If you’ve been spending time
in proximity to teenage girls this week, there’s a strong chance you’ve
heard about Edward Cullen. Cullen is the undead hero of bestselling
young adult fantasy/romance series The Twilight saga. He’s
reached heartthrob status in a major way, and he’s done it while refusing
to devour, or sleep with, the story’s heroine, a Jonas Brother for the literary set.
The Twilight books,
written by Stephanie Meyer, have been heralded as the next Harry Potter.
To bank on the comparisons, Breaking Dawn, the concluding installation,
hit bookstores on Saturday with Potter-esque midnight parties, secrecy,
and sales in the millions (although they didn’t touch HP‘s
numbers, mostly because the fan-base is so exclusively female and post-pubescent).
There’s plenty to cheer about
when it comes to young girls reading voraciously. The Twilight
series is much in the tradition of teen literature such as the Nancy
Drew mysteries and Goosebumps. The books are also rife with allusions
to Shakespeare, Austen and the Brontes, a nice touch that will inspire
fans to hit the classics sections of their bookstores.
But what makes the Twilight
saga particularly fascinating and disturbing are the sexual currents
that run through its pages. Like American culture itself, Twilight
is both lascivious and chaste. Meyer, a practicing Mormon, has said she draws a line at premarital
sex for her characters. But, as Times columnist Gail Collins noted last month, boyfriend Edward holds the line, not
heroine and narrator Bella. Bella, after all, is so hot for Edward
she tells him she’s going to "spontaneously combust" and frequently
forgets to breathe when he kisses her.
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Meanwhile, he is equally besotted
with her, so much so that he trains himself to ignore his thirst for
her blood, which has an aroma that could make even a good vampire (Edward
and his coven have forsworn munching on humankind) go bad. Yet Edward
still won’t go all the way because he doesn’t want to get carried
away and hurt Bella with his superhuman strength. Her physical
safety becomes a symbolic substitute for her virginity, and Edward guards
it with overprotective zeal.
Now that’s a real
fantasy: a world where young women are free to describe their desires
openly, and launch themselves at men without shame, while said boyfriends
are the sexual gatekeepers. Twilight’s sexual flowchart is the inversion
of abstinence-only/purity ball culture, where girls are told that
they must guard themselves against rabid boys, and that they
must reign in both their own and their suitors’ impulses. But even while inverting the positions, Meyers doesn’t change
the game. Purity is still the goal. Men, or vampires, are still
dangerous and threatening while females are still breakable and
fragile. Intercourse still has the potential of resulting in "death," just as
it once relegated women to a social death. The only difference is the
controls are handed over from the teenage girl to the guy–who happens,
in this case, to be totally responsible and upright.
Meyers has tapped into a serious
artery of the teen female psyche. Adding to the dynamic is the fact
that Bella is a cipher whose only strong impulses are self-sacrifice
and vampire lust. She has a glancing appreciation of classic novels
and her family, but is easily projected upon by readers, who can imagine
themselves in her place and be vicariously wooed by sexy succubi.
Bella’s other trait, overwhelming
clumsiness, approximates adolescent bodily discomfort–the kind that
comes from young women’s realization that in a patriarchal society their bodies are now perceived
as trouble incarnate. Rescuing Bella from her physical mishaps are Edward
and her other suitor Jacob, who happens to be a werewolf. The two of
them happily tote her around so much it’s a wonder Bella’s legs don’t
atrophy. It would be a far braver move for Meyers to show Bella’s
relationship helping her grow compfortable in her body. But instead she
goes for the cheaper, more seductive, thrill of suggesting that
ungainly, weak female bodies are the most attractive to men, that teenage gawkiness could be made into an appealing vulnerability that
brings all the supernatural boys to the yard.
The lure of the books is so
strong, even for feminist media critics (I devoured them more quickly
than vampires catch their pray), that it’s disturbing to resurface
and ponder how retrograde Meyers’ world is. Bella’s willingness
to sacrifice her physical safety, her education, and her family and
social ties for Edward–and the well-meaning but stringent control
he exerts over her–are reminiscent, as some readers have said, of abusive relationships.
Talking About Sex–Not
Just the Vampire Kind
But teens are unlikely change
their views after reading the books: the hopeless romantics will remain
so; the pragmatic readers will feel frustrated with Bella. Same goes
for the book’s take on virginity. It’s doubtful Meyer foresaw how
much graphic premarital sex in all kinds of gender and species permutations
would appear in online fan-fiction. And it appears that Twilight
readers’ moms have found a good opening to talk about sex with their kids.
Even better, the books have
got teens arguing about gender roles, when to have sex, what defines
a heroine, and the meaning of true love. Taking a look at some blogs and sites that complain about Breaking Dawn and
Twilight in general, one can find feminist arguments galore (some NSFW). The lively debate generated
by the books implies that they may do more good than harm.
But the misogynistic climate
in the books does harm their quality, particularly in the troubling Breaking Dawn, when Bella decides
to sacrifice herself not just for her new husband (who is now at last
her lover; she has the bruises and euphoria to prove it), but for her
unborn half-vampire child that is so strong it’s breaking her ribs
in utero. Once her post-pregnancy transformation into a vampire finally
gives Bella some strength and power of her own, a new supblot involving
the fully-grown Jacob staking a claim to Bella’s newborn daughter
has icked out even some die-hard fans.
If Meyers had been able to
put her "family values" aside to give Bella more spunk (and maybe
a college education?) and generally lighten up on the patriarchal subtexts,
the saga would improve aesthetically, and maybe, like the Harry
Potter canon, reveal truths far beyond teenage wish-fulfillment.
Literary feminists can hope that J.K. Rowling gets inspired to write
a strong, realistic heroine and show Meyers how it’s done. Until then,
there’s always Buffy.