I didn’t expect Twilight to be scary, but having read it, I find it truly horrific. I wasn’t expecting great literature; just an entertaining, escapist fantasy about vampires. The saga certainly delivered that. While the story was fairly predictable, I enjoyed it and, at times, found the books difficult to put down. Some of the clichés annoyed me, as did the domestication of one of my favourite monsters, but none of that was unexpected, and putting those irritations aside, it was still an entertaining read and provided the easy escapism I was after.
What I hadn’t been prepared for was the extraordinarily damaging anti-feminist message. Due to it’s phenomenal success, this book has power. It also has some very disturbing messages that have the potential to influence the ideas and aspirations of a generation of young women.
Bella Swan is the idealised heroine of the story. She is a potent role model for young women. When we first meet her, she is a fairly ordinary teenage girl who tries hard to blend in with others at high school. Readers will identify with her easily. Of course, as the story progresses, it quickly becomes clear that she isn’t ordinary at all. Bella is something special.
She has many apparently admirable qualities. Bella is modest for a start. She is also clearly intelligent, having studied the advanced level of science at her previous school. She is unselfish and from the very first chapter commences a pattern sacrificing of her own happiness for the well-being of others. She is mature beyond her years and plays the parent role in many of her interactions with both her mother and father.
With a heavy dose of self-sacrifice, Bella convinces her mother that she wants to leave sunny Phoenix to live with her father in miserable, wet Forks. She doesn’t want to do this at all, but knows it will free her mother to follow her new husband as he pursues his career. After the move, Bella’s mother sends her frequent, neurotic emails which Bella responds to with great wisdom and patience. In one email, the mother does not know where her shirt is, but Bella helps her find it. It is clear that she looked after her mother a lot,
Bella’s father also requires looking after. After years of bachelorhood, he still cannot cook anything other than fried eggs. Realising this, Bella quickly takes on the roles of shopping, cooking and cleaning. She prepares food and cleans the kitchen while her father drinks his beer and watches sport. Need I point out what is wrong with this picture? There doesn’t appear to be any problem with that arrangement for either Bella or her father though, because it continues, unchallenged or questioned by either of them, throughout the entire saga.
Bella is entirely passive in her interactions. This seems to be a virtue. Through absolutely no effort of her own, Bella quickly gains a large group of friends. She displays little interest in them, and behaves indifferently most of the time, but perhaps her friends interpret this as being easy-going, because they all seem to want her to stick around. There is no evidence of assertiveness in Bella, or any ability to be proactive.
With no effort or encouragement, Bella quickly has a queue of young men anxious to take her out. They are persistent, in spite of her polite and repeated rejections.
And so the virtues of being modest, self-sacrificing, nurturing and passive are established early on as admirable and desirable in women.
The other thing that bothers me about Bella is that, in spite of her obvious potential, intelligence and independence, she gives up everything: her family, friends, education, any possible career and her independence, all for her one true love.
She gives away her independence first. From half-way through the first novel, Bella ceases to even walk. Edward, who is oh-so-strong and fast, picks her up and carries her everywhere. While she was at first delighted with the truck her father gave her, which enabled her a further measure of independence, soon Edward drives her anywhere she needs to go. By the end of the series she is also financially dependent. Gone is her part-time job at the sportswear store. She doesn’t need to work now, because she has married into a wealthy family who provide for her every need.
She gives away her education. While Edward encourages her to go to college, she gives that up because she just wants to be with him, and raise his daughter.
To become a vampire, Bella has to give up all her friendships, other than with Jacob, the werewolf. This doesn’t seem to even remotely bother her. She also has to give up her mother and her father. She is a little more uncomfortable with this sacrifice, but goes ahead anyway. Happily, Bella is able to continue some sort of relationship with her father, but realises she can’t possibly be around her mother any more.
Bella’s world contracts from one that includes family in different parts of the country, a diverse group of friends, a job, and the various opportunities that education provides; to a world that is centred entirely upon Edward, and his family.
And this of course, leads us into the disturbing messages for and about men in the book.
Edward is portrayed throughout the novel as perfection itself. He is unbearably beautiful to look at, and flawless in character. Like Bella, he proves himself to be noble and unselfish – willing to sacrifice his own happiness for Bella’s well-being.
So what do I find wrong with Edward? For a start, he is so paternal in his relationship towards Bella. He, and his family, take decisions out of her hands. At first she is uncomfortable with this, but comes to accept it, because she knows they love her and have her best interests at heart. From quite early in the series, Bella ceases to even make choices about what she will wear. Edward’s sister in-law chooses her clothes instead. Could she be any more dis-empowered than this? While Bella has played the adult role in her relationship with her own mother and father, she is reduced to a child in her relationship with Edward and his family.
Bella’s relationship with Edward begins with emotional abuse. One day he acts repulsed by her, the next day he could not be more charming. As the relationship progresses, he stalks her. We learn that right from the start, Edward would silently enter her bedroom at night and watch her. When Bella discovers this, she finds it very romantic, and encourages him to continue. Later, when Edward does not want Bella to visit Jacob, he arranges his family to spy on her, and when he goes hunting, he arranges her abduction. While Bella does not like being prevented from seeing her friend, she puts up with the abduction because she knows Edward only behaves this way because he loves her.
Now if it was pure fantasy, perhaps their relationship would just seem strange. But the relationship Stephenie Meyer describes is just like those abusive relationships that we hear about too often. The obsessive stalkers. The marriages in which a jealous and controlling husband beats his wife one day, but the next day is charming – he couldn’t help himself, and so she forgives him… again. Husbands who actively discourage their wives from seeing their own friends or family and will conspire to keep them isolated – and away from other influences. The husbands who obsessively control every detail of their terrified wives’ lives: what they will eat, wear and do each day. The relationship between Edward and Bella was so reminiscent of these real life horror stories. It is not okay to dress this up in a vampire tale and call it romance. It’s not romance – its abuse.
Through the characters of Edward and Bella, Stephenie Meyer promotes a model of relationship that is deeply troubling. Bella, once full of potential, becomes a passive, child-like creature who exists only to serve her husband and child. She is happy in this service, because no other way of life could possibly bring her as much joy. Edward is the domineering husband who controls every detail of Bella’s life. He has stalked and abducted her, and abused her emotionally. She forgives and accepts his actions, because she know they were done out of love and concern for her well-being.
Twilight isn’t the light read I expected at all. Instead, it portrays the real life horror stories that many women experience on a daily basis – and dresses them up as romance. Stephenie Meyer, what were you thinking?