Bitchy in Queens

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DECEMBER 17, 2009 2:17PM

Twilight as "Girl Crack"--I Figured It Out!

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I can’t believe I’m writing about Twilight again.

 It was brought on by this post on “New Moon and Domestic Violence” (http://www.feministing.com/archives/019307.html#comment ) over at Feministing (which I love). 

 I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and written a previous apologia of Twilight that was probably too long.  But I’m writing again because I think there’s been something missing in the feminist critiques of the books and movies that has been bothering me, and I’ve been trying to locate it.

 I agree with Ann (at Feministing) that Emily’s slashed face in New Moon is really disturbing, both because it romanticizes Sam’s violence against her, and because it is presented as inherent to the Quileutes and native culture.  It’s clear that Stephenie Meyer is not particularly self-reflective, and also that she wasn’t educated in critical perspectives on race, class and gender that most feministing readers have as a starting point.  As a result, there are a variety of ugly, ridiculous and cringe-worthy stereotypes populating the books. 

 But why do we have to move from these particular criticisms to a blanket rejection of the series as regressive and therefore negative for girls?  There are some obvious ways that Twilight presents a more positive view of girls than most of what we see in young-adult media—Bella isn’t preoccupied with her looks, she doesn’t want to compete with other girls for male attention, and she is a frankly desiring sexual subject.  But there are also less obvious ways, and I think these have something to do with the books’ huge appeal. 

 A friend of mine (a feminist and educator) recently referred to the Twilight series, lovingly, as “girl crack.” Despite her otherwise intellectual and feminist-oriented taste, she could not resist it.  I think part of what accounts for this, as well as for the reaction against Twilight, is the powerful fantasy of submission that is at the core of the romance.  It’s no secret that lots of women have erotic fantasies involving submission—these range from attraction to older and more experienced partners to fantasies of full-fledged degradation and rape.  Bella’s attraction to Jacob and Edward falls somewhere closer to the “stronger, more experienced man” end of the spectrum, but also has some darker elements from more violent fantasies of submission, especially in her passionate kiss with Jacob in Eclipse and the description of the bruises and broken bed of her honeymoon with Edward in Breaking Dawn. 

 Submissive fantasies are not necessarily antifeminist (unfeminist, nonfeminist, whatever…).  Acknowledging such desires, and not being shamed by them, is inherently liberating.  What is important is that the submission remains in the arena of fantasy, and does not compromise a woman’s agency in lived reality.  Stephenie Meyer’s coup in the Twilight books is that she gives Bella the fantasy and erotic charge of submission, without ever actually being submissive.  Bella gets off on the fact that Edward could kill her effortlessly, even though it is clear that he will never be violent with her.  She gets a particular erotic charge out of Edward’s belief that if he gets too aroused he will not be able to control his lust (both for her body and her blood).  Many point to this as evidence of the author’s Mormon moralizing, but it is important to note that Bella never feels shame about her sexual desire.  Moreover, the fantasy of Edward’s lethal strength and lust leaves Bella free to be the sexual aggressor in their relationship. 

 The same is true when Bella finally gets Edward to have sex with her.  Bella wakes up to find the pillows destroyed, the headboard broken, and her body bruised.  In this way Meyer invokes a fantasy of violent submission, but she does it with an act that is enthusiastically consensual—Bella does not feel herself to be harmed, and she resorts to temper tantrums in order to get Edward to do it again.  

 This separation of Bella’s fantasies from her reality is underlined by the fact that she does not get a similar erotic charge when she is actually threatened with violence or rape.  When Bella is stalked by strange men on the street she is afraid, when she is tortured by James she struggles to accept death, when Jacob grabs her and kisses her, she punches him.  These are not sexually charged experiences for Bella. 

 Even in the nonsexual aspects of her relationship with Edward, Bella’s submission is more a fantasy than a reality.  Edward may be powerful enough to prevent Bella from seeing Jacob for a time, but as soon as she can find a way to defy him, she does.  If Bella were actually submissive to Edward, she would remain human and chaste.  What makes the Twilight books so powerfully appealing is that they indulge the sexual fantasy of feminine submissiveness, while presenting a girl who never actually submits.

 

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feminism, books, sex, twilight

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Meyers starts with a young, impressionable girl who becomes infatuated with a handsome, sensual young man…and who disregards the possible negative consequences of her infatuation.

That is so common an occurrence…that it almost is a cliché.

By the way…the exact opposite thing often happens…with the gender role reversal.

By the end of the series, Bella is the strongest character in it.

I have no idea of why the series is being attacked on this score at all…because it makes no sense.

I am a 73 year old male who essentially was dared to read the books…and I found a completely absorbing, interesting, and entertaining series in it. I am delighted I read it…it is delightful fantasy.

The female characters are handled with dignity and consideration.
Wow, can't believe I'm on the cover again! very flattered... A little weirded out by the cover description, though. Makes it sound like I'm arguing against a feminist reading of the books, and I'm definitely for it!
Interesting take on Twilight. You've almost intrigued me enough to give it another try.
Not all books are great literature that need to be deeply analyzed. These books were a great, entertaining read, and for me, to think about them to deeply just takes away from the fun.
Interesting interpretation. However it does remind me a little of the theoretical readings of Hitchcock that try to turn him into some sort of feminist film-maker. His movies really are violently misogynistic. I don't know enough about the 'Twilight' series to make a judgment, but maybe at least now I'll watch the films and think about it. They certainly can't be any worse than the pinku-eiga stuff from Japan, a softcore pop-porn genre that recently has morphed into the most terrifying violent fantasies against women--dismemberment, torture, with a particular obsession on inserting things like knives and ground glass into vaginas--or the disgusting American version in the 'Saw' movies. But I wonder, with that sort of thing setting the standard in terms of misogyny and violence to women in film, have we just become deadened to things that seem softer and kinder but remain no less hostile? Provocative, and rated.
BOKO…there are dozens of reasons people give for loathing the Twilight saga…character development; plot development; general writing…etc…but the one that seems to come up most…and the one I think is almost completely off base…is the charge that it objectifies or debases women.

Read the books…(I enjoyed the movies, but they suck in comparison)…and you will easily see that if anything, the women in them (several of them) are stronger and more focused than the men! By the end of the series…Bella, the young woman, is not only more mature in her abilities to make decisions and stand by them…she is physically the strongest of the group!!!

Christ…you cannot get further from anti-woman than that!

The only people who use the anti-women argument are the people who have not read the entire series…and who base their opinions on the major plot ingredient of the obsession of Bella for an irresistible vampire. That is the point of the fantasy…that the vampire possesses an appeal that almost cannot be resisted.
Your Bio. Sarah J. Yea! Front Page.
Congratulations. You get salad greens?
Please. No put hot fudge on arugula mix!

Heat the chocolate syrup. Vanilla ice creams!
Enjoy whatever is on thee plate. No got a TV!
I can't even sell my rabbit ear TV on a E- Bah!
It be wise to sell my winter greens in Queens!
1) power games are warped
2) Why anyone would waste time writing about such pedestrian crap I don't know. Both movies were case studies in mediocrity and how the public responds to bad writing that hits some kind of nerve. The zeitgeist of the mediocre, talentless or just bland.

It is a stupid movie, like the first.
Only stupid people thought either was great
It actually makes Any Rice seem like literature

And I like sci fi and horror movies. Have seen tons. The Twilight series are straight to DVD quality movies with big FX budgets. Nothing more. To analyze either the politics or sexuality of them is laughable.
Sorry... I just can't do it... I just can't bring myself to read the books or watch the movies. However I would venture to suggest that your description of the sexual encounter between Bella and Edward sounds like par for the course in the literature and TV/movies that involve the vampire theme. The sex scenes, such as they were, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in later years, when she was with Spike were very physical and borderline violent - a lot of causing the walls to rattle and support beams to buckle. Frankly, a good old fashioned bed breaking romp - and having broken a few beds in my time I see nothing wrong with the idea. However sleeping with the undead, as cute as they can be, doesn't ring my bell :)

Good post and kudos on the cover.
Snoreville…you sound like one of those people who think they are above the crowd because they get their rocks off knocking “pedestrian” things. Mozart was once thought of as pedestrian. So was Raphael. Fact is, Einstein was at one point.

You seem rather pedestrian to me…in fact, out of courtesy to some pedestrian people I know, I would rather say you do not stack up to “pedestrian.”

By the way…you can take your opinion of my intelligence (and Sarah's) and store it where a vampire can go…because the sun does not shine there.
I thought the books were more repressive than submissive - very Victorian.
Interesting take. But even with Frank's recommendation, I think I'll pass... Maybe a quarter of a century ago I'd read and grok, but now its OS or nothin'. (Such as posts like this one!)
I love everyone's comments (except the advertisement--what's that about?)--it's so great getting feedback!

I can understand Bluesurly and Snoreville. Sometimes it is better not to analyze things too much--either because you enjoy them just fine the way they are, thank you (Bluesurly), or because you don't enjoy them at all (Snoreville).

I really never thought I would spend my energy thinking about the Twilight series, but it really captured me in a way that 1) I didn't understand and 2) seemed antithetical to my normal literary tastes (Dostoevsky, A.S. Byatt, Michael Chabon, Flaubert, etc.). And then I saw all these feminist critics that I usually agree with trashing it, and I felt that there had to be something interesting going on.

I really enjoyed the books, but I wouldn't defend them in artistic terms--if they don't appeal to you then that's it. But I think it is interesting that they do appeal to so many, and I am convinced that's that not necessarily a bad thing.

And Frank, thanks so much for defending me! Glad you share my affection for this weird story.
Kind of coming late to the discussion here. . . .

I only watched the first movie, but I've read summaries (and parodies) of the series. I wasn't willing to read the books (much the same reason I gave up on Harry Potter after book 5).

I would have been OK with the melodrama until the scene in the high school where Bella tracks down Edward to ask him why he's so strong and how he saved her from getting smashed by the van. She says something along the lines of going to tell someone what she saw and Edward shoots back, "Go ahead. Who's going to believe you?" The gaslighting that he does to her is unacceptable in any relationship, fantasy or otherwise.

Any attraction, any stirrings of romance or butterflies or hint of lovely masturbatory fantasies died right there. Having been a woman who has been stalked before, and *even* *though* I do enjoy fairly dark fantasies of submission and violence, I found this completely unacceptable and unpalatable.

Even if Frank says Bella and other female characters end up being "stronger" than the male characters, and Bella being the strongest character in the series, it still doesn't set up a healthy model for relationships. Also, Frank, if the point of the fantasy is that the vampire "possesses an appeal that almost cannot be resisted", just why does Bella end up with Edward in the end? She obviously couldn't resist him.

I recommend looking up the summary of Breaking Dawn on CHUD. It's hilarious and I would definitely go see a movie based on that treatment purely for the laugh factor.
Don't know what to say to you, Lucky.

Some people can stroll down a country lane and get lots of enjoyment out smelling the flowers and watching the birds and squirrels do their thing.

Some people just complain about the dust and ruts.

I'm glad to be part of the former.

The series was written to entertain. I know people of all ages, temperments, and intelligence who were highly entertained by it.

But, and I mean this sincerely...to each his/her own.
Hey LuckySweetheart,

It's interesting that that was the moment that turned you off. Once you explained it as "gaslighting" (I'm assuming that refers to the movie "Gaslight" and means pretending that the woman is crazy when it is really that the dude is doing something that makes her seem crazy--right?) I understood what you meant, but for some reason it didn't push my buttons at all. I guess the story doesn't hit your fantasy sweet spot.

One of the reasons I wrote these, though, is because it seemed like a lot of people were saying that the whole thing was "unacceptable in any relationship, fantasy or otherwise," and I don't think that's true for everyone. It makes sense that you would have a strong reaction to a part that resonated with you in a negative way, but I wonder why that means it should be bad for those of us who don't have that reaction.

And Boko, yes that is exactly my concern. Is our tolerance for misogyny heightened by a generally disgusting media culture of violence, objectification, and rape? Yes, I think it is--I just don't think Twilight is part of that equation.
Hi Sarah,

Gaslighting is psychological abuse, which I don't find hot and exciting. (You are right in that it refers to the film Gas Light, you can find more information about it on wikipedia and domestic violence sites)

I'm fine with women having fantasies of being romantically humiliated and finding a pop culture outlet for that fantasy, but I would sure appreciate someone explaining why in a way that I can understand. I don't think it's healthy and I don't think it's something that should be encouraged, but that's just my opinion. Very obviously you disagree.

I suppose women and adults are free to have fantasies that involve psychological abuse, but I'm a bit concerned that we're marketing that fantasy towards teens and young adults, who may or may not have formed their own ideas on what they like and don't like to have in their own relationships or fantasies.

I read recently that women fantasize about doing whatever the hell they want and having no responsibility, while men fantasize about taking charge and being a hero. I can see how Twilight fits into this theory. Bella gets everything she wants in the end and doesn't have to pay for any of her decisions (except I guess she can't have both Edward and Jacob, but theoretically her Mini-Me in Reneesme can have Jacob, so that's covered).
Your commentary is thoughtful and well presented but I just don't find Twilight that liberating. I will steal from a friend who quipped, "Twilight . . . the story of a young woman deciding between necrophilia and bestiality."
What can I say, I'm glad my daughter has absolutely no interest in Twilight type books and never did and she prefers to cohabitate with a nerdy engineer because she is a nerdy engineer. All so tame and well, healthy and happy - no drama and trauma... I think many young woman are very confused and oversaturated by unrealistic mass media cues with little real direction or healthy female role models in good, healthy relationships... now what does Bella do for a living? This is an honest question. What is her career? I'm asking because I have never read the book or seen the movies.
Sarah,

This post brought me back to my days at the Uni where I was a "Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies". We definitely would have read Twighlight in a class titled "The Discourse of Erotic Agency in Teen Literature" or some such contrivance...

Rated for your frank and open treatment of the subject---if I wasn't rushing off to work I would sit and wax philosophical with y'all..maybe later.

Thanks!!!!
"Now the Twilight series, written by a Mormon, proves that inside each woman there is just such a glutton for humiliation and degradation."

Why Twilight is bad: It gives sick bastards like the one quoted above more fuel for their offensive generalizations about a gender they blame for some degree of childhood misery.
Sarah J:

I disagree that Bella doesn't ever actually submit to Edward. I think she did, immediately and completely. I don't think that submission isn't about turning one's brain off and being obedient like a dog, it's about subordinating your own desires to that of your partner's. It seems that every time Bella disobeyed Edward it was for his own good, to save his life or to continue a relationship that he didn't believe could be healthy, but was the healthiest and best thing he had ever encountered. She didn't submit to James, not just due to the fact that he was evil, but because she belonged to Edward. It's rather telling that she did actually submit to James in every manner that might protect Edward.

Also, it would be insane to state that those with submission, violence, or rape fantasies want just any weirdo to carry those fantasies out with them. Any woman that wants to be raped by whoever, whenever, is crazy. A woman that has fantasies about her partner, or some specific individual, or an idealized partner, just has a fetish.

People that don't get why vampirism is hot confuse me.
Again, I am so happy you all decided to read my post and share your thoughts!

Except maybe Tomreedtoon: Did you read the post in Opposite-World? That is disturbing...

Anyway, yeah. You guys give me more to think about.

Leonde, I think the operative distinction I'm trying to make is between fantasy and lived reality--I am also a boring nerdy academic, with a boring nerdy husband, and have no interest in being swept away by some melodramatic hunk. And to be honest, I think that's the vast majority of people who like the books--boring, everyday women with companionate marriages/partnerships.
@tomreedtoon: Any chance you could, maybe, you know, cap the crazy?
***spoiler alert***

Bella dies at the end of this series. She dies to be with Edward. She gives up the only thing that separates her from Edward: having a soul. Her remaining human would have been the signal that she was her own person.

I disagree that this is a story that allows women to be submissive. This is another story that romanticizes violence and abusive behavior from an intimate partner.

You jump into the piece with the statement that "Bella isn’t preoccupied with her looks, she doesn’t want to compete with other girls for male attention, and she is a frankly desiring sexual subject." There's a lot here to unpack.

Let's start with looks. Bella is ABSOLUTELY preoccupied with her looks as it's her nightmare about aging that prompts her to really push for Edward to change her. She's terrified that if she ages Edward will not want her anymore. She may not worry about make-up, but instigating panic attacks brought on by turning 18 is a pretty huge indicator that looks mattered to her.

You're right, Bella doesn't seem to want to compete with other girls/women for the affection of men, however she's got the one man who chooses whom he wants. There really wasn't an opportunity for her to compete for Edward. He made her feel like she was the center of the universe. It was made very clear that the only flaw she had was her soul.

The statements made in your piece about Bella's sexuality come from an assumption that Bella was an experienced adult and that she entered into the romance Edward offered with autonomy and that the relationship was rather equal. That's not the case. Edward isn't a man in college who's 20 some-odd years old, he's 108 years old! He didn't just freeze in time mentally and is perpetually a high school boy. He's an old man who looks 17 and who was intrigued by a high school girl. And she was a high school girl who had been forced through life circumstances to mature more quickly than her peers. She wasn't interested in high school guys and Edward is enticing. This is not equal power. This is predatory.

In "The Gift of Fear", Gavin De Becker discusses how predators (and Edward was, quite literally, a predator) manipulate victims into handing over their personal power. Edward begins that control by essentially telling Bella he shouldn't be coming around her but he just can't stay away because, as he states over and over and over again, he's violent and she should be afraid because she can't handle the violence. Bella doesn't want to be seen as weak or immature, and she wants to get closer to this hauntingly beautiful and sorrowful character, so she fights the statements. She gave Edward the power she had to walk away as well as the permission for his violence because all he had to say was "I told you I was violent and still you stayed". Edward further took power over Bella's ability to leave by giving Bella the impression that she somehow has control over the violence that occurs in their relationship instead of him having to own his actions. This is not equal power. It's predatory.

Bella's very push for being turned into a vampire is a testament to her lack of power and of self loathing which is reinforced by Edward time and again. In one scene in New Moon, Jacob made a rather profound statement that very clearly defined how little power Bella had as herself in a relationship with Edward. In the scene where Bella crashed the motorcycle and cuts her head, Jacob comes over to help her and mentions she's bleeding. When she feels the blood her first reaction is to apologize. Jacob asks, "Why are you apologizing for bleeding?" That's a really great question. It's not like it's something that she can honestly control but it is something that keeps getting her "into trouble". If only she hadn't cut her finger, if only she didn't smell human, if only she wasn't so weak and vulnerable, if only she wasn't a teenager who made bad decisions, if only she wasn't human, everything would be alright. She's tripping over herself frequently to apologize for her need to breathe.

When Edward tells her about his losing control during sex (using euphemisms such as food and drug analogies instead of speaking to Bella as an adult) he explains that she is so appealing to him he almost killed/raped her right in the middle of a classroom full of "children". Yeah, killed/raped because she was talking about hoping they can be together, which includes sex, and yet she knows it also meant her death, because she was his brand of heroin. Again, it's not about him controlling his actions but her smelling so good he would lose control and kill her during sex. No separation of the two and the way she smells, well it's not something she can really control, is it? Who's the adult? Who's the one who needs to learn control? And yet the blame for his actions is laid at her feet? Victim blaming. Nice.

Trying to argue that Bella was into BDS&M is ridiculous and weak at best. She's not experienced with sex, period, and to assume "Bella gets off on the fact that Edward could kill her effortlessly,…" is so callous and plays right into victim blaming. As one ignorant responder stated: "I knew there were certain women who want a man to beat the living crap out of them, humiliate them, use them badly." Bella's groomed to be in this relationship. She is powerless. When she begins to regain her power Edward threatens suicide. Edward, as a predator, chose a vulnerable person that he could groom to be controlled without question. He groomed as a mate in an unhealthy and violent way.

You called her the sexual aggressor in the relationship. All she's really pushed to do to this point (New Moon) is kiss passionately. She's new to kissing! She likes it and wants more of it, that's sexually aggressive? And Edward blames her when he starts to become aroused and he starts to lose control. That's not fair. That manipulative and it makes her apologetic for her sexuality and passion. Straight from Twilight:

"There really was no excuse for my behavior. Obviously I knew better by now. And yet I couldn't seem to stop from reacting exactly as I had the first time. Instead of keeping safely motionless, my arms reached up to twine tightly around his neck, and I was suddenly welded to his stone figure. I sighed, and my lips parted."

This example shows that she does have shame in her sexuality. She's ashamed that she can't respond to his touch like he wants her to respond so that his reaction is controlled because she's controlled. Whoa. There's no free expression allowed by her. She's already internally apologetic for something that should be natural and enjoyed when two people are in a relationship. She's apologetic for her feelings and reactions but it's him that's the problem! He's freaking 108 years old and he can't control himself but it's her fault? Please!

You speak to sexual submission as being overpowered and not in control, linking it to rape fantasies. That's not how it truly works. Submission doesn't mean unequal in power. Theoretically the submissive partner has the ultimate control over the situation with the power of a safe word. When the ropes or restraints or whatever gear used comes off there should have been mutual pleasure. It's also based on trust. Violence doesn't equal BDS&M. There are several layers that go into that sort of relationship. There may be many women who fantasize about not being the dominant one in sexual situations but I would guarantee that true rape is not what they are fanaticizing about.

Have you considered that if Bella was in control Edward might not have left? Edward doesn't stay and fight for her. He doesn't leave his "family" to be with her since there are people in the family that are dangerous to her. He leaves her because he doesn't feel he can live with her as a human. He leaves. That's control. There's nothing Bella can say or do to stop him, but she's made to feel guilty about being human since it's her weakness through her soul that puts everyone in danger. It's not a decision she was included in making as I would expect her to be if it was an equal relationship. He's not honest about why he's leaving which is because neither he, nor the people he has as family, can be trusted not to lose control and eat her and kill her. Instead he tells her clearly that he doesn't want her when he didn't want to take her with him, which she internalizes. You know, she's looking for stability. Her mom left her with her dad, who left her and her mom when she was younger. People whom she should have been able to count on for security leave her. She's never had the power to influence those she loves. And Bella is completely powerless with Edward because she's human. He has the power, not her.

You know, my issue with this series isn't that there are dark parts that can be arousing and erotic. My issue with this series is that it's marketed towards young adults and the message about love, sex, and death is so irresponsible it scares me. To have someone's first experience with sex include broken headboards and bruises, how is that healthy and enjoyable for a person who doesn't even know her own body beyond the revulsion of the man she loves to the point of violence whenever he is exposed to her human-ness? And for someone reading about it in a culture with a gag order on open discussions regarding human sexuality what kind of expectations does that set up with the subject of sex? Bella hasn't even had the opportunity to explore her sexuality, or her options in life, and yet her first exposure is all about violence?

Love is time and again linked with violence in this book, as is the legitimization of dating violence and victim blaming. The romanticizing of abusive and controlling behavior sets up dangerous expectations of what healthy behavior should be accepted in relationships. Check out a power and control wheel and compare the behavior that is clearly abusive and compare it to the behavior expressed by Edward. For example, nothing good ever comes from stalking behavior. Seriously, sneaking into her room and watching her sleep? Before she even knows who you are? Frightening! Illegal! Red flags should be popping up all over the field. How about the very clear message in New Moon that if she leaves him he'll kill himself? That's classic manipulative behavior and not something you put on someone you really care about.

Even you argued that her lack of submissiveness can be seen in her moments of rebellion. Wrong. The very fact that she has to rebel and run away to see Jacob, or wait until Edward's not around for her to call Jacob shows she's not in control! She's fighting against captivity. And the way she gets herself into trouble and doesn't listen to Edward when he tells her to do something shows she's rebelling against a parental figure and she's a teenager! Of course she's going to make mistakes, that's what we do when we're younger!

While the character of Bella was written to not think of herself as a victim she still dies. What does she have to look forward to with a life with Edward? Being a danger to humankind her first few years out? Skipping from town to town every 10 years, going to high school time and again, and maybe college? Maybe they live a few years out on their own to start the cycle all over again? She will be living the life Edward set up for himself. He's had the chance to live. He's had the experiences young people should be able to have, and yet in this book, in order for her to be with him, she has to lose the one piece of herself that is truly hers: Her soul. A lot of victims of violence convince themselves that they are the ones to blame for the abuse and they don't feel like they're victims but they still die in violent relationships.

This story is not original nor is it the first time it's been told with vampires and werewolves. One of the comments mentioned Buffy and Spike. The better example would be Buffy and Angel. They loved each other deeply but they couldn't be together because the result could have killed Buffy or Angel (it did once) or both. It wasn't going to work without one of them sacrificing who they were which meant sacrificing that which they loved about each other. They made an adult decision. Like Bella's dad said in the movie, "Sometimes you need to learn to love what's good for you."
I have to agree with nevadagrrl on just about every point.

I do think Sarah J is right that some of the feminist critiques of the Twilight series are missing something. As deep as many of them go, there are still many greater points to be analyzed about this series (and those who are critiquing it without having read the entire series should read it). One of these points I found touched on in a particularly interesting comment made to the Feministing article. The commenter wrote:
“Young girls, mothers, teens, boys, and I were living in this fantasy world where adherence to traditional gender roles have no negative effect. It's as if all feminist problems dealt with in the book have a happy ending... Twilight is an escapist fantasy that masks real issues and glorifies traditional gender roles to the point where they're desirable. The reader wants Edward or Jacob so badly because Bella does. We see the joy, passion and happiness that Bella has and escape into an arguably un-feminist world because it's easy, it's what Bella does, and it's what the greater forces of society are pushing us to do anyway...In reality, these are dreams that are easy to believe but hardly attainable in such a patriarchal society...I'm unsure about what this critique means for the role of Twilight in our society. Could it be a feminist fantasy, where Bella and Emily are making empowered choices as womyn to adhere to traditional gender roles, and the fantasy that there are no consequences to those actions is the world of gender equality yet to come? Or is it a justification/coping mechanism for lives society forces onto womyn?” http://www.feministing.com/archives/019307.html#comment-323582

As disheartening as this comment is about the current and future state of feminism in our society, it's a wonderful take on the reason for the Twilight phenomena. I think it's important to analyze Twilight in light of this point. It somewhat addresses the desire for submission you've suggested. I can't help but think a desire for submission comes from a deep-seated, society-wide, psychological abuse rooted in the traditional view that women are expected to be submissive & subservient and any feelings that go against that expectation are wrong; so, there's the fantasy to satisfy and/or be satisfied by being what's expected along with the “punishment” of rape, violence, etc for desiring to be equal, non-submissive.

Some people say not to over-analyze Twilight, it's not great, classic literature after all. But, this does a terrible disservice to the girls who are reading it and falling in “love” with Edward or Jacob. It's a fairly entertaining read for an adult woman. And, as an adult woman, I found it very thought provoking -- not because it's great literature, but because of the way it unabashedly glorified (IMO) female subservience, the “proper” role of women in society, domestic and emotional abuse, addiction to bad relationships, co-dependency, etc etc. I think the series is a wonderful tool for discussions with older teen girls about what to avoid in relationships and the need to learn who you are and what you want out of life before getting into serious relationships. I think, without supervision, it's a very dangerous series.

Nevadagrrl pointed out some of the ways Bella is preoccupied with her looks; but in addition, one of the very first things we learn about Bella, at the very beginning of the first book, is that she's too, too pale and plain looking – it's one of her first, of many, self-assumed physical and character flaws and one of the things that sets her up as a girl who (in her opinion, but not according to her subsequent popularity) doesn't fit in – she's not the “right” kind of tan Arizona girl, she's doomed/fated to only fit in with the pale, cold, social outcasts, the vampire monsters. When I read the books, Bella's internal dialogue about her looks, among other things, painted the picture for me of a teen who hated her looks, her life, herself, so when she met a “bad boy” whose pale, unconventional looks intrigued her she was willing to give away her otherwise “useless” life to him. She seemed to feel her life was useless except for keeping her scatter-brained mother straight, cooking and cleaning for her father, and sacrificing herself for Edward.

Nevadagrrl was a bit off on Bella's parental relationships. Her mom left her dad, not the other way around, presumably because she was too air-headed to know a good thing when she had it and was too self-absorbed with finding who she was and what she wanted to do with her life – there, again, is some great stuff to analyze and teach girls about discovering these things before you mess up and get involved in a relationship that ties you down and results in a child who you screw up because you're still an immature child yourself. It's also interesting that the woman (Bella's mother) who would want to go out and "find herself" (admittedly, belatedly, but that's part of my point against the self-sacrificing Bella as a positive model for girls) is characterized as daft, a very poor mother, little better than a child who is incapable of fending for herself in the world and must be cared for, eg submissive to another for her wellbeing -- yes, Bella, our sacrificial lamb, held that role, but only until a more appropriate, male, step-father took the role.

Bella goes to live with her dad voluntarily, to give her mom and new step-father time to be together, without her in their way – she's constantly self-sacrificing as any good female should do, right? She constantly apologizes for everything she does, she apologizes just for her Being, for being alive, so of course it's better that she make the ultimate sacrifice, die and become a vampire.

I completely agree that we should not completely reject this series, and I did enjoy the read and enjoy discussing it. It can be a great tool to use to help girls consider positive views of women; to look for a life that satisfies them in their own right and not simply through a preoccupation with the desire to have sex (submissive, aggressive, violent or otherwise) with a “bad boy” as her only goal in life. Whether or not Bella was the sexual aggressor in the relationship, and whether or not she had a healthy regard for sex, do not a positive model for girls make. These may be fine aspects within a positive view of women, but they are hardly some of the most important aspects.
Re: jipsee's response:

Thank you. It has obviously been a while since I read the first book as I completely forgot the opening with Bella criticizing her looks and I don't know what I was remembering with her parents as to who left whom! And excellent points on what the books place value on regarding traditional gender roles.

I agree the series shouldn't be dismissed so the discussions go on!
Nevadagrrl and Gipsee, I’m so delighted that you are still responding to my post! So here I am responding to your comments (how could I not?—so thoughtful and provocative!) when I really should be working on the book I’m supposed to finish by the end of the year. Ha ha—I guess writing about Twilight is more fun than writing about the politics of the Russian reception of Italian futurism!

I’ll start by defending some of my arguments. Even though that’s not usually my approach, I think these comments call for some concrete responses.

First of all, Nevadagrrl says that “Trying to argue that Bella was into BDS&M is ridiculous and weak at best.” Maybe it is (though I don’t think I would have said that to someone I wanted to have a dialogue with), but I didn’t argue that Bella was into BDS&M. I know almost nothing about BDS&M (or only what I learn from reading “Savage Love”), and was instead pointing to much more mainstream and pedestrian fantasies of submission. Bella is definitely turned on by the idea that Edward has to struggle to control his lust. She is also clearly fascinated and attracted to his power, both as a personality and his physical power. Does this make her unequal in the relationship? I think it is easy to say that it does, but we are all unequal to each other in different ways. Many of us have husbands/boyfriends/partners who are bigger and stronger than us and could overpower us without much effort. Does that mean we are unequal? Obviously not. Do we sometimes get an erotic thrill out of our partners’ size and power? Yes, occasionally. I know this is not weird, unusual, or harmful, because a decent man understands that it is wrong to use his physical strength to thwart a woman’s will. We all have different degrees of power in different contexts, and we often desire or fantasize about those who we perceive as more powerful, beautiful, charismatic, intelligent, talented, spiritual (or whatever) than we ourselves are.

Bella is attracted to Edward’s lethal power, even though she is sure from the beginning that he will never harm her. This desire for what could be perceived as inequality is not something that can be easily classified or normalized within particular codes. Nevadagrrl objects to my categorization of a wide range of submissive fantasies when she says:

"You speak to sexual submission as being overpowered and not in control, linking it to rape fantasies. That's not how it truly works. Submission doesn't mean unequal in power. Theoretically the submissive partner has the ultimate control over the situation with the power of a safe word. When the ropes or restraints or whatever gear used comes off there should have been mutual pleasure. It's also based on trust. Violence doesn't equal BDS&M. There are several layers that go into that sort of relationship. There may be many women who fantasize about not being the dominant one in sexual situations but I would guarantee that true rape is not what they are fantasizing about."

Again, the problem here is that I am not talking about BDS&M, but rather more widespread fantasies of submission. BDS&M requires equality, safe words, and trust because it is manifest reality. Fantasies of submission often do include inequality, violence, overpowering, and lack of control. And many women are able to find these qualities pleasurable, precisely because they are not real. The question, then, is what do we do with these fantasies? Gipsee, I think, really gets to the heart of the problem when she says:

"I can't help but think a desire for submission comes from a deep-seated, society-wide, psychological abuse rooted in the traditional view that women are expected to be submissive & subservient and any feelings that go against that expectation are wrong; so, there's the fantasy to satisfy and/or be satisfied by being what's expected along with the “punishment” of rape, violence, etc for desiring to be equal, non-submissive."

This seems like a fair assessment of the source of such fantasies (OK, I’m sure there are plenty who would disagree, but it’s plausible, straightforward, and acknowledges what makes many of us uncomfortable). Our fantasies of submission may come from deep social inequality. That does not mean we should pathologize them. Pathologizing our desires is what leads to repression and shame. It is counter-productive to worry that our fantasies indicate wrong, unfeminist, immoral, or perverse desires. What is important is that we are able to make our own decisions and engage freely with the world.

This is the distinction I am interested in thinking about in the Twilight books. Is Bella coerced? Is she a victim of violence? Yes on both counts, but I think it’s worth looking at those in the context of the narrative as a whole. Edward coerces her into marrying him—but it also goes in the other direction. He refuses to make her a vampire, so what does she do? She goes to his family and has them vote on it. The two of them are equal-opportunity manipulators.

Bella’s desire to be a vampire is triggered by the violence she endures from James and Jasper. Yes, she constantly repeats that she is supposed to be with Edward, but her request to change into one of them is based largely on her wish to be powerful enough to protect herself. When Bella is attacked, by James and then by Jasper, she is dependent on Edward to protect her, and this makes her unhappy.

I’m really puzzled by the claims that Bella doesn’t value herself. She might not think she is pretty, she might not think she is special, but there are also key moments when she is faced with domination and resists. Edward may be a controlling and even abusive jerk, as Nevadagrrl says, but I think the fact that she fights against this domination is actually a good thing. The fact that Edward doesn’t manage to dominate her is sort of miraculous, considering that is clearly his intention. Despite all her guilt and self deprecation, Bella always fights for what she wants.

There are two last things that I need to disagree with Nevadagrrl about: Bella’s sexuality and her sacrifice of her life for Edward.

First, Nevadagrrl handily provides a passage from the book to demonstrate Bella’s discomfort with her sexual desire:

"There really was no excuse for my behavior. Obviously I knew better by now. And yet I couldn't seem to stop from reacting exactly as I had the first time. Instead of keeping safely motionless, my arms reached up to twine tightly around his neck, and I was suddenly welded to his stone figure. I sighed, and my lips parted."

Nevadagrrl says that this demonstrates Bella’s shame about her desire. I think that is wrong. What if we reversed the genders of the two people in the passage? Bella is appealing to the “my desire is so great that it can’t be controlled” schpiel that is so often used as an excuse for unwanted sexual activity. It’s not shame she’s expressing, but a romanticized fantasy of ceding control to her desire. And when I described her as a sexual aggressor, I was being hyperbolic—I only meant that she takes the sexual initiative in their relationship.

The last thing Nevadagrrl and I disagree on here is the question of Bella sacrificing her life and soul for Edward. On some level I think this is indicative of a larger difference in interpretation—what to read metaphorically and what to read more literally. There are some things I understood more literally—such as Bella’s fear of aging—that Nevadagrrl read metaphorically, while the opposite is true about her transformation into a vampire. I don’t see it at all as Bella losing her life or her soul; she loses her former physical limitations. She loses a kind of innocence and instead gains all kinds of power.

Lastly, I think Nevadagrrl’s parallel with Buffy and Angel was useful. It’s true that how their romance concluded showed a much more adult and nuanced understanding of the place of love in the life of a mature individual. Romantic love is often not the most important concern in one’s life. But Stephanie Meyer is clearly a fanatical devotee of true-lovism, and would never let that truth stand in the way of her story. By the end, I think the story is pretty ludicrous, but I do think that Edward’s change from Bad boy to good (thanks Lucky Sweetheart!), and from domineering super hero to being less powerful than Bella, is indulging deep fantasies of both subordination and empowerment.
Sarah,
This was wonderful to read. I have been disturbed by the willingness of women critics to tear apart the Twilight series, without serious consideration of why it might appeal to readers. It seems that having a largely-female reader base and a female author makes it easy to dismiss. It reminds me of female critics of Hillary Clinton in the last campaign. I think examining the critiques is more telling than examining the book.
From a writer's perspective, I find a lot of the critique amusing. Bella is built as a likeable character - she's intended to be average, clumsy and a little insecure, responsible and caring. She's not materialistic or vain. She knows what she wants - Edward. She chooses to trust him. She loves and is loved. He saves her and she saves him. Their love is tested and triumphs. It's not a complicated story.
Is it realistic? No. Are most heroic epics realistic? No. It represents an ideal, in which a female character is loved despite her flaws and overcomes them. The men in the story are idealized. They love faithfully and protect and care for Bella. There are other male characters, such as James, who stalked Bella, or Sam, who hurt Emily, who are clearly intended as contrasts to this.
I think a story that was neutered by removing all signs that Bella was concerned about her looks, any violence, any struggle for power within a relationship would be unrealistic and, worse, no fun to read.
Anne Rice's earlier writing is literature. I find her writing as gorgeous as Dickens or Austen.
I read the book and couldn't finish it. It waxed a little too harlequin for my tastes. Also, Edward is 17, but he's been 17 for somewhere around 100 years, so how old is he really? I really got turned off when I got the scent of this glorified pedophilia. My niece, who loaned me the book, thought I was out of my mind when I told her why I didn't like the book. Never saw the movie.
Nevadagrrl, thanks for a great response.. having neither read nor saw.. but witnessed this phenomenon.. and having a young daughter.. I'm glad you evolved this analysis.. I was interested in Sarah J's concept of sexual fantasy.. until I came back to reality about the premise that this targets normal unexperienced and virginal females.

Thanks for the great reality check.

Sarah J.. great offering.. it was worth a spin.. I haven't gotten to your rebuttal yet.. but I will.

Nice job.
So many comments, so little 'comment' sense.. Edward is the ultimate boyfriend for the young and inexperienced girl; he has absolute power and is afraid of but in absolute control of his libido (translated as blood-lust in this epic) and is therefore not only completely safe but is the ultimate protector/father-figure, being a BMD (Boyfriend of Mass Destruction).

The girl watching sees someone pale, interesting, sensitive, lonely liker her, a loner/bad boy who is at once jealous but in control of/letting her control his rage, overwhelmed by feelings/sexual longing but frightened of it, sexually attractive but frightened of sex, etc. Just like her, in fact.

She (the young female watcher) is living in a society which sells her images of sexuality 24 hours a day and is constantly trying to process and re-process her packaged self as a sexual consumer and sell it back to her. Result? She is experiencing the awakening of herself as a sexual being in a society and at a time where that sexuality is being sold to her as a constant source of fear and uncertainty - Edward represents a zone of absolute safety in which she can experiment with her sexual desires in the secure knowledge that he will no take advantage of it and will prevent her from hurting herself....

'submissiveness'? What books have you guys been reading?? This is about EMPOWERMENT, for crissakes! Young girls being introduced to a panorama of all of their fears about sex and themselves, which are answered in a TV show about an uber-boyfriend - what's not to like?
While Edward, may lust for Bella's blood, and her scent may be his personal brand of heroin, but although it goes unsaid, he falls in love with her because she is the first being, human or otherwise, with that most romantically alluring quality--mystery!