Uncharacteristic departure from our regularly scheduled programming
First off, I’d like to say: this is not a post about television. I KNOW. But I figure, it’s not a bad thing to shake it up once in a while. Perhaps more importantly, I have had this particular post brewing for a very long time, and today seems like an appropriate day to just write it and be done. I’m going to put it after the jump for a few reasons. For one, it’s gonna get a little rant-y in here. Second, if for some reason you don’t know what happens in Twilight and are protecting yourself from spoilers, you can maintain your blissful ignorance. Yeah, that’s right. This is a post about Twilight.
I should begin by explaining that I have, in fact, read Twilight, as well as its three sequels, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn. No doubt I was reading them when I was supposed to be reading Bahktin or Tristram Shandy, but there it is. I have also seen the first Twilight movie, and will no doubt manage to watch the second movie, which if you don’t keep abreast of major, earth-changing, life-defining global developments, is being released today. All of which is to say, I feel informed enough about this to rant a little. I will also apologize, because if you have ever stood anywhere near me when the topic of Twilight has come up, you have heard this rant already. At least this time I am calm enough to use full sentences.
At the beginning of the series, Bella, our seventeen-year-old heroine, has just left sunny Phoenix to go live with her dad in the tiny town of Forks, Washington. She immediately falls in love with mysterious Edward Cullen, who turns out to be a vampire. He also falls in love with her, but is perpetually caught between his desire to love her forever and an overwhelming urge to eat her. Despite the fact that her very existence is threatened every time she’s anywhere near him, Bella loves Edward so fervently that she cannot bear to be apart from him, and they spend much of the series in clichéd, over-wrought anguish because physical intimacy could be disastrous.
A lot of other stuff happens, including werewolves and crazy vampire trackers and the prom, but this is the primary crux of the novels that gets the most attention, and is most frequently selected for ranting. Because of course, that description I just wrote above is easily condensed into an abstinence fable – if you have sex, you die. Vampire eats you, you get an STD and/or go to hell, it doesn’t really matter; the result is the same. The fable becomes even clearer as Bella insists Edward try to have sex with her, and Edward grimly agrees on the condition that she’ll marry him first. After all, Edward was born in 1901 and is a little old-fashioned. Exasperated but secretly happy, Bella agrees, and by the fourth book, traipses down the aisle into her undead husband’s cold arms. Unsurprisingly, this has drawn some ire from a number of sources, not the least of them parents who don’t believe that abstinence indoctrination is in any way the safest form of sex ed. The hidden political agenda gets even more pronounced when Bella becomes pregnant with a half-human half-vampire child who is literally eating her away from the inside, and she refuses to abort it even though carrying it to term is a death sentence. While I frankly don’t care that much when Bella and Edward decide to have sex, I’ll admit that part makes me a little crazed. Even still, those are my personal politics, and I understand it’s up for debate.
My biggest concern about these wildly popular books is something else altogether, and I worry that in the furor about embedded abstinence and abortion messages, the larger problem has gotten completely ignored. From the first book, Bella pleads with Edward to make her into a vampire. Given the circumstances, some of her reasoning is sound – she wants to be with him forever, and immortality’s about as forever as it gets. Even more reasonable, as a human, she is constantly threatened by every kind of bad luck/mythical monster you can think of, and at least she’d be better able to defend herself. (This is another minor complaint, but Bella is the most hopeless, dopey heroine out there. Everywhere she turns, she falls over her own feet and then Edward whisks her back to safety). Aside from the practical concerns, however, Bella’s primary motivation for achieving vampirehood is that it means she will never have to age.
Her terror of aging is so absolute that she demands to be changed as soon as possible, dreading the possibility that she will be physically older than Edward. She eventually agrees to delay until after their marriage, but fears her impending twentieth birthday with all the horror she should probably have felt about, you know…the vampires. When she finally does change, through a series of events related to her monstrous pregnancy, she looks in the mirror with deep satisfaction that she will never have to cope with arthritis, or failing eyesight, or (of course) a less attractive physical body.
Without question, this is a far more insidious message than anything about abstinence or a woman’s right to choose. It’s better to be a blood-sucking monster forever than to turn twenty-five, and the revulsion of waiting until thirty nearly makes Bella faint. Like everything else about these novels, the ability to opt out of old age is a tantalizing wish fulfillment fantasy, but I don’t think it’s a fantasy young women should be taught to desire. It’s an impossible and cruel lesson to impart to the legions of young women who read these novels, and reinforces all of the worst cultural cues about body image, eating disorders, and self-worth. Bella’s fear of aging teaches you to hate your own perpetually aging self, and more than any other aspect of these novels, I think that’s unforgivable. I flash back to Marmie in Little Women telling Meg and Jo that their looks will fade, but their intelligence and kindness and perseverance are the things that really matter about them, and I feel like we’ve fallen so far.
So that’s my problem with Twilight. I cannot deny that the novels are addictive and steamy and full of a pleasant sense of taboo. My favorite line from Dana Stevens’ slate.com review of the new film is “say what you will about the Twilight films; they take female desire as seriously as a grad student from the early ‘90s.” I’m all for that. I just hate that the desire is as much for permanent youth as it is for Edward Cullen.