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Ever since it became a major pop culture phenomenon, Twilight has earned a heavy dose of criticism. Critic Mark Kermode has defended the series from the cheap dismissal of older, male reviewers too far removed from the series target (though not exclusive) audience but the criticism is perhaps nowhere greater than a feminist community aghast by Bella’s blank slate personality; the idealization of abusive, controlling or manipulative men; and the infusion of certain socially conservative values. This critique is based largely on one major misreading of the story. Twilight isn’t meant to be considered an expression of an ideal.
Many have focused on the poor quality of writing in the series but reading through Twilight, the first novel, one thing stands out; it is a teenage girl’s diary. Though lacking the “Dear Diary” formatting, the novel takes place inside of Bella’s head and subsequently has this style that sets the tone for the whole series, one of incredibly high perceived stakes. It isn’t the book that idealizes love so much as the teenagers depicted. True to form they are totally convinced that getting a boyfriend or girlfriend is the absolute most important thing and their first love is totally “the one.” This is absolutely an artifice, but it is one that comes naturally to those at the point in their lives that these characters find themselves.
The latest statistics from institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that upwards of a quarter of teens suffer from some form of physical or emotional abuse as part of a romantic relationship. In the form of Edward and Jacob, Bella faces two very real, albeit subtle, forms of emotional abuse. For as much as we know of Bella’s unambiguous affections for Edward, seeing things from her perspective, Edward has some insecurity in the relationship as his view of his vampirism as a damning fate leaves him feeling unworthy of her love to the point that he is convinced he is not good for her. Still, he is drawn to her and this inner conflict expresses itself as a jealous, controlling and overly protective nature. He finds excuses (she’s clumsy, she’s in danger from other vampires) in order to keep a disturbingly close watch on her.
Jacob’s abuse is typical of the out-of-favor, unrequited love. While his cautioning Bella against Edward may have a valid basis, his motivation seems much more about his own desires than her well-being. What begins as an effort to poison the well, something bound to make her less happy, gets amplified in Eclipse as Jacob starts to use threats of self-harm and placing their friendship on the line in a coercive way to manipulate Bella’s emotions and make her feel guilty for not choosing him. Obviously both Edward and Jacob’s manners are filtered through the necessity of coherent narrative demands, but the book is pretty clear on the negatives each brings.
For many, the ideal resolution of this romantic saga would be Bella casting off both of these abusive men and asserting her independent persona more powerfully, finding some more ideal man. Maybe this would be more positive but it wouldn’t work very well narratively and might miss the point that this isn’t a story of Edward and Jacob being distinctly bad men but of typical boys doing bad things. Eclipse marks an important turning point in the maturity of the characters and Breaking Dawn shows both men emerging from this adolescent mind frame (which many men keep forever) and becoming more responsible. It also provides one major place for Bella to assert her individuality.
For a series that incorporates a number of more socially conservative mores, its handling of Bella’s pregnancy in the first half of Breaking Dawn is perhaps surprising. It is clearly making a pro-life case through the wishes of Bella to keep her child no matter the cost, yet it does so in an environment that doesn’t just avoid demonizing abortion, it outright advocates it. There’s no suggestion that those pushing for Bella to get rid of the growing fetus are evil, rather the decision is clearly placed as Bella’s choice, based on her own core beliefs. Debates around abortion would be far less contentious if pro-life arguments were more frequently of this nature rather than attacking choice to begin with.
The series’ treatment of sexuality is similarly nuanced. Many have focused on Edward’s fears for Bella’s soul should she become a vampire and putting off that transformation, and consummation, until after marriage. They contend this makes the story sound like a moral judgement of pre-marital sex. Within the context of the book’s world, that seems a hard sell. Twilight, among the other major teen lit franchises to make it big in recent years, is a notably sensual book. Sex is much more central to the story, not hidden between the lines like in Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. This is a world where Bella is primed for sex more so than Edward and is not judged for it. In fact, her desires are considered normal in contrast to Edward’s formality from the earlier era in which he was born. A far more convincing interpretation of the metaphor of vampirism in the bedroom is another comment on the nature of adolescent romance. Sex among teenagers can be very dangerous because they are new to it and often ignorant as to how to do it safely. This is still a more conservative message about sexual restraint than some will be comfortable with, but at least it hits at kernels of truth.
Ultimately, Stephanie Meyer accomplishes something pretty groundbreaking. The conclusion of the story is the series’ final thematic emphasis stressing the value of family, in this case an extended family with loose blood ties, coming together to protect themselves against what is within the vampire world the closest thing to a government. This adds to the list of artful conservative messages that do their best to make the positive argument in favor of this set of beliefs rather than the negative case against contrary beliefs. In a world where Ayn Rand is celebrated as a conservative author, subtlety hasn’t been a strong suit when putting such themes into fiction. Combined with the book’s authentic and hopefully educational look at the perils of young romance, the series’ popularity can be used as an opportunity for teens (and adults) to recognize the monsters that sometimes exist inside that prevent healthy relationships from developing. That would seem to be a positive development from a feminist perspective and people would do better to use the series’ popularity to teach such lessons rather than to demonize it.