Sexual Longing in an Ab-Only World: The Twilight Saga

Sarah Seltzer

Like American culture itself, the world of the young adult Twilight novels is both lascivious and chaste.

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.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

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.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Trump Selects Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to Join His Ticket

Ally Boguhn

And in other news, Donald Trump suggested that he can relate to Black people who are discriminated against because the system has been rigged against him, too. But he stopped short of saying he understood the experiences of Black Americans.

Donald Trump announced this week that he had selected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) to join him as his vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, and earlier in the week, the presumptive presidential nominee suggested to Fox News that he could relate to Black Americans because the “system is rigged” against him too.

Pence Selected to Join the GOP Ticket 

After weeks of speculation over who the presumptive nominee would chose as his vice presidential candidate, Trump announced Friday that he had chosen Pence.

“I am pleased to announce that I have chosen Governor Mike Pence as my Vice Presidential running mate,” Trump tweeted Friday morning, adding that he will make the official announcement on Saturday during a news conference.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The presumptive Republican nominee was originally slated to host the news conference Friday, but postponed in response to Thursday’s terrorist attack in Nice, France. As late as Thursday evening, Trump told Fox News that he had not made a final decision on who would join his ticket—even as news reports came in that he had already selected Pence for the position.

As Rewire Editor in Chief Jodi Jacobson explained in a Thursday commentary, Pence “has problems with the truth, isn’t inclined to rely on facts, has little to no concern for the health and welfare of the poorest, doesn’t understand health care, and bases his decisions on discriminatory beliefs.” Jacobson further explained: 

He has, for example, eagerly signed laws aimed at criminalizing abortion, forcing women to undergo unnecessary ultrasounds, banning coverage for abortion care in private insurance plans, and forcing doctors performing abortions to seek admitting privileges at hospitals (a requirement the Supreme Court recently struck down as medically unnecessary in the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case). He signed a ‘religious freedom’ law that would have legalized discrimination against LGBTQ persons and only ‘amended’ it after a national outcry. Because Pence has guided public health policy based on his ‘conservative values,’ rather than on evidence and best practices in public health, he presided over one of the fastest growing outbreaks of HIV infection in rural areas in the United States.

Trump Suggests He Can Relate to Black Americans Because “Even Against Me the System Is Rigged”

Trump suggested to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that he could relate to the discrimination Black Americans face since “the system [was] rigged” against him when he began his run for president.

When asked during a Tuesday appearance on The O’Reilly Factor what he would say to those “who believe that the system is biased against them” because they are Black, Trump leaped to highlight what he deemed to be discrimination he had faced. “I have been saying even against me the system is rigged. When I ran … for president, I mean, I could see what was going on with the system, and the system is rigged,” Trump responded.

“What I’m saying [is] they are not necessarily wrong,” Trump went on. “I mean, there are certain people where unfortunately that comes into play,” he said, concluding that he could “relate it, really, very much to myself.”

When O’Reilly asked Trump to specify whether he truly understood the “experience” of Black Americans, Trump said that he couldn’t, necessarily. 

“I would like to say yes, but you really can’t unless you are African American,” said Trump. “I would like to say yes, however.”

Trump has consistently struggled to connect with Black voters during his 2016 presidential run. Despite claiming to have “a great relationship with the blacks,” the presumptive Republican nominee has come under intense scrutiny for using inflammatory rhetoric and initially failing to condemn white supremacists who offered him their support.

According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released Tuesday, Trump is polling at 0 percent among Black voters in the key swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

What Else We’re Reading

Newt Gingrich, who was one of Trump’s finalists for the vice presidential spot, reacted to the terrorist attack in Nice, France, by calling for all those in the United States with a “Muslim background” to face a test to determine if they “believe in sharia” and should be deported.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton threw her support behind a public option for health insurance.

Bloomberg Politics’ Greg Stohr reports that election-related cases—including those involving voter-identification requirements and Ohio’s early-voting period—are moving toward the Supreme Court, where they are “risking deadlocks.”

According to a Reuters review of GOP-backed changes to North Carolina’s voting rules, “as many as 29,000 votes might not be counted in this year’s Nov. 8 presidential election if a federal appeals court upholds” a 2013 law that bans voters from casting ballots outside of their assigned precincts.

The Wall Street Journal reported on the election goals and strategies of anti-choice organization Susan B. Anthony List, explaining that the organization plans to work to ensure that policy goals such as a 20-week abortion ban and defunding Planned Parenthood “are the key issues that it will use to rally support for its congressional and White House candidates this fall, following recent setbacks in the courts.”

Multiple “dark money” nonprofits once connected to the Koch brothers’ network were fined by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) this week after hiding funding sources for 2010 political ads. They will now be required to “amend past FEC filings to disclose who provided their funding,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Politico’s Matthew Nussbaum and Ben Weyl explain how Trump’s budget would end up “making the deficit great again.”

“The 2016 Democratic platform has the strongest language on voting rights in the party’s history,” according to the Nation’s Ari Berman.

Analysis Human Rights

Activists Seek Justice as Verdict Looms for Officer Involved in Freddie Gray’s Death

Michelle D. Anderson

Freddie Gray, 25, died from spinal cord injuries in April 2015, a week after police arrested and took him into custody. Last year, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby brought criminal charges against six of the officers involved with his arrest. Since then, three officers' trials have been completed without convictions.

The bench trial of Lt. Brian Rice, the highest-ranking Baltimore Police Department officer involved in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, began on Thursday, July 7. Rice faces involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment; the state dropped a misconduct charge after acknowledging Rice was not directly involved in Gray’s arrest. The closing arguments in his trial are scheduled for this Thursday; the judge is expected to share his verdict Monday.

The Rice trial started just as the public began grappling with the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—and the subsequent murder of five police officers at a Dallas protest.

Castile and Sterling, both Black men, died during encounters with police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, triggering nationwide protests against police brutality and implicit racial bias that have continued into this week.

And just like the days following Gray’s death, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were flooded with images, videos, and hashtags demanding justice.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Gray, 25, died from spinal cord injuries in April 2015, a week after police arrested and took him into custody. Activists and some Maryland legislators accused police of giving Gray an intentional “rough ride,” when inmates or persons in custody are transported in police vans without a seat belt and subjected to frantic driving, ultimately causing them injury. Last year, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby brought criminal charges against six of the officers involved with his arrest. Since then, three officers’ trials have been completed without convictions—and as activists on the ground in Baltimore wait for more verdicts, they are pushing for reforms and justice beyond the courtroom.

The first police trial, which involved charges against Officer William Porter of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office, ended in a mistrial in December 2015 after jurors failed to reach a verdict.

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Glenn Williams acquitted Officer Edward M. Nero of all charges in May. Mosby had charged Nero with misconduct, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment for putting Gray into the police van without a seat belt.

But many viewed the trial of Caesar R. Goodson Jr., who drove the van, as the most critical of the six. Last month, Judge Williams announced that Goodson, too, had been acquitted of all charges—including second-degree depraved-heart murder, the most serious of those brought against the officers.

Kwame Rose, a Baltimore activist, told Rewire he was not surprised.

“The judicial system of America shows that police are never held accountable when it comes to the death of Black people,” said Rose, who was arrested in September and December during peaceful protests related to Gray’s death.

During Goodson’s trial, Williams said there were several “equally plausible scenarios,” that could have transpired during Gray’s arrest. He also rejected the state’s argument that police intentionally gave Gray a “rough ride,”according to a New York Times account.

Ray Kelly, community relations director for the No Boundaries Coalition of West Baltimore grassroots group and a community interviewer for the West Baltimore Community Commission on Police Misconduct, said he was disappointed by the Goodson verdict. However, he noted that he was heartened by Mosby’s decision to bring criminal charges against the officers in the first place. “It’s a small change, but it is a change nonetheless,” Kelly said in a recent interview with Rewire.

In addition to the charges, Gray’s death eventually sparked a major “pattern or practice” investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Local activists, including the No Boundaries Coalition, which issued in March a 32-page report that detailed police misconduct in Baltimore and helped to trigger the DOJ, expected the findings of the DOJ investigation in late June.

However, the document has yet to be released, said Kelly, who is a native of the same West Baltimore neighborhood where Gray was detained.

Kelly is expecting a consent decree—similar to the ones in Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland, Ohio—and a continued partnership with federal officials in the near future.

For Kelly, the trials—and the lack of convictions—have proved what leaders in groups like the No Boundaries Coalition have been saying in their advocacy. One of those messages, Kelly said, is that the community should continue to focus less on the judicial process for theoretically punishing officers who have committed wrongdoing and more on initiating policy changes that combat over-policing.

Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots group, seemed to echo Kelly’s sentiment in a statement last month. Two days after the Goodson verdict, Baltimore Bloc activists said it was a reminder that the judicial system was not broken and was simply doing exactly what it is designed to do.

“To understand our lack of faith in the justice system, you must first recognize certain truths: the justice system works for police who both live in and out of the city; it works against Black people who come from disinvested, redlined Black communities; and it systematically ruins the lives of people like Keith Davis Jr., Tyrone West and Freddie Gray,” Baltimore Bloc leadership said, referencing two other Baltimore residents shot by police.

The American Civil Liberties Union, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Illinois v. Wardlow, said in a May blog post that police had legal case for stopping and arresting Gray, but also said the action constituted racially biased policing and diminished rights for Black and Latino citizens.

“The result is standards of police conduct that are different in some places than other places. It is a powerful example of institutionalized and structural racism in which ostensibly race-neutral policies and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups,” ACLU leaders said.

Right before issuing its statement in May, ACLU released a briefing paper that said at least 21 individuals had been killed in police encounters across Maryland in 2015. Of those fatal encounters, which included Gray, 81 percent were Black and about half were unarmed.

The ACLU said it was impossible for the agency to determine whether any officers were disciplined for misconduct in most cases because the police refused to release crucial information to the public.

The ACLU began compiling information about police custody deaths after learning that Maryland officials were not tracking those cases. In 2015, state politicians passed a law mandating law enforcement agencies to report such data. The first set of statistics on police custody deaths is expected in October, according to the ACLU. It is unclear whether those will include reports of officer discipline.

In line with those efforts, activists across Maryland are working to bring forth more systemic changes that will eliminate over-policing and the lack of accountability that exist among police agencies.

Elizabeth Alex, the regional director for CASA Baltimore, a grassroots group that advocates on behalf of local, low-income immigrant communities, told Rewire many activists are spending less energy on reforming the judicial process to achieve police accountability.

“I think people are looking at alternative ways to hold officers and others accountable other than the court system,” Alex said.

Like the No Boundaries Coalition, CASA Baltimore is part of the Campaign for Justice, Safety & Jobs (CJSJ), a collective of more than 30 local community, policy, labor, faith, and civil rights groups that convened after Gray’s death. CJSJ members include groups like the local ACLU affiliate, Baltimore United for Change, and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

CJSJ leaders said the Goodson verdict underlined the critical need for “deep behavioral change” in the Baltimore Police Department’s culture. For the past year, the group has pushed heavily for citizen representation on police trial boards that review police brutality cases. Those boards make decisions about disciplining officers. For example, the city’s police commissioner might decide to discipline or fire an officer; that officer could go to the trial board to appeal the decision.

This spring, recent Baltimore City mayoral candidate and Maryland Sen. Catherine Pugh (D-Baltimore), helped pass an omnibus police accountability law, HB 1016. Part of that bill includes a change to Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR) giving local jurisdictions permission to allow voting citizens on police trial boards. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan signed the changes into law in May.

That change can only happen in Baltimore, however, if the Baltimore Fraternal Order of the Police union agrees to revise its contract with the city, according to WBAL TV. The agreement, which expired on June 30, currently does not allow citizen inclusion.

In light of the current stalled negotiations, Baltimore Bloc on July 5 demanded Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young instead introduce an amendment to the city charter to allow civilian participation on trial boards. If Young introduced the amendment before an August deadline, the question would make it onto the November ballot.

Kelly, in an interview with Rewire, cited some CJSJ members’ recent meeting with Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis as a win for Baltimore citizens. During that meeting, held on June 29, Davis outlined some of his plans for implementing change on the police force and said he supported local citizens participating on police trial boards, Kelly said.

This year, the Baltimore Police Department has also implemented a new use-of-force policy. The policy emphasizes de-escalation and accountability and is the first rewrite of the policy since 2003, according to the Sun.

The ACLU has welcomed the policy as a step in the right direction, but said the new rules need significant improvements, according to the Sun.

For example, the policy requires reporting to the department when an officer flashes or points a weapon at a suspect without shooting; the data will be reviewed by the police commissioner and other city officials. However, it doesn’t require the same from officers who use deadly force.

Notably, the policy requires officers to call a medic if a person in custody requests medical assistance or shows signs that they need professional help. Gray had requested a medic, but officers were skeptical and didn’t call for help until he became unresponsive, according to various news reports.

Rose, who recently received legal assistance from the ACLU to fight criminal charges related to his arrests last year, said citizens should continue to demand accountability and “true transparency” from law enforcement.

In the meantime, with four trials—including Rice’s case—remaining and no convictions, many are looking to see if Mosby will change her prosecution strategy in the upcoming weeks. Roya Hanna, a former Baltimore prosecutor, has suggested Mosby showed poor judgment for charging the six officers without “adequate evidence,” according to the Sun.

Meanwhile, Baltimore City’s police union has urged Mosby to drop the remaining charges against officers.

The trial of Officer Garrett E. Miller is slated to begin July 27; Officer William Porter, Sept. 6, and Sgt. Alicia D. White, Oct. 13. All officers charged pleaded not guilty.

Baltimore Bloc, citing its dissatisfaction with her performance thus far, demanded Mosby’s removal from office last month.

Kelly, who counts Baltimore Bloc among his allies, has a different outlook. Calling’s Mosby’s swift decision to charge the six officers last year  “groundbreaking,” the Baltimore activist said the ongoing police trials are justified and help give attention to police misconduct.

“She should follow through on the charges ….We need that exposure,” Kelly said. “It keeps the debate open and sparks the conversation.”