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.