Sex & Relationships

Vampires, Werewolves, and "Scary" Female Sexuality: the Sexist World of Twilight

Adults have an obligation to start a conversation concerning the darker themes and anti-feminist rhetoric in the extremely popular Twilight series.

In Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga, a wildly popular four-book series of young adult novels, the protagonist Bella Swan -- by all accounts a very average human girl -- has two suitors. One is the unimaginably beautiful vampire, Edward, the other a loyal and devoted werewolf, Jacob. Fans of the books, and now a movie version, often break into "teams," aligning themselves with the swain they hope Bella will choose in the end: Team Edward or Team Jacob.

But few young readers ask, "Why not Team Bella?" perhaps because the answer is quite clear: There can be no Team Bella. Even though Bella is ostensibly a hero, in truth she is merely an object in the Twilight world.

On the surface, the Twilight saga seems to have something to please everyone. Moms are reading the books and swooning over Edward right alongside their teen and tween daughters. Librarians and teachers are delighted to see students with their heads tucked into books, and since Twilight's romantic sensuality is wrapped up in an abstinence message, all the kissing and groping appear to be harmless.

But while Twilight is ostensibly a love story, scratch the surface and you will find an allegorical tale about the dangers of unregulated female sexuality. From the very first kiss between Edward and Bella, she is fighting to control her awakening sexuality. Edward must restrain her, sometimes physically, to keep her from ravishing him, and he frequently chastises her when she becomes, in his opinion, too passionate. There are those who might applaud the depiction of a young man showing such self-restraint, but shouldn't the decision about when a couple is ready to move forward sexually be one they make together?

Bella is also depicted as being in need of someone to take charge, someone to take care of her. Edward isn't just protective, though, but often overprotective of Bella. Edward is jealous of Bella's relationships with other boys, going so far as to disable her car to keep her at home. He is condescending, assuming that he knows what is best for her in every situation.

Maybe it's difficult for Edward to see Bella as an equal because Bella has almost no personality. Meyer writes on her website that she "left out a detailed description of Bella in the book so that the reader could more easily step into her shoes." But Meyer fails to give Bella much of an interior life as well; Bella is a blank slate, with few thoughts or actions that don't center on Edward. If Meyer hopes that readers see themselves as Bella, what is it she is suggesting to them about the significance of their own lives?

Meyer also insists that she sees Bella as a feminist character, since the foundation of feminism is being able to choose. What Meyer fails to acknowledge is that all of the choices Bella makes are Meyer's choices -- choices based on her own patriarchal Mormon background.

In Breaking Dawn, the latest book in the series, Meyer finally allows Bella's subordination to end as she takes her proper place: in the patriarchal structure. When Bella becomes a wife and mother, Meyer allows her to receive her heart's desire -- to live forever by Edward's side, to be preternaturally beautiful and graceful, to be strong and be able to defend herself.

The Twilight saga has become something of a bonding phenomenon among mothers and daughters. But reading the books together and mutually swooning over Edward isn't enough. As influential adults, mothers (and, by extension, teachers and librarians) have an obligation to start a conversation concerning the darker themes and anti-feminist rhetoric in these tales. There is plenty to work with, from the dangers of losing yourself in an obsessive relationship to the realities of owning one's sexuality.

Director Catherine Hardwicke's film version of Twilight remains true to the novel, but there are subtle changes that make it much more feminist-friendly. Kristin Stewart's Bella is more outspoken and forthright, and Robert Pattinson's Edward is much less condescending and overbearing. Their relationship seems to be built on equality and friendship, and includes scenes of mutual sexual frustration and restraint. Here is a Bella we can root for, a Bella who stands just a little bit more on her own and is a part of the action. It will be interesting to see if the next film in the Twilight series, to be directed by a man this time, Chris Weitz, will take a similar path. Or, once again, will Bella be left without a team of her own?

For the full version of this article, pick up a copy of the Spring 2009 issue of Ms. on newsstands, or have a copy sent to your door by joining the Ms. community at

Carmen D. Siering is an assistant professor of English and women's studies at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. One of her research areas is popular culture and its influence in the lives of girls and women.
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