From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Why the Twilight Series Bugs Me

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to try Stephanie Meyer’s NYT-bestselling young adult series, Twilight. I ran through the first two books fast enough that I went to get the other two in order to find out what happened. In many ways, they are well-constructed books of their type. (Lest anyone think that my compulsion is a mark of high quality though, I must admit that at one point in my life I read every single Remo the Destroyer book. Like Prospero’s mirror, I would happily wallow in the trash of future centuries.)

That said, I hate the message that these books give young women with every fiber of my being. I particularly hate the idea that the books’ popularity is due to their having some resonance in young women’s psyches. Because the underlying message — or so it seems to me — is that women can only achieve identity through their relationship with men.

Be aware, if you haven’t read the books, that I am about to spoil the holy bejeezus out of them. Quit reading now if you want to be surprised and whatever you do, don’t read the next paragraph.

Otherwise, lemme just say this: she ends up with Edward. That’s the whole point of the books, that she ends up with Edward after dutifully saving herself for marriage and then fulfills her maternal function.

Synopsis: Bella goes to live with her father because her mother has taken up with another man, and Bella wants to give them space. As we learn more about Bella, we discover that she is a horrible, passive character who is constantly whining because she thinks super-hot, super-rich, super-mysterious Edward doesn’t love her. This goes on for a while. As in, for an entire book. Then she’s tempted by another guy, Jake the werewolf, because Edward has left (which drives her nearly comatose), but then Edward comes back before that goes anywhere, even though another entire book has passed. She makes a feeble attempt to reunite with her alienated female friends at school at this point, but that is only because Edward is gone so that effort gets tossed out the window when he re-appears. She finally gets him to agree to make her a vampire but he won’t do it until they’re married. So then they get married and she gets pregnant the first time they have intercourse, while she’s still human. The pregnancy is aberrant and life-threatening, but visions of the child, who is inexplicably male in the visions (I will provide my theory behind this choice in a moment), keep her from letting the others abort the child. She has the kid, who turns out to be a daughter, and then we find out that the child is destined to grow up and marry Jake the werewolf, because werewolves instinctively know when they meet their soul mate. This fixating on a baby sexually is more than a little creepy, so Meyer takes care to signal it earlier with the example of another werewolf, who fixes on a toddler and thus becomes the perfect babysitter for her. Yeah, that’d definitely be who I wanted babysitting my child: a man who believes she’s destined to grow up and become his mate.

Okay. Lemme just start with the soul mate thing, because I hate this idea so much. Because what it does is give people the idea that there is this one true love thing that happens and everything is magically swell because you and your partner are twue woves. While in reality relationships are work. They take work and patience and humor and cooperation and a willingness on both sides to accept the various farts and burps and personal quirks the other has. And that willingness and hard work seems more meaningful than being insta-partnered with someone because they’re the metaphorical key to your figurative lock.

Bella is obsessed with Her Man. And her “career”, such as it is, is to marry him and bear his child, which she names in a way that is somehow reminiscent of the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator. She has the usual “oh I am so ugly because it has somehow escaped me that I actually have a body type that fits inside American beauty norms” thing going. Interactions with female friends are kept to a superficial minimum because we all know women can’t do the friendship thing with each other. That might be too empowering a message. So would Bella being able to save herself. But in everything she does, every faintly brave action, Edward is her motivation, the center of the universe for her.

So let’s go back to the male baby thing, because this is a small point that (imo) really shows the author’s view towards women. The only conclusions I can reach are that 1) Meyer got careless or 2) the baby is perceived as male at first is because the author believes a male baby is more worth saving. These are not careless books, so honestly, 2’s the only explanation I can think of, given the gender patterns running through the books.

All I can say is—this is not something I would feel comfortable giving to my goddaughter when she comes to that age. So if anyone needs me, I’ll be over here working on a YA novel. It’s got a size 14 heroine who’s the lost Champion of Fairy and has a BFF who is female. And she’s not looking for her soul mate at all.

Cat Rambo lives, reads, writes, and edits in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. Among the places her stories have appeared are Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Weird Tales. She is the co-editor of Fantasy Magazine. Her website appears at http://www.kittywumpus.net

This article originally appeared on Jeff VanderMeer’s Ecstatic Days blog, and is reprinted with permission by the author.

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36 Responses »

  1. Ooh, I knew there was a reason I never read those books. The whole idea that a woman is only complete once she finds her man make me so angry. What ever happened to teaching our girls to think for themselves and be whoever they dreamt of becoming?

  2. And people said you couldn’t make money writing fan fic.

    That’s it. I’m writing the next Mary Sue Aztec mummy best-seller.

  3. I’ve only read the first, and found it a real page-turner; I get why so many girls (and women too) find it compelling. But after the fact I was totally turned off by the whole thing — by Bella’s lack of character, in particular — that I had no desire to read more. Silviamg is right; it very much reminds me of the thoughtless regurgitation of mindless fantasies that appear in fan fiction. And it’s disturbing that so many swallow this disempowering fantasy without any more thought than Meyer had in serving it up.

  4. Wow. I’m so shocked.

    Meyer is, after all, a Mormon, and Mormon women can only reach heaven through their husbands (“Celestial Marriage”).

    Also, as with Edward’s disappearance, Mormon males go off on 2 year missions (sans women, entertainment, etcetera), leaving their girlfriends/ betrothed behind. The female is expected to wait for the man to return, remaining faithful. By doing so, this creates a sense of investment both in the religion (for which both persons made a two year sacrifice) but also in the relationship. Even though this sense of invested time in the relationship isn’t necessarily based on anything real such the work that goes into maintaining a relationship with someone you actually interact with on a daily basis for two years.

    And so, as I have also seen happen with many a single young man who has gone off to military boot camp or deployment, etcetera, this separation tends to make both parties forget the bad things that had them on the verge of breaking up when he left, romanticizing their relationship in their minds, and so they yearn for each other, and often get married shortly after the man’s return.

    Mormonism is also a patriarchal structure, obviously. A woman must obey her husband (as long as he “obeys God”), and in most versions of the religion women cannot achieve the same leadership status in the church as men.

    On a side note, I enjoyed your Palin Baby Name generator. Here is a Palin Interview generator:

    http://interviewpalin.com/

  5. I read the series to see what all of the hype was about and slogged my way through all of em. I was so appalled by them – definitely had the “can’t take my eyes off the train wreck” thing going on. I have to say that all the pain I felt while reading the books was instantly turned to joy when I discovered this:

    http://oxymoronassoc.livejournal.com/462027.html

    TWILIGHT SNARK!

    Seriously, you owe it to yourself to read this if you have read Twilight. I literally had tears streaming down my face as I read this. It plays up Edward’s stuffy, uptight, prude thing, and also Emmett’s meathead tendencies. Absolutely hysterical.

    Honestly, I can deal with dopey girls and dopey-er guys, but the lack of plot really killed me. I mean, did those books need to be written? Nothing happened! Not one thing! She married Edward and they had a psuedo-leech baby! Thousands of pages for that! Oh, and they broke a headboard. Yee-haw. Oi.

  6. I absolutely agree with this opinion article!
    I read all four but i only read it because of Edward!
    I love edward but i did see the lack of character of Bella, which got me mad in some parts! so I think that a lot of girls just read it for him. Love is one thing and finding who you are is different! i think Meyer just did a horrible job in separating those two and just made it seem that it was all an obsessive love. but i think people should not take these book so literally and just read it for fun.

  7. Yup, Vanessa, for fun. There are no messages, really. At least, I didn’t delve for them. This is a romance and a YA book. It caters to the young’s (and the young at heart) mindset of wanting to be cherished, protected, loved. Here there are TWO men who cherish, want to protect, and love the heroine. That’s where the books’ attraction come from. And being a romance, of course, the point is the two protagonists staying together, defying blood lust on Edward’s part, a ‘better’, less complicated partner in Jacob on Bella’s part…

    And their relationship did take work. Imagine loving someone who constantly makes you itch to sink your teeth into their neck and drink their blood.

    I can’t wait for Midnight Sun to be published. It’s Edward’s story. Unfortunately, Meyer went in a snit when the draft’s first half was leaked.

  8. I love the Twilight book series. It’s a really fun, romantic story to read. It appeals to my 17-year-old self. And that’s it. I think too many people are holding it responsible for something much greater than what it was intended to be. That’s like blaming Sponge Bob Square Pants for telling kids that the greatest job in the world is a fry cook. (C’mon, the guy just likes to fry stuff.) It’s a love story. It’s not literature. It probably wasn’t even meant to portray any messages regarding feminism or whatever it is that people manage to think up these days. The only message I could think that Meyer would want to portray is that true love exists. And what’s wrong with that? Or has the world become so cynical that it believes anybody who believes in true love is a mindless, delusional fool? Are you saying that the only way to be a strong minded female is to lead a life forsaking some traditional ideals like that of true love while upholding and enforcing the ideas of female importance and/or dominance? Because I don’t think that really helps. That’ll probably just push girls to the other end of the extreme. Cut Meyer some slack. I don’t think she wrote these books with the intentions of bringing forth the philosophies and truths of life or forcing her ideals down our throats. She just wants to share a story.
    It’s actually a tad bit insulting the fact that you seem to be belittling the intelligence and wisdom of girls around my age. Just because we’re young, doesn’t mean we don’t understand the complexities and difficulties of relationships. And it definitely doesn’t mean we can’t distinguish reality from fantasy.

  9. Everyone has a right to an opinion…the books were very entertaining and a pleasant escape that a book like this provides from reality that can be sometimes a stressful life for some…that’s my opinion. I enjoyed the books thoroughly and hope millions go see the movie, if nothing more than for a 2 hour thrill ride…

  10. Hear, hear!

    These books make me almost angry; the only thing which keeps my temper in check is the fact that it doesn’t seem like Meyers set out to proselytize. I’ve read some interesting articles positing the sources of some of the imagery in the books. Obviously, the whole thing is heavily influenced by Mormonism; however, it seems to be more of a case of Mormonism affecting the author’s worldview affecting the book, rather than, say, the example of C.S. Lewis, who purposely set out to embody his philosophies in a fictional world.

    If people enjoy the books as light entertainment, well, that’s fine; they’re not my cup of tea, but I can see why someone would enjoy reading such a story. But I wouldn’t give them to a young, impressionable person myself, not unless I was confident of that person’s ability to parse out the philosophy from the narrative and consider it on its own merits.

  11. Did anyone else notice how poorly written the first book (in particular) was? It’s like a primer of how unnecessary adverbs can be. I was cringing at the writing itself, to say nothing about the number of times Edward sparkled or Bella felt clumsy. I felt guilty buying and reading the rest of them, but I did. Excuse me, I feel the need to go read some Gaiman to repent…

  12. Just found this by googling critiques of Twilight. The “…YA novel. It’s got a size 14 heroine who’s the lost Champion of Fairy and has a BFF who is female. And she’s not looking for her soul mate at all.” sound suspiciously like OR Melling’s first book in the Chronicles of Faerie, The Hunter’s Moon. Now there’s a woman who can write.

  13. Ann:
    “The only message I could think that Meyer would want to portray is that true love exists. And what’s wrong with that? Or has the world become so cynical that it believes anybody who believes in true love is a mindless, delusional fool?”

    No, we’re not cynical. We’re just adults. A real relationship is a constant cycle of ups and downs. Fights over the washing up and prolonged silences because someone forgot to clean the bathroom. Moments of joy followed by moments of anger. The relationships of Twilight are absolute fantasy, and to try to pass them off as a depiction of “true love” is a remarkably shallow and immature view of how a real relationship works.

    “It’s actually a tad bit insulting the fact that you seem to be belittling the intelligence and wisdom of girls around my age.”

    She didn’t need to insult you. You did it to yourself.

    Cat Rambo – thanks for the article. You’ve summed up everything I found abhorrent about this series in ways I couldn’t manage.

  14. I think you are all wrong about Twilight, and how it effects us teenagers. I do not see Bella as a boy hungry girl who only found her self when she found Edward..To me she is a strong and caring person. Who does everything to make everyone happy even if she is not! then when she meets edward she finally does somthing for herself…she takes chances for the thing she loves…Every person she meets changes her if that be Edward…any af the cullens, or kids from her school….she grows as a person..that seems pretty logical to me..minus the whole vampire thing it would seem like a normal teenage girl…..Im not stupid i know that what Edward and Bella have is only a book…I completly agree with Ann….YESSS im a 16 year old girl who thinks the books are amazing but no i dont think im going to go out one day and find a boy just like Edward…relationships are hard work..iv seen many relationships fail…i no that its not easy. So why do people think Teenagers cant handle this book…is my question do we seem so little minded to handle a simple book.
    and Ruzkin…She has a right to her opinion…its realy sad that you cant handle getting your point out without being so nasty to someone im a little disapointed…..really im disapionted in all who taink that kids my age can not handle a book…with drugs, alchol, gangs, and other stupid things teenangers do your all woried about a love story…In reality your just as obsessed with the book!!

  15. Shelby: I’m not obsessed with the book. I’m assistant manager of a Scifi/Fantasy/Paranormal bookstore, and I have to put up with hundreds of starry-eyed girls coming in and proclaiming their eternal love for Edward Cullen – an embarrassingly shallow, one dimensional character who epitomises everything that real men aren’t. It’s not just tiring but also embarrassing.
    Edward Cullen is to teenage girls what the Pussycat Dolls are to teenage boys, and it’s impossible to respect any sort of romance story with those sort of characters as the protagonists.

  16. I can aee what you mean, but didnt you have that one person when you were young tha you were in love with. its a part of being a teen…….I agree some people take it a little to far, but that does not mean we all do…..I love the books and adore all the characters….Edward is what every girl dreams about hes, sexy, caring,and wants nothing but the best for the person he loves! whats weong with wanting that? i no its not possible, but that is why its called daydreaming!

  17. An emo-looking boy who looks like he hasn’t seen the sunlight in years is every girl’s dream?

    Mm.. riiiight.

    When I first saw the books, I have to admit I was curious (some of my favorite stories are the YA books I read as a young teen: the Alanna series, Sabriel, etc. etc. etc.)…. I did my research, and the whole series reeked to much of stalkers and bad romance novels (there are good romance novels!) to touch it with a ten foot pole.

    The fans, the movie, and the actor portraying “every girl’s fantasy!!!111oneoneoneeleven!” certainly aren’t helping me change my mind.

  18. This is obviously a disagreement between the adults and the teens. We have such a different view of love.

  19. i’m a teen (19). i didn’t finish the series, just the first book. but i cannot imagine how any logical, sane girl would react the way Bella does. ever. There’s something to be said about wanting to just be taken care of. i won’t pretend and tell you the idea doesn’t appeal. but thinking about and living your life in such a way that you’re coddled and live with only one purpose is very different. Bella frustrates me. i don’t relate and i don’t have a single woman in my life who could fit into that mould. i just don’t understand. and i do feel like it gives this horrible idea about what my generation is. and their reaction to the crap fest that thing is, is even more embarrassing. it really isn’t over thinking the book, because the themes are so blatantly obvious. the use of language is so important to feminist theory. what messages do our words convey? and i don’t think you can be too careful, it’s not paranoia or obsessive readers faking their dislike. it is the very real stereo type and example that Bella is. i might be less concerned if i felt that this audience, on a whole, were able to critically analyze what they were reading. but i don’t. i couldn’t talk and listen to the girls in my classes if i did. i got into a conversation about buffy the other day…let’s reintroduce her to my generation. and if you have daughters then please please please read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. and make your daughter read it too.

  20. First of all, I would have to say that this article is very well put together.

    However, I’m in my teenage years (17)…and a lover of the Twilight series.

    Everyone seems to think that the only reason we read this is because of Edward. I disagree. I may be the only one, extremely doubtful however that reads it because its interesting. There is any genre possible in it, and a well put together book.

    I’ve always been a fan of those kind of books, and read it because I want to, not because I want to be Bella. Does anyone realize that the perfect guy to one isn’t to another? I didn’t find Edward attractive. I found him interesting.

  21. I totally agree with bo. words have power and meaning, yes you can over-analyse but it is far worse to under-analyse. Great discussion though, pity there isn’t more like this on the net.

  22. kudos to the buffy introduction. she’s amazing. the whole show is amazing. i’d be interested to compare the reaction of a new buffy movie to the twilight movie. as long as the buffy was really buffy. Joss Whedon and all.

    i didn’t get so far as to read the 4th book (i just got too sick and tired of hearing “edward loves bella, bella loves edward” over and over. but from what i’ve heard, and by this article, about bella’s kid, it sounds like it was also an anti-abortion thing. (kinda goes back to palin.) it could also do with the fact that she is mormons, and there’s the whole gotta have a lot of babies thing. the fact that he’s a boy in her dreams (or whatever they are, like i said, i have only heard about it) proves that she’s either a horrible writer, has a horrible editor, or that yeah, boys=better than girls. if she’s a horrible writer, then the editor would’ve caught the fact that it’s a boy then girl, right? so she either has a bad editor/editors, which i highly doubt, or boys are more worth saving than girls. which is sad. i don’t understand who could possibly be sexist against their own gender. pure hypocrisy.

  23. Oh boy … I read the first two … it was a struggle. I was very underwhelmed by the whole premise, and very disappointed that this is the hot thing.

    I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head.

  24. I would just like to say that ILOVEYOU.

    thank you.

  25. @Randy
    A few things about your comments regarding Mormonism: Men need their wives as well; it’s not a lopsided situation.

    Women go on missions, too, and the practice of waiting for a missionary is strongly discouraged.
    Yes, similar situations to what you describe happen, but PLEASE don’t think that is the norm.

    That being said, my overarching complaint with the Twilight books is that there is no substance to them. While I did read all four books (I have a nice long rant about the idiocy of the question of Bella being turned into a vampire NOT being resolved in the third book), I have no desire to reread them. Meyer’s writing skills need a lot of improvement, but her style definitely brings the reader in and compels you to continue. However, once the book is done and you start to think there is little to think about; it’s just empty calories. It tastes good, but it’s not filling in any way. I barely remember the characters and I don’t really care about what happens to Bella and Edward after the last book ends. This lack of substance is what will keep me from reading anything else she writes, not the “boy and girl must have each other to be complete” message.

  26. its a book for kids who believe in love. not for people who say things like ‘I would happily wallow in the trash of future centuries’

  27. I enjoyed this article immensely until the size 14 comment. Because that’s what makes a real woman, right? Meh. I suppose I can automatically take innumerable hits to my self confidence, being a size 2.

    Either way, these points are all completely valid and correct. I’m actually impressed you managed to read them all the way through. I was so sickened by how pathetic Bella was by the end of the second one that I couldn’t even finish the series.

  28. And her “career”, such as it is,

    the comma should go before the quotation mark. (“career,”)

    Good article though.

  29. I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head.
    “That’s the whole point of the books, that she ends up with Edward after dutifully saving herself for marriage and then fulfills her maternal function.”
    I couldn’t have put it any other way. Overall, good article!

  30. TWILIGHT MAKES ME HAVE TO LIVE UP TO EXPECTATIONS THAT WERE MADE BY A FICTIONAL CHARACTER

  31. There are many reasons I dislike Twilight. The plagiarism is unforgivable, and the original touches of having the vampires fangless, sparkly, feeding on mountain lions and playing baseball are even worse. The weakness of Bella and the sickly sweet nature of her “relationship” with Edward is embarrassing.

    But I have a personal reason. I graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, have written short fiction and even took a turn or two at writing a novel. I just never got any far because I recognized that my writing was lacking. My characters weren’t fleshed out enough, the plot wasn’t compelling enough and so on.

    Twilight (the first book, all I have or will read) is crap just judged on the writing alone. Ms. Meyer is not a good writer, no matter what she thinks of herself, or how many books she’s sold.

    Yeah, I’m jealous of her success. It feels like a huge slap in my face – and to every writer who ever took the craft seriously. Why did I bother studying writing, why did I go to writer’s workshops, why did I ever waste one moment’s time feeling critical of my own writing when I could have leaked out some drivel and sold millions of copies instead?

  32. Neither Bella nor Edward seemed to have any personality before Bella got vampire’d. After that it ended up as a Mary-Sue-and-Gary-Stu-a-palooza.

  33. What is with the hating on Mormonism? Are you going to say that Shannon Hale, Dave Wolverton and Brandon Sanderson are aberrations because they write strong female characters who are not defined by the men?

  34. Appears that the author has been reading J. L. Langley and Joely Skye’s m/m romance/erotica werewolf stories. Where the wolf in question instantly knows who his mate is. http://samhainpublishing.com/authors/j-l-langley
    http://samhainpublishing.com/authors/joely-skye

  35. I’d add that anyone who’s actually read the Twilight books owes it to themselves to read Cleolinda’s Twilight recaps and thoughts, as I think she’s got some very good insights on the whole series.

    http://cleoland.pbworks.com/Twilight

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