Monday, 16 April 2012

The Trouble With Twilight?

I've heard a lot of people groan and complain about the feminist aspects of the Twilight Saga but honestly, the first time I read them I was too caught up in the plot to pay much attention to the sexism. After the furore surrounding 50 Shades of Grey, a story inspired by Twilight by Stephanie Meyer, I decided to go back and read the Twilight Saga to see what exactly inspired a story about a sado-masochistic relationship. It didn't sound anything like the Twilight I remembered.

I'm only going to comment on this from a feminists perspective, I'll leave the quality of the writing and the Mary-Sue aspects to people more qualified to comment.

So, let me start by saying that as a feminist, on the whole, the books don't offend me or my feminist ideals, though there are a few gripes.

I'll start with the biggest, Bella going to pieces when Edward leaves her in New Moon. I'm not saying women don't go to pieces, I have a friend whose sister, a high-powered executive, was hospitalised for depression when her husband left her. So it does happen, some people do fall apart when they're left. In this book, even Edward is portrayed as being a broken man after leaving Bella, so I cant even argue that this is a sexist representation of women.

What I can say, is that I hate weak people and especially weak women. I guess because it plays into the old stereotype of women being submissive and powerless.

Heartbreak is something that touches us all. Even if we are lucky enough to stay with our first love, we will lose someone, probably multiple someone's. Feeling pain at that loss is natural, but to surrender to it is unforgivable. The whole of life is a fight and in the grand scheme of things, thousands of people have things a lot worse, have lost a lot more, have real reasons to give in, but they keep fighting.

The only way to get over a man is to find another man, doncha know
To see the heroine in any novel, wallowing in self-pity is a very bad image of womanhood and not something I want to find in a YA novel.

To then have her "rescued" my another man, Jacob, is just another form of that old trope, that a woman is nothing without a man.

Why couldn't Bella cut herself off from her emotions and become cold and hard (I think that's more in keeping with her martyred character)? Why couldn't she spite Edward, move somewhere sunny and become promiscuous, or at least date a lot and indiscriminately. Why couldn't she channel her energy into work and school, even if she forgets to live at the same time?

None of these are ideal ways to deal with pain and loss, of course, but each is better than simply giving up and they also have dramatic possibilities.
Edward trying to kill himself

Which leads us onto Edward and Bella's all consuming love. They would each literally die for each other, which is fine, but they would both also kill themselves if the other dies, which is not fine. Edward also watches Bella sleep without her knowledge, and while acknowledging that this is creepy, neither has a problem with it.

Having said all that, isn't first love like that for most people? Well, maybe not quite like that, but certainly very intense. The first time you fall in love, before you're wary for all the pain and pitfalls that are inherent in a relationship, that first infatuation is mind blowing in it's intensity. I remember that my first boyfriend and I spent every moment we could together. It didn't matter what we did, we just had to do it together. I took up his hobbies. He took higher education courses and got a better job so that he might better fit in with my family.

I cant imagine ever rearranging my life for someone now, but I was 16 then, young and innocent. The thought of waking up into that life now fills me with horror, but had we stayed together, continued to grow together, who knows what I would have been satisfied with now?

Then, of course, Edward and Bella's all consuming love means that they forgive each other instantly for all wrongs. Sadly, I remember being willing to forgive almost anything and the few things I was unsure about, I was unsure enough to be talked around on. What can I say? I was young and innocent. He also forgave me some horrible things too, so it wasn't only me. I should say though, that neither of us had ever killed anyone and learning that my beloved had been on a murder spree, even if it was 70 years ago, might have given me pause. I certainly hope so.

Next comes Edward's dominance over Bella. Yes, he is bloody bossy, he does try to order Bella around and he is over protective. This is worrying because many jealous and possessive people show similar character traits, though they don't have Edward self sacrificing side and won't leave their partners the minute they are asked to. They will hold tighter and tighter, smothering their partner and the relationship. 

We knew he'd give in eventually
With Edward though, his fears are not based on his own insecurities but genuine dangers she faces. The werewolves Bella wants to hang out with are dangerous, Bella knows it but much like her blind faith in Edward, she has a similar blind faith in Jacob not to hurt her.

However, Edward can be reasoned with, though seemingly he has to be hit over the head with a metaphorical crow bar, repeatedly. Crucially, Bella keeps fighting him when he puts his foot down incorrectly. Sometimes she has to use a crow bar but eventually she beats him into submission, and he is never angry that he has lost or that she has defied him. Well, he's never angry with her.  

He does also set the relationship boundaries and withhold sex, afraid of hurting Bella, but then this is an argument that I have heard three different incarnations of Superman alone give, for reasons not to be intimate with Lois or Lana. Superheroes (and vampires) don't break; squishy humans do. That's something I've heard too many time before to be bothered by. We all know that the superhero will give in eventually and somehow manage not to squish the human.

Edward does bruise her, it's true, but that was never his intent and in true invincible, super-strong superhero vampire fashion, he feels awful about it. Maybe people who haven't grown up on superheroes feel shocked that he could hurt her and even more so that she is the one reassuring him that it's okay, however unintentionally. But hasn't anyone you know ever hurt you unintentionally? An elbow to the eye as they turn, knocked over (or squished) as someone else tripped, a tennis racquet or ball to the face? And yes, if they do feel guilty I try to reassure them, because they didn't intend to hurt me. That's what matters, intent. We all know that Edward would rather die than intentionally hurt Bella.

Most importantly, when Bella is finally turned into a vampire, Edwards possessiveness disappears overnight. Now that she is unbreakable, he doesn't try to put any limitations on her, so we know that his control freakery is truly born out of fear for her, not for himself and losing her.

Vampire Bella, Edwards equal (at last!)
Of course it's not always easy for young people to make this distinction.

Something I did notice in book one also, is the way Edward insults Bella. Not massive insults but constant and personal. For example, he says, "You are absurd," when "Don't be absurd" or "That's absurd" would make the same point without insulting her as a person. He also calls her an idiot and silly with alarming frequency.

This doesn't seem to be an issue in future books and when Edward does use words like silly, idiotic or absurd, he doesn't insult her directly but only her actions or words. I wonder if someone told Stephanie Meyer how demeaning it was to constantly have her heroine being undermined in that way?

The queen represents Bella, the strongest piece
Another contentious issue seems to be pre-marital sex, but to be perfectly honest, I have no issues with any part of that storyline. In a reversal of stereotypes, Edward is the one pushing for marriage while Bella pushes for commitment-free sex.

As I see it, there is no overt religious agenda being pushed here, simply old fashioned, Edwardian morals. Surprise, Edward was born in the Edwardian era, it's in keeping with the morals he was raised with, even if it is out of character in the twenty first century.

A very closely related issue is that Bella refuses to have an abortion when she becomes pregnant.

I'm pro-choice but I don't have a problem with that. Why? Because I'm pro-choice. I don't want anyone to be pressured, either into or out of having an abortion. It's a decision every woman has to make for herself and if a woman chooses to go through with a risky pregnancy, that's her right, just as much as it's her right to choose to abort her unborn child.

It's wonderful when fiction is a beacon for progress, with any 'ism', not just sexism but I don't expect that from my fiction. All I ask is that fiction, be it film, TV or book, be current. If I want to read about women as possessions, who's only goal in life was to make a good marriage, I'll read a Georgian novel, though even then, I only enjoy those books with strong women, even if they aren't my image of what a woman should be.

All in all, my feminist can find no real harm in these books. Feminism wasn't about making all women go out to work, or deciding anything about their lives for them. It was all about giving women the freedom to choose. So our heroine in this novel makes a few choices that perhaps I wouldn't and that perhaps don't set a great precedent to teenagers, but in all honesty, today's teenagers receive much more damaging messages before they go to school. What's the last Disney, hell any kids movie, that had a heroine with a plot more extensive than overcoming the obstacles between her and prince Charming (in his various forms) then living happily ever after? If there's any more daring plot to a children's film, be it about humans, animals or stuffed toys, those roles routinely go to male characters.

I'm far more worried about the damage those signals do to our children, than I am the harm that one book series has on them. Yes, these books are huge, but they aren't the only thing in anyone's life and overall, they are insignificant.

When I was 12, I was obsessed with Joey from New Kids, and I mean obsessed. Did I adopt his views as my own? No. Next came Wesley Crusher, A.K.A. Wil Wheton (hey, I was 14!) but I can honestly say that Star Trek TNG nor Wesley/Wil had any great influence on my world views. That kind of stuff was down to my parents.

What Wil Wheaton did do though, was make my dyslexic-self  obsessed enough to read the shows tie-in novels, to which I still owe my love of reading. Call them trash if you want, I prefer to call them gateway novels. They took what had been a trauma for me and made me want to read and that, inevitably, lead on to the harder stuff!

Even if young girls are becoming obsessed with these books and Edward, I don't think he or they can single handily warp their psyche. If Twilight, for all it's flaws, makes teens (or adults) want to read, especially if that hasn't been a big part of their lives before, I can't help but feel that it's a good thing, and far out weighs any bad.

Given the dynamic of Edward and Bella's relationship as I understand it (two martyrs who would rather die than hurt each other) I fail to see exactly how 50 Shades of Grey could ever be an homage to this series as fanfic but alas, perhaps there are some who wish that Edward had continued to try and dominate Bella even after she became a vampire, and I think that says an awful lot more about their experiences prior to reading Twilight, than it does about the Twilight Saga itself.


  1. I had read (have only read, I concede) the first 2 Twilight novels before reading the 50 Shades series, and I didn't recognize that 50 Shades was a fanfic of Twilight, fwiw, until I read it in The Guardian.

    I read the first Twilight novel because I try at least a little to keep up with current cultural references -- makes it easier to communicate with my students. I read the second one because the first one ended with a good cliffhanger, which is something that I admit I find irresistible as a reader. After that I couldn't make myself continue.

    Most of my problems with the series relate to the character of Bella. I assume I experience such dislike for her because she personifies an attitude that I have a hard time dealing with in real people, but I also think I have that attitude because the YA literature I read as a teen in the 1970s and 80s would typically not have legitimated it. Yes, we read a lot of stupid crap then, too, but most of the stuff I read tended to emphasize women taking action to solve their problems or at least responding actively to their environments. Bella's passivity really, really, really bothers me. I know now from talking to my colleague that the thing that drives a lot of people in reading these books is the theme of eternal love despite all obstacles, but the idea that that should justify such motionless on the part of the heroine that readers are meant to identify with just bugs the heck out of me.

    1. I call it weak, you call it passive but I think we're upset at the same thing. Thankfully, Bella's passivity doesn't come into play in books 3 and 4.

      Had book 2 not finished with her forcing Edwards hand with regards to turning her, I might not have read on either. At least she showed some backbone again.