Dear Readers,

I now consider this blog to be my Juvenelia. Have fun perusing the archives, and find me at my new haunt, here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

My Thoughts on The Twilight Saga, at last

So this weekend I put up my feminist critique of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga at HuffPo. I talked about how the book capitalizes on unfortunate sexual mores to create an irresistible pull for young (err, and not so young) readers.

But what makes the Twilight saga particularly fascinating and disturbing are the sexual currents that run through its pages. Like American culture itself, Twilight is both lascivious and chaste. Meyer, a practicing Mormon, has said she draws a line at premarital sex for her characters. But, as Times columnist Gail Collins noted last month, boyfriend Edward holds the line, not heroine and narrator Bella. Bella, after all, is so hot for Edward she tells him she's going to "spontaneously combust" and frequently forgets to breathe when he kisses her.

Meanwhile, he is equally besotted with her, so much so that he trains himself to ignore his thirst for her blood, which has an aroma that could make even a good vampire (Edward and his coven have forsworn munching on humankind) go bad. Yet Edward still won't go all the way because he doesn't want to get carried away and hurt Bella with his superhuman strength. Her physical safety becomes a symbolic substitute for her virginity, and Edward guards it with overprotective zeal.

Now that's a real fantasy: a world where young women are free to describe their desires openly, and launch themselves at men without shame, while said boyfriends are the sexual gatekeepers. Twilight's sexual flowchart is the inversion of abstinence-only/purity ball culture, where girls are told that they must guard themselves against rabid boys, and that they must reign in both their own and their suitors' impulses. But even while inverting the positions, Meyer doesn't change the game. Purity is still the goal.
Obviously, Edward and Bella are totally heteronormative, patriarchal, whitewashed characters, which perpetuates a lot of bad messages teens are getting.

But when it comes to my personal reaction to the books. Look, they were retro and problematic and the heroine sucked, but they did something amazing for me, which is get me back into reading in this incredible I MUST KNOW WHAT HAPPENS way. I thirsted for the books like Edward thirsts for Bella's blood. And when I was done, I wanted to read something, anything, just to continue feeling the magic of reading! Yay!

There is something more sexy than all the sexiness in the world about just a hint of desire deferred, let's be real. Meyer took that and ran with it. And kept running. All the way to the bank.

Cheating with the Classics

Meyer is an admitted Austen and Bronte (and LM Montgomery!) fan. I think her formula is this: she merely lifts the sexually-fraught elements from those famous novels and stretches them out for 4,000 pages. Edward's the Byronic hero of the Bronte ouvre without any of the ugliness or meanness (so yes, he's more boring) but with all that deep, savage desire: remember when Rochester sleeps outside Jane's door, or when Heathcliff bangs his head against the tree? He's Darcy without the snobby relatives. Meanwhile, Bella is Lizzy/Jane without... umm... any of their characteristics. All the easier for the reader to imagine she's the one lusting after vampire sex.

Imagine the ending of a really good novel, where all the romantic tension leads up to one moment of realization. "Twilight" captures the feeling of going back to Pride and Prejudice and reading the proposal scene at the end over and over again: "dearest, loveliest Elizabeth." I mean, who hasn't done that? Or when you're younger, reading the end of "Anne of the Island" repeatedly when Anne's best frenemy Gilbert Blythe is dying and Anne realizes she loves him and then he gets better and it's so romantic. How about the scene at the end of Jane Eyre when Jane pours blind Rochester his tea and he starts going crazy because he realizes it's her and she's back (that scene makes me tear up just thinking about it)?

These totally romantic and sexy scenes are the icing on the cakes of novels that deal with tons of issues in human society, from gender and class to families and social ills. Twilight--is just the icing. And yummy icing it is.

[I'd add that the only really insightful thing Meyer had to say about literature was when Edward and Bella are discussing Heathcliff and Cathy and she says something to the effect of "their love was the only redeeming thing about them." Which I thought summed up a lot about Wuthering Heights fairly well!]

Twilight & co would have been even better if Edward and Bella had been realer, but I came to realize when reading it that vampires aside, it's actually way more a romance novel than a fantasy: and romance is essentially wish-fulfillment done in a talented way.

Breaking Down over Breaking Dawn: The Fan Revolt
(spoiler alert for fans, boring detail alert for non-fans!)

But one of the reasons fans were so pissed about the final installment of Twilight was that it made this romance/fantasy split more clear, and a lot of them were expecting fantasy due to the supernatural elements.

Fantasy novels are about other worlds, with rules. These guidelines make alternate worlds realistic and allow them to reflect back on our world. And readers become become immersed in these well-established worlds, taking to heart things like how tall hobbits are and what wizards can and cannot do. (No, Harry can't fix his eyesight, or make food appear, haters). So when fans think that vampires can't have babies, or that newborn vampires cannot control their impulse to suck blood, they expect the author to stick to those rules. Meyer reneged on a bunch of things she'd established and that felt like a trust violation.

The other reasons fans were upset were because Breaking Dawn was all about the babiez. Lots of teenagers, contrary to popular belief, are not all that interested in odes to the joys of motherhood. They were interested in the danger/enticing double message re:sex that Meyer set up, because that's relevant to their lives. But when sex after marriage was revealed in BD to be awesome! and motherhood was peachy! even when the baby is a mutant spawn! the novel lost a lot of that tension that pulled it along.

Finally, fantasy novels are all about a Quest, and the heroes of quests have to be victorious, but lose things along the way. Meyer's readers wanted Bella to have to give something up to have her happily ever after. Normally, the candidates for things-to-be-given-up would be Jacob, the best-friend-with-a-crush, or Charlie, the-dad-who-will-be-tasty-to-vampire-Bella.

She gets em both though, with the nasty "Jacob imprinting on baby Nessie" plot twist cementing the deal. It was so disappointing to me that Meyer didn't follow up on the burgeoning ADULT relationship between Jacob and Leah Clearwater. I would have loved to see Bella adjust to Jacob finding something new and moving on. And imagine how their relationship would have affected the pack dynamic.

Still, the book managed to replicate the breakneck pace of its predecessors, and vampire Bella had some badass aspects to her like her arm-wrestling prowess.

So Should You Read 'Em?

I think the books are fairly harmless despite their flaws and bad message. I mean, reading Oliver Twist won't make you an anti-semite if you aren't one, and Twilight won't make you hate women and cling to patriarchy unless you're already an emo-Edward fangirl candidate.

So I say, read away! And share em with the teenage girls in your life, being 100% sure to talk to them about the troubling elements. Stephanie Meyer's no feminist hero, but she can spin a yarn. And yarns are particularly good at helping us get through our humdrum lives.


  1. Here's my question - what percentage of the series would you say is the romance element? I like well written vampire novels, I'll admit, but as a lesbian I've really found myself wanting to throw up at some of the cheesy heteroromance lines in the ones I've read recently. Is the plotline itself driven by romance, or is that just a sidenote?

  2. wow, this is a really great blog you have here ... i found you via 2nd avenue sagas!!

    i hope you don't mind if i link to you on my own (sadly inferior) blog. i want you to be handy so i can check in on a daily basis!

  3. Judith: The first couple of novels are more about romance than vampire stuff, particularly the first. I'm not sure the vampire element will satisfy you, but I recommend trying the fist book, which is the best... maybe borrow from a friend before you commit to purchasing such a hefty book!

    Anita: Thanks, and sure! Welcome! I look forward to checking out your blog as well.

  4. This is a really well written reaction to the whole Twilight thing, so thank you. My own reaction is more along the lines of "so unfeminist, and yet so entertaining!" My younger sister reads these books and we often rant about how retro they are with respect to sex and gender roles (Meyer is a Mormon and former stay-at-home mom, after all, and sometimes I feel that she can't quite divorce herself from Bella). Anyway, yeah, they are addictive, but problematic, as you say. Just like The Hills.