The Janus Face Feminism of Twilight

It’s hard to disregard the cultural importance of Stephenie Meyer’ vampire saga. People either love it or hate it, but nobody seems to miss it. A perfect example for successful marketing, the franchise has ascended from niche interest to global media product. This phenomenon itself is worth undergoing some discussion, as many of its original fans are now looking with contempt at a commercialisation beating even the likes of Harry Potter and High School Musical.

I would describe myself as a fan of the series, although typing this makes me cringe as if I’ve just revealed my best kept secret. I watched the film before reading the books, and remember slaying it beforehand. I was a little more satisfied walking out of the film, but it wasn’t until a few months later when I read ‘Twilight’ as preparation for university ( it really was on the syllabus I have an exam paper to prove it) that I felt the need to complete the whole series. I then became slightly obsessed with it, but recently have literally gone off it due to its overwhelming cultural presence. I wanted to get to the core of which elements in it appealed to me in the first place, but now make it a somewhat guilty pleasure. After stumbling upon an article by the Guardian http://gu.com/p/2tbx3 when researching feminism and geek culture I realized what it was: Its ambiguity in terms of feminism.

The first angle to look at is obviously the tone of the novels itself. As comments by readers of the previously mentioned Guardian article pointed out, it destabilizes previous assumptions about visual objectification. Bella’s attraction towards Edward is a central theme of the novels, and must be doing something other chick-lit lacks. It may be its focus on a teenage couple, rather than 30-somethings, which is seen as so alternative, and even unsettling for some (examples). Without a doubt, teenage literature aimed at girls always talks about boys. However, you would hardly find cases similar to the ‘Twilight-Moms’. So there must be something that appeals to both (sexually) experienced women as well as younger female readers. It seems that while it recaptures feelings of infatuation for its mature readers, younger audiences are given a sense of anticipation.

The novels are told from a first-person perspective, and readers are given a most intimate account of Bella’s feelings, who is not experienced in relationships or sexuality for that matter. The argument here is that female readers feel empowered at having the opportunity of shamelessly seeing a man as exclusively sexually attractive, without the attributes usually playing a more substantial part in female fiction.

Even in the more ‘raunchy’ examples of the genre, status representation quickly overshadows initial attraction. A male character is only sustainable with a successful job, or an alternative source of income but a moral attitude that promotes self sufficiency. His appeal is due to social rank and dominance, which become the main dynamics driving the plot, and often the man serves as the one who teaches the heroine to change her silly ways. In Twilight then, the first person narrative allows us to see that Bella actively desires Edward’s apparently ‘dangerous’ vampire qualities, which are essentially symbols for masculinity. Reading Twilight is like reading erotic fiction without the decoration. It’s being allowed to see the knight without his shining armour, as what he essentially is: A man to look at.

Or so it seems at first. Because this is where it gets complicated. Would Meyer have limited the account of their relationship to Bella in the tone of the first instalment, I believe a feminist point could have been made. However, there is Edward’s voice; and it tels a different story.

Although Bella is rather intense in her refusals to be given presents, financial support or other romantic offerings by Edward, once we get into the New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn, she has to diplomatically bargain for her emotional needs by accepting several material gifts. Female Fans praise Edward for his gentlemanly attitude but his relationship with Bella resembles a constant struggle for power. Of course, he does not want her to be a damned soul in order to be with him, but at the same time he tries to control their partnership. Meyer justifies his mind-set by making him an early 20th Century man frozen in the ways of his age. But Mr Darcy-like courting does not cushion the aftertaste of a condescending kind of oppression.

Bella herself is rather modern, agreeing to marriage only to be turned into a vampire sooner. However, we witness a very ambiguous development following her honeymoon and subsequent (and SPOILER here!) half-vampire half-human pregnancy. The option of abortion is out of the question for her, despite the foetus threatening her life. (N.B.: This not to be a discussion of abortion, but from a women’s rights view, I believe agreeing to the legal availability of abortion as an option does not neccesarrily equal agreeing to abortion).

Many elements in the series are this ambiguous and sometimes even contradictory. Take the special ‘gifts’ some vampires posses as an example. Edward’s is mind-reading, allowing him to control every situation. In comes Bella and hooray! She is the one exception; her mind cannot be read. However, she initially assumes something to be ‘wrong’ with her (Boo!). She later begins to use it to her advantage (Hooray!), but finally decides to let him in (hmm…ok). This clearly represents the element of being able to choose, which Meyer named as the feminist potential of the Twilight series.

However, it seems that Meyer (who as a Mormon offers a whole new, religious debate of her writing) is herself torn. She states that despite studying English, once her first child was born all she wanted to be was a mother. In an interview , she claims that she ‘Bella and I think completely different. I created a character that led a life I didn’t know […] I dated all the Mike Newtons and Eric Yorkies in my life. I never did, even see an Edward. That was all part of this fantasy that I got to live for 3 months.’

Clearly she is just as much in love with the story and its out-of-the-ordinary quality as her readers. Whereas this represents what she feels, what she does think becomes a more separate part of the story, and as Bella is so different, is being told through Edward. Her traditional views concerning marriage, motherhood and the family are all expressed through the metaphor of the vampire clan. Despite her pushing the apparent choices Bella has, Meyer introduces an accidental pregnancy which becomes the central element of the climactic Breaking Dawn. Bella is given the gift( or is it the task?) of literally ‘shielding’ her family and while on an emotional level completely justifiable, in terms of women’s position limits her to the role of a mother and wife and destroys the illusions of freedom of choice. The transformation into a vampire empowers Bella, she becomes a supernatural woman, but with it comes the adherence to the lifestyle of the very traditional Cullens.

As a reader, I am facing the same dilemma. There is the emotional level, on which we simply read a story enjoyable for its difference in how to view men, and the rational level, on which we need to be aware that as we delve further into the story, Meyer is expressing her belief system. There are many more radical views on Twilight which have reason to exist, but I still remain a fan of the story, if not of Meyer herself. As long as I recognize that life with Edward would be quite complicated and reactionary, I guess I can read the books and watch the films with the pleasure of temporarily objectifying him/Robert Pattinson.The problem is that the target audience is now that of teenage girls, who may not be able to distinguish.