abstain from Bella‘s blood (described as his own personal brand of heroin), but he now must control his sexual appetite as well. How does he do this? By controlling Bella’s sexuality and any and all decisions regarding he and Bella’s sexual relationship. The underlying message? That when it comes to a woman’s sexuality, Bella can really only learn it as a reaction to Edwards actions. She has literally no control over the decisions made as her very existence depends on his ability to protect her, not prey on her. And as I’ve so beautifully shown, this occurs at the price of blurring the line between love and violence.
The Twilight series may have been voted by teenagers themselves as one of the ‘Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults’ but what becomes obediently accepted is that certain damaging ideologies are embraced without question. And that the literary backlash this series represents becomes dismissed through the narcotic power of romance fiction and its relationship with female audiences.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve got way more ground to cover with this. Maybe that offer to do a Phd wasn’t such a bad idea after all?