No, I haven’t lost my mind. Yes, I still hate Twilight. I honestly can’t believe I’m doing this but I am. Because Twilight has become such a national phenomenon, and because I am making an active effort to find value even in things that piss me off [see this post, for example] I have decided to really test myself by searching for five positive, feminist lessons that can almost be taken from the Twilight novels and films. (I had to add the almost in because finding five true-blue feminist messages in Meyer’s writing is just too damn hard.)
1) Emotional & physical abuse is wrong. I just saw Eclipse with a friend (because she really didn’t want to go alone) and I was this close to being happy with the way that the director choose to portray the scene where Edward messes up Bella’s engine so she can’t go visit her werewolf friend Jacob, and the scene where Jacob kisses Bella against her will. I say almost because, although Bella appeared pissed off at their controlling actions in both situations, she forgave the abusive boys almost instantly and never called their behavior out as controlling or abusive. She did, at least, express anger and annoyance in both moments, and Jacob even admitted he was wrong to force a kiss on her.
In his apology, he promises not to kiss her again unless she asked… however, this apology was somewhat dampened by the emotional abuse he used later in the movie/book to get Bella to ask him to kiss her. (He tells her, essentially, that since she doesn’t love him he may as well purposefully die in battle; this action inspires her to confess her love to him through a kiss.) This is abuse because he is making a threat (killing himself) to manipulate her into doing what he wants (confessing her love.) He does this fully knowing that Edward will read his mind and know what happened; he eventually admits to hoping that Edward would get mad at Bella for the declaration of love/kiss, thus drawing Bella away from Edward and to Jacob.
This whole saga is played off as romantic because Bella’s admission that she really does love Jacob and Edward means that Jacob was just getting her to “admit the truth.” The audience is supposed to pity Jacob because he never gets the girl, while we view his emotional manipulation as a romantic attempt to do everything he can to “fight” for his “true love” rather than what it really is – abuse.
This concept is depicted much more effectively in the novel Dreamland by Sarah Dessen.
2) Women can be just as useful/heroic as men. Bella cuts herself during the epic battle scene at the end of Eclipse, her blood distracts the bad vampires and allows Edward and the werewolf fighting with him to destroy the main villains in the moment that they are distracted and falter. Alice, a Vampire in Edward’s coven, is instrumental in preparing for this battle because she can see the future. Unfortunately, both of these characters are often undermined because they are portrayed as clumsy and co-dependent (Bella) or ditsy and shallow (Alice) more often than they are allowed to be useful and strong. Even the female werewolf, Leah, is depicted as weak more often than not; she is shown as overly emotional (Jacob is frustrated at having to hear her thoughts over being spurned by her lover) as weak as physically weak when a Vampire bests her in battle and Jacob jumps in to rescue her, hurting himself in the process.
None of the male characters in this series seem to have weaknesses and flaws like the female characters do, in fact, the only time they even seem to get hurt is when they are in the process of defending the women in the story.
3) Women have sexual desires as well as men. Bella wants to bang Edward, there’s no question about that… she tries about every trick in the book to seduce him. Edward, on the other hand, is ever the gentleman, he refuses Bella’s advances at every turn. First, because he fears he will not be able to have sex with her without injuring her; and later because he worries that having sex before they get married will compromise her soul.
This message is pretty cool because Bella is depicted as a normal teenage girl, who has sexual desires. It’s honestly interesting to see the male character in the “gatekeeper” role, because usually it’s females who get cast into that part. Its cool to see a man who is not obsessed with getting sex for a change [though it was crappy when someone in the theater yelled out “pussy” at the screen when Edward rejected Bella’s advances in Eclipse… clearly our culture does not know how to handle an impatient woman/man who wants to wait.]
As cool as some of this was, I was not okay with how heavy-handedly Meyer drives home the Virginity Myth & the idea that “virtue” is something that must be guarded. It’s fine for people to believe in saving their first time, but that’s not what seemed to be happening here. Instead, it seemed as if Edward was pushing his morality upon Bella, who had no such notions about sex. His focus was solely on keeping her “pure” and “virtuous” regardless of what she wanted. This heavy-handed stifling of Bella’s sexuality seemed patronizing to me because Edward was not allowing her to come to her own conclusions about the morality of premarital sex.
Plus, after they are married (and finally have sex) Bella ends up bruised because Edward was not able to keep himself from hurting her but this is depicted as acceptable because he loves her and didn’t want to hurt her, it just happened as a byproduct of their passion. I understand that their relationship is not supposed to be realistic (as evidenced by the fact that he’s a freaking vampire) but I’m really uncomfortable with a woman winding up sore, injured, and bruised at the hands of her partner in any concept… even after human/vampire sex. The most disturbing part for me was that Bella didn’t remember any pain at all during the encounter, thus communicating some sort of love-cancels-out-the-pain idea that is completley unrealistic and makes me wonder if she’s suppressing memories. Still, at least Edward was remorseful about her bruises and refused to have sex with her again until she was changed, lest he hurt her… it could have been much, much worse.
I think the Alice novels by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor handle teen sexuality in a more realistic (and less stigmatizing) way, so do the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books by Ann Brashares. These books don’t overly romanticize sex, sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s sucky, but I think they work much better because they don’t try too hard to push one set of morals onto teenage girls.
4) Reproduction should be the decision of the mother. On one hand, Bella decides to continue with her pregnancy despite the fact that everyone around her (including her now-husband Edward) is telling her she shouldn’t keep the baby. This shows agency since Bella is staunchly standing by her own decision, regardless of what others say. This is what the Pro-Choice movement fights for – a woman’s right to do what she feels is right with her body at all times, including during a pregnancy.
That baby that she’s fighting to keep, however, also happens to be killing her. For this reason I find Bella’s choice a little disturbing because the message that is sends is that women who get abortions, even if they do so because the pregnancy is compromising their health, are weak. This is a disturbing message to send in a world where too many women die due to childbirth, and hospitals are still able to deny women the right to an abortion even if the alternative is almost certain death, and a fetus that isn’t viable anyways.
Another Sarah Dessen novel, Someone Like You, sends this message a bit better I think. It’s much more realistic and, while the pregnant character does choose to keep her child despite the pressuring of her mother to abort, the readers gets a better glimpse into the thought process behind her choice and it does not totally stigmatize the idea of aborting for some women. It’s just not what this character wants.
5) Teenager’s feelings should be taken seriously. This message is in the books 100%, no almost about it. Twilight has been so wildly successful, largely because it does not trivialize young love as something fleeting or less real than “adult” relationships. For this, I do appreciate the Twilight books because I was there. I remember feeling infantalized as certain family members and friends refused to take my relationships seriously and, instead, wrote them off as “puppy love.” This novel captures the intensity that comes from so many young romances, and it respects that intensity and does not try to write it off as something shallow and not meaningful.
I’m not saying that the relationships we get into during high school will necessarily be the relationships we remain in as we grow up [although it is possible, and mine is still going strong!] What I’m saying is that teenage love is just as valid and real as the love you feel when you’re older and wiser… and it’s nice to read a novel that understands and respects that.
All of the authors mentioned above also tend to do this – it’s just something that decent young-adult novelists do because successful YA novels portray their teenage characters the way that teenagers really are, the way that we really understand the world and our relationships.
And now I plan to stop thinking about Twilight for a good, long while because this was an exhausting list to make. I’d love to hear if anyone else has something to add though, be it another positive message from Twilight or some more recommendations for awesome YA Novels and authors. Leave a comment if you’re so inclined!