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31 July 2020

The sexual politics of Twilight

Stephanie Meyer will publish Midnight Sun, the fifth instalment of the Twilight saga, on 4 August. But how will Edward's perspective add to the story?

By Emily Bootle

Imagine for a moment you’re in a town in a North-Westerly corner of the US. The vibe is not quite Twin Peaks, though not far off — the taste is more blackened steak than cherry pie, the smell more petrol than hot coffee, but there’s pine in the air and it rains often and hard. Everything is green and grey.

Add to this the feeling of a heady crush. You’re consumed by desire for someone you suspect is bad news. They keep giving you meaningful stares, and seem to pop up whenever you find yourself in peril – mild or severe. They fancy you too, so much so that they occasionally appear at your window to watch you sleep, and you’re kind of into it. But something prevents you from being together. So you remain within the sanctuary of your mind, and the endlessly dripping greenery that surrounds you. It’s all very romantic.

Sounds quite fun, doesn’t it? If you have not, in the past, been able to understand the appeal of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels (the first book of the series was released in 2005; and a new, fifth installment, the first since 2008’s Breaking Dawn, will be published next week) perhaps this image will help give you a sense of the atmosphere that seduced millions of fans worldwide. The books follow the story of 17-year-old Bella Swan, who moves to live with her father in the small, damp town of Forks, Washington. She promptly falls in love with the 108-but-doesn’t-look-a-day-over-18-year-old Edward Cullen, a vampire who lives in a sort of communal set-up with six other vampires, one of whom is the patriarch (a benevolent Dumbledore type, but more sexy) and has trained them all to be “vegetarian” — they only drink the blood of animals, not humans. (Incidentally, Edward was turned into a vampire when he was dying of the Spanish flu in the 1918 pandemic, so it all comes full circle.) Once Bella figures out his secret, they begin a dangerous love affair.

So while the books are about mythical beings, and thus were presented to the young adult market as Harry Potter-adjacent, the supernatural is simply there to propel the narrative. In various thinly-veiled metaphors, Bella and Edward are constantly restraining themselves from sleeping together. Fundamentally, Twilight is a story about something else altogether: languishing adolescent romance.

The books have sold over 100 million copies worldwide and all four were turned into blockbuster films. During the noughties Twilight craze, critics scrambled to analyse their appeal. “What this novel is really about is a fatal attraction to someone or something dangerously different from yourself,” wrote Elizabeth Spires in the New York Times in 2006.

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Twilight’s popularity among young women and girls relegated it in the minds of many boys — as I remember from the mood at my school — to girly trash that wasn’t worth their attention. Writing in the Daily Telegraph in 2009, Christopher Middleton, perhaps fairly, commented: “The four Twilight novels are not so much enjoyed, as devoured, by legions of young female fans worldwide. That’s not to say boys can’t enjoy these books; it’s just that the pages of heart-searching dialogue between Edward and Bella may prove too long on chat and too short on action for the average male reader.” But still it was covered by high-minded publications such as the LRB and TLS. Intellectual intrigue was increased significantly by Meyer’s religious beliefs: her Mormonism seemed to lend the books a darker, deeper feel, rendering their advocation of abstinence more significant. Lev Grossman wrote in Time magazine that the Twilight novels were “squeaky, geeky clean on the surface, but right below it, they are absolutely, deliciously filthy”. There was one thing that everyone could agree on: Twilight was really about sex.

Next week, Meyer will publish the fifth instalment in the series, Midnight Sun, which covers the same events of the first four novels, but from Edward’s point of view. The other books have been narrated by Bella – a naïve, ordinary teenager who provides the perfect blank canvas for adolescent projection. Bella’s few explicitly named attributes were relatable — she was awkward, clumsy and didn’t want to go to prom — but otherwise remained a vessel for girls to pour themselves into.

But this lent Bella another, implicit attribute: passivity. Edward is preoccupied throughout the novel with he idea that he will “lose control” and hurt her; Bella is simply led by his obsession. Edward fetishizes Bella’s fragility as a human and therefore his absolute power over her. He frequently describes her as “breakable” and refuses to give her a sexual relationship, which he tells her is for her own good. All the while, he frames it as though she holds some inexplicable power over him (at one point he compares her to “heroin”). If the first four Twilight novels sent millions of teenage girls the conflicting messages that their innocence makes them attractive to men, that men face a huge obstacle in controlling their own sexual desires and that consensual sex outside of marriage is so dangerous that their impulses must be resisted, then it seems unlikely this new instalment will be able to offer a more progressive view. In 2020, we can easily identify the problems in a relationship that felt a bit off even at the time.

A few years later, EL James wrote the now-infamous 50 Shades of Grey. There were fewer metaphors here — this was full frontal, boardroom-based sadomasochistic shagging — but it was directly allegorical to Twilight, originally posted online as Bella-and-Edward fan-fiction where other Twilight fans dubbed it too dirty. When it was later published, a generation of middle-aged women got into mild BDSM. Though of course there is nothing wrong with this among consenting adults, that a sexual fantasy about a dominating, controlling and violent male partner originated from a children’s book surely says something about the messages Twilight sent to a generation of young women.

Meyer often delivers her sexual politics metaphorically – but her metaphors have never been sophisticated. The cover of Twilight is a shiny, red apple held in a milky white palm: when Bella first notices the Cullen family in the school canteen, she clocks the “unbitten apple” on Alice’s lunch tray. Bella’s surname is “Swan”, white and virginal; Edward’s is “Cullen”, carrying echoes of slaughter. And, of course, vampires themselves are hardly the most subtle of symbols, with their insatiable lust for human flesh. In fact, the story’s appeal lies in its ability to explore female desire at great length, while keeping the reality of sex, with all its logistics and bodily fluids, at a distance. Perhaps that’s because it is a concept that seems alien — scary, even — when you haven’t had it yet: as Jenny Turner wrote in her 2009 LRB review, the market for Twilight was “girls longing for sex and scared rigid by the very thought”. The desire, the kissing on top of the covers, and the promises of true love for all eternity are much more appealing. This is all well and good — until the act of heroism becomes, as it does in Twilight, the not having sex, even when it’s clearly desired by both parties.

Twilight’s preoccupation with virginity occurs on both a literal and a metaphorical level. The overarching metaphor, which forms the very foundations of the book, is Bella’s desire to be bitten by Edward and turned into a vampire. Her humanness is the major obstacle to their relationship for two reasons: because at any given moment Edward wants nothing more than to drain her body of blood, and because she will eventually grow old and die. Edward constantly refuses to “change” her so that she does not have to suffer the same cursed, evil existence as him. It’s a blunt metaphor for a rather Victorian concept of corrupted innocence – once you’ve lost your virginity, there’s no getting it back.

On the literal level is Edward’s simultaneous commitment to celibacy. He fears that, were he to have sex with Bella, he would crush her with his brute strength and drink her blood — and also happens to be morally opposed to sex before marriage. When Bella tries to convince him at one point in the third instalment, Eclipse, he replies: “Believe me, I want to. I just want to be married to you first!”

This philosophy plays out in coarse, ominous metaphors of its own: when Bella and Edward finally have sex for the first time on their honeymoon (in book four, after 1,500-odd pages of thinking about it), the combination of Edward’s superhuman strength and carnal passion causes him to destroy the bed — frame, mattress and all. As if that didn’t tell us enough about the dangerous violence of the act, Bella promptly discovers she’s pregnant with a vampire baby that starves her body of nutrients and drinks her blood. When the pregnancy causes her to be so unwell she’s about to die, her best friend Jacob suggests an abortion and she flatly refuses. When she is on the brink of death in childbirth, Edward the saviour swoops in to turn her, finally, into a vampire.

A lot has happened since Twilight was first on our shelves in the late noughties. Though sex outside of marriage was hardly taboo at the time, Twilight’s message felt less jarring when sex was still often glossed over or glamorised in films, books and TV. Since, we have learned to be “sex positive”, to destigmatise women’s sexuality — and how to identify abuses of power in relationships. If Midnight Sun is a book for the Twilight generation — women now in their 20s and early 30s — it seems unlikely to get past most of them without scepticism. In an interview in 2006, Stephanie Meyer said: “Vampires stand for the choice between the worldly and the heavenly”. We now know there’s nothing shameful about the metaphorical heavenly — but in a literal sense, I think I’ll take the worldly every time.

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