Vampires Are Not the Scariest Aspect of Twilight: A Feminist Discourse
By Christina Yglesias
Since 2008 the Twilight movie franchise, which is centered on the human- vampire romance of Bella and Edward, has carved out a huge slice of popular culture. The movies have spawned hoards of fans and large quantities of various Twilight related merchandise items (even Jamba Juice has a line of “just bitten” smoothies). Those who do not love Twilight love to hate it. With its melodramatic acting, cliché story and dialogue, sparkly vampires, and silly CGI werewolves, Twilight is an easy target for poking fun. Since the release of Twilight, the first of the five movie Saga, a huge number of amateur and professional spoofs, parodies, and satires have flooded the Internet. Despite all of the teasing, according toboxofficemojo.com, the Twilight Saga is the “first franchise ever to have three movies earn over $130 million in their first three days” (Ray). Considering the other movie franchises that have been popular with young audiences in the recent past including Harry Potter, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, the Daniel-Craig-as-James-Bond movies, Lord of the Rings trilogy, and others, it’s hard to imagine that Twilight can boast even more consistent profits. One might argue that Twilight ’s female protagonist and the focus on romance could be what sets it apart. The other franchises are focused on male protagonists and rarely pass the Bechdel test. (This test demands the movie must portray at least two named female characters that talk to one another about something other than men.)
On the surface, simply having a female protagonist would make Twilight seem like a step in the right direction for female portrayal in contemporary cinema. Upon deeper analysis, however, Twilight ‘s representation of women is oppressive and anti-feminist. The Saga is extremely problematic in the way that it presents Bella and her relationship with Edward. In Twilight, beneath the distractions of special effects, vampires, and werewolves, gender stereotypes abound, women are weak and dependent on men, and Victorian morals show sexuality as a dangerous force. Twilight exploits the strong adolescent desire for romance and love to present an unhealthy relationship as the ideal, reinforce oppressive gender roles, condemn female sexuality, and celebrate pro-life ideas.
While it is easy to write off Twilight fans (often referred to as “Twihards”) as mindless, love-starved girls, it is important to note the devices that are used to draw this specific demographic in. Young women become absorbed in the Saga because it plays into common insecurities, fantasies, and ideas about love and romance. In the teen years, dating should serve the purpose of learning about oneself and what one wants in another person. Instead, in Twilight, dating is about the significance of finding true love that will last, literally, an eternity. These ideas shape young women’s thoughts about love and romance, setting up an extremely unrealistic expectation for interpersonal relationships. The overly idealized relationship in Twilight, if used as a means of comparison to “real life” relationships, will leave young women dissatisfied. According to the pop culture analyst and satirist Chuck Klosterman, “The main problem with mass media is that is makes it impossible to fall in love with any acumen of normalcy. There is no ‘normal’ because everyone is being twisted by the same sources simultaneously (Klosterman 4).
The protagonist, Bella, is a flat character who is nearly a blank slate, allowing girls to imagine themselves in her situation. We know little more about her than these qualities: she is clumsy, average looking, insecure, and likes to read. Clearly, these characteristics won’t exclude a lot of potential teen and preteen fans from seeing themselves in Bella. Bella’s lack of depth is offensive in the way that it implies that women are not capable of being complex individuals. To make matters worse, it is this exact anti-feminist implication that actually becomes an advantage, a marketing ploy of sorts, for the Saga’s popularity.
Edward, Bella’s love-interest, is described in much more detail than the protagonist herself. In fact, there is not one multi-faceted female character in the entire five-movie Saga. “Every single female character in the books has a boyfriend that is stronger, smarter, prettier, funnier, more interesting or just plain better than she is. That's not just bad writing, that's giving into every single anti-feminist cliché there is” (Anonymous). This inequality in Bella and Edward’s character development implies that female identity and self-worth hinge on having a relationship with a male. Since Bella’s character is lacking in complexity, she needs to have Edward to be remotely interesting enough to have movies made about her. The young women swept up by Twilight are being conditioned to believe that women are not valued as individuals, but that their identity is reliant on being girlfriends or wives. In contemporary American society, where women have more opportunities than in the past in terms of education and careers, marriage isn’t the only option for financial security. Though the contemporary woman no longer needs marriage because she is capable of providing for herself, Twilight implies that she still has no significance without finding an “ideal” man to complete her life.
Further, Edward and Bella’s characteristics fall into painfully stereotypical gender roles. Edward is incredibly strong, chivalrous, and brave; he hunts for his meals, fights for Bella’s safety, solves problems, and open doors for Bella. The women in the series go shopping, enjoy romantic comedies, and talk about men. All of the movies do pass the Bechdel test, but this is not enough reason to think that the Saga is progressive or feminist, in any way. “In Twilight, traditional gender stereotypes abound. The principal male characters, Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are muscular and unwaveringly brave, while Bella and the other girls bake cookies, make supper for men, and have all female slumber parties” (Ames 40). While there is nothing wrong with Bella enjoying these “feminine” activities, it is problematic that she doesn’t seem to do anything else. Since Edward demonstrates strength, cunning, and bravery, Bella doesn’t need to demonstrate any of these more “masculine” traits. She would be a more developed, stronger character if she did, but it might also make her relationship with Edward less imperative. Twilight reinforces the gender stereotypes that limit the potential women have for being multi-faceted individuals.
Shortly after moving to a small town in Washington, Bella becomes the object of desire for a small handful of young men, most of whom are her new schoolmates at the local high school. There are approximately five male characters that express varying levels of interest in Bella in the first movie alone. Several of these characters ask her to be their prom date, but she turns down everyone except for Edward. The idea that a supposedly unexceptional girl in an environment as superficial as high school is so desired that men literally and figuratively fight for her is almost as much of a fantasy as the aspects of vampires and werewolves in the Saga. Adolescence is a time when the desire for romantic attention is strong and sought after, so it makes sense that young women would enjoy imagining themselves Bella’s place, with many handsome boys affirming her. Part of the problem is that Kristen Stewart, who plays the apparently average-looking Bella, is, in fact, beautiful and thin. If ordinary in Twilight is actually beautiful in “real life,” then the standard is set unrealistically high. Most young women will compare themselves to Bella only to find themselves less attractive. What is more problematic is that Twilight implies that romantic attention is what a woman should dream about for her future. While finding a compatible partner is by no means something that an individual shouldn’t want, it should be subordinate or complementary to other meaningful goals in life.
While the relationship between Bella and Edward is supposed to represent “true love” and ideal romance, the gender dynamics of the relationship are extremely unhealthy. Bella’s extreme clumsiness and tendency to get into unsafe situations makes her an extremely vulnerable character. Her helplessness in the face of danger presents her to be more girl than woman, more child than adult. In fact, she is often picked up and carried by male characters, at times of weakness and also at times of romance. In Twilight Edward even compares himself to a lion and Bella to a lamb. Bella is so weak and accident-prone that she is completely incapable of keeping herself alive and safe. Bella literally needs men to survive. Throughout the movies, Edward saves her from a group of rapists, an out-of-control van about to crush her, lots of vampires that want to kill her, and other life-threatening situations. Jacob, a werewolf and the rival for Bella’s attention, also helps protect her, saving her from drowning and helping fight off killer vampires. The Saga offends feminism because it portrays women as feeble creatures that cannot manage to be self-sufficient.
Because Bella often faces mortal peril, a contemporary reincarnation of the earlier “damsel in distress” character, Edward goes to extreme measures to keep her safe. He watches her sleep at night, he follows her, he reads her friends’ thoughts (his special vampire power lets him read minds, but Bella is inexplicably immune to this), he tells her to lie to her family, and he hides her away from danger. In Eclipse, Edward even removes the engine from Bella’s truck to prevent her from visiting Jacob. Edward is extremely protective, controlling, and jealous, which are all characteristics of an abusive partner. In the context of a normal relationship this behavior would be considered reason for a restraining order. However, Bella’s vulnerability makes these controlling, stalker-like behaviors seem benevolent and romantic, because he is just trying to keep her from harm. Emotionally, they both feel strongly for one another, but Edward does not need Bella for protection (since he is strong, fast, smart, and immortal), which sets up an unequal gender dynamic in the relationship. This unbalanced dynamic also manifests itself in small details. In an early scene in the Twilight, after whisking Bella away from a group of potential gang rapists in a dark alley, Edward tells her friends, “I think I should make sure Bella gets something to eat.” His wording, as opposed to a more normal request if she is hungry or would like dinner, shows that Bella’s wishes are an afterthought to Edward. Twilight presents Bella and Edward’s abusive relationship as ideal, rather than revealing how unhealthy is truly is.
There also seems to be little actual substance to the relationship Edward and Bella share. They often talk about being in love, but the reasons for this do not include common interests or complementary personality traits. It is implied that their love does not need explanation or reason. Ideas of fate and true love permeate the Saga. Edward and Bella share a love-at-first-sight scene early in Twilight when Bella initially arrives at her new high school. First they spot one another in the cafeteria and then find themselves paired up as lab partners in biology class later. They stare intensely at one another in these scenes. Edward’s reaction to seeing Bella for the first time is extreme; he shudders, stares and covers his mouth with his hand. (We find out later that he finds Bella’s scent unbearably delicious, and had the intense desire to kill her and drink her blood.) All of the movies spend a lot of screen time showing Bella and Edward staring speechlessly at one another, a supposed visual manifestation of their love. In fact, their love is apparently so strong and irrevocable that after only a few months of knowing one another, they are speaking of plans to not only spend their entire lives with one another, but all of eternity together. Their love, void of any real reason for existing other than fate and the scent of Bella’s blood, sets up an impractically idealist example for young women to measure relationships by.
Bella becomes so absorbed in her relationship with Edward that it completely controls and shapes her life. When Edward and Bella are together, she neglects her friendships, family, and probably her schoolwork. She never appears to have any hobbies or interests of her own. Contrastingly, Edward, who is much more multidimensional and interesting than she is, has hobbies and interests. He has a large music collection, can play the piano, and knows how to ballroom dance. As soon as Bella meets Edward, her whole life becomes about him. Edward is her first boyfriend and her first and only lover, so she has never experienced being with anyone else. Rather than dating throughout her teen years and young adulthood, Bella gets married to Edward at age eighteen and immediately has a child. Marriage and motherhood become her path, rather than going to college like the rest of her peers. Although the Saga has a happy ending, this would not likely be the case if this sort of romance occurred off-screen. In fact, it has been statistically proven that women who are educated, financially independent, and that get married later in life have low divorce rates. Although Bella and Edward stay together for eternity in Twilight, those who believe in the immorality of pre-marital sex (as does Edward) often marry younger and have higher divorce rates than those who marry later in life (Fillipovic).
In New Moon, the second movie, Edward leaves Bella because he believes their relationship is unhealthy for her (which is true). While he is gone she is depressed, detached from friends and family, and plagued by night terrors. She even resorts to engaging in dangerous behavior because when she does so, she sees apparitions of Edward. In one scene, Bella cliff jumps alone into turbulent ocean waters (which also happen to contain an evil vampire that is trying to kill her). While she underwater and near drowning she sees a vision of Edward. In other words, she is willing to risk her life in order to see a fleeting glimpse of her ex-boyfriend. Since Edward has become essentially her entire life, she is shattered when he leaves. She is incapable of being happy, stable, or satisfied with her life without Edward. Twilight preaches that it is acceptable for a woman to be so dependent on a male partner that being without him brings on extreme misery.
The only thing that can make Bella feel remotely better while Edward is gone is spending time with another male, Jacob the teen werewolf. Also, since Edward is not around to protect her safety and Bella is incapable of taking care of herself, Jacob steps in and becomes her protector. (As mentioned earlier, Bella cliff-jumps to see visions of Edward, and Jacob rescues her from drowning.) Bella and Jacob develop a close friendship, and because of this she feels slightly less sad about Edward’s absence. He is in love with her (which is no surprise since nearly every male character expresses desire for Bella) and she also expresses a reserved amount of interest in him. It seems that Bella needs to have a man in her life at all times in order for her to be happy. Although Jacob helps improve her spirits, nothing can replace what she had with Edward, and she is still plagued by nightmares and her addiction to find ways to see visions of Edward. The underlying message here is that women need men, not only for protection, but also for general happiness.
Bella’s near drowning experience triggers a Romeo-and-Juliet-like response from Edward. Since he can read minds, and his sister can see visions of the future, he sees his sister’s vision of Bella jumping off a cliff. He believes that Bella has killed herself out of the grief of losing him. Stricken with remorse, realizes he cannot live without her, and decides to kill himself. Since committing suicide is more complicated for vampires, he travels to Vatican City so that the Volturi (which are essentially the evil vampire mafia) will kill him. Edward’s sister finds Bella to share the news, and they fly off to Italy to perform a last minute rescue. Finally, the roles have been reversed and Bella saves Edward. One might argue that this action demonstrates Bella’s courage and strength. However, this brief exercising of bravery is motivated by the fact that she cannot be happy without Edward. Further, when they are dramatically reunited, she becomes insecure and self-deprecating once again. Even after he has tried to kill himself out of love for her, she cannot understand how he could love someone as average as she. When Edward explains his love and desperation that led him to attempted suicide, she says, “But I’m nothing,” to which he replies, “You’re my everything.” In Romeo and Juliet, the lovers actually end up dead and the story is a tragedy. In the Twilight fantasy world, all irrational decisions that are driven by love still ultimately lead to a happily-ever-after fairytale ending. While the series would likely be unpopular if it were not for this positive resolution, Twilight’s completely implausible ideas surrounding love have the power to become “normal” in the young female fan’s mind.
Edward’s true age, another problematic aspect of the relationship, is not only disturbing but a vehicle to bring Victorian morals, particularly those surrounding sexuality and marriage, into their contemporary relationship. While Edward will have the attractive body and face of a seventeen year old for all of his immortal life, he is actually one hundred and nine years old. In New Moon, Bella jokes, on her eighteenth birthday, about the fact that she should be disgusted the fact that he is an “old man” but then proceeds to kiss him passionately. The huge age difference brings to mind an Oedipal complex, accentuated by his protective nature and the way she is often treated like a helpless child. His age is not only creepy, but also a sly plot device to incorporate ideals of virtuousness and abstinence into Edward and Bella’s relationship. According to an examiner.com article, “To put it simply, Edward Cullen is the gentleman that the Victorian generation raised and bred unleashed upon modern-day moviegoers” (Van Horn). Edward’s morals, which he forces Bella to abide by, literally sets the position of women back over one hundred years.
Edward, guided by his Victorian ideals, polices Bella’s sexuality in order to protect her virtue and her life. Bella finds herself extremely physically attracted to Edward. He feels the same way, but he is plagued by an intense thirst for her blood. (Edward and his family do not kill humans; they only drink animal blood for sustenance.) He is afraid to get too passionate for fear of “losing control” and hurting or even killing her. In fact, in Twilight he describes how intense this thirst is by comparing Bella to, “his own personal brand of heroin.” This concern for her safety is simply a way for the moralistic ideas of chastity and purity to enter into the Saga. In Twilight, female sexuality needs to be policed by a stronger, more virtuous man. Edward and Bella’s first kiss scene occurs after Bella catches Edward watching her sleep. (He has been sneaking into her room through her window every night for months to do so. Bella is not disturbed by this stalker behavior, but is flattered by it. ) When their make-out session begins to get too passionate, Edward recoils violently from Bella and forcefully tells her to stop. She apologizes sheepishly, as if it is her fault that he wants to drink her blood. In Twilight sexuality is something to be ashamed of, rather than a normal, healthy part of development. Throughout the series, similar encounters occur when they kiss. Bella’s sexual desires are nearly uncontrollable, but Edward always stops things from going further, sometimes with physical force. Bella and Edward never share any intimacy other than fully clothed kisses until after their marriage in Breaking Dawn: Part 1. It could be argued that part of the reason Bella agrees to marry Edward is because it is the only way he will indulge her lust. Although pre-marital sex is deemed immoral in the Saga, it could actually serve to test for compatibility in real-life relationships. (As mentioned earlier, women who have pre-martial sex and therefore marry later in life tend to have lower divorce rates.)
Edward refuses to defile Bella’s virtue through sexual acts until they marry, but even then her frailty poses a huge problem. In Breaking Dawn: Part 1, they have a dramatic white wedding right after they graduate from high school. He takes her on a romantic honeymoon on a remote island, where they consummate their marriage. However, because she is a fragile human and he is an incredibly strong immortal, he accidentally hurts her in the midst of their passions. The bed literally breaks, down pillows are torn up, and Bella is covered in bruises the next morning. Edward is angry with himself for hurting her, but Bella tells him that it felt right in the moment, so she does not mind. She also blames herself and apologizes, as if it is her fault that Edward has harmed her. Instead of being traumatized by her physically harmful “first time” Bella tries to seduce Edward over and over in the next few scenes. Once again, Edward polices Bella’s sexuality because he is afraid of harming her. Although marriage allows them to have sex without moralistic guilt, Bella’s weakness and vulnerability paired with Edward’s inhuman strength makes intimacy harmful (but only for Bella). Twilight denies female sexuality for the first three movies and in the fourth shows viewers that is if harmful.
Bella’s first sexual experience leaves her bruised, but has even more damaging consequences. She immediately gets pregnant with a fast-growing vampire baby. Her human body is incapable of carrying a vampire child, so the fetus beings killing her. So not only is sex dangerous for Bella, but her sole sexual experience threatens her life almost immediately. The pregnancy causes her to lose so much strength and mass that her body is clearly a computer generated image of an emaciated body. She even drinks blood to feed the growing vampire. Edward and his father figure try to convince Bella to have an abortion out of concern for her life (although the word abortion is never actually used), but she refuses because she cannot bear to kill Edward’s child. She would rather die than harm the baby. Even most pro-life advocates allow for exceptions if the mother’s life is in danger, but Bella’s decision is as conservative and pro-life as possible. While some argue that Bella is simply exercising choice in a feminist fashion, her decision is largely based upon the fact that she does not want to harm Edward’s child. Further into the pregnancy, the strength of the fetus literally breaks Bella’s back. Edward ends up biting and cutting the child from her womb while her heart stops beating. He then injects her with vampire venom and bites her all over, hoping to turn her into an immortal vampire before she dies. Her decision not to terminate the pregnancy literally leads to her death, but the fantastical aspects of the story serves as a caveat. She can maintain her staunchly pro-life decision, have her child, and still end up unharmed. If this scenario occurred in “real- life” Bella would be dead and the child would be motherless. Twilight shows girls that one, sex is dangerous and potentially fatal, and two, that their lives are less important than pro-life values.
The most frightening aspect of Twilight’s anti-feminist implications is that it is extremely popular with the very demographic, young women, that it has the most potential to influence negatively. Twilight’s impact should not be ignored or reduced to spoofs. Popular media plays a huge role in the socialization of adolescence, giving Twilight the power to significantly influence a huge number of impressionable teens and pre-teens. Under the Saga’s Hollywood action/romance allure lurk ideas that set feminism back years and years. The blood sucking, hard as marble vampires are not what makes Twilight scary. It is the reality that this franchise, which portrays women as dependent damsels-in-distress, reinforces pathetically contrived gender roles, and warns of the supposed dangers of sexuality, can be accepted in our contemporary society that is the most horrific.
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