A Historical Analysis of the Twilight Series. (Spoilers abound).
Say what you will about the Twilight series, Stephenie Meyer made bank from her series, Twilight, and the films which followed have been one of Hollywood’s most successful endeavors yet. Still, underneath that massive pile of cash, was a festering hatred of Bella Swan, and the only thing louder than the screaming Twihards’ indignation at the series’ criticism was the feminist backlash over whiny, weak, submissive, and battered Bella Swan. Despite the franchise’s success, Meyer was heavily criticized for poor writing, penning the worst love story in history, and essentially providing batterers and stalkers with a how-to handbook. Feminists asserted that the series romanticized domestic violence, promoted an anti-abortion stance, and was abstinence porn.
The criticism was harsh, and by harsh I mean Meyer was essentially drawn and quartered by the Literati, who make the Volturi look like Girl Scouts. So what went wrong? What was it about this teen romance that made people think that any pairing could be a better love story, be it Ann Curry and the Today Show, Gollum and his Precious, or even, Nicole Brown and O. J. Simpson.
Well, to be fair to the feminists, Meyer didn’t do Edward’s character any favors by having him climb up to Bella’s window, oil the hinges so as not to wake his sleeping morsel, and then sit in the corner of her room, and watch her sleep.
Every. Single. Night.
He removed the engine from her car (Eclipse), preventing her from visiting her furry friend and his rival, Jacob. He is elusive (emotionally abusive) as he pushes her away while simultaneously telling her he loves her and wants to be with her forever. Further, it’s just in bad taste to compare one’s love interest with dinner. Edward could only have been PC if he had been attracted to her intelligence. Sadly, there’s no redeeming him here, as he must double-check Bella’s answers during the science lab and later, he’s surprised that the little lady knows the square root of pi.
However, there’s a reasonable explanation for Edward’s creepy, stalker behavior. He’s an antagonist therefore, it makes sense that he’s lurking in the night. It’s what bad guys do, and a bloodthirsty killer stalking a woman is common in the horror genre.
Given the way Meyer wrote her protagonist, it’s easy to view Bella as just a tasty blood type or pretty, pale face but, there were other cases where gender bias reared its ugly head: the lion (fierce and strong), falls in love with the lamb (weak and ignorant). In the Twilight film, Eric, friend and classmate of Bella’s, says prom committee is a chic thing. It seems Meyer is saying that boys are smarter and stronger than girls while girls are all about prom committee, shopping, gossiping, and constantly need to be saved.
Bella couldn’t take the sight of blood, cries too much, and can’t walk down a sidewalk without risking her own life. Edward’s own view of Bella is that of someone who lacks self-preservation. Her clumsy nature pushes Edward – who in the book realizes he sometimes goes too far – to over obsess about her well-being, hence he stalks her and is extremely protective and possessive. Meyer’s teen characters resemble caricatures of young people and the series was rife with sexism. It’s not hard to see why the Twilight series has received so much criticism.
Now, I’ll be honest, some of the aforementioned criticism of Edward’s character can’t be overlooked. His nightly, watch Bella sleep, vigils were hella creepy. But I overlooked this in much the same way I overlooked the notorious spanking in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.
However, I was actually shocked by the hatred of Bella Swan that infected the nation like the 1918 Spanish Influenza that took down the masochistic lion and would have left him for dead had it not been for the ever diligent Doctor Carlisle (ain’t nobody dying on his table. You’ll get better now or you’ll sparkle later).
One could argue that Meyer may have intentionally used gender stereotypes and sexism in the Twilight series as a type of conflict for her protagonist. The sexism and stereotypes seem so overdone that if you don’t assume the book is a parody then you have to look for meaning and intent or assume that Meyer is in need of an intervention.
For me, the Twilight series was a fictional comparison of the dawning of the Progressive Era. (I hear ya, Edmund Wilson).
Edward Cullen: the Reconstruction Era
First let’s look at Edward’s character which has been dubbed a masochistic, controlling, possessive, violent and homicidal batterer with a penchant for piano playing, fast cars, and humans who smell nice. He was born in 1901, the Progressive Era in the United States (and the Edwardian era in the United Kingdom ).
Overall, this era can best be described as out with the old, and in with the new. Both nations dealt with issues of socialism, the need to aid the poor, birth control, abortion, education to prevent unwanted pregnancy, women’s rights, an interest to fight and expose corruption, and advances in science and technology. Also, it was a period of innocence and tranquility prior to the onset of WWI.
The Twilight series takes place in Forks, Washington, a quiet, unsuspecting city. Twilight’s story is woven around high school teens. Ah, high school, that period of innocence and tranquility prior to adulthood. Edward is in need of modernization, and Bella is the fictional embodiment of the Progressive Era that will bring the masochistic lion out of the dark ages.
Let’s contrast Edward’s character and relationship to Bella through that historical lens. Civil War had just ended in the United States and the country’s focus was reconstruction. We can view Edward as an Antebellum United States put through the trauma of war. Edward was a vibrant, healthy, young man suddenly struck down by illness. The Antebellum Era’s old lifestyle and beliefs are burned by Sherman’s fires just as Edward’s once thriving body burns with fever. Edward’s death represents the ashes of the Civil War. When Carlisle turns Edward into a vampire, this begins the Reconstruction Era. Edward is reborn but tormented. He has yet to rebuild.
The new Edward is uncertain of this new world and his place in it. He’s a virgin. He worries vampires have no soul and, for this reason, refuses to turn Bella (a focus on religion as opposed to science). Edward is rich and capable of showering Bella with expensive gifts, which makes her feel awkward and uncomfortable at times, even ashamed (class reform and socialism). Edward resists Bella’s desires for a sexual relationship. (Prohibition). I realize that prohibition may be a leap here, but I can’t help but compare Prohibition’s religious overtones with Edward’s views on premarital sex, though a more solid argument for a parallel between prohibition and Twilight is the treaty between the werewolves and vampires; Edward’s family (clan) is not permitted to turn humans.
Bella Swan: the Progressive Era
Now, let’s look at Bella. She’s the whiny, weak, white girl with a penchant for face planting, body shimmer, and reading, who attracts trouble like bees to honey, cries too much, is anti-social, and has no self-esteem. Well, gee that doesn’t sound progressive at all. Or strong. Or confident. Let’s not rush the gavel, though. Bella is described as quiet and studious but also dramatic and emotional. But let’s not forget Meyer is writing young adult literature, and while it’s a bit generalizing, teens are operating under high levels of fluctuating hormones so we can throw Meyer this bone, even if she did overdo the melodrama of adolescence.
Bella is seen as clumsy, weak, ignorant, and stubborn, but these seemingly obnoxious character flaws foreshadow what will become Bella’s vampire power. Edward assumes that Bella is weak and his attempts to be her knight in shining armor are usually met with anger from his little lamb. She resists his attempts to constantly shield and protect her, an assertion of her rights. The very first women’s rights convention was held in 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York during the Progressive Era.
This new women’s rights movement fought for and won, the right to vote. It’s Bella’s desire that Edward turn her into a vampire, but he strongly objects to Bella having fangs, denying her this right. In New Moon, Bella asks the family to vote on whether she will become a vampire. She wins the vote and thus, the right to become a vampire.
Bella surprises Edward with her knowledge of the square root of pi, and one can only assume that he is surprised because, well, she’s a girl, but in the end, the weak lamb is the one who saves her family, fellow vampires, and the werewolves from death. Further, she challenges the ruling party, the Volturi, reminiscent of the Progressive Era’s challenging and reforming of the political structure.
Bella urges Edward to abandon his antiquated ideas on marriage and sex, indicative of the Progressive Era’s shift away from religion to science and technology. However, she and Edward do wait until they are married to have sex. Edward and Bella have a child after marriage, in keeping with anti-abortion views, but in so doing give birth to a new species, which we can link to the Progressive Era’s support of eugenics.
Bella is a young woman who knows exactly what she wants and goes for it amid the looming threats of death from the vampire and werewolf communities and knowing that she may never again see her family.
The Love Triangle: a deeper look at Bella’s seemingly shallow characterization.
This love triangle spawned a lot of memes and cat fights over team this one or that one and had some girls (and their moms), ready to pop off their earrings if you dissed their man. If you consider the characteristics of the love interests Bella must choose between, you see that her seemingly facile dilemma is not just a woe is me, which boy will it be, scenario.
Edward represents true love. He is cold and we associate cold with winter. Winter cleanses and makes possible the rebirth of spring (those cold ashes of the civil war from which sprang a new nation). Edward is elusive, difficult to understand, confusing, and frightening, all terminology used to describe true love, relationships, and marriage. Love is oftentimes depicted as being able to transcend death; it is immortal as is Edward. Edward’s skin sparkles in the sunlight a characteristic that Bella to diamonds. Diamonds are nature’s strongest substance and considered to be the ultimate symbol of love.
Jacob represents summer love; a crush or a fling. His body temperature is higher than most, a direct contrast with Edward’s ice cold skin. We associate heat with fire and fire with consumption. We also associate heat with summer, which preludes the decay of fall, which is indicative of death, thus bringing me to Jacob’s mortality. Jacob is quick to anger, a trait which puts Bella’s safety at risk while in his presence. Interestingly, in the final book of the series you have another link to eugenics when Jacob imprints on Edward and Bella’s half-vampire-half-human baby. It sounds gross, it is gross, and it wreaks of arranged marriage, another practice common for this particular era. Shudder.
Bella’s vampire power is that of protector and shield, the role most frequently given to men in any genre. That doesn’t sound like Meyer is promoting a submissive-batter me please-character. One can argue that the Twilight series challenges the stereotypes and sexism placed on women, especially in the Horror genre (whether Twilight is horror is a post for another time).
Bella was capable of distinguishing between true love and a fleeting romance, but only after she took the time to carefully weigh both options, not a trait normally associated with a melodramatic teenager. Most importantly, she was the mother of a new era. Bella’s character embodies the end of slavery and the Civil War. She establishes a peaceful coexistence between vampires, werewolves, and humans.
Twilight is about diversity. The series subtly hints to its readers to be accepting of those who are different and not just where race is concerned. Consider the character of Billy Black who is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. The end of the series finds the characters in a utopian like acceptance of each other as they marvel at what Bella has accomplished, her strength, and her protective nature, and how she has brought about this new era.
So give Bella a break already. I mean, she’s just going through the normal rigmarole of adolescence complicated by a supernatural romance.
Do your thang, Bella. Go find yourself in the forests of Forks. Own that teen angst. You go Bella Swan. You go girl . . . er, go home . . . and cry . . . try not to hurt yourself . . . please, no paper cuts or emo cliff diving. Be the shield, Bella. BE THE SHIELD.