Macho Vampires and Damsels in Distress: Twilight is Bad News for Feminism

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling Twilight series is an offence to both literature and feminism. There’s just no escaping from the gruesome, outrageous portrait of male domination that all four books promote. In the unlikely hypothesis that you’ve managed to ignore the phenomenon for four years and two Hollywood blockbusters, let me quickly outline the accursed story to you. In a rainy town of Washington state, clumsy, insignificant little Bella Swan falls irrevocably in love with His Sparkliness Edward Cullen, high school heartthrob and a vampire.


O miracle, her feelings are reciprocated – but the venomous 108-year-old politely informs her he would very much like to nibble her to death. But that’s fine by her, apparently, and she doesn’t mind it either when it turns out that the undead hottie watches her sleep in secret. Plot thickens in further volumes, where cute little fragile abandoned Bella finds herself another monster to be repeatedly saved by, and enjoys various forms of life-threatening activities to make her toothy BF reappear in her depressive mind. After many episodes of shameless wish-fulfilment on the author’s part, Bella and Sparkles finally tie the knot. Mrs Cullen’s loss of virginity leads to her being pummelled by her hubby (mind you, she’s okay with that) before falling instantly pregnant with a voracious vampirette whom she refuses to abort. Mummy Bella quite literally dies when the lovely infant gnaws her way out of her womb, but she is vampired back to the life of a Cold One and all’s well that ends well for her, a fulfilled, eternal eighteen-year-old mother, safe in the knowledge that her hybrid progeny will some day be deflowered by her furry best friend.

This avalanche of antiquated symbols of female submission is not even what bothers feminists the most about Twilight. It’s more insidious than that. In fact, it seems like almost any Twihard who’s scraped a few GCSE’s is aware of how shockingly sexist the books are. They know it. They acknowledge it. It’s often the first thing they say when the subject is brought up: ‘Oh, I know Twilight is unbelievably sexist, but…’ That ‘but’ is, ultimately, the core of the problem. It means you’re willing to suspend critical thinking for cleverly-packaged, sparkly machismo. And I have to say, it’s as tempting as the red apple on the first book’s cover, isn’t it? It just feels good to be Bella Swan, the ultimate Mary Sue, inexplicably adored by anyone with a Y chromosome. You read the book and you tell your feminist, disbelieving self to shut the hell up – a bit of emotional masturbation won’t kill anyone, it’s just light entertainment, right?

That’s really bad news. That’s a sign that we’ve dropped our guard. It should be a wake-up call. There should be no excuse for romanticising stalkerish behaviour, murderous impulses, teenage death, and dangerous pregnancies. Somewhere in our brain a red light bulb should switch on to remind us that boys, however marble-skinned, shouldn’t consider us as kawaii malcoordinated toddlers who require constant supervision. We should say thank you very much, centenarian incubus, but I don’t want your golden eyes to watch me sleep. But we don’t. We sigh and swoon as the obsessive-compulsive monsters in Bella Swan’s vicinity argue over who’s less likely to accidentally murder the girl. Not content with being overtly sexist, the story somehow manages to entrance the fans into excusing its sexist content. Twilight is, in fact, the literary equivalent of domestic violence (which actually figures prominently in the books) in all its insidiousness. It sets up a power relationship which makes violence against women in all shapes and forms both obvious and forgivable. We know that the books negate decades of feminist achievements, but we love the story so much, plus, Stephenie Meyer doesn’t really want to be sexist, so it’s okay, right? Wait a minute, that’s exactly what beaten wives say. They know it’s horrible, they know it’s unhealthy, but they’re in love, and their husbands didn’t mean to punch them anyway, it just happened.

So perverse. So efficient. So dangerous. Let me remind you that no man is prominently responsible for sexism in the Twilight series. A woman wrote it, a woman agent chose it, and its readers are (mostly) women. We’ve done it to ourselves, and we need to get the hell out of it all by ourselves. So long as our ideals of romance conceal bloodthirsty subjugation of women, there will be suffering, there will be frustration, and there will be male domination. As for Twilight, one golden rule applies – if you know, deep down, that it doesn’t agree with your feminist values, then it’s not good for womankind as a whole.

So just dump the sparkly bully. I’m sure there’s a sweet non-homicidal human around who loves you not because you’re an accident-prone little kitten but because you’re a proper smarthead with a brilliant sense of humour.

9 Comments

  1. I had no idea what Twilight was about – very interesting. I think I read somewhere that the books were written with the intention of promoting celebecy – with the vampire stuff as an analogy for STIs?

    What also interests me is WHY woman are attracted to and enjoy the (sexist) ideas explored in these books. I’m not saying I don’t understand the fantasy, the ‘WHY’, but I’m just wondering if part of the project of feminism could be coming up with some way to act against the influencing forces which constitute such desire… Which admittedly would perhaps include the book itself. As your article rightly points out there is a clear discrepency between what people know is sexist (and fundementally not in their interests as women) and what people desire and enjoy. How do we negotiate this gap? Because it seems to me that whilst some people will be strong enough to deny themselves something they enjoy because of rational objections, whilst the enjoyment is left intact, the books will continue to be popular.

  2. clementineb

    March 1, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    Yes – I’m not sure they were written ‘with the intention of promoting celibacy’, but the author’s beliefs about that are pretty explicit. Vampirism is an analogy for sex, simply – Edward’s attraction for Bella is concealed as ‘hunger’ or ‘thirst for her blood’ but really he wants to have sex with(/rape) her.

    I’ve thought about the second part of the question a lot – I think it’s always hard to understand exactly why some stories work and why some don’t, but especially in children’s and young adult literature you can sometimes find patterns in hugely successful books. Firstly I think Twilight works because it is, literally, a transcription of the daydream of an immature, average teenage girl – ‘not that pretty’ but who somehow, completely innocently, makes all the guys around head over heels in love with her (and obviously the most handsome guy at school.) Also there’s the idea of danger induced by extremely possessive, passionate relationships. That I think is the worst thing about Twilight. For some reasons I think girls find it seductive that their partner’s love might be so strong that it’s destructive. It’s the same kind of theme than in Wuthering Heights. Also the fight between two men over a girl. But most of all I’d say the book is, although full of sexual tension, incredibly conventional and promotes marital life, babies, protection (Bella’s ‘special power’ is her ‘protective shield’ that she can cast over her baby and husband…). So in the books there’s both the danger of a supernatural life and the safety of a housewife life. I’m sure there are loads and loads of other reasons, all equally dreadful for feminism.

    But obviously that doesn’t say why girls are so receptive to all these elements!… I wish we could know why, because it’s incredibly powerful.

    There are ways of fighting such books, especially in children’s literature, and they mostly involve creating fictional worlds with positive, strong heroines, equality in gender relationships, etc. It’s been done many times (not enough though) and I think the best example is probably Pullman’s His Dark Materials with the character of Lyra (but not really his other female characters, which are pretty conventional).

    • I can’t remember the exact details now so you might tear this apart but I always thought of Pullman’s Sally Lockheart character (in The Ruby in the Smoke trilogy) as being particularly feminist. As I recall it she refuses to marry her love interest until the Married Women’s Property Act is passed.

      • clementineb

        March 1, 2010 at 4:38 pm

        Oh that’s interesting – I haven’t read that trilogy actually, but I wouldn’t be surprised – Pullman’s main characters are always strong and independent, whether girls or boys, which is really good for kids of both sexes.

  3. Ray you are totally right – Sally Lockhart was an awesome heroine who wouldn’t marry Fred until the Married Women’s Property Act. Then she had sex with him anyway (before marriage) – he dies in a fire plotted by an evil arms manufacturer who she is investigating – she gets pregnant with his kid – continues to be kickass – finds out about socialism and ends up marrying a Jewish revolutionary.

    And then talking of the whole religious/sinful theme in Twilight – see the northern lights trilogy for a beautiful example of someone falling in knowledge; Lyra is Eve, protagonist as she was always meant to be, but celebrated rather than reviled.

    Man I hated reading books with insipid female characters when I was little.

  4. What about Narnia (let’s forget the whole religious element … which never really spoiled it for me when I found out anyway)? There’s pretty good gender equality (amongst the children anyway, who I suppose the child reader is meant to identity with, rather than the allegorical figures).
    The more troubling aspect is Susan being left out of Narnia by the end (basically, if you haven’t read it, there are 4 siblings, and of the 2 girls, Susan, the elder one, isn’t allowed back into Narnia because she starts wearing make-up etc). Although you could see that as C.S.Lewis’ attempt to reach out to the adolescent girl and stop her form succumbing to peer pressure, it also just takes away any element of choice about how (and more importantly, whether) to grow up – and it’s something that only the girls in the novels have to deal with.

  5. clementineb

    March 5, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Well, I have a big problem with Lewis which is that Lucy and Susan are always represented in very gender-stereotypes behaviours and roles. The guys are allowed a sword, the ultimate phallic symbol, and the girls are allowed… well, they’re allowed the weapons of their sensitivity really. Lewis always adheres to the old idea that women are strong when they’re close to nature, the spiritual etc. Also, they always follow their brothers, rarely taking initiatives. Plus if you look at dialogue, Lucy and Susan often ‘squeal’ or ‘cry’. They have annoyingly stupid reactions – ‘Lucy said: ‘Oh, Edmund!’ and began to cry’ (p.129 Lion, Witch & Wardrobe). Not mentioning Mrs Beaver and all the little animal wives who are always cooking and doing all sorts of household tasks. And yes of course Susan’s eviction is pretty shocking. Lewis himself was really sexist, obviously not by his time’s standards but by our own standards. The Four Loves are chock-full of sexist clichés, for instance when he says that conversation between men and women is boring to both because women don’t understand men’s complex conversations and men aren’t interested in gossip.

  6. What a wonderful article.

  7. I prefer sookie stackhouse, she’s never been introduced to feminism, and at the start is a bella-esque figure, but she grows up fast and becomes her own person when continually exposed to danger. Lewis does have some serious problems: it kind of makes sense to give the smallest child a cordial which heals, but edmund gets a sword, at his age would have been less able to handle a sword (based on strength alone) than his older sister susan. He would be better off with the bow and arrow, from a strategic point of view.

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