*This post contains spoilers*
Bella Swan stars in four anti-feminist novels, the Twilight series. She and the other main characters are gender stereotyped to a fault. Abusive misogyny and an embracement of lookism run rampant throughout the 500 pages of the first novel, Twilight, and her experiences with teen romance and/or love are truly a masterpiece on how to have an unhealthy relationship.
Her story is simple enough. Bella is an average teenage girl. She moves to Forks, Washington during her junior year of high school to live with her dad after her mom remarries a traveling baseball player. Bella gets situated at school where she meets Edward Cullen, a disturbingly beautiful and strange boy. He is initially hostile but warms up to her after a while, though his moods swing wildly between tender care and open aggression. In the first half of the story, he saves her life twice, both times by exhibiting extraordinary abilities—super human speed and strength and apparent clairvoyance.
After hearing an ancient Quileute legend about a group of “cold ones” who drank animal blood instead of human blood and went by the name of Cullen, Bella realizes that her gorgeous hero is a vampire. Instead of deterring her from pursuing a relationship with Edward, Bella realizes that nothing, not even the threat of death, could make her life worth living if Edward weren’t in it, and yet the reader is left wondering what exactly it is about Edward that Bella finds so captivating beyond his good looks. Stereotypical teen infatuation and simple physical lust seem to be about it.
Edward, despite repeatedly telling Bella he’s no good for her, is unable to stay away. He find the scent of her blood so alluring that it is a constant temptation to kill her. When she responds to his kisses with equal or greater passion, he draws away least he be overcome with temptation and kill her. Despite this obstacle, the two quickly fall in love and in short order, are professing their undying (?) love for each other.
When a conventional vampire sets his sights on ending Bella’s life, Edward and the entire Cullen family spring into action. Bella is whisked off to safety with Edward’s “sister” and her husband, while Edward, his brother, and their nearly four hundred year old father set a trap for the hunter. The hunter is able to trick Bella into leaving the relative safety of Alice and Jasper’s care. Bella meets the hunter in an abandoned dance studio (claiming he has her mom held hostage) and she is almost killed before Edward and company show up to save the day.
She returns home with a well fabricated cover story and the stage is set for them to live happily ever after…provided Edward is willing to turn her into a vampire so she can live forever with him.
The story is simple enough. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Girl (i.e. damsel) is in distress. Boy (i.e. knight in shining armor) comes to the rescue. Happily ever after.
Unfortunately, for readers, there is a dark undercurrent that flows throughout Twilight. Earlier, I wrote that Bella was “an average teenage girl.” I say “average” because there is nothing to set her apart. She is not especially smart or dumb. She is not particularly ugly or beautiful. She has no particular talents or shortcomings (aside from being chronically clumsy). Bella’s physical appearance is not described, aside from making note that she is about 5’4” and weighs about 110 pounds. In fact, Stephenie Meyer, the author of Twilight, purposefully wrote Bella as a mostly undefined character so that, as she said on her website, “the reader could more easily step into [Bella’s] shoes” (www.stepheniemeyer.com). Meyer’s intent, then, was for the reader to put themselves into Bella’s place, which is understandable. I think most writers want their readers to be able to do the same. What is insidious is that, after carefully not defining a character so the reader is more easily able to insert herself into the story, Meyer’s main characters unapologetically promote traditional gender roles, blindly accept society’s unrealistic expectations of feminine beauty, and condone abusive and controlling behavior.
As Leonard Sax, writing for the Washington Post, said, “the girls are still girls, and the boys are traditional men…The lead male characters…are muscular and unwaveringly brave, while Bella and the other girls bake cookies, make supper for the men and hold all-female slumber parties.”
Traditional gender roles are assigned to the main characters from the book’s beginning. The story opens with Bella’s move into her father’s home. Within the first 48 hours, she has assigned herself to kitchen duty as her father can’t “cook much besides fried eggs and bacon” (p. 31). Bella comments on her father being aware of the upcoming school dance; “Only in a town this small would a father know when the high school dances were” (p. 81). Bella fully embraces the stereotype that social events such as dances are the realm of mothers (females) and not fathers (men) even though it would make perfect sense for her father, the chief of police, to be aware of an upcoming teen gathering. Bella makes this even clearer when she tells her dad about an upcoming shopping trip…which is the only time she spends with female friends outside of school, by the way. Bella, explaining that even though she isn’t attending the dance, she is helping her friends pick out dresses, thinks, “I wouldn’t have to explain this to a woman” (p. 149), embracing the idea that men could not possibly understand the female mind while a woman would naturally have an intrinsic understanding of all things “feminine.” Her father quickly embraces his own gender stereotype. As he turns back to the television, Meyer writes, “He seemed to realize that he was out of his depth with the girlie stuff” (p. 149).
Bella’s shopping trip with her friends supplies more gender stereotypes. Bella wanders into a dangerous neighborhood, distracted by the wallowing despair she finds herself in over not having seen Edward in two days. She runs into one group of people—four men. And naturally, these men are rapists who quickly scheme together to lead her away from the more populated areas so they can gang rape her. Edward shows up in the nick of time and saves the day, playing the part of the knight in shining armor to Bella’s damsel in distress who forgot her pepper spray at home.
Edward then takes Bella to a restaurant where he dazzles the, naturally straight, waitress with his unbelievable good looks. He asks Bella how she’s feeling, explaining, “I’m actually waiting for you to go into shock” (p. 168), because, naturally, that is the first reaction a female has to physical danger.
As mentioned earlier, Bella assigned herself kitchen duty for the duration of her stay in Forks. After school and obsessing over Edward, cooking is the only other activity the reader regularly sees Bella engage in. Bella listens to music in passing, reads a bit in passing (romances such as Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice), but she has no other hobbies. She doesn’t paint or write. She doesn’t scrapbook or play an instrument. She doesn’t play video games or read voraciously. She doesn’t talk on the phone or play a sport. She thinks about Edward, talks to Edward, schemes to be with Edward, does some homework, and cooks for her dad, who is largely ungrateful as he watches sports on television and goes fishing on the weekends.
Besides promoting traditional gender roles, Bella fully embraces society’s current standard for female beauty. Bella observes Rosalie, one of Edward’s “sisters,” narrating, “The tall one was statuesque. She had a beautiful figure, the kind you saw on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the kind that made every girl around her take a hit on her self-esteem just by being in the same room” (p. 18). Three paragraphs later, she remarks, regarding why she couldn’t look away from the five “siblings,” “…their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine” (p. 19). Bella believes that beauty is found in the glossy pages of mass media and nowhere else. There is no place for the beautiful, full figured woman, or the beautiful woman who looks like a human. Nor is there a place for the physically unattractive person who is still valuable. Bella’s only definition of beauty is that which conforms to the airbrushed models found in fashion magazines. Over seventy times, Bella mentions how beautiful the vampires are, in one way or another. Often it is in reference to Bella’s reaction to Edward’s “outrageous perfection” (p. 322). Other times it is within the context of Bella’s perceived plainness in comparison. Bella’s view of herself and her value has been completely and totally shaped by modern definitions of beauty, shallow as they are. As such, she sees herself as plain and therefore, without value.
As disturbing as Bella’s embracement of gender stereotypes and feminine beauty are, what is truly disturbing is her apology for abusive and controlling relationships. As Wendy Nosid of community.feministing.com said, “Bella’s choices are troubling, sure, but it’s the blatant romanticism of what she and [Edward do], excuses of him doing these things “out of love” and “to protect her” that makes her an anti-feminist figure” (http://community.feministing.com).
When asked if Bella is an anti-feminist heroine, Meyer, believing the accusation springs from Bella’s choice to marry early and carry a unexpected and life threatening pregnancy to term, argues that the accusations are invalid because Bella exercises her right to choose—the right to choose that feminists have fought for. Meyer says, “I never meant for her fictional choices to be a model for anyone else’s real life choices…she’s in a situation that none of us has ever been in, because she lives in a fantasy world.” (www.stepheniemeyer.com)
Meyer is correct. Bella does live in a fantasy world, filled with vampires and werewolves. However, if the vampire and werewolf aspects are removed from the story, you are left with a story which fits the description of an abusive relationship: “a pattern of abusive and coercive behaviors used to maintain power and control over a[n]…intimate partner” (http://stanford.edu/group/svab/relationships.shtml). Stanford.edu gives sixteen “signs or ‘red flags’ to assist people in identifying a potentially abusive person” (http://www.stoprelationshipabuse.org/signs.html). Edward exhibits 13 of the 16.
Rachel Allen, a California mom, whose daughter defended Twilight with the “it’s just a fantasy” argument, writes, “[T]he thing is, the romance is not really the fantasy part. The romance is presented as the realistic part.” (www.canow.org)
And therein lays the danger. Feminists have fought for women to be free to make their own choices, even if those choices are not perhaps the wisest. Bella, however, is not really free to make choices. She has been so convinced that she is unappealing that when an attractive boy shows her the slightest attention, she swoons completely. She spends the entire first novel marveling that such an attractive boy would deem her worthy of attention, much less love. She is utterly convinced that she has so little value that she believes it will hurt her parents less to lose her completely than to experience even a modicum of danger. She spends most of the second book (2006, New Moon) in the depths of depression (for which she receives no professional help) because Edward has left her.
It is only when she becomes a vampire herself, gaining the beauty and strength she so admired in Edward, that she gains any value (in her own eyes). Instead of working hard and making choices to better herself, Bella waits for Edward to “rescue” her from her humanity (and its inherent plainness, clumsiness, and fragility) by turning her into vampire.
Again, while no reader can make that exact decision, ten minutes flipping through a stack of popular magazines or surfing through television channels will reveal many other “miracle” cures. From diet pills, hair care products, teeth whiteners to Wonder bras. The “cure” to all of a girl’s problems is just waiting, furthering the belief that something outside oneself can fix the inside.
It is not Bella’s decisions to choose a “traditional” role that makes her an anti-feminist heroine. Meyer’s is mistaken if she believes that is the root of the issue. The root of the issue is the glorifying and romanticizing of gender stereotypes, cookie cutter beauty standards, and abuse. These are what makes Bella Swan an anti-feminist heroine and Twilight inappropriate reading for…well, everyone.
Allen, Rachel. (2008, November 24). Feminist mom talks Twilight. California National Organization for Women. Retrieved November 6, 2009, from http://www.canow.org/canoworg/2008/11/feminist- mom-talks-twilight.html
Meyer, Stephanie. (2005). Twilight. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company
Meyer, Stephanie. (2009, August 28). Frequently asked questions: Breaking Dawn. Retrieved November 6, 2009, from http://www.stepheniemeyer.com/bd_faq.html
Nosid, Wendy. (2008, September 20). Stephenie Meyer side-steps anti-feminist allegations. Retrieved November 6, 2009, from http://community.feministing.com/2008/09/stephanie-meyer-side-steps-ant.html
Sax, Leonard. (2008, August 17). “Twilight” sinks its teeth into feminism. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 6, 2009,, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/15/AR2008081503099.html
After all that, I found this video and it’s just too perfect to not share. Enjoy!