NOTE: This article contains major significant plot spoilers for both the movies and books in the “Twilight” series.
Here is the pivotal scene in Eclipse, the third movie/book of the Twilight Saga. To protect her from attack by evil “newborn” vampires, Edward spirits Bella to the top of a mountain to wait out the monster-vs-monster bloodletting. Unfortunately, their tent provides little protection from a sudden snowstorm, and Bella is in danger of freezing to death – which Edward’s ice-cold vampire physiology can do nothing to prevent. On the other hand, romantic rival Jacob’s werewolf superpowers imbue him with so much body heat that he and his buddies can run though the snow in their beachwear, so he enthusiastically volunteers himself as a one-man lycan space-heater – meaning that Edward has to suck it up and deal with his girlfriend snuggling for survival with the “other man.” “Face it,” Jacob needles, “I’m hotter than you.”
In terms of making good on its premise of rearranging mythological monster tropes into the context of hormone-ridden teenaged romance, this is about as good as Twilight gets. The battling hunks suss out a temporary treaty, and the female lead falls asleep between her two paramours. If you need a single image to explain why this stuff gets to its young female audience, this scene is your answer. Straight-male geeks, be honest: Invert the genders, and a scene like this in “genre” fiction would’ve been an important part of your adolescence, too. (Like, say, if this were Jimmy Olsen stuck in a tent with Fire and Ice? Yeah, that’d be a “Justice League International” everyone had.)
Naturally, they ruin it by talking.
With a Kristen-Stewart-shaped buffer zone separating them, Edward and Jacob finally have it out: verbal sparring, macho posturing, grudging respect, the whole nine yards. In fact, as it plays out in the movie, you’d be forgiven for half-expecting them to stumble upon a rather elegant – if wholly “alternative” – solution to their love triangle problem at any moment. But ultimately, it’s two guys hashing it out over who has claim to The Girl.
Oh! Hey, that’s right, The Girl. Where is Bella during all this discussion of her ownership, again? She’s unconscious, helpless and utterly reliant on (read: at the mercy of) one or both of the male leads. In other words, the same place she spends about 90% of the series – and the remaining 10% of the time, she’s trying to get there.
Folks, I’ve reviewed all three of these movies, read and blogged about all four of the books and have written about the phenomenon previously, and time and again I keep coming back to one inescapable fact: The whole thing just creeps me right the hell out. And not in the way a vampire movie should.
First things first: From about Carmilla on, vampires in western fiction have been more or less all about sex. There’s probably an article (or fifty) in and of itself to be had from that, but in the shorthand math, bloodsucking = copulation. Twilight definitely treads this basic ground, with its torrid, instinct-driven central affair set up as both a supernatural predator-prey mating dance and a more conventionally obsessive teenage romance. The metaphor branches out from there: Bella’s other paramour even gets so jealous he turns into a giant, vampire-hunting werewolf (subtle!).
The main story turns on a single element – Bella wants to be a vampire because her boyfriend Edward is, but he doesn’t want to turn her because … well, that’s where things get wiggy. See, in Twilight‘s mythology, there’s basically no built-in disadvantage to being vampire. You don’t have to sleep in a coffin (you don’t have to sleep at all, in fact), the sun just makes you shiny, you’re essentially invincible to everything but giant Native-American werewolves (and even that’s situational) or stronger vampires and sometimes you even get plot-specific superpowers like mind reading or telekinesis. Crosses? Garlic? Holy water? No effect. You get to keep your reflection, and you don’t even have to kill humans – animal blood works just fine. Just stay off the Naughty List of “The Volturi” (short version: boss vampires) and you’re pretty much set for unlife.
As such, Edward’s boilerplate “I can’t change you, I wouldn’t wish this on anybody” reaction changes up the metaphor pretty significantly. In the 90s, when all sex metaphors became AIDS metaphors by extension, this was the default trope of the good guy vampire character. But in Twilight, there’s not much of a down side to hang that on, so what’s the angle?
Well, do the math. If vampirism = sex, Edward – the vampire – would be “experienced” and Bella – the human – would be a “virgin,” yes? We’re told that what Edward loves about Bella is her humanity (i.e. her virginity). His pastimes include watching her sleep, lavishing her with opulent gifts and taking borderline-stalker steps to protect her lovable human fragility. But no biting – aka no sex – because then she won’t be, well, for lack of a better word, pure. Because, as we all know, women are progressively worth more the less sexual knowledge they have. Oh, but he’ll acquiesce on one condition: marriage. Once you’re “my property,” it’ll be okay for you to be “sullied” – so long as it’s by me and only me.
Where have I heard that before? Oh, right – the Middle Ages.
Whether intentional on the part of author Stephenie Meyer or not, Twilight amounts to a modern day, vampire-garnished resurrection of the patriarchal virginity worship that’s characterized (and continues to characterize) some of the lowest and most shameful points in human history. Sexual desire – in women – is bad and must be tamed, controlled and owned by a husband. And in case that’s all still too subtle, Edward helpfully dots the i: He doesn’t think he has a soul, and by extension a vampirized Bella wouldn’t have one either. Think about that. Her soul. Her entire esoteric higher existence. Loss of humanity/virginity = loss of all worth. Remember, girls, sex is bad, wanting it is bad and having it will make you bad … unless he puts a ring on you first, then it’s okay.
Oh, and remember Jacob the werewolf? He’s pretty unhappy to see his unfortunately platonic best girl-buddy entertaining all those nasty impure impulses – though for an entirely different reason: He and his wolfpack are honor-bound by ancient tribal law to run down and kill vampires, aka the species Bella is engaged (quite literally) to join. Remember, vampirism = sex. So, honor-bound to take out female acquaintances for losing their purity? Well, at least thatdoesn’t have any troubling real-world relevance … oh, wait, yes it does.
Now, let it not be said that Bella is entirely passive. Certainly not – she takes the initiative at least once per book. Of course, this being Twilight and Bella being female, they’re all acts of beneficial or even heroic self-immolation. In New Moon, her reaction to abandonment by Edward is to repeatedly attempt suicide. It may or may not have been a plan, but it works. It gets his attention, and facilitates the scenario by which A.) they’re reunited and B.) he’s now forced to agree to turning her. Wow. And that’s pretty minor compared to Eclipse, where Bella’s lone act of heroism is cutting herself.
No, really. Edward is losing a wrasslin’ match with the main bad vampiress, so Bella slices open her arm betting that the scent of fresh blood will distract the bad guy long enough for Edward to remember the button combination for his fatality move. It works again! Another self-inflicted wound for attention, another problem solved!
And what of the yet-to-be-filmmed finale, Breaking Dawn? Well, Bella’s ultimate act of self-sacrifice turns out to be refusing to get an abortion, even though her hybrid-vampire unborn chestburster baby is (literally) killing her. And it’s a good thing she doesn’t, too! Not only is it the final straw that gets Edward to give in and turn her, the baby turns out to be a kind of all-powerful girl-vampire-Jesus whose very existence sets in motion (and resolves) a preposterous chain of events that gives every major character a happy ending! Golly, good thing she didn’t buy into any of that “health and safety of the mother” stuff, eh? Take that, Planned Parenthood!
Alright, so a little of that is tongue in cheek and, of course, all of it is strictly subjective interpretation. I don’t think Stephenie Meyer set out to create a work of socially-retrograde propaganda – and before anyone brings it up, I don’t think her being a Mormon is overwhelmingly significant, either. It’s likely that she simply did what most other people writing schlocky vampire books did: wrote down a slew of personal fetishes in vampire-speak. The stuff that raises red flags about Twilight isn’t new – it’s old as hell, and that’s the problem.
Patriarchal-omnipotence. The surrendered wife. Virginity as commodity. Female sexuality as something deadly to be controlled. Women being defined entirely by what sort of men lay claim to them. This isn’t just anti-feminist, it’s anti-female, period – and anti-modern and anti-individual to boot. This is bad stuff, and it’s bad stuff that most modern cultures have spent a long, arduous time digging themselves out of. But like some kind of stubborn recurring cancer, here it is again, tossed back to the surface by the combined might of amusingly well-coiffed vampires (who, for some reason, are apparently made of plaster) and very large puppies who are alternately a family of Native American underwear models. Of course, “cancer” is just my opinion. I’m sure there are folks who’re positively giddy at the prospect of cultural backsliding – I mean, someone is buying Dinesh D’Souza’s books, right?
In closing, I should probably again stress that while they both came up in the review, my alarm at the moralism of Twilight and my disdain for the actual books/movies in terms of quality are two separate things. I may regard the series’ message as being vile and retrograde, but having a vile and retrograde message doesn’t make Twilight bad – bad writing, and the inability of filmmakers to rise above it – makes Twilight bad.
Although the creepy message-mongering does help alleviate some of the attendant guilt that can come from criticizing so harshly something that others worked so hard on. Some of it, anyway.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.