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The Bloody, Twisted, Inverted World of Twilight: Violent Vampire Sex, Demon-Babies and Overwhelming Female Desire

Twilight is saturated with sexist tropes--to the point of being disturbing. But that disturbing element is compelling, too.
 
 
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There are two moments in Breaking Dawn, Part I--the second to last film installment of teen vampire romance Twilight--which encapsulate the oppositional forces this story contains within its breathless span.

The first moment occurs when two vampires argue over the creature growing in human heroine Bella’s belly. While most of the family calls it a fetus, Rosalie, the bereft Vampire Who Never Got to be a Mother, cries out (echoing the author’s point of view) “it’s not a fetus, it’s a baby!” The conservative sexual politics of Twilight are thus foregrounded, and the fetus, once born, will be beloved even though it kills its mother on delivery (never fear, she’s resurrected as a vampire).

But the other moment occurs on Bella’s honeymoon, after her first night of lovemaking with her vampire husband results in a broken bedboard, feathers everywhere, bruises on her body--and a big smile on her face. In one of the film's more memorable scenes, Bella stands in front of the mirror and remembers sleeping with her husband with pleasure playing across her face, not noticing the bruises. But husband Edward, chagrined at said bruises, refuses to consummate their marriage again despite her best attempts at seduction. Finally, she begins to beg him to sleep with her again: “Please,” she says, crying. “Please.” This is a girl who has wanted some vampire loving from day one (or book one), and she’s not going to take “no” for an answer, even if it kills her (eventually, it does.) Welcome to the twisted glory that is Mormon housewife turned teen-lit sensation Stephenie Meyer’s imagination.

On the pages of Breaking Dawn Meyer let that imagination, which has been hovering under the repressed surface of the series’ previous three books, run rampant: Bedboard-breaking, feather-spilling, bruising honeymoon sex. A demonic pregnancy that grows so fast the fetus is nudging and jumping around the heroine’s womb days after conception. A grown-up werewolf falling in love with a half-vampire infant. And our heavily-pregnant heroine sipping blood from a soda cup--and loving it--just before her ribs and spine are shattered by the immortal spawn she’s carrying. It gets better: a c-section performed by vampire teeth. A shot of venom straight to the heart. A crazed childless vampire woman who will protect the fetus at all costs.

All these tableaux await viewers of Breaking Dawn: Part 1 whose gory images are interspersed with teenage romantic mooning, a fairy-tale wedding, and the best smoldering gazes the young actors can muster.

Every time a new installment of the neverending Twilight film franchise comes out, I have to reassess this massively popular tale that is such a paradox: it’s centered around a young woman’s desire, yes, but it’s a desire for all the wrong things (by feminist standards as well as by normal social ones). There’s no question that Twilight is saturated with sexist tropes--to the point of being disturbing. But there’s also no question that that disturbing element is compelling, too. Deeply so.

There’s a reason teenage girls are obsessed with this story, after all, and it’s not because they’re shallow consumers of pop trash: over the course of four books and five movies, Bella’s needs, wants and impulses are by the strongest power manifested--stronger than the vampires and werewolves combined. Her inmost wishes are the steady heartbeat that propels the action forward to an absurd degree. 

She wants to date vampire Edward, she dates Edward--even though he is dangerous. She wants to keep her second suitor, werewolf Jacob, in her life, she keeps him in her life--even though he keeps messing with her relationship. She wants to sleep with Edward (a lot) even though he might accidentally kill her, and she finally gets to, and she loves it. She wants to deliver her dangerous baby despite the fact that it is literally destroying her body and she gets to. Everyone loves her baby, too, including Jacob, who will one day marry it, but that’s another story.

Bella wants to be a vampire even though Edward and Jacob hope she can stay human and have a good human life, but her suicide by demon-childbirth leaves them no choice but to turn her vamp (the final shot of the latest film in which her new vampire eyes open is a stunning one), so now she’s a vampire--and she loves it! And (spoiler alert) in the second installment of Breaking Dawn, her desire to hang with her human relatives despite her new thirst for their blood will win out, as will her desire for the bad vampires to leave her family alone. She ends up being the strongest vampire around, too; now that she’s immortal her desires take physical, supernatural form and allow her to shield her loved ones. But this new power is an afterthought, almost redundant. For the entire series, what Bella wants, Bella gets.

Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg answered a question about the anti-choice and misogynist overtones in the book by alluding to this quality and acknowledging her own concern with the material in an interview with Vulture:

...as a pro-choice feminist, that was certainly my concern going in. No matter what, I would not have done this movie if it violated my own beliefs — I would have just walked away — so I had to find a way into it that was in line with my own thinking and yet not violating anyone else's beliefs. ... from the very beginning — and certainly in this film — she knows what she wants and goes for it, hell or high water.

 

It seems that Rosenberg was as struck as many readers were by the sheer force of Bella's will.

Still, all this wish-fulfillment can be boring, and Bella has rightly been criticized as a"Mary Sue" character (one who exists as a stand-in for the author and has no flaws). But as for the substance of her wants, therein lies the perversely haunting twist. I’d argue that Bella's desires are direct responses to the patriarchy we actually live in. In fact, Meyer has created for her heroine an inverted version of our unjust society.  In this invented, inverted world, Bella is allowed to want sex, and vocalize it, and initiate it, while her partner is the gatekeeper who makes sure she is safe and married before she gets “hurt.” In her world, the men around her urge her to abort her fetus for her own safety, but she gets to “choose” to deliver it even though it kills her. In her world, her boyfriend can urge her to attend college and better herself while she can push for an early marriage--and be right! In her world, she can reject her body and trade it in for a new one that is agile, strong, lithe. Her choices are consistently to fall into the arms of the patriarchy and trust that it will catch her, and her faith is validated: she gets a perfect husband, angelic child, new body. 

What if we could do this, the fantasy suggests? What if we could just will ourselves to accept the prescribed roles society gives us (damsel in distress, object of protection, vessel for childbearing) and make it okay through the power of our wills? And what if the men in our society were horrified by their power: physical, social, sexual, and curbed it themselves and we didn't constantly have to be on our guard?

I’m fairly convinced that this stuff, along with the blood and guts and the sex that is always expressed in chaste, PG-13 terms but underlies everything, comes right out of Meyer’s subconscious, that it’s almost a gargantuan effort in self-deception or at least suspension of disbelief. She herself has said:

“The politics I never think of when I’m writing. It’s about a story that is interesting to me,” she said. “I’m not going to say that ‘Breaking Dawn’ doesn’t get weird, because it does. But these are things that as I was exploring what it means and meant to be a woman, particularly to be a mother because that is a big part of my life."

My strong feeling--and yes, it’s a total guess--is that Meyer has a host of mixed emotions about her own role in her patriarchal religious tradition, her role as a mother, her role as an American woman; all that ambivalence, that understandable fear and horror, bubbles up in these pages and then is shut down again by the author.

Thus, Bella’s story reads as a fantasy--but it is also uncannily compelling because it’s so fantastical. A real Edward would be an abusive stalker. A real Bella would probably be labeled a slut for pursuing Edward, or maybe end up dead from carrying his child. A real Bella might want an abortion and be stopped by men in authority, instead of the other way around. A real Bella might want to continue her education or career but feel pressured to get married, instead of the other way around. And if a real Bella were able to express her desires freely and escape stigma, that would be due to feminism, not a chiseled killer who watches her while she sleeps.  

In the real world, female sexuality remains so taboo that the Breaking Dawn sex scene had to be re-shot when Kristen Stewart, who plays Bella, "thrust" too much (no joke).

So yes, the universe Stephenie Meyer creates gets creepier and bloodier and more like a Christian Rosemary’s Baby in this final installment--so much so that there was a "fan revolt" and backlash when the book first appeared. On the other hand, it's consistent with Meyer’s MO throughout the series: advance a threat, then let it retreat because Bella (and Meyer, and her readers) refuses to face it. 

Just like a superhero fantasy in which a man gets to kick the villains out of existence, Bella gets to will the monstrous consequences of patriarchy into the ether.

And here's why that's such a hard lure to resist for readers. All the potential horrors that Meyer conjures up are actual fears women face: being shamed or hurt because of our own desires, being raped, death and deformity in childbirth, our bodies and their needs leaving us vulnerable. The greatest magic of Twilight is that for the duration of its pages, Meyer makes those fears seem groundless.

 

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.
 
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