The Twilight saga tells the story of Bella Swan, a highly competent and intelligent teenage girl, who moves to a small town in Illinois when her mother remarries. Like all the best young heroes, and like many competent and intelligent teenage girls, she has a fierce and irreducible feeling that she is somehow out of place or out of time in the world around her. This is registered in two ways in the saga: firstly, her clumsiness and physical awkwardness, a sort of negative superpower which puts her literally out of sync with her material environment, and secondly, her lack of fit with the girl culture of her peers.
She is not interested in clothes or shopping, hates the idea of going to prom, hates the idea of weddings and marriages. She feels the wrong things for the wrong people. She is fierce, passionate, driven: she feels too much, too intensely; the intensity of her feelings scares the people around her, and it drives her to express those feelings in physically risky ways, as when she learns to ride a motorbike or jumps off a cliff into the sea.
She is, in other words, fucking awesome.
Bella meets a boy, Edward Cullen, whom she consistently describes as ‘beautiful’, and for whom she feels an overwhelming and very active form of sexual attraction:
I was stunned by the unexpected electricity that flowed through me, amazed that it was possible to be more aware of him than I already was. A crazy impulse to reach out and touch him, to stroke his perfect face just once in the darkness, nearly overwhelmed me. I crossed my arms tightly across my chest, my hands balling into fists. I was losing my mind. (Twilight, 219)
Edward is a vampire, which puts into play a whole series of narrative possibilities. The first is that he fears he will not be able to control his violent instincts, and will hurt or kill Bella: brilliantly, however, he just gets over this. He realizes he doesn’t want to hurt Bella, so… he doesn’t. Because, as it turns out, he totally can control himself.
‘Now let me treat your hand – you’ve gotten the cut dirty.’
‘Let me do it, please.’
He took my hand and smiled as he examined it. ‘This [ie being around Bella’s blood] doesn’t bother me any more.’
I watched him carefully as he cleaned the gash, looking for some sign of distress… ‘Why not?’ I finally asked…
He shrugged. ‘I got over it.’ (Eclipse, 471)
Which brings me to the second narrative possibility made possible by Edward’s vampirism: after Edward gets over his fear that he will just randomly break out and hurt Bella, he transfers this fear onto the idea that, if he becomes too sexually aroused, he will not be able to make sensible decisions and he will forget to rein in his unnatural physical strength. Bella then spends three books pushing Edward to have sex with her, and he spends three books consistently setting the limits of how far he is comfortable about going, in a series of scenarios which, from the very beginning, eroticize both Bella’s active desire and Edward’s self-control:
Edward hesitated to test himself, to see if this was safe, to make sure he was still in control of his need.
And then his cold, marble lips pressed very softly against mine.
What neither of us was prepared for was my response.
Blood boiled under my skin, burned in my lips. My breath came in a wild gasp. My fingers knotted in his hair, clutching him to me. My lips parted as I breathed in his heady scent.
Immediately I felt him turn to unresponsive stone beneath my lips…
Then he smiled a suprisingly impish grin… “I’m stronger than I thought. It’s nice to know.” (Twilight, 282-3)
Scenes like this, repeated many times through the four books of the saga, pointedly invert the dominant narrative of heterosexuality, where the boy is actively pushing for increasingly intense and risky forms of sexual activity and the girl is in charge of setting boundaries and limits.
Bella does have to negotiate various compromises with Edward, the biggest one being when she agrees to marry him to accommodate his religious beliefs (this, again, inverts the dominant narrative, where it’s the girl who longs to get married and the boy who grudgingly agrees). However, in terms of the story the books tell about sex, romance, and reproduction… well, the narrative of the Twilight Saga consists of a series of stories in which Edward learns that Bella is always right, and Bella always gets what she wants. Edward thinks he’s going to hurt Bella; Bella thinks he’s not: Bella is right (Twilight). Edward thinks they can live without each other; Bella thinks they can’t: Bella is right (New Moon). Edward thinks Bella should give up her intimate friendship with Jacob Black; Bella thinks she shouldn’t: Bella is right (Eclipse). Edward thinks they can’t have sex while Bella is still human; Bella thinks they can: Bella is right. Edward thinks Bella can’t have a baby; Bella thinks she can: Bella is right (Breaking Dawn).
The third and largest narrative possibility that the vampire romance opens up, however, is the story of Bella’s destiny. Her physical and emotional lack of fit with the world around her turn out to be because she is destined for a different world, a bigger and more dangerous world – the world of the vampires and the werewolves. Again, this is a story about Bella getting what she wants. She desperately wants to become a vampire from Twilight onward, and the narrative makes us wait for so long, in so many inventive ways, that I think many people reading it assumed she would not be allowed to have it – or that, if she got what she wanted, it would be at the cost of some terrible and painful loss. Bella believes that in becoming a vampire she will have to lose her best friend, Jacob Black; tell her parents, Charlie and Renee, that she is dead, and deal with the fact that she has caused them pain; and, ultimately, break the truce between the werewolves and the vampires, bringing about a war.
And I think many readers (like Sarah Annes Brown, whose 2008 blog post on Breaking Dawn – no longer available, sorry – made me trust Twilight enough to start reading the saga) shared my breathtaken, huge, and absolute delight that none of this happens. Instead, Bella gets everything she wants, and she doesn’t have to give up anything.
- In Breaking Dawn, she gets to have sex with Edward, and it is completely brilliant.
- Then, in an astonishing display of physical and emotional courage and endurance which sees her going up against every single one of the men around her and winning, she gets to have a baby (more on that later).
- Then, she gets to call that baby Renesmee, which is the best name ever.
- Then, she gets to be turned into a vampire.
- Then, she turns out to be the most amazing and powerful vampire that has ever been.
- Then, she gets given a brilliant cottage in the woods to live in and discovers that vampire sex is even better than human sex.
- Then, she brokers a new treaty between the vampires and the werewolves and ushers in a new age of peace and prosperity for evermore
The pleasures of this story are the pleasures of excess, of spectacle, of watching the stakes being raised… and of watching a teenage girl be right, be validated, be amazing, beyond all sense and reason. In a culture full of stories about a teenage girl being hurt and humiliated and having to learn that she was wrong and/or learn to be nicer to other people before being rewarded with a boyfriend? I like reading Bella’s story.
Bella’s story – the story of a girl who doesn’t fit in with the small-town culture around her because she is destined for bigger things – runs along similar lines to the classic Australian female kunstlerroman (a genre of novel about the making of the female artist), The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson. Richardson’s heroine, Laura,
went from school with the uncomfortable sense of being a square peg which fitted into none of the round holes of her world; the wisdom she had got, the experience she was richer by, had, in the process of equipping her for life, merely seemed to disclose her unfitness. She could not then know that, even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be found; seeming unfitness prove to be only another aspect of a peculiar and special fitness.
Like Laura, Bella discovers that her seeming unfitness is only another aspect of a peculiar and special fitness:*
After eighteen years of mediocrity, I was pretty used to being average. I realized now that I’d long ago given up any aspirations of shining at anything. I just did the best with what I had, never quite fitting in to my world.
So this was really different. I was amazing now – to them and to myself. It was like I had been born to be a vampire. The idea made me want to laugh, but it also made me want to sing. I had found my true place in the world, the place I fit, the place I shined. (Breaking Dawn, 484-85.)
But Twilight takes place in a very different realm from The Getting of Wisdom, shifting the story of a difficult girl who gets what she wants from the genre of the female kunstlerroman – the woman who competes on the traditionally masculine terrain of art – onto the landscape of heterosexuality and motherhood. That landscape turns out to be full of life-or-death dangers which can only be overcome through specifically female/feminine forms of heroism.
So some people critique Twilight because it presents heterosexuality, love, sex, and childbirth as profoundly dangerous; but I read it as using the idea of the vampire, the monster, the mythic, to raise the stakes of heterosexuality, love, sex, and childbirth. The figure of the vampire lover (and, importantly, the vampire family, the vampire community) allows Meyer to construct a kind of fantasy landscape which is made up almost entirely of feelings. It also allows her to give this emotional landscape – the terrain of the romance genre – the same kind of life-or-death importance, the same kind of spectacular over-the-topness, the same excessive pleasures, as the physical landscape of action blockbusters.**
Twilight is an intervention into representations of femaleness, motherhood, and heroism on the same kind of level as Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise, and I’d argue that we should recognize what it’s doing as a(nother) kind of feminism. The Alien films – most famously the second in the series, Aliens, with its explicit thematization of motherhood – showed us how a woman could succeed at traditionally masculine, action-oriented forms of heroism, and how her femaleness and relationship to motherhood could help, rather than hinder, in this. But Twilight does something different: it revalues a set of feminine positions and activities that our culture often denigrates. I think this move is complementary, not oppositional. I wouldn’t want a world with only Bella Swan in it, but I wouldn’t want a world with only Ripley, either.
Traditionally, maleness/masculinity is associated with activity and femaleness/femininity is associated with passivity. But there’s more than one way to intervene in that binary. Aliens does it by showing Ripley excelling at masculine activities; Twilight does it by redescribing feminine/’passive’ activities as active.*** Ripley wields a gun; Buffy (to whom Bella is often unflatteringly compared) wields a stake. But really, can we only see women as active if they’re holding a phallic object? If they’re violent? If they’re
Meyer’s genius is to turn grieving, gestating, reconciling, into active verbs, not just into forms of feminine strength-as-endurance, but into narratives. **** Here’s just a couple of the most striking examples.
The first is from Eclipse, where a feud between the vampires and the werewolves is both caused and mirrored by a rivalry between Jacob Black, Bella’s werewolf best friend, and Edward Cullen, her vampire boyfriend. Bella asks Edward:
You know better than to be jealous, right?… Is this something else altogether? Some vampires-and-werewolves-are-always-enemies nonsense? Is this just a testosterone-fuelled… (Eclipse, 143)
and goes on to issue an ultimatum:
When it comes to all this enemies nonsense, I’m out. I am a neutral country. I am Switzerland. I refuse to be affected by territorial disputes between mythical creatures. Jacob is family. You are… well, not exactly the love of my life, because I expect to love you for much longer than that. The love of my existence. I don’t care who’s a werewolf and who’s a vampire. If Angela turns out to be a witch, she can join the party, too. (Eclipse, 143)
Meyer is drawing here on an ancient model of female heroism, in which a woman’s commitment to kin relationships is able to transcend and ultimately heal national, political and military divisions. When I say ancient, I mean this literally: one of the oldest and most iconic versions of this in the Western tradition comes from the History of Rome by the ancient Roman writer Livy, writing in the first century BCE, and it was an old legend even in his time. This is the story of the Sabine women. The Sabine women were abducted by the Romans (at this point a gang of criminal escapees from various nearby settlements, with no women among them); the Sabine men launched an expedition to recover them; and the women rushed onto the battlefield, imploring their fathers not to kill their ‘husbands’, so that the two sides made peace. (You can read the story here [the abduction] and here [the reconciliation].)
Like the Sabine women, Bella’s neutrality ultimately enables her to enforce a treaty and bring about radical change in the politics between two violently opposed groups through her commitment to kin relationships. Unlike them, however, Bella does not enter the story as the passive object of an abduction, nor does she blame herself for the war, or ask either side to kill her, as the women do in Livy. In their speech in Livy, the women position themselves consistently as the object of the men’s actions, not as agents; Bella, by contrast, speaks in her own voice, grounds her argument in her own position – a position from which the war appears as ‘testosterone-fuelled nonsense’ – and frames her neutrality as a form of active intervention. She saves the day not by donning a giant war suit and taking part in the violence, like Ripley in Aliens, but by inhabiting a traditionally female position – the conciliator – and turning this into an active form of heroism.
The most extreme and brilliant example of Meyer’s construction of images of female heroism, however, is Bella’s pregnancy, which is an image of normal pregnancy writ large. Bella’s vampire fetus is super strong, so its movements cause her actual physical pain and at one point crack one of her ribs: Rosalie points out that this can happen in human pregnancies, too, and she is actually correct. What is usually represented as a beautiful, painless moment of communication and harmony between mother and baby – the foetus’s kick (‘I felt it kicking!’ ::rapturousface::) – can be, as the foetus grows, painful and physically damaging (yes, it can break a rib, and there’s nothing that can be done about it – the rib cage can’t heal because it keeps expanding as the pregnancy progresses, and the pregnant woman can’t take painkillers).
The chief problem with Bella’s pregnancy, however, is that ‘The fetus isn’t compatible with her body’, as Edward tells Jacob; ‘it won’t allow her to get the sustenance she needs’ (Breaking Dawn, 217), and once the baby is born in a terrifying, bloody scene, Jacob thinks: ‘It might as well have been drinking Bella’s own blood. Maybe it was’ (Breaking Dawn, 228). All of this, too, is actually (or at least metaphorically) true: pregnancy, which is usually represented as a nurturing and harmonious relationship between woman and foetus, is actually better represented – at least on the biological level – as a violent conflict, where the biological interests of the woman and those of the foetus are directly opposed to one another, as the foetus invades the woman’s body and takes control of certain of its processes in an attempt to increase the nutrient supply to itself, while the woman’s body attempts to protect itself and survive the process. (I got all this from this fantastic article by Suzanne Sadedin, which you should all read immediately.)
Even if mother and foetus survive this phase, the baby is notoriously difficult to get out of the mother’s body. The second-wave radical feminist Shulamith Firestone described vaginal childbirth as ‘like shitting a pumpkin’: even this is not an option for Bella, whose vampire baby is surrounded by a membrane that only vampire teeth can bite through, and so she is delivered of her child in a horrific, bloody, emergency vampire Caesarean scene which lasts for nearly ten pages (TEN PAGES) and which dramatizes the violence, blood, risk and pain of childbirth.*****
Now, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people talking about this bit of the saga – ‘she has to have a vampire Caesarean!’ – as if it was self-evidently ridiculous, or, I guess, as if they think Stephenie Meyer somehow wrote the ten-page vampire Caesarean scene without realizing that it was excessive, spectacular, transgressive, and hyperbolic? Which reminds me of the way people keep telling the story of Lauren Adkins (remember her?) marrying a cardboard cut-out of Robert Pattinson as if she hadn’t consciously designed the act as an artwork, and as a reflection on fictional romance and its bleed-through into real life. And it also reminds me of this Huffington Post ‘take-down’ of one of Katie Price’s fantastic rainbow outfits, which seems to think it’s cleverer than Katie Price because it has noticed – as if she had not? – that her outfit is, well, a bit over the top.
How stupid would Katie Price, would Lauren Adkins, would Stephenie Meyer, have to be not to realize that they’re transgressing certain social norms?
Pretty fucking stupid, I agree. But, you know, Katie Price didn’t just wake up looking like that, and Lauren Adkins got a postgraduate degree for the performance piece in which she married Edward Cullen (and the accompanying thesis), and Stephenie Meyer actually did write the vampire Caesarean scene on purpose. So the real question is: how fucking stupid do you have to be to think that women do this stuff without noticing?
And I think the same people who talk about the vampire Caesarean (or Katie Price’s rainbow outfit) as if they were self-evidently ridiculous and bad, will often talk about the extreme set-pieces in an action movie – ‘he killed a helicopter with a car!’ – as if they were self-evidently cool and awesome.
And that takes us back full circle to the point where I started: what makes killing a helicopter with a car cool (which it totally is) is that it’s self-consciously excessive – engaging with the conventions of the action genre and going beyond them, giving us more of what we want. It’s also self-consciously spectacular, exciting, and dangerous. All of those things also apply to Bella Swan’s pregnancy and childbirth, which, too, is gloriously, self-consciously, excessive, spectacular, and dangerous: the climactic move in a woman-centred narrative, in a saga written by a female author who’s deeply committed to nurturing women’s culture and women’s creativity, and loved by millions of women worldwide.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I love Bella Swan. Thank you.
*One of the very personal/subjective reasons I have for loving Twilight is Bella’s agequeerness: she is out of place in her own generation, and she falls for an older person. This is pretty much my story, too, and it’s hard to find good representations of it in a deeply age-segregated culture like ours.
**This is why the films went astray, incidentally, because the later ones – after the first one was super-successful and they took the female director off the project and put some dude in charge instead – tended to fall back into representing the purely physical battles between vampires and werewolves, etc, as if they mattered as much as the emotional conflicts.
*** I’m reminded of the electrifying moment in Catharine Edwards’ book The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome where she writes ‘Activity and passivity in a sexual context are hardly unproblematic terms. It all depends, as Veyne remarked, on whether one takes “stabbing” (sabrer) or “eating” (manger) as one’s analogy’ (pp.72-73).
**** Writing this paper, I kept thinking about Janis Joplin’s rendition of ‘Little Girl Blue’, which… oh, go and watch it.
Which is all about female suffering, right? All the girl does is sit there and count her fingers (what else can she do? what else has she got to do?) and Janis turns this into a narrative of heroism.
***** Jenny, my girlfriend, who was an early and active member of the Australian Women’s Liberation movement and has remained a feminist ever since, told me that Breaking Dawn was the first time she’d really registered how full-on pregnancy and childbirth were. She spent a couple of weeks after reading the book walking around with her eyes like saucers every time she saw a pregnant woman or a woman with a child, thinking about Bella Swan: She did THAT! She’s a hero!