Friday, November 4, 2011

In Defense of Twilight

For all that has been written and said about it, some of it not at all positive, the Twilight saga has garnered quite a fanatical, devoted fan base. I am one of the devoted fans; Meyer won me over despite my repeatedly dismissing her novels as nonsensical teenage fiction. My sister read the novels and loved them, and she, a fellow English major, takes her reading seriously, so I thought there might be something there worth reading.

I caved in November of 2009. I was in Wal-Mart and knew that a friend wanted to go see the soon-to-be-released New Moon movie for her birthday, so I grabbed Twilight and New Moon in paperback. I returned home, unpacked my groceries, and sat in Trey's recliner for the next week reading Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn, taking short breaks to do what was necessary to keep myself sharp enough to be able to continue reading.

In her novels, Meyer deals with themes that resonate with her primarily female audience. These include first love, self-doubt, chastity, the fear of aging, and the desire for family. However, she does this in an unusual way by inserting into her story a vampire named Edward Cullen. He is seventeen years old, and he has been this age since his human life ended nearly one hundred years prior to the opening of Twilight. Thus, he is not your typical seventeen-year-old male. He came of age in the early 1900s, and then he was (literally) frozen at the age of seventeen. Though the book is set in modern times, Edward is not modern. There is nothing conventional about him; intellectually and emotionally he's had a century to mature.

In Edward, Meyer created a male character that females hungrily and crazily devour, which is ironic since seemingly his most obvious vice is his vampiric nature, which dictates his desire to prey on humans. Yet even his status as vampire is used to further elevate him in the eyes of his many female admirers because he denies his thirst for human blood, surviving on the blood of animals. Thus, self-control is added to the list of his many wonderful qualities. Meyer crafted a male character in the vein of Jane Austen's brooding, handsome, and impeccably mannered men, and she found a way to pair him with a modern teenage girl with whom her readers identify, either because Bella reminds them of their own current struggles, or because she takes them back ten (or twenty) years to a time when a shy smile across the lunchroom could make or break your week.

Physically Edward is beautiful and strong. Meyer doesn't go a page without commenting on his extraordinary physical attributes. He is statuesque; his skin is described as marble that, as a bonus, sparkles in the sunlight. His facial features are perfectly angular: high cheekbones, strong jawline, and a straight, perfect nose.  Bella, who narrates the saga, is (in her eyes) a plain, frail, aging human, and this is reinforced as often as Edward's perfection and allure are mentioned. At times Bella is so self-deprecating I wanted to rip pages out of my book and throw it across the room, but I didn't because the only way to spend more time with Edward is via Bella. Sigh.

Bella is constantly in need of rescue. She's a klutz, and when she's not tripping over her own two feet or bemoaning her plainness she's being chased by a supernatural creature who wants to kill her. This all works out well in terms of plot since not only is Edward constantly fretting over her safety (sigh), Bella's best friend is a large boy who occasionally turns into a werewolf, so if Edward's off duty, the wolf has things covered. Things get a bit complicated when the werewolf decides he too loves Bella, but the saga is Edward and Bella's story, and Meyer makes this clear from the beginning, in my opinion.  The movies play up the triangle for dramatic effect (and to afford Taylor Lautner ample opportunity to remove his shirt), but Bella's devotion to Team Edward is a constant in the novels.

I've read a lot about Twilight. Something that has enjoyed the popularity that this saga has catches people's attention, for better or worse. There are colleges that offer classes on the cultural impact of the Twilight series. Seriously. If I didn't have obligations to my husband and child, I'd be sitting in on one of these classes as a visiting student (and I'd probably wear my 'Team Edward' T-shirt the first day of class). It's no surprise that many critics decry the books and the message they send young girls.  Critics are particularly critical of Bella, who they claim sets feminism back years and years. In my opinion, setting feminism back isn't necessarily a bad thing.

This article by Leonard Sax was published in the August 17, 2008, edition of The Washington Post.  Titled, "'Twilight' Sinks Its Teeth Into Feminism," the article highlights what are, in my opinion, some of the main reasons Twilight has enjoyed the success it has, as well as the redeeming qualities of Meyer's series.

Bella, while at times annoying, is decidedly feminine, while Edward is the perfect man (and he should be after a century of working at it, right?). Because he was born in 1901, Edward is nothing if not a gentleman, and because he is a vampire, he is strong and beautiful and virtually indestructible.  Not only that, he is a 'civilized' vampire, and his abstinence from human blood is an obvious parallel to his refusal to take Bella's virginity before she becomes his wife. Sax's basic argument is that it is Meyer's adherence to traditional gender roles that has fueled the success of her saga, and that despite years of gender neutrality being pushed on children from a young age . . . seems that children may know human nature better than grown-ups do. Consider: The fascination that romance holds for many girls is not a mere social construct; it derives from something deeper. In my research on youth and gender issues, I have found that despite all the indoctrination they've received to the contrary, most of the hundreds of teenage girls I have interviewed in the United States, Australia and New Zealand nevertheless believe that human nature is gendered to the core. They are hungry for books that reflect that sensibility. Three decades of adults pretending that gender doesn't matter haven't created a generation of feminists who don't need men; they have instead created a horde of girls who adore the traditional male and female roles and relationships in the "Twilight" saga. Likewise, ignoring gender differences hasn't created a generation of boys who muse about their feelings while they work on their scrapbooks. 

Bella's parents are divorced. She meets Edward because she moves to Forks, Washington, to live with her father, for whom she happily cooks and cleans (can you see the feminists cringing?). Bella frets over her plain physical appearance, especially when compared with Edward's stunning physicality, and she worries about growing old since she has fallen in love with a boy who will forever be seventeen.

From the moment she meets Edward's family, a group of enlightened vampires who strive, like Edward, to tame their impulses, Bella wants to become one of them. She wants to become a vampire so she will be Edward's true equal, but she is also drawn to the family unit of which Edward is a part because her own is dysfunctional. So intrigued by the Cullen family is she that she knowingly decides becoming one of them is what she wants even more than bearing her own children, which is not, in the world Meyer creates, possible for vampires.

Bella is a typical teenage girl who worries about her appearance and is seeking love, acceptance, and family. As a narrator, she is at times nauseating, but that is, in my opinion, an indication that Meyer fairly accurately portrays the inner monologue of a young girl who is uncertain of herself, moves to a new town and new school, and begins her first relationship with a beautiful, mysterious boy who was transplanted from the early 1900s and is part of a family she admires.

If you've read the novels, you know that Bella does in fact become pregnant after she and Edward marry. Meyer, a practicing Mormon, has stated that she did not want her characters having premarital sex. She also contends that she did not include Bella's pregnancy in the final novel in order to make any sort of pro-life statement, but whether that was her intention or not, such a statement is quite obvious. It takes four books, but finally Edward does something that irritates me while Bella takes an applause-worthy stand that puts me squarely in her corner. Edward worries that the baby will kill Bella (since it's half-human/half-vampire . . . it's fiction, folks!). Bella quickly becomes enamored with her child and refuses to allow any speculation that the pregnancy should be terminated.

Bella does in fact die in childbirth (the feminists don't much care for that either), and it is at this point that Edward grants Bella's wish to transform her into a vampire, something noble Edward is adamantly opposed to throughout the saga despite its obvious implications for his own future happiness.

Edward's self-loathing parallels Bella's throughout the novels. They both remain incredulous that the other finds anything redeeming in them, and while Edward repeatedly saves Bella, she also rescues him from his self-imposed exile. Bella offers Edward a redemption he, like every tragic, doomed hero in literature, never thought possible. It's all very Beauty and the Beast, except the 'beast' is a gorgeous, gentlemanly seventeen-year-old vampire who can leap tall buildings and sparkles in the sunlight.

Bella's human life ends as her child is born, but she herself becomes a 'newborn,' the term used to describe new vampires, and she and her daughter join the family that intrigued Bella from the moment she met them. This isn't Hemingway, so no one is left bleeding on a gurney or wandering forlornly in the rain. If she's nothing else as a writer, Meyer is neat and tidy. She leaves no one unhappy and no loose end untied.

As Sax says, human nature is gendered to the core, and no matter how loudly our society beats drums that claim otherwise, Twilight comes along and young women (and cool moms in their thirties) flock to the classically gendered, moral-laden tale that espouses positive messages about embracing gender roles, traditional marriage, chastity, family, and life, even the life of a scary half-human, half-vampire.

Twilight was popular before Robert Pattinson's chiseled face became the face of Edward Cullen, though certainly Pattinson has only bolstered the saga's success, or vice versa, I suppose. If you've only seen the movies, you should read the books. Read the books. Read the books. I hope Reagan reads them one day, and I will certainly encourage it (and sort of already am) . . .

As Bill O'Reilly often asserts, there is a culture war being waged. Small skirmishes are fought daily, many we never hear or read about, and almost every aspect of popular culture, from children's television shows to song lyrics to fanciful vampire fiction, is influenced by one side or the other.

Those insisting the gendered pronouns 'he' and 'she' are offensive and those insisting separate restrooms for men and women are discriminatory are on one side of the Culture War. I posit that Meyer's Twilight series is on the other side of the Culture War. If you don't believe me, do a little research on what many 'scholars' have to say about the saga. They hate it. They want to know why no one is on 'Team Bella.'

In the film version of Eclipse, Bella is discussing her acceptance of Edward's marriage proposal, and upon hearing Edward refer to her as Mrs. Cullen she comments that she might consider hyphenating her name. I was incredulous all five times I saw the film in the theater. This is not in the book, and if I were Meyer I'd have insisted that line be stricken from the script. It is decidedly not something the Bella that Meyer wrote would utter. 

Meyer holds an English degree, and I don't know what, if anything, she knows about psychology, but whether purposefully or not, in the Twilight novels she seizes on issues basic to the human psyche (most notably an innate desire for heavily gendered characters that many of her readers likely don't even realize they have), harnesses them, and crafts a compelling story. She's laughing at her critics, as they say, all the way to the bank.

If your daughter (or girlfriend, wife, mother, or sister) is reading, or has read, Twilight, or is annoyingly giddy about the upcoming film release of Breaking Dawn and searching her closet for her 'Team Edward' T-shirt, cut her some slack. She could be insisting you clean, cook dinner, and always use gender-neutral pronouns.


1 comment:

  1. So glad I found your blog Anna! I really enjoyed the Twilight series and your article is great food for thought :)