When I mentioned I was planning to read Stephenie Meyer’s young adult vampire blockbuster Twilight, many people reacted with puzzlement. Why was a reading a book with so many negative reviews, so many articles about the disturbing gender roles and creepy romance? Partly it was curiosity, to see if there’s anything to explain why these books hit such a chord with female readers, much like I read (and enjoyed) Harry Potter to see what all the fuss was about, but mostly it was because I don’t like writing off books without actually reading them just because everyone else says they are rubbish.
Twilight is the story of Bella Swan, who selflessly moves from California to live with her dad, the sheriff of the small, exceptionally damp town of Forks, Washington. There she meets the mysterious and pale Edward Cullen, falls in love, meets his family of equally pale and attractive vampires, and has a run-in with a nasty vampire before the Cullen family rescue her and Edward takes her to the prom. While I was prepared for how much of the book is devoted to the love story, I didn’t realise how lacking in plot it actually is. For 300 pages we follow Bella around as she goes to school, is terrible at gym, makes dinner and does the laundry, and has lots of teenage angst, before she and Edward actually go skipping through the meadows and meet the proper villain. Surely there are better ways of portraying the mundanity of Bella’s life pre-Edward than to tell me every detail.
Bella is clearly an attempt at a character the female readers with empathise with – she worries about fitting in at her new school, she’s bad at gym and worries about her clumsiness. Other than that, her personality is a blank slate, which is why it’s so unbelievable that all the boys she meets are attracted to her, and the clumsiness is so exaggerated that she can barely walk a mile without falling over. It becomes an even bigger problem since the whole plot hinges on Bella being Edward’s one true love, and the only evidence we have for that is Edward’s continual declarations that she smells nice and how intriguing she is, mostly because she’s the one woman whose mind he can’t read.
When James the bad vampire turns up, things get more interesting and more disturbing, at least from a gender angle. The vampires are playing baseball, in an unintentionally hilarious scene as they reveal that they can only play baseball during thunderstorms as they hit the ball so hard it sounds like thunder. (And yet the bats and balls can stand up to this treatment.) The vampires in Meyer’s world draw lightly on traditional vampire mythology, as they do drink blood, and get “turned” by another vampire, but other than that they have superpowers – immortal, exceptionally fast and strong, and a variety of powers which allow them to foresee the future, read minds, control emotions, track humans, and also compose heart-rending piano pieces. In a fight between two groups of superpowered individuals, Bella gets literally picked up and carried about, ordered around, and when she decides to confront the villain herself, it all goes wrong and she has to be rescued, and being a first-person narrative we don’t even get to see the fight as Bella is out cold.
While the relationship between Bella and Edward is undoubtedly creepy and disturbing, with Bella lacking in agency and awareness about how weird it is, I was never sure quite how much was deliberate and how much is Meyer unintentionally robbing Bella of her agency because that’s the only way she can think of to make the plot work. There are occasional nods to Bella having thoughts of her own, as she comes up with a plan, or protests a little at Edward ordering her around, but it is unconvincing against such events as how romantic it is that Edward spends his nights sneaking into her bedroom and watching her sleep. The writing might be an attempt to write like a seventeen-year-old girl in love might write, but it is drowning in adverbs; everything is ‘utterly absurd’ or ‘gloriously intense’, Edward has a ‘sculpted, incandescent chest’ and ‘scintillating arms’, and he even has an alabaster brow, which I hope is a nod to Anne of Green Gables but I’m worried it’s meant to be sincere.
I can see why Twilight does appeal to teenagers, because Edward is the perfect, older boyfriend, one of the cool kids from high school, who takes her out to dinner and wants to know all about her, always the one restraining himself from taking the relationship further while Bella is eager to progress. I don’t worry about teenagers reading it, because I read piles of books with much worse role models and gender issues than this as a teenager. It’s just disappointing that of all the good books out there, so many people are obsessing over it, but if I could predict what book would sell a million copies I’d have a lot more money.
Your Twilight linkapalooza:
Helen-keeble is more forgiving than I am, and has interesting theories on why Bella appeals to teenagers.
The first of Cleolinda’s many Livejournal posts.
Ide Cyan at the Feminist SF blog talks about the cultural positioning of Twilight.
A feminist takes on Twilight’s abstinence message.
Liz Henry is enjoying it so far (it’s true that Bella does think about how she might think about hurting her attempted muggers, but then Edward comes along and rescues her and tells her how she needs a healthy does of fear).
A set of Livejournal posts on Twilight and mormonism.
And just for the funny, Growing Up Cullen, which fills in what Edward was doing for years and years waiting for his true love to turn up.