"God showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: 'What can this be?' And it was generally answered thus: 'It is all that was made.' It was so small I thought it might disappear, but I was answered... everything has being through the love of God." --Julian of Norwich

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Twilight and Me, Part 1: A Slightly Off-beat Feminist Critique of the Twilight Saga

 **Warning:  this post contains Twilight plot spoilers, frank talk about sexuality and it's more like a book than a post, but enjoy!**

It’s been a while since I last blogged. I’m sorry. A lot of my time and energy has been absorbed in the past four months or so with the discovery that I’m allergic to corn. ::sigh:: Corn is in everything, from store-bought bread, to anything with baking powder or powdered sugar, to just about anything that comes from a can. This has made life… well, a little hard. But it’s not that I’ve forgotten the blog. Not at all.

Over my reading break last week, I got a bad case of Twilight fever. My sister Katie is addicted to the books and bought advance tickets to the midnight showing of the movie. She showed me the first movie last Christmas when I visited, and I found it to be unbearably cheesy, if somewhat embarrassingly sexy. I flipped through the last book, which she happened to have sitting out, and heard her synopsis of the general story line. I was intrigued, but I dismissed it all as a bit crazy.

Until last week, that is, when I couldn’t get it out of my head. Along with millions of other women around the world, I was hooked. On Saturday night, I caught myself obsessively googling Twilight: New Moon, just to hear the latest news about this peculiar vampire tale. I decided that if I was spending so much time looking at silly Robsten pictures online and if I was a little too poor to go see the movie right away, I may as well see if Vancouver Public Library had the books available. I needed a break from academia anyway. I checked their online catalogue (several times) over the weekend, just to make sure. When the library finally opened on Tuesday, I was there within an hour to check out the first two books.

After running errands and taking care of responsibilities, I settled in. I lit a candle, curled up on my bed with the window open to the chilly gray air, the sound of rain on the eaves and the view of Pacific Northwestern evergreens out the window, and I devoured the first book within about twenty-four hours. The second was done in another 12 hours. I had resolved that I was only going to read two. I had other work to do, I am trying to plan and write a book for crying out loud and I was on the brink of “figuring out” what the book should be about. But I loved the first two books so much that I quickly snatched up the third and finished it over the weekend. Then, since the fourth book wasn’t on the shelf at the library, I read the author’s partial manuscript of Edward’s re-telling of the first book from his perspective, which is available online here. I was completely addicted.

I must admit that this went against all my better judgment as a lover of carefully crafted English prose and as a feminist. On the surface, the stories seemed to be such… well, brain candy. Titillating, but ultimately worthless from a literary perspective (the prose is very purple) and perhaps even misogynistic. But there was something compelling about them that pushed deeper than just their, um, weirdnesses. I took comfort, at very least, that I was only one of a huge number of women of many ages who were also addicted.

The basic plotline of the first book is that seventeen-year-old Bella Swan moves from Phoenix, Arizona to Forks, Washington to live with her dad, after living most of her life with her mother. She’s pretty sure that she’s going to be miserable. On her first day of school, she meets Edward Cullen, a strange boy who is exquisitely handsome but who appears to hate her for no reason. She’s a little hurt, since she’s shy and sensitive, but she moves on with life. One morning he saves her from a car accident with supernatural quickness and strength. Then, he ignores her for weeks, despite the fact they’re supposed to be Biology lab partners. She’s pretty sure he wishes she was dead. Suddenly, though, he starts talking to her again, offering to take her out. She’s suspicious, but curious about this weird guy with lots of secrets. As they start hanging out, it comes out that he’s a mind-reading vampire who has sworn off human blood but the scent of her blood is enough to make him want to break his vow. She decides that it doesn’t really scare her, and they fall in love. He’s a little old-fashioned (since he’s been undead since 1918) and afraid he’ll kill her if he loses control, so sex is out of the question, but they spend just about every waking hour together, and because of his handy vampire breaking and entering skillz, he also spends nights cuddling with her and watching her sleep. The complication comes when a non-“vegetarian” vampire decides he wants Bella’s blood and Edward has to save her life again. It’s a lot more tortured than that in novel form, but this is the gist. And that’s just the first book…

Having read Dracula in college, I was a little weirded out by the blatant eroticism of the storyline, especially in a book that claims to be about abstinence. Vampires are traditionally a symbol of sexual desire and transgression. Caitlin Brown provides a good feminist literary comparison of the two books here. To boil it down, she states that,

The vampire novel is suffused with desire…. The act of biting a victim, of transforming a human to a vampire, is inevitably linked to sex. […] The ability to turn someone into a vampire is usually the prerogative of the male, and so sexual power in the vampire novel tends to reside with men. The female heroine is often represented as yearning for the vampire to exercise his sexual power over her.

About Twilight she concludes,

whatever intentions Meyer may have had with regards to the abstinence storyline, desire in the context of the vamp novel is a means by which the female heroine can explore power and fantasy, and so the abstinence within Twilight signifies a denial of the power that comes with the fulfilment of sexual fantasy. Authority over both the sexual experience and access to power remain with Edward.

The odd thing about Twilight, though, is the nature of the desire that Edward has for Bella: he doesn’t want to eat her. Fighting against all his instincts, he protects her and falls in love with her.

Brown is not the only feminist to struggle with the books. Film critic Manola Darghis of the NYTimes critiques the movies harshly for gender stereotyping. Other feminist writers (here, here, and here) talk about the somewhat disturbing undertones of Edward’s violent strength, his patriarchal ideas of chivalry, his determination to protect the “fragile” Bella, his inexplicable presence in Bella’s bedroom at night (As in: how exactly is cuddling all night encouraging abstinence? Or even worse: STALKER), and Bella’s characterization as weak and clumsy, obsessed with a bad boy and always fainting and being carried around. I’m with them that generally, real human girls ought not seek out real human boyfriends who do these things. Bella is a far cry from the sassy, in control, Buffy. (Did you look at the hilarious video embedded in Brown’s article?)

But the truth is I’ve never really been a conventional feminist. There’s something missing from conventional feminism. It’s mostly, um, real men, who sometimes have less than desirable characteristics. And romantic struggle in general, which always comes with risk.

Whether it’s a stereotype or not, sex is, well, scary and shameful for most girls. Chalk it up to our nature, our nurture, whatever you want: sex is kinda dangerous. I’ll never forget the first time I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and found out that sex, at least the first time, is actually physically painful. That blood is involved in losing your virginity. That the woman though traditionally smaller is traditionally on the bottom. It was pretty scary.

But as if the pain isn’t enough, there’s also the shame that we’ve been educated into. Men have it easy. Their sex is on the outside, their arousal is easily visible. Ours is hidden, mysterious. And what is invisible is of questionable existence and validity in Western culture, going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. The Roman doctor Galen believed that emotional hysteria was caused by a wandering uterus that got loose inside the body. Where visual evidence was lacking, myth abounded. Women are made to feel shameful about their invisible sexuality.

What is striking to me about Bella in this context is that she is basically sexually fearless and shameless (And I mean that in a good way. Did you notice what negative connotations that word has for a woman?). Regarding fears, not only does Bella have to worry about regular male strength, but supernatural strength, strength that could not only hurt her, but crush her in an instant. Oh yeah, and he has a nearly uncontrollable urge to drink her blood either killing her or stealing her soul. And, as we find out in Breaking Dawn once chaste, married sex comes into the picture, bearing his half –vampire child is life-threatening as well. But for whatever reason, none of these things hold the power of fear over her. She is serenely confident that Edward’s love for her will protect her from his more dangerous side.

Bella’s character actually has an uncanny ability to cancel out Edward’s powers. Because of his love for her and sincere desire for the best for her, his physical strength and his power as a vampire (to grant death or eternal un-death) repulse him. They are curses to him because they hold him back from being close to her. His special power as a vampire is mind-reading, but he can’t read her mind. Ultimately, Bella holds enormous emotional power over Edward (even the power to choose to allow him to end his life, as we see in New Moon). Conventional feminism often ignores the idea that emotional power, while “invisible,” is significant, in Bella and Edward’s case, a matter of life and death. Their love relationship binds them together not because they hold the same powers over against one another, but because they hold opposite and equal powers.

It is also striking that their physical relationship throughout the books is basically in terms of feminine desire, focused on touch. They caress one another’s faces and hair, they kiss, they hold hands. But they basically have no bodies from the shoulders down, and absolutely never from the waist down. For all that cuddling in Edward’s cold, hard-as-marble embrace in bed at night, there is no telltale sign of male arousal to assault Bella (or the grateful readers). It is a vision of sexuality seen in completely feminine terms, without the phallic as the focal point of definition. Bella’s desire is evident in her blushes, her passionate kisses, her heavy breathing, her thumping heart. It is Edward’s sexual desire, his “thirst,” that is invisible and in question. The message is one of normalizing feminine sexual experience, removing it from the position of shame.

So here we have a male protagonist who is written entirely in feminine terms, and whose strengths have been subverted by this fragile, wide-eyed girl. It’s a subtly empowering picture. It turns the books into an affirmation of feminine desire, a sort of feminine re-education against the fear and shame that have previously been used to motivate feminine abstinence. The ultimate motivation for abstaining in the books, which Bella realizes for herself toward the end of Eclipse when Edward’s self-control grows weak, is respect: for her own sexuality, for his and for what she knows will protect him emotionally and even spiritually.

I don’t know if Meyer really thought all this through when she was writing the books, but I don’t really think she had to. It’s implicit in the story itself. But let me warn you, it’s one hell of a compelling story. You probably won’t be able to put it down either.

Yet to come (as if you still wanted to hear more!):  Twilight and Christianity

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