[Content Note: Rape Culture, Misogyny, Abusive Relationships]
Note: This post is cross-posted from Ana Mardoll’s Ramblings.
I began officially criticizing Twilight on the internet in 2010. Twilight was the first literary deconstruction I worked on, and I was deeply inspired by the work of Fred Clark in deconstructing Left Behind. In the same way that Fred highlights the toxic messages in Left Behind and their effect on mainstream Christian community, I hoped to examine what I perceived as toxic messages in Twilight and their effect on cultural attitudes towards women. Probably not surprisingly after three years of immersing myself in Twilight, I began to feel that the truth was more complicated than I’d first realized.
Unlike a lot of the authors whose popular works undergo systematic skewering by bloggers (see Tim LaHaye, Orson Scott Card, Ayn Rand, etc.), S. Meyer does publicly identify as a progressive — or at least as a feminist. And I believe that she does so sincerely and not disingenuously, though I also believe that her brand of feminism is extremely limited and potentially very harmful for a lot of marginalized women. But it does make deconstructing Twilight unusual at times because of the “Feminism Lite” factor.
Ironically (and not surprisingly, given that we live in a misogynist culture), the most “feminist” aspects of Twilight are the ones that weather the most criticism: it’s a book written by a woman, about a young woman protagonist, turned into a series of movies by a woman director, and adored by female fans of all ages. The property makes heavy use of female gaze; dressing its female characters in comfy hoodies and sleek designer clothes while simultaneously undressing its male characters in as much of the movie footage and marketing material as they feel they can get away with. And many, if not most, critiques of the series speculate critically on S. Meyer’s presumed brokenness (with the suggestion that there must be something wrong with a woman who writes a series like Twilight) and Bella’s unlikeability to a depth that most male authors and male characters are not subjected.
I do think, for the record, that there is a case to be made for some “lite feminism” inherent in Twilight. Consider this summary of the series:
Twilight concerns the adventures of a young woman protagonist who is courted by two supernatural beings — a vampire and a werewolf — both of whom love her intensely in spite of her realistic flaws. The young woman expresses female desire throughout her romantic adventures, and ultimately finds happiness and family among her chosen partner and his relatives.
There’s stuff to like in there; just the fact that Bella expresses female desire and chooses the partner she wants (rather than having the choice made for her by her family, friends, partners, and/or circumstance and social pressure) can be in itself still radical in our culture. But let’s look at that description again and be a little more detailed:
Twilight concerns the adventures of a young straight white cis woman protagonist who is courted by two supernatural beings — a rich white cis male vampire and an impoverished Native American cis male werewolf — both of whom love her intensely in spite of her realistic flaws. The young woman expresses straight female desire throughout her romantic adventures, and ultimately finds happiness and family among her chosen rich straight white cis partner and his rich straight white cis relatives.
That modified description, which doesn’t elide or invisible the identities that make up the characters in Twilight, points to some of the many issues in the series which make the books unwelcoming to many women, and which prevent it from being as feminist as it otherwise might have been. There are no vampires of color in Twilight; the Official Illustrated Guide insists that:
Pale vampire skin is a product of vampire venom’s transformative process. The venom leeches all pigment from the skin as it changes the human skin into the more indestructible vampire form. Regardless of original ethnicity, a vampire’s skin will be exceptionally pale. The hue varies slightly, with darker-skinned humans having a barely discernible olive tone to their vampire skin, but the light shade remains the same. All forms of skin pigmentation—freckles, moles, birthmarks, age marks, scars, and tattoos—disappear during the transformation. [emphasis mine]
This world-building “detail” effectively means that becoming a vampire in Twilight — which is supposed to be a desirable thing, a thing that brings strength and beauty and grace and power — requires the shedding of one’s ethnicity, unless that ethnicity happens to be white. In Twilight, whiteness is a default for vampires. The only roles available for people of color in Twilight are therefore as human servants on the Isle of Esme or as werewolves who are explicitly members of a marginalized racial group (specifically the Quileute tribe).
Adding to the Race Fail, the werewolves are described in animalistic terms (thus perpetuating the problematic trope in media of portraying people of color as sub-human animals), and are marginalized by the privileged white vampires, who disparage the werewolves with insults about their bodies and scent and with racial epithets — the werewolves return epithets in kind, but it’s a function of Meyer’s privilege that she doesn’t seem to understand (or care) that a privileged person using a racial slur against a marginalized person is not the same thing as a marginalized person using a racial slur against a privileged person. There’s a context of power imbalance that can’t be overlooked in that situation.
Setting aside the tremendous problems with race in the series, we also find an equally tremendous amount of normalization of traditional gender roles and straight sexual orientation. There are no same-gender romantic relationships among the main cast of characters, and almost everyone is straight and monogamously paired. These pairings are magically enforced among many of the supernaturals: the almost universally-male werewolves (Leah is the only known female werewolf) imprint romantically invariably upon women and presumably for purposes of reproduction. Edward, in comparison, will be romantically drawn to Bella by her unique smell which is his own “brand of heroin”. Queer and asexual characters aren’t just invisible from the Twilight universe, but also implicitly “less than”, since the series emphasis on True Love — to be enforced on the participants with or without their consent — suggests that life without it (or with a queer version) would be less than the ideal modeled by Edward and Bella.
All of this — and more — is why I refer to Twilight as “feminism lite”, because there are feminist elements (romantic choice, female desire, etc.), but they are countered by deeply harmful narratives that hurt many woman, including queer women and trans women and women of color. The “feminism” in Twilight is feminism for a very select kind of woman: straight-white-monogamous-childbearing feminism. That’s feminism for some of us, but it’s not feminism for all of us. And it’s feminism that can be, by its exclusionary nature, deeply harmful to women with different axes of marginalization.
And as with the conflict between choice and imprinting, much of what the series tries to do from a feminist perspective ultimately flops back down into the patriarchal status quo rather than genuinely undermining the problematic cultural prejudices supposedly being addressed. Just as the right to choose ones life-partner doesn’t really mean as much when the partner in question is magically-compelled to love you (whether through vampire heroin or werewolf imprinting), the right to have and express female desire doesn’t really mean as much when the subject of that desire is constantly engaged in policing the sexuality of the person expressing that desire. Which brings me to my larger point, which is that Twilight entrenches rape culture.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is encouraging male sexual aggression.
Edward Cullen is an idealized male character who is written as aggressive to an almost fetishistic degree. He hauls Bella backward across a parking lot when he deems her incompetent to drive. He shoves Bella into so hard that she needs stitches when “protecting” her from Jasper. In Twilight, male aggression is tied up inextricably with love and protection, to the point where the former is to be taken as evidence of the latter. Battles are fought throughout the series in order to protect loved ones — notably Bella and Renesmee — but never for ideals or moral causes (such as to protect the humans of Forks or to save the rejected newborn vampires).
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is regarding violence as sexy and sexuality as violent.
Edward is extremely violent during sex, breaking headboards and bruising Bella. He is portrayed as being literally unable to control his actions, and he is unwilling to take steps to proactively mitigate the threat he poses to Bella. Edward’s sexual violence is treated as an inevitable thing to be avoided or endured — Bella is not empowered to explore safer sex with him while she is human. With regularity, male violence is linked to sexual arousal and sexual maturity in Twilight: one of the main signs that a budding young werewolf is about to awaken for the first time is an increase up in violent behavior.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is treating rape as a compliment.
In Twilight, strong emotions and romantic feelings are conveyed through violence. Edward’s violent “protection” of Bella and the overriding of her will and consent are meant to be indicators that he cares deeply for her and is simply reacting strongly to a fear of losing her. Jacob, his romantic rival, kisses Bella forcibly against her will because he is so attracted to her. In the next most thoroughly explored werewolf relationship, Sam brutally scars Emily’s face because he is accidentally overcome with emotion — this act serves as the catalyst to cement their relationship, as well as narrative punishment-and-redemption arc for Emily and Sam since they are finding happiness at Leah’s expense.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is treating straight sexuality as the norm.
To my knowledge — and it’s possible that I’ve missed an ancillary character — there are no queer relationships in Twilight. Carlisle and Esme, Edward and Bella, Charlie and Renee (later: Charlie and Sue; Phil and Renee), Jacob and Renesmee, Rosalie and Emmett, Alice and Jasper, Sam and Emily, Angela and Ben, Jessica and Mike, Tyler and Lauren, Eric and Katie.. and so on. Very few characters remain happily unpartenered, and the ones who are in relationships are almost entirely cis-bodied people in straight monogamous relationships. Twilight thus privileges straight sexuality and reinforces gender-based romantic roles by choosing not to show egalitarian same-gender relationships as an alternative-and-valid way to find love.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is rape being used as a weapon, a tool of war and genocide and oppression.
Twilight doesn’t explicitly use rape as a weapon. But vampirism has a long literary tradition of being a metaphor for sex and rape, and even Edward acknowledges the parallel between his sexual lust and blood-lust when he’s with Bella. So when violence against humans is normalized in Twilight, we are implicitly seeing the normalization of rape through metaphor. The Cullens may be “vegetarians”, but they don’t condemn their human-eating companions — in much the same way that men who aren’t rapists can choose to tolerate the company of men who are. And when the Cullens gather allies to them in Breaking Dawn, they are aware that their allies are preying on nearby humans, yet do nothing to stop them or to warn the humans and empower them to protect themselves and/or fight back. Even Bella normalizes this violence while she is human: she asks Edward why he doesn’t prey on humans, rather than asking why other vampires do. Violence against humans is expected as the norm in Twilight, and those who don’t (often) engage in it are lionized as exceptionally good rather than merely decent.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is telling girls and women to […] always be aware of your surroundings and never let your guard down for a moment lest you be sexually assaulted and if you are and didn’t follow all the rules it’s your fault.
One of the few treatments of rape in Twilight occurs early on in the Port Angeles journey, where Bella is nearly gang-raped on the street by a group of men. Both Edward and the text itself explicitly blames her for this on the grounds that she was walking alone in the ‘wrong’ part of town and wasn’t sufficiently aware of her surroundings. Bella didn’t follow the rules, and the implication is that if she had, then she would have been safe from sexual violence.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is victim-blaming. Rape culture is tasking victims with the burden of rape prevention. […] Rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing a person can do to avoid being raped is never be in the same room as a rapist. Rape culture is avoiding talking about what an absurdly unreasonable expectation that is, since rapists don’t announce themselves or wear signs or glow purple.
The other major treatment of rape in the series is the rape of Rosalie, whose gang-rape on the street which ended in her death and vampirism is meant to parallel what could have happened to Bella in Port Angeles. Yet because we’re not supposed to like Rosalie — who is characterized as rich, and shallow, and haughty, and barely familiar with the rich-shallow-haughty fiance who raped her — we’re encouraged to blame her for her rape as though she somehow should have known that her fiance was secretly a rapist. Since she was marrying him for security rather than love, there is the implication that she didn’t really know him and therefore wasn’t safe with him. This interpretation takes the blame of her rape off of him and places it on her, while carefully eliding the fact that Bella — who loves Edward and knows him intimately — is in just as much danger from him, despite her “purer” motives in being with him.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is pervasive narratives about rape that exist despite evidence to the contrary. Rape culture is pervasive imagery of stranger rape, even though women are three times more likely to be raped by someone they know than a stranger, and nine times more likely to be raped in their home, the home of someone they know, or anywhere else than being raped on the street, making what is commonly referred to as “date rape” by far the most prevalent type of rape.
See again: Bella and Rosalie, whose stranger-rape street-rape gang-rape narratives — by being the only major instances of rape in the series — normalize what is actually an unusual/uncommon form of rape that coincidentally reinforces rape culture narratives that rape is preventable and avoidable by simply not being among strangers in strange places.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is hospitals that won’t do rape kits, disbelieving law enforcement, unmotivated prosecutors, hostile judges, victim-blaming juries, and paltry sentencing.
And we may add to that Bella’s father Charlie, who is the chief of police in Forks, and whose reaction to the sexual assault of his daughter by Jacob is to offer to arrest Bella for defending herself from that assault. Charlie is also a problematic factor in the series in the sense that at no time does he speak to Bella about her strange and uncharacteristic choice to move in with him immediately after her mother’s boyfriend Phil moves into Bella’s home. Add also to this the fact that Edward acts as a vigilant who preys on rapists for blood, yet after he becomes vegetarian he stops working to prevent rapes and doesn’t do anything to turn in the Port Angeles rapists to the police: he remains wholly unmotivated to stop rape when the act of stopping rape doesn’t benefit him.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is people meant to protect you raping you instead—like parents, teachers, doctors, ministers, cops, soldiers, self-defense instructors.
Charlie is a source of problematic sexual policing in the series, as he begins to invade Bella’s sexual privacy almost as soon as she moves up to Forks: insisting that she attend the prom with Mike (who Charlie views as a safe/ideal sexual match for Bella and which will verify that Bella is sexually interested in the “right” kind of people), exhibiting suspicion when Bella goes to bed early, and sabotaging her car at night so that she can’t sneak out to meet boys. All of this is presented as mildly humorous and the sorts of things that “good” fathers do to their daughters. In the same way, Edward takes over the role of policing Bella’s sexuality by also sabotaging her car and refusing to have sex with her on the grounds that it will tarnish her soul (and later, will damage her body). The people who supposedly love and wish to protect Bella instead spend their time engaging in harmful policing of her choices.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is the objectification of women, which is part of a dehumanizing process that renders consent irrelevant.
Carlisle Cullen, who is renowned in the series for his great compassion, turned Rosalie into a vampire without her consent explicitly because she was beautiful and he wanted her as a bride for his favored son Edward. In doing so, he literally objectified Rosalie into an object that she hates: a vampire. Werewolf imprinting similarly objectifies women into objects that ‘hold men here’ in place of the earth’s gravitational force. The narrative explicitly assumes that no woman would be able to “resist” the levels of love and adoration offered by the werewolf, thus grouping all women into a monolith which responds with perfect predictability to outside stimulus.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is treating women’s bodies like public property. […] Rape culture is blurred lines between persistence and coercion. Rape culture is treating diminished capacity to consent as the natural path to sexual activity.
The courting of Bella Swan by her many unwanted admirers — Mike, Eric, Tyler, and Jacob — is treated as a joke by both Edward and the narrative, even though Bella explicitly says how uncomfortable their persistence makes her. Edward even goes so far as to forcibly maneuver Bella into situations where she will be trapped and approached by her suitors on the grounds that Edwards believes Bella to be public property and thinks that her suitors deserve a chance to ask her out. Bella is never allowed to avoid sexual propositions that she doesn’t wish to received.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is treating 13-year-old girls like trophies for men.
Jacob doesn’t get Bella in the end … but he does get to romantically imprint on her infant daughter.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is pretending that non-physical sexual assaults, like peeping tomming, is totally unrelated to brutal and physical sexual assaults, rather than viewing them on a continuum of sexual assault. Rape culture is diminishing the gravity of any sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, or culture of actual or potential coercion in any way.
Jacob’s forced kiss of Bella. Edward forcing Bella to grant access to unwanted sexual propositions from her classmates. Edward creeping into Bella’s room at night without her consent (as well as before they even have a romantic relationship). Edward and Bella (and Sam! and Jacob!) both manipulating the other with threats of self-harm and suicide. All of these things should be viewed on a continuum of assault and coercion.
Melissa McEwan: Rape culture is television shows and movies leaving rape out of situations where it would be a present and significant threat in real life.
We’ve already talked about how the treatment of Bella and Rosalie’s rape experiences as the only rapes in Twilight normalizes unusual rape and invisibles more common forms of rape. Additionally, though Twilight has a large Native American population as part of the story, there is no mention of the fact that one in three Native American women experience rape or attempted rape. Nor does the story seriously contend with the fact that vampires — who are idealized in the text — are overriding consent in ways that are deliberate metaphors for rape. Instead, the rapists in Twilight are white humans on white humans, with no exploration of Native American victims and/or vampire predators. This invisibles real victims and provides for the lionization of the Cullens’ “red eyed” allies by not examining that they are, metaphorically if not literally, rapists.
Ana Mardoll: Rape culture is the centering of privileged pain over marginalized pain.
In the same way that our culture focuses on the pain of “accidental rapists”, Twilight focuses on privileged pain over marginalized pain. The narrative focuses more on the pain Edward feels on imagining he might murder Bella over the pain Bella would feel at being murdered. Much ink is spent on the suffering that Sam endures after having scarred Emily, but little focus is on the suffering Emily felt on being scarred. The pain that supposedly drives Jacob to sexually assault Bella is treated by the other characters as significantly more important at her pain upon realizing that a friend she cares about doesn’t love her enough to not sexually assault her. (Remember: Rape is not a compliment!) And so on.
I believe S. Meyer when she says she identifies as a feminist. I even believe that Twilight was written with a focus towards creating something positive and good for the female readership. But we cannot effectively fight an oppression by replicating and fetishizing that same oppression — and thus we cannot effectively push back against a rape culture that harms and marginalizes and polices and rapes vulnerable members of society by creating a narrative that celebrates that type of culture (as long as it’s done by the “right” kind of people like Edward and Sam and Charlie and Jacob) and otherwise invisibles it (when it’s done by the vampires whose help the Cullens need for the climactic battle).
And we cannot really have feminism that can reach and help all women in a text when that text persistently refuses to respectfully handle women of color, queer women, trans women, and women whose life and sexuality and goals are not only not represented in the pages of Twilight but are also implied to be inherently less than the perfect life that Bella and Edward endorse as the Best Couple Ever.
[Related Reading: Rape Culture 101 by Melissa McEwan]