feminism in Meyer’s Twilight series – two discussions

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Much of the discussion around Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is based on feminist criticism…  I just happened to read these two articles (Rachel Hendershot Parkin (2010) and Joyce Ann Mercer (2011)) the same day and enjoyed what they had to say (quite differently in some ways but both from a position of feminist critique) about Meyer’s Twilight series. They both consider the social reception of these books, the relationship between Bella and Edward (and how that relationship has been read), as well as the place of Bella’s pregnancy in this text… they make for mutually beneficial readings (and are both excellent in their own right, too).

Importantly, I think, in this context, Rachel Hendershot Parkin reminds us that: Newspaper articles and book reviews are quick to accuse the series of anti-feminism in scathing (yet often non-specific) terms, and Twilighters frequenting forums, blogs, and other discussion boards are not far behind. It is important to note that Twilight fans are indeed sophisticated readers capable of critical and detailed analysis.” (Hendershot Parkin, p.66)

However, Parkin also points out that: “Despite the clearly mapped romance structure of the Twilight saga, the books are not marketed as such, and it appears that some fans are not familiar with the genre and thus fail to include such elements in their horizons of expectation. Meyer’s own comments indicate that her understanding of the books as feminist in their own right fits into current romance scholarship, which suggests that the genre represents women’s freedom rather than their bondage in love (Regis xiii).” (Hendershot Parkin, p.65)

Meyer makes her opinion of Bella and Edward’s relationship clear—it is a healthy and natural one, if a bit unusual, and is based on Meyer’s understanding and interpretation of the nature of true love. Meyer’s rebuttal certainly resonates with contemporary readings of the romance genre. Like Phillips, Meyer seems to believe in a heroine who “possesses all the softer qualities traditionally assigned to women but who has none of a woman’s physical limitations because his strength now belongs to her” (58). Meyer also turns to choice to define feminism, arguing that she always understood the term to indicate that women had the right to choose how to live their lives. So for Meyer, Bella is not anti-feminist because of her choices, but rather an empowered heroine in that she does make choices, ones that allow her to draw strength from Edward. Clearly, Meyer’s horizon of expectation for her own saga is just as firmly fixed as the fandom’s alternative horizon of expectation.
Ironically, however, while Twilighters may not recognize the series as part of the traditional romance genre and criticize it for its romantic elements, they often devour it for those same reasons. Twilight fans swoon over Edward Cullen. Many fans do not feel Bella’s space or privacy is violated when, in Twilight, he spends every night for months sneaking into her bedroom and watching her sleep. Rather than interpret Edward as a stalker, fans gush about his devotion to Bella. Female Twilighters do seem to delight in the prodigious care Edward takes of Bella and willingly accept his assertive, domineering character, a common feature in romance [-p.69] novels. At the same time, however, many of those readers resist the passive elements of Bella’s nature. These contradictory responses are, in Hills’s view, characteristic of fandoms. We can see that such dualisms abound in the Twilight saga’s reception, through the fandom’s acceptance of some romance tropes and rejection of others.” (Hendershot Parkin, pp.68-69)

Meanwhile, Joyce Ann Mercer spoke to a number of teenage girls about their engagement with the text and found that:

“These girls enjoyed fantasizing about Edward and Bella, as they used the story to fantasize about their own “perfect first date” or “perfect relationship.” One girl blushing a bit whispered, “It would be so cool to be able to feel totally sexy with a guy on a date and trust that he would be the one to worry about keeping things safe and good.”” (Mercer, p.268) This approach to Edward’s sexual reticence felt like an alternative (adolescent feminist) response to me from the ones Parkin was dealing with – and which I had encountered before reading this article…. It suggests Meyer is taking the pressure off her female heroine (to keep her virtue intact) and placing it on the hero instead… I hadn’t thought of this. Anyway, ….

Mercer explains her position: “These books give the appearance of being the antidote to the “hook up” culture of normless casual sexual encounter Donna Freitas (Freitas 2008) cites as sadly common to American college life. Instead of depicting its characters hooking up, page after page of Twilight centers on the thrill of anticipation, of desire unfolding and intensifying, which is surely its own kind of pleasure.
Meyer writes into the relationship between Bella and Edward a number of characteristics that go against stereotypical gender scripts. Most notable among these gender-bending story elements is her depiction of Edward as the person in the relationship who holds the more traditional sexual values—he insists that they be married before they do anything more than kiss. In a sometimes-amusing reversal of what many women and girls experience in dating, Edward must continually monitor his ability to handle physical contact with Bella. He puts the brakes on the degree of sexual intimacy expressed in the relationship, at one point even telling Bella she should stop taking her clothes off because he wants to wait until they are married. The narrative effect of this device is that teen girl readers, placing themselves in the position of Bella, can imaginatively “give themselves over to their own desire” and let someone else worry about the morality and safety of it all. It becomes Edward’s burden rather than Bella’s to “just say no.”” (p.272)

However, Mercer concludes that: “The Twilight saga does create a space for girls to experience and explore sexual desire in the safety of a narrative imagination in which they personally are neither exploited/objectified nor asked to become party to normless, unfulfilling sexual expression. At the same time, however, in Twilight the contours of female desire take shape within the rather conventional, subordinating tropes of romance fiction that constitute female desire through the act of being made the object of ownership or the exercise of authority. Masculine desire takes shape through narcissistic rage and entitlement. Here, desire’s hunger to be met and chosen by a desiring other’s equally strong yearning and wanting must play itself out through the power arrangements of male control and possession, rather than in the free play and abandon of a jouissance shared by two.” (Mercer, p.275)

“When I started out in this investigation of vampires, desire, girls, and God, I read Meyer’s books, and began to formulate my critique of them, largely based on a feminist critical account of gender construction and the role of the Mormon religion in promoting the worldview found in Twilight, a worldview authorizing women’s subordination. And then I began talking to girls reading Twilight. The more my informal ethnography brought me inside the experiences of these young women, the harder it became for me to simply dismiss this book as hopelessly sexist and merely “really bad for girls.” For in spite of Twilight’s distortions of desire, in spite of the horribly circumscribed world of women in Twilight, as a feminist ethnographer I found myself having to take seriously—to listen differently—to the power of the narrative for girls.” (Mercer, p.275)

Refs: Rachel Hendershot Parkin (2010) ‘Breaking Faith: Disrupted Expectations and Ownership in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, Volume 2, Issue 2, Winter, pp. 61-85

Joyce Ann Mercer (2011)  Vampires, Desire, Girls and God: Twilight and the Spiritualities of Adolescent Girls Pastoral Psychol. 60:263–278

Reference is also made to:  Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

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