an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 10, January 2013, ISSN 1552-5112
The Anti-Feminist Character of Bella Swan,
or Why the Twilight Saga is Regressive
One of the biggest literary phenomena in recent years, each novel in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga has gained international best seller status in its own right. Stripped from Meyer’s additions of magic and the supernatural, the four books in the series quite simply detail an old fashioned, traditional romance narrative- Bella Swan and Edward Cullen fall in love, marry, have a child and live happily ever after. The series was written by a woman, from the perspective of a first person, female protagonist. However, despite these deceptive advantages, the central character of Bella Swan is overwhelmingly regressive in regards to feminist ideology.
There has been much debate surrounding the Twilight saga, in particular the character of Bella Swan, her personality traits, and whether she is a good role model to the thousands of young women who declare themselves devotees of the series. Many literary reviews of the series label Bella Swan a heroine. By definition, a heroine performs heroic acts- and consistently so. A heroine is noted, and celebrated, for her courage and daring actions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a heroine as ‘a woman distinguished by exalted courage, fortitude, or noble achievements’. Bella Swan exhibits none of these qualities. On the contrary, Stephenie Meyer’s protagonist displays very little courage, demonstrates very little fortitude, and is constant in need of reassurance or protection from the dominant male figures in her life. Bella Swan spends the majority of the Twilight saga standing precariously on the side-lines of the action, in full faith that men will fight her battles for her. Throughout the Twilight saga, she is constantly described as fragile and breakable, her victimhood consequently exploited and fetishized. Much of the physical interaction between Bella and her male counterparts reveals a loss of control- or rather, a willing relinquishment. She is often pulled, dragged and restrained by her love interests Jacob Black and Edward Cullen, with these adjectives betraying the physical manifestations of her willing oppression that leak into the fibre of the text.
A series written for teens, the books almost parody teenage angst in order to illustrate an argument, ‘It wasn’t just physically that I’d never fit in. And if I couldn’t find a niche in a school with three thousand people, what were my chances here? I didn’t relate well to people my age. Maybe the truth was that I didn’t relate well to people, period’ (Twilight 9). It is a recognisable theme in teenage literature- an outcast, unpopular protagonist, at odds with the world around her. But in Bella Swan, Stephenie Meyer has created a character that openly wallows in self-pity and self-loathing, mourning her own irreversible flaws. From the very first book, the Twilight saga has the potential to illustrate Bella’s bildungsroman style overcoming of her shortcomings, but instead, thanks to a restrictive romantic narrative that envelops the entire character, Bella simply isn’t allowed to develop. She remains a passive, stagnant, character who, every so often, momentarily jerks into life- but only when it is required of her by her male counterparts. Bella flounders helplessly, absorbing blame that isn’t hers to claim, until a male character makes a decision that she dutifully follows. Meyer’s unabashed patriarchal ideals openly betray themselves in the text.
With a subplot of an additional love interest
(Jacob Black) the Twilight saga
manages to reinforce notions of women as possessions belonging to the
patriarch, to be protected and consequently handed over in marriage, not unlike
goods. In New Moon, the second book in the series, the Cullen family leave
the town of
‘Even more, I had never meant to love him… But I needed Jacob now, needed him like a drug. I’d used him as a crutch for too long, and was in deeper than I’d planned to go with anyone again’ (New Moon, 192).
Bella Swan is a victim, a character that is in a constant state of suffering and pain. In the saga this pain alternates between the emotional and the physical. As Jacob Black, Bella’s forbidden love interest, accurately defines in Eclipse, Edward Cullen is Bella’s drug- an addiction that eases her pain. Bella falls into a catatonic state of depression when Edward leaves her and she does not recover until another strong male figure enters her life. Meyer uses the physical, hard copy of the text to illustrate the blank despair Bella experiences. Meyer’s intent seems to have strived to take the notion of first person protagonist to an emotional extreme.
It’s no coincidence that Bella seems in a state of complete unease with herself unless she has a love interest to handle her. Charlie, Bella Swan’s father, lives in fear that his chaste, virgin daughter will eventually find a boyfriend , ‘I sympathised with him. It must be a hard thing, to be a father; living in fear that your daughter would meet a boy she liked, but also having to worry if she didn’t’ (Twilight 199). Bella’s first person narration reveals the fear behind the fear: that she will not be claimed by another man and consequently ever fulfill her dutiful destiny as homemaker, mother, and wife.
As Bella is passed from care of man to man, she becomes acutely aware of this fact. Halfway through Eclipse, she notes that ‘…Edward insisted again on delivering me to the border line like a child being exchanged by custodial guardians’ (282). This is a patriarchal theme that is instrumental to the narrative, and Bella, a teenager on the cusp of womanhood, is constantly infantilised by the men around her.
Underneath the hyperbole, Twilight is an idealised love story. Stephenie Meyer’s brand of love is one that renders women incapable of looking after themselves, in constant need of restraint, control and protection, and ultimately stripped of their autonomy. It is a brand of love that requires a woman to renounce her former life and assimilate herself into her husband’s world. In Bella Swan’s case, her transformation into a vampire by the fourth book in the saga (Breaking Dawn) requires her to shed every aspect of her human self into order to live with the Cullen family forever. The fact that Bella Swan’s vampire romance is preceded with relocation to a new town, inevitable weak friendship ties, and a fragmented family life, leaves her vulnerable, and ripe for the picking. When she inevitably becomes fixated with Edward Cullen, she doesn’t have much to lose. This is not a love that renders both participants equal.
Bella Swan spends her time outside her obsession with Edward Cullen cooking for her father, doing homework and household chores. Her ability to submit to the will of others around her is astonishing. Stephenie Meyer has placed her protagonist firmly in the kitchen. A significant proportion of the series idolises Bella as the perfect woman child – fragile, frail and weak, in need of constant watch and protection. Meyer has spoken out against the criticism herself, claiming that the character of Bella is far from misogynistic. On her official website, she states ‘I am all about girl power… I am not anti-female, I am anti-human. ’.It is true that Bella Swan makes a small number of choices, but the only autonomous, decided choices that Bella makes for herself is what her father, Charlie, is having for dinner on any particular evening:
‘Last night I discovered that Charlie couldn’t cook much besides fried eggs and bacon. So I requested that I be assigned kitchen detail for the rest of my stay. He was willing enough to hand over the keys to the banquet hall. I also found out that he had no food in the house. So I had my shopping list and the cash from the jar labeled FOOD MONEY, and I was on my way to the Thriftaway’ (Twilight 27).
Whilst Bella’s culinary choices seem insignificant on the surface, her most proactive decisions in the Twilight saga involve her father’s dinner. Bella’s life choices are already decided for her. Her ultimate decision, to become a vampire, is less proactive, and more of the surrender of a woman in love.
From the very start of the Twilight saga, Meyer cements her protagonist’s accident prone nature. This is, in fact, a carefully considered flaw that conveniently finds Bella in a number of undesirable situations that Edward inevitably has to save her from. Some argue that Meyer paints Bella in such a way to illustrate the fallibility of humanity, but it’s worth considering Bella’s frail nature as a statement of the perceived fallibility of women. The definitive and staggeringly entrenched inequalities in Bella and Edward’s relationship prove this- Edward does not treat Bella as an equal, she understands this and gladly accepts it. Bella does not challenge regressive gender roles, she actively embraces them. This character is not progressive by any means.
Conflations of Lust and Bloodlust
‘They have a name for someone who smells the way Bella does to me. They call her my singer—because her blood sings for me’ (New Moon 490).
Edward Cullen is not only in love with Bella, he is also obsessed by the thought of biting her and consequently draining her of her blood. This narrative requires a careful juxtaposition of sex, violence and death that teeters between the unacceptable and the desirable, and perilously weighs in on the side of romantic desire. Once she learns of Edward’s hunger for her blood, Bella courts Edward’s vampiric bite instead of running scared. Her reasoning for his potentially deathly touch is somewhat predictable: ‘It was only fear for my soul, for the human things he didn’t want to take from me, that made him so desperate to leave me mortal. Compared to the fear that he didn’t want me, this hurdle- my soul- seemed almost insignificant’ (New Moon 446). Bella’s logic comprehends that by sacrificing her human life and becoming a fully-fledged vampire, she can spend the rest of eternity with Edward. She is very aware of the fact that she smells tantalising to Edward, and throughout the first book he is overwhelmed by his vampiric desire to bite her.
In Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula, Christopher Frayling notes that ‘Novalis, the German Romantic poet, thought that “perhaps sexual desire is only the frustrated desire to eat human flesh” (“woman”, he added chauvinistically, “is certainly the best nourishment”)’ (387). This is a theme that acts as the lifeblood of the Twilight saga, and one that this essay will explore in depth using Carol J. Adam’s feminist-vegetarian critical theory, The Sexual Politics of Meat. Published in 1990, the book discusses the similarities between patriarchal ideals of women, in comparison to animal flesh and meat, proposing a ‘cycle of objectification, fragmentation and consumption’. She maintains that:
Objectification permits an oppressor to view another being as an object. The oppressor then violates this being by object-like treatment: e.g. the rape of women that denies women to say no, or the butchering of animals that converts animals from living and breathing beings into dead objects. This process allows fragmentation, or brutal dismemberment, and finally consumption…. Consumption is the fulfillment of oppression, the annihilation of will, of separate identity…. Finally, consumed, it exists through what it represents (58).
The vampiric, monstrous content of the Twilight saga fully supports
It is reasonable, then, to apply
Carol J. Adams continues: ‘What connects
being a receptacle and being a piece of meat, being entered and being eaten?
After all, being raped/violated/entered does not approximate being eaten. So
why then does it feel that way? Or rather, why is it so easily described as
feeling like that way? Because, if you are a piece of meat, you are subject to
a knife, to implemental violence’ (46). Drawing
Written in 1886, Richard Von Kraft-Ebing’s Pyschopathia Sexualis concentrated on sexual desire disorders. For the most part, his work was generally homophobic and misogynistic, but he did draw insightful conclusions on the restraints of the performances of gender roles at the time. Of course, Kraft-Ebing didn’t see these performances as roles; rather Pyschopathia Sexualis regards men as innately active, and women as innately passive. In this extract, Kraft-Ebing details the stark connotations that can be drawn between lustful desire and anger:
Through such cases of infliction and pain during the most intense emotion of lust, we approach the cases in which a real injury, wound, or death in inflicted on the victim. In these cases, the impulse to cruelty which may accompany the emotion of lust, becomes unbounded in a psychopathic individual [...] In the intercourse of the sexes, the active or aggressive role belongs to the man; woman remains passive, defensive. It affords man great pleasure to win a woman, to conquer her, and in the ars amandi, the modesty of woman, who keeps herself on the defensive until the moment of surrender, is an element of great psychological significance and importance (56).
Whilst Bella Swan is arguably active in terms of sexual advances throughout the Twilight saga, there is plenty of evidence in the text to suggest that the crux of Edward Cullen’s desire towards her is innately cruel. Kraft-Ebing refers to violent, lustful men as ‘monstrous’ and the Twilight saga centres around the apparent humanity of mythical monsters. In fact, much of Edward and Bella’s discourse in Twilight is littered with thinly veiled threats alluding to Bella Swan’s death:
“That wasn’t the first time,” He said, and his voice was hard to hear. I stared at him in amazement, but he was looking down. “Your number was up the first time I met you” (Twilight 152).
Again, Meyer draws on themes of sex and violence to portray a dangerous brand of love between the two main characters.
It’s worth noting that both a loss of virginity and a vampire bite have inextricably linked connotations. Both can only happen once. A vampire bite is a metaphor for sex- or more specifically, a metaphor for the loss of female virginity. This issue is explored in Eclipse, the third book in the series. When pondering her eventual vampire transformation, the first person narrative delves into Bella’s deepest desires:
‘I wanted Edward to be the one…It was childish, but I liked the idea that his lips would be the last thing I feel. Even more embarrassingly, something I would never say aloud, I wanted his venom to poison my system. It would make me belong to him in a quantifiable, tangible way’ (Eclipse 288).
With this loaded metaphor in place the idea of Bella pining for Edward to bite her and have his venom spread through her body takes on a whole new meaning. It’s no coincidence that Bella Swan is a virgin for the majority of the book. Edward refuses to bite Bella until after they marry, just as he refuses to have sex with her until their honeymoon. The acts of both a vampire bite and a loss of female virginity invoke connotations of hunter and prey. Both involve an exchange of bodily fluids. Both involve penetration- whether it’s a penis entering a vagina or sharp white vampire teeth piercing human skin. After penetration, a woman is changed forever. The vampiric monster metaphor inadvertently reveals medieval misogynistic attitudes towards women, sex and virginity. In the dominant patriarchal narrative, there’s a notion of a woman soiled or changed after she loses her virginity- the monstrous metaphor of the insatiable, vengeful female vampire, lusting after blood and seducing unsuspecting human men proves this.
Furthermore, this marriage of venom and semen invokes imagery of colonization- imagery encouraged by Bella’s comment that only being injected with Edward’s venom would allow her to belong to him. Not only does the predator/prey dichotomy apply here, but also age-old notions of man as conqueror and woman as conquered land. Indeed, Bella Swan yearns for this colonisation.
In her feminist critical theory text The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir writes ‘we have seen that instead of integrating the powerful drives of the species into her life, the female is the prey of the species, the interests of which are disassociated from the female’s interests as an individual’ (393). This can be applied directly to the Twilight saga. Throughout the text, Edward consistently makes reference to the fact that Bella smells delicious. Put bluntly, he wants to eat her. She struggles with self-esteem issues in the first book, but she also entertains suicidal thoughts. This dangerous aspect of their teenage love is fully recognised by both Edward and Bella, but, despite some hesitation at the beginning of the first book, it doesn’t deter them from pursuing their romance. ‘“Yes,” he agreed slowly. “That is something to be afraid of, indeed. Wanting to be with me. That’s really not in your best interest” (Twilight 233). Edward wants to consume Bella, in more than one sense of the word. Edward’s vampiric form and Bella’s human form takes the man-hunter, woman-prey metaphor to a literal perspective. Bella is both food and lover to Edward. She recognises this, accepts it, and doesn’t object to it:
‘About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him- and I didn’t know how potent that part might be- that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him’ (Twilight, 171).
In The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir explores the social mentality of the woman in love, noting:
She chooses to desire her enslavement so ardently that it will seem to her the expression of her liberty; she will try to rise above her situation as an inessential object by fully accepting it; through her flesh, her feelings, her behaviour, she will enthrone him as supreme value and reality: she will humble herself to nothingness before him. Love to her becomes a religion. (653)
This is certainly true of Bella Swan. She is wholly undeterred by Edward Cullen’s desire to feed upon her blood. And it isn’t just Bella that recognises this:
‘“You and Cullen, huh?” he [Mike Newton] asked, his tone rebellious. My previous feeling of affection disappeared.
“That’s none of your business, Mike,” I warned, internally cursing Jessica to the fiery pits of Hades.
“I don’t like it,” he muttered anyway.
“You don’t have to,” I snapped.
“He looks at you like… like you’re something to eat,” he continued, ignoring me’ (Twilight 194).
Meyer eagerly intertwines the notions of sexual lust and bloodlust. The Twilight saga’s narrative actively encourages the regressive ideology of women as prey and men as predators, painting the notion in a dreamy haze of desire, as well as romanticising the possible violent consequences. Meyers ‘good’ vampires are described as vegetarians because they feed on animals instead of humans. They hunt. They stalk and pinpoint prey. And then, they feed.
Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex also encompasses this school of thought. Framing men as predators and women as prey renders woman the ever passive object:
For a man, the transition from childish sexuality to maturity is relatively simple: erotic pleasure is objectified, desire being directed towards another person instead of being realised within the bounds of self. Erection is the expression of this need; with penis, hands, mouth, with his whole body, a man reaches out towards his partner, but he himself remains at the centre of this activity, being, on the whole, the subject as opposed to objects that he perceives and instruments that he manipulates; he projects himself towards the other without losing his independence, the feminine flesh for him is a prey, and through it he gains access to the qualities he desires, as with any other object. (393)
Stephenie Meyer could not make the intersection of both blood and bloodlust any more obvious than when Edward Cullen utters: ‘I’m the world’s most dangerous predator. Everything about me invites you in. My voice, my face, even my smell. As if I would need any of that…. As if you could outrun me! As if you could fight me off’ (Twilight 231).
Poignantly, it’s this romanticised glorification of Edward Cullen’s monstrous nature throughout the saga that leaves the notions of both sex and death balancing on a knife edge. The books unwittingly court the taboo, and when Bella admits that Edward had ‘never been less human… or more beautiful’ (232) after witnessing him preparing himself for a kill and threatening her life, it is worth calling in to question the saga’s concepts of masculinity and its consequential effect on the text.
In 2008, Stephenie Meyer revealed to fans of the Twilight series that a manuscript of the saga from Edward Cullen’s perspective, to be named Midnight Sun had been leaked online. As a result, she halted writing, as well as its release. Excerpts of the manuscript can still be found on the internet, and one quote stands out in particular (emphasis added):
‘Her scent hit me like a wrecking ball, like a battering ram. There was no image violent enough to encapsulate the force of what happened to me in that moment. In that instant, I was nothing close to the human I’d once been; no trace of the shreds of humanity I’d managed to cloak myself in remained. I was a predator. She was my prey. There was nothing else in the whole world but that truth.’
Regressive Gender Roles and the Supernatural
‘As the primary state of erotic experience in Dracula, this mouth equivocates, giving lie to the easy separation of the masculine and feminine. Luring at first with an inviting orifice, a promise of red softness, but delivering instead a piercing bone, the vampire mouth fuses and confuses … the gender based categories of the penetrating and the receptive, or, to use Van Helsing’s language, the complementary categories of ‘brave men’ and ‘good women’. With its soft flesh barred by hard bone, its red crossed by white, this mouth compels opposites and contrasts into a frightening unity, and asks some disturbing questions. Are we male or female? Do we have penetrators or orifices? And, if both, what does that mean? […] Furthermore this mouth, bespeaking subversion of the stable and lucid distinctions of gender, is the mouth of all vampires, male and female’ (Christopher Craft, Gender and Inversion in Dracula 447).
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is perhaps the archetypal vampire novel. Rightly or wrongly, in writing about vampires, Stoker used the opportunity to explore gender roles in Victorian society. However, Stoker’s female vampires were overtly sexual, infused by the possible power of penetration, and drunk on bloodlust. Stoker’s writings revealed an inherent fear of female sexuality in Dracula’s social and historical context. It is unclear whether Stephenie Meyer took Dracula’s literary criticism into account whilst she was writing the Twilight saga. What is clear is exactly how the series chooses not to concern itself with the challenging of gender roles. Christopher Craft’s literary analysis of Dracula can also be applied successfully to the Twilight saga. But there is no confusion of gender in Stephenie Meyer’s vampiric universe. She anchors her human beings into the role of female, and her vampires into the role of male.
Indeed, it is worth
noting the character of Victoria- the only actively hunting vampire throughout
the entire Twilight series. She is
vengeful and bitter because Edward killed her life partner to protect Bella.
In the Twilight saga, human beings are weak, inferior, breakable and in need of protection. Bella Swan’s simpering tendencies can easily be dismissed by Twilight fans as an important requirement- she is human whilst most of her counterparts are vampires. But, taking Carol J Adams’ critical theory into account, there’s a case to be made that suggests Meyer’s constructed gender roles go further than biological sex, depicting weak, fallible humans as female, and strong, indestructible vampires as male: ‘It was against the rules for normal people — human people like me and Charlie — to know about the clandestine world full of myths and monsters that existed secretly around us. I knew all about that world — and I was in no small amount of trouble as a result’ (Eclipse 13)
Bella’s comparisons between the human world and the world of monsters wouldn’t seem out of place half a century ago in discourse between house-bound women, discussing the active world of men and career. Her constant disparaging remarks about herself throughout the narrative often allow Edward Cullen’s abusive behaviour. Because she is human and he is a vampire, he is excused. She convinces both herself and the reader that she needs protecting; their difference is biological and the inequality between Bella and Edward should not be questioned.
There isn’t much difference between Bella’s worldview and that of a woman adapting coping mechanisms in male dominated environment. In Key Writings, theorist Luce Irigaray wrote about the sexual and social difference between men and women, noting that ‘as long as women have no civil identity of their own, it is to be expected, unfortunately, they will conform to the only existing models, supposedly neutral, but in fact male.’ (208) These male norms permeate into every day discourse resulting in consequential sexism. Edward Cullen’s sexism in the saga is very much benevolent, but by striving to protect Bella, he infantilises her. The fact that she is human and he is vampire renders her entirely subordinate. It is worth arguing that although these facts on the surface seem a necessary factor of the plot, the fact that Bella is subordinate from the very first page of the Twilight saga reveals swathes about relations between the genders in the books. Bella reassures herself she deserves to be patronised, she deserves to be restrained, she needs to be protected, and it is all for her own good.
It could be argued that Edward Cullen’s strongly desired consumption of Bella is eventually complete upon marriage. Even the words ‘consume’ and ‘consummation’ are undeniably similar in etymology. On women and the religious institution of marriage, Simone de Beauvoir comments: ‘She takes his name; she belongs to his religion, his class, his circle; she joins his family, she becomes his ‘half’. She follows wherever his work calls him and determines their place of residence breaks more or less decisively with her past, becoming attached to her husband’s universe; she gives him her person, virginity and a rigorous fidelity being required‘(The Second Sex 449). Bella does all of this and more, changing her genetic state from human to vampire so that she can belong to Edward Cullen forever.
Christopher Craft deftly argues the case for Bram Stoker’s Dracula manifesting an inherent fear of female sexuality, illustrated by gender conversion and monstrous female vampires using their penetration skills to the highest advantage. Whilst these gender roles are indeed a social construct, Stephenie Meyer’s main female vampires (Alice, Rosalie, Esme, and eventually Bella) are steeped in chastity, the role of the maternal, and blessed with dogged self-restraint. They are Meyer’s ‘good women’. These are the women gifted with the power of male penetration who conscientiously choose not to use it- who actively choose to deny themselves the satisfaction. Bella Swan’s traditionalist, virginal, chaste personality traits follow her into to vampire hood, and could not be more obvious when, once she achieves her vampiric state, it emerges that her enhanced, special power is an incredible self-restraint.
Taking the vampire bite as a metaphor for sexual initiation to its logical conclusion, it’s interesting to note how the protagonist’s sexuality is consistently regulated throughout the Twilight saga. Bella’s desire around Edward is consistently stunted sharply- she is frequently gripped by adolescent sexual desire, and Edward does not allow her to achieve her goals. As the saga explores restrained female sexual desire, it is hardly surprising that Meyer does not dare to touch upon the taboo subject of female masturbation. Similarly, Bella’s super power of self-control is a convenient one when taken into context of the virgin/whore dichotomy.
Compared to Bram Stoker’s overtly sexual female vampires, Bella Swan is a stereotypical ‘good woman’. In fact, Meyer’s texts adhere specifically to Dracula’s condemnation of female sexuality, and this is apparent in the demonization of the only consistent, female vampire who chooses to actively satisfy her thirst for blood- the flame haired Victoria: ‘…if woman is depicted as the Praying Mantis, the Mandrake, the Demon, then it is most confusing to find on woman also the Muse, the Goddess Mother, Beatrice.’ (The Second Sex 284)
It’s worth drawing
parallels between the characters of
In Eclipse, Bella Swan and her female
avenger, Victoria, are brought head to head in a good woman versus bad woman
stand-off. Bella Swan is the Twilight saga’s
good woman because of all the reasons listed above. But the vengeful
As with Stoker’s
‘She could not keep her eyes from my face any more than I could keep mine from hers. Tension rolled off of her, the all consuming passion that held her in its grip. Almost as if I could hear her thoughts too, I knew what she was thinking. She was so close to what she wanted- the focus of her whole existence for more than a year now was just so close’ (Eclipse 481).
The sexual undertone
of the extract is undeniable, and it is possible to draw comparisons between
both Edward and
The idea of Bella Swan as deserving of the perfect man inevitably stereotypes her as the perfect woman- and with this category comes behavioural traits. The perfect, patriarchal woman is obedient, cooks, cleans- and most importantly in the context of the Twilight saga- is protected. What could be more instrumental in the fortification of Edward Cullen as perfect man than to frame Bella Swan as a character that is constant need of protection? The fetishisation of Bella Swan’s victimhood allows Edward Cullen to display his protective, patriarchal masculinity to its ideological extent. Bella’s consistent weakness in turn illustrates Edward’s strength- ‘If I had to, I could purposefully put myself in danger to keep him close… I banished that thought before his quick eyes read it on my face. That idea would definitely get me in trouble’ (Twilight, 185).
Bella Swan is more than aware of this, and in New Moon, she manipulates this fact, putting herself in danger and risking her life- emphasising her apparent weaknesses so that Edward Cullen can in turn demonstrate his strengths. She throws herself off cliff tops and rides dangerous motorbikes in the hope of crashing, for no other purpose than to hear Edward Cullen’s voice in her head. This self-destructive nature is not frowned upon throughout New Moon- rather, Bella’s repeated attempts at self-harm are portrayed as symptoms of a deep, arresting love. But who encourages this fetishisation? Is it Bella, who repeatedly makes reference to her accident prone nature, or Edward Cullen, who warns Bella away from harm at every opportunity, leaves her notes in her car warning her to ‘be safe’ (218), and utters sentences like this one:
‘I was wrong about you on one other thing, as well. You’re not a magnet for accidents- that’s not a broad enough classification. You are a magnet for trouble. If there is anything dangerous within a ten mile radius, it will invariably find you’ (Twilight 151).
Bella Swan’s supposed accident prone nature is more than just a quirk- it is central to the Twilight saga’s plot, as well as central to the reinforcement of Edward Cullen’s masculinity. In it are gender binaries that dictate the ideology that a man can only be strong if a woman is weak, that a man can only be rational if a woman is hysterical, and so on. As Bella’s female weakness is consistently celebrated and fetishized throughout the saga, it reaches its natural pinnacle by Breaking Dawn, in which Bella strongly desires her own self-sacrifice for the benefit of those around her. Altruism is the core personality trait of the weak female- epitomised by her compulsive needs to facilitate her surroundings for those around her. In The Second Sex, De Beauvoir wrote ‘To identify woman with altruism is to guarantee to man absolute rights in her devotion, it is to impose on women a categorical imperative.’ (284). No statement could be more apt in describing the character of Bella Swan. Her existence is always defined by the men around her- whether it’s Charlie’s chef and daughter, Jacob’s friend and infatuation, or Edward’s lover and muse. But the most poignant aspect of Bella Swan’s entrenched gender-based altruism has to be during her pregnancy in Breaking Dawn, in which twenty-first century pro-life and pro-choice debates regarding abortion permeate the narrative. The abortion debate centralises on the idea of a woman’s autonomy, the argument regarding the sanctity of life, and the conception debate. Anti-abortionists argue that a foetus is life and therefore sacred and abortion should outlawed, whereas pro-choice activists argue that a woman should have complete control over her body, free from government legislation. In Breaking Dawn, Bella falls pregnant with a baby that is half vampire, half human. The embryo begins to destroy her from the inside, and visibly puts her health at risk. At one point in the book, Bella is dying. But she still insists on keeping the baby. This self-sacrificial theme is recurrent in the Twilight saga, with Bella often valuing all other life above her own.
There is a substantial amount of evidence in the text to support the argument that Edward’s behaviour toward Bella borders on the abusive. Of course, this behaviour is almost necessary of a dangerous love narrative that is steeped in the language patriarchy and female repression:
‘We were near the parking lot now. I veered left, toward my truck. Something caught my jacket, yanking me back.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ he asked, outraged. He was gripping a fistful of my jacket in one hand.
I was confused. ‘I’m going home.’
‘Didn’t you hear me promise to take you safely home? Do you think I’m going to let you drive in your condition?’ His voice was still indignant.
‘What condition? What about my truck?’ I complained.
Edward Cullen’s benevolent sexism betrays itself in a restrictive, prescriptive, attitude in the text. His patriarchal chivalry, permitted under the guise of care and affection, only serves to reinforce the notion that as a woman, Bella is weak and in need of constant care and infantilisation. Again, the author’s penchant for archaic gender stereotypes render women in relationships weak and powerless. It’s worth analysing just how this equality imbalance has been explored in texts of the past, and how these theories can be applied directly to the Twilight saga. Simone de Beauvoir wrote of romantic love emerging as a religion for woman- purpose, worship and salvation:
My God- my adored one, my lord and master’- the same words fall from the lips of the saint on her knees and the loving woman on her bed; the one offers her flesh to the thunderbolt of Christ; she stretches out her hands to receive the stigmata of the Cross, she calls for the burning presence of the divine Love; the other, also, offers and awaits: thunderbolt, dart, arrow, are incarnated in the male sex organ. In both women there is the same dream, the childhood dream, the mystic dream, and the dream of love: to attain supreme existence through losing oneself in the other (The Second Sex 659).
This dichotomy between the two main characters is glaringly apparent in the first book of the Twilight saga. Edward Cullen is an ethereal god, glistening, unattainable and male, whilst Bella Swan is the imperfect human being- flawed and female- ‘“Well, look at me,” I said, unnecessarily as he was already staring. “I’m absolutely ordinary- well, except for bad things like all the near-death experiences and being so clumsy that I‘m almost disabled. And look at you.” I waved my hand toward him and all his bewildering perfection’ (Twilight 184). It is interesting how Stephenie Meyer uses the adjectives and verbs of Christianity when writing of Bella’s awe of Edward. There is something distinctly biblical about the language used, and as Bella falls deeper in love with Edward, the language of idolisation appears to be lifted straight from the King James Bible. The result of a fictional relationship based on a worshipper/worshipped dichotomy is an inevitable, irreconcilable inequality. When, after a particularly intense moment in the text, Bella comes to the conclusion that ‘there was nothing more terrifying to me, more excruciating, than the thought of turning away from him. It was an impossibility’ (Twilight 217), the extract reads uncannily like this excerpt from Hebrews:
Whilst this assertion may seem a tad hyperbolic, even the thematic, rhetorical content of this Bible quote can be read time and time again in the Twilight saga. Bella often regards Edward as a heavenly gift that she feels she doesn’t deserve- ‘He was too perfect, I realised with a piercing stab of despair. There was no way this godlike creature could be meant for me’ (Twilight 224). All the while, the use of words such as ‘godlike’, ‘magnificence’, and ‘perfection’ consistently woven through the text in relation to Edward Cullen simply serves to reinforce De Beauvoir’s theory. She said that woman ‘calls out for the burning presence of [man’s] divine love’, and the use of the word ‘burning’ to describe this divine love is no coincidence. To describe a divine love as burning draws an allusion to fire- an earthly element that can warm, but can also harm.
This is the same love that is propagated in the Twilight saga. Edward’s love for Bella isn’t a safe or reliable love- it’s one with sharp edges and the tendency to burn. But the burns Bella is on the receiving end of often manifest themselves in Cullen’s controlling nature and his desire to drain her of her blood. Consequently, Bella Swan often appears to exhibit conflicting emotions when referring to Edward- as well as love, she also expresses sentiments of fear or depression- ‘I tried to keep my eyes away from his perfection as much as possible, but I slipped often. Each time, his beauty pierced me through with sadness’ (Twilight 225).
Again, it is important to reiterate the final line of the above extract- ‘the dream of love: to attain supreme existence through losing oneself in the other’ (659). De Beauvoir wrote of this cultural norm over sixty years ago, but we see this message of this line come alive throughout the Twilight saga. Bella Swan does attain supreme existence (in the context of the saga, this supreme existence is vampirism), and she indeed achieves this by losing herself in the other- she successfully assimilates herself into Edward Cullen’s entire existence- and her former human self is lost, along with her father, her mother, her friends, her education, and her family home.
The Twilight saga says more about the sociocultural
background that Stephenie Meyer may like to admit. The first novel in the saga,
Twilight, was published in 2005, in
the midst of
In her book The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women, American blogger and author Jessica Valenti outlines an inherently misogynistic social narrative that uses the commodification of virginity to measure young women’s self-worth. Purity balls are events constructed for fathers and daughters, in which daughters promise to be chaste until marriage, and fathers vow to protect their daughter’s chastity. Valenti notes that rituals like these dictate a clear message- ‘it’s up to men to control young women’s sexuality’- and this is a sentiment that is repetitively consistent in Twilight- ‘His body was cold through the thin quilt, but I crushed myself against him eagerly. When he stopped it was abrupt; he pushed me away with gentle, firm hands’ (New Moon 45). Bella Swan is not painted as the picture of passive innocence. Instead, the trait that makes her so relatable to millions of teenage girls worldwide is honesty about her sexual feelings:
‘I’m not trying to prove something. You said I could have any part of you I wanted. I want this part. I want every part.” I wrapped my arms around his neck and strained to reach his lips. He bent his head to kiss me back, but his cool mouth was hesitant as my impatience grew more pronounced. My body was making my intentions clear, giving me away. Inevitably, his hands moved to restrain me’ (Eclipse 475).
However, with these urgent sexual feelings comes the narrative’s preference to shroud them in sexual shame, with Edward Cullen routinely regulating her sexuality. Valenti’s comment on the chastity movement’s purity balls reveals not only a perceived duty from fathers to protect their daughter’s innocence, but also of teenage boys to police teenage girl’s sexual feelings. More often than not in the text, Bella exhibits elements of desire towards Edward. Conveniently, the plot finds a valid excuse for this- Edwards vampiric super strength leaves him a danger to Bella in sexual situations- thus this policing bears an uncanny resemblance to the ideals of the chastity movement. Valenti notes that ‘conservative messages aimed at young men even call on them to be ‘virginity warriors’, driving home the message that it’s men’s responsibility to safeguard virginity for their female counterparts, simultaneously quashing any fears of feminization that boys may have surround abstinence’. (The Purity Myth 25)
The chastity movement’s feminine ideal requires young women to be passive and sexless in order to be objectified, but in reality young women are not so- thus Edward’s regulation of Bella’s sexual feelings. With this in mind, the fact that Bella Swan is a virgin at the beginning of the Twilight saga, and then loses her virginity only after becoming married to Edward Cullen is increasingly significant.
‘What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ In act II, scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the characters discuss the significance of the signifier in relation to the signified. A little discussed, but arguably no less prevalent, aspect of Bella Swan’s character has to be her metaphorical name. The word ‘bella’ translates into ‘beautiful’ in the Italian tongue. This adds to the notion of Bella as the perfect, passive woman- invoking imagery of virginal elegance. She is the chaste, beautiful swan.
In Conclusion: Stephenie Meyer and Women’s Writing
I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women into writing, from which they have been driven away as violently from their bodies- for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text- as into the world and into history- by her own movement (Cixous 2039).
It was with these words that French feminist theorist Helene Cixous opened her work The Laugh of the Medusa. Published 1975 and 1976 in the midst of second wave feminism, it was a text that demanded female reclaimation of traditionally male institutions- with writing being the primary target.
This chapter aims to unpack Meyer’s writings in comparison to Cixous’ literary demands. At a glance, Stephenie Meyer has indeed adhered to Cixous’ list. She asks that ‘woman must write herself’, and although the Twilight saga is not autobiographical, it is indeed a female author writing from a female protagonist’s perspective. Cixous demands that ‘[Woman] must write about women and bring women into writing’. Again, on the surface, Meyer has achieved this. But the fundamental problem with the Twilight saga is not that Meyer has put woman into writing, it is how she has done so. Granted, as an author she has completely subverted the vampire genre- in the modern day vein of monsters with souls, she has also written monsters with hearts that have freed themselves from temptation- but in her texts, women do not win. Bella Swan only achieves her life goal by sacrificing all that she owns, including her human life. And when she does reach the point of vampirehood, the special gift that she is attributed is a very telling one.
Cixous, in her feminist deconstruction of writing as a canonical institution, notes that ‘… the act for writing is equivalent to masculine masturbation...’ (The Laugh of the Medusa 2047). If this is indeed the case, then the Twilight saga slots neatly into this metaphor. In the final book, Breaking Dawn, we see no sex scene, no climax, no orgasm. The books are male masturbation with a castrated twist- they are Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch, a picture of Sigmund Freud’s penis envy. This is women’s writing, and therefore women’s masturbation, but denied of satisfaction. The sex scene that readers have waited patiently throughout three books is cut. The Twilight saga is almost a form of pornography- eroticised and sexuality commodified, packaged and sold, but without the money shot.
In the context of
women’s writing, this self-restraint of both author and plot is somewhat
confusing. If women’s writing takes hold of a past time that has been likened
to male masturbation, and self-pleasure, then women’s writing is female
self-pleasure. Why then, has Stephenie Meyer chosen to restrain the climax? The
answer could very well lie in Jessica Valenti’s deconstruction of
If female masturbation must be anesthetised, then this reveals an awful lot about women and sex. If the highly erotically charged books are indeed feminine masturbation, then the lack of an anticipated sex scene, the climax of the saga, displays sexual shame, and an inherent fear of autonomous female sexuality- the two cornerstones of the chastity movement. To reiterate Valenti’s main argument from The Purity Myth, ‘we must abandon the idea that women’s bodies are inherently shameful, and that women’s sexuality needs to be restricted’ (97). But unfortunately this is the idea that the Twilight saga primarily submits, and the closing of the saga confirms this. When Christopher Craft asks ‘Are we male or female? Do we have penetrators or orifices?’ he alludes to Dracula’s gender-inverted female vampires, equipped and drunk with the power of penetration. When Bella Swan is bestowed with that vampiric gift- she chooses to restrain herself. When she is human and exerts her autonomous, if somewhat passive, sexuality, she is restrained. When she finally reaches equality with her partner as vampire, when she reaches male (vampire) status in the book, and is presented with the opportunity to prey on females (or humans) she chooses not to.
Because, woven finely through the narrative of the supernatural, romance, vampires, werewolves, family troubles and friendships, is a story that focuses intently on first love and a teenage girl’s reaction to her own sexual feelings- even if she does find these feelings awakened by an external, male source:
We’re living in a time when simply talking about women’s pleasure is taboo in itself and is considered dangerous by the virginity movement, since that kind of discussion frees women’s sexuality from its restrictive only-for-procreation, only-when-married, only-when-straight boundaries (The Purity Myth 196).
The boundaries that Valenti speaks of are alive and thriving in the Twilight saga. Bella is ultimately a malleable female character constructed by the men around her. As subversive to the traditional vampire narrative that it is- the Twilight saga does not stray from said boundaries. This paper is not the first to challenge the anti-feminist ideals of the Twilight saga. A chapter in Twilight and Philosophy, an edition of Blackwell’s philosophy and pop culture series, loosely examines the same concept. In Vampire Love: The Second Sex Negotiates the Twenty-first Century, Bonnie Mann writes ‘In a world that is still extremely heavy-handed in its insistence that a young woman’s primary worth is derived from her ability to awaken male desire, Meyer offers girls the fantasy of a male gaze that is intense, constant, and faithful’ (137).
With this sentence, Mann encapsulates the underlying essence of the Twilight saga. Edward Cullen’s male gaze is one so potent that it literally brings Bella’s character to life. Her narrative before Edward enters the plot is one of an awkward teenager, ill at ease with herself and her situation. But Stephenie Meyer’s writing only allows Bella to grow and develop under the watchful eye of patriarchal protective proscription. As a result, Bella accelerates with alarming speed from girlhood to womanhood, with her main driving force and purpose in life being Edward Cullen. But when a series of internationally best-selling books rely on the notion that woman can only reach perfection by assimilating herself into the eyes of man, readers must question whether this is a truism, or a cause for concern worth challenging.
In an age where the fight for gender equality is still on going, Bella’s primary aim throughout the Twilight saga is to lose herself, and become Edward.
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 10, January 2013, ISSN 1552-5112
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