If you've been spending time in proximity to teenage girls this week, there's a strong chance you've heard about Edward Cullen. Cullen is the undead hero of bestselling young adult fantasy/romance series The Twilight saga. He's reached heartthrob status in a major way, and he's done it while refusing to devour, or sleep with, the story's heroine, a Jonas Brother for the literary set.
The Twilight books, written by Stephanie Meyer, have been heralded as the next Harry Potter. To bank on the comparisons, Breaking Dawn, the concluding installation, hit bookstores on Saturday with Potter-esque midnight parties, secrecy, and sales in the millions (although they didn't touch HP's numbers, mostly because the fan-base is so exclusively female and post-pubescent).
There's plenty to cheer about when it comes to young girls reading voraciously. The Twilight series is much in the tradition of teen literature such as the Nancy Drew mysteries and Goosebumps. The books are also rife with allusions to Shakespeare, Austen and the Brontes, a nice touch that will inspire fans to hit the classics sections of their bookstores.
Is it "Twilight" for strong heroines?
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. Men, or vampires, are still dangerous and threatening while females are still breakable and fragile. Intercourse still has the potential of resulting in "death," just as it once relegated women to a social death. The only difference is the controls are handed over from the teenage girl to the guy--who happens, in this case, to be totally responsible and upright.
Meyer has tapped into a serious artery of the teen female psyche. Adding to the dynamic is the fact that Bella is a cipher whose only strong impulses are self-sacrifice and vampire lust. She has a glancing appreciation of classic novels and her family, but is easily projected upon by readers, who can imagine themselves in her place and be vicariously wooed by sexy succubi.
Bella's other trait, overwhelming clumsiness, approximates adolescent bodily discomfort--the kind that comes from young women's realization that in a patriarchal society their bodies are now perceived as trouble incarnate. Rescuing Bella from her physical mishaps are Edward and her other suitor Jacob, who happens to be a werewolf. The two of them happily tote her around so much it's a wonder Bella's legs don't atrophy. It would be a far braver move for Meyer to show Bella's relationship helping her grow comfortable in her body. But instead she goes for the cheaper, more seductive, thrill of suggesting that ungainly, weak female bodies are the most attractive to men, that teenage gawkiness could be made into an appealing vulnerability that brings all the supernatural boys to the yard.
The lure of the books is so strong, even for feminist media critics (I devoured them more quickly than vampires catch their pray), that it's disturbing to resurface and ponder how retrograde Meyer's world is. Bella's willingness to sacrifice her physical safety, her education, and her family and social ties for Edward--and the well-meaning but stringent control he exerts over her--are reminiscent, as some readers have said, of abusive relationships.
Talking About Sex--Not Just the Vampire Kind
But teens are unlikely change their views after reading the books: the hopeless romantics will remain so; the pragmatic readers will feel frustrated with Bella. Same goes for the book's take on virginity. It's doubtful Meyer foresaw how much graphic premarital sex in all kinds of gender and species permutations would appear in online fan-fiction. And it appears that Twilight readers' moms have found a good opening to talk about sex with their kids.
Even better, the books have got teens arguing about gender roles, when to have sex, what defines a heroine, and the meaning of true love. Taking a look at some blogs and sites that complain about Breaking Dawn and Twilight in general, one can find feminist arguments galore . The lively debate generated by the books implies that they may do more good than harm.
[Breaking Dawn spoiler alert!]
But alas, the misogynistic climate in the books does harm their quality, particularly in the troubling Breaking Dawn, when Bella decides to sacrifice herself not just for her new husband (who is now at last her lover; she has the bruises and euphoria to prove it), but for her unborn half-vampire child that is so strong it's breaking her ribs in utero. Once her post-pregnancy transformation into a vampire finally gives Bella some strength and power of her own, a new subplot involving the fully-grown Jacob staking a claim to Bella's newborn daughter has icked out even some die-hard fans.
If Meyer had been able to put her "family values" aside to give Bella more spunk (and maybe a college education?) and generally lighten up on the patriarchal subtexts, the saga would improve aesthetically, and maybe, like the Harry Potter canon, reveal truths far beyond teenage wish-fulfillment. Literary feminists can hope that J.K. Rowling gets inspired to write a strong, realistic heroine and show Meyer how it's done. Until then, there's always Buffy.
Originally posted at RH Reality Check