Twilight: Women as Pets

Twilight Recap: Readers have been treated to a Biblical quote suggesting heavy religious parallels are ahead, and a quick "start at the end" cliffhanger that hints our heroine is destined towards a life-threatening situation with a brutal killer.

Twilight, Chapter 1: First Sight


Chapter 1: First Sight starts off with Bella being driven by her mother to the airport; she's leaving her home in Phoenix to go live in Forks, Washington - the rainiest place in the continental USA. Bella doesn't mince words when it comes to Forks - her mother "escaped" with her when Bella was only a few months old and she was "compelled" to spend a month every summer there with her father until she was fourteen, at which point she "put [her] foot down" and forced her father to spend a vacation with her in California for two weeks every year.

Now both myself and my mother have Seasonal Affective Disorder so I can understand hating constant rain. I'll even admit that when we spent a year in Louisville, Kentucky for my dad's job back when I was a teenager, we both begged him to relocate at the end of the year because it was either that or matching padded cells: it drizzled almost daily in Louisville and a clear, sunny day was rare that year. Now, of course, what we didn't do was run off to another state and force my dad to pay for a lavish two-week vacation in California every year if he wanted to see me, but maybe in Bella's case there were other issues in the marriage that couldn't be resolved; let's wait to reserve judgment when we still have another 1500+ pages to go.

So what startles me here isn't Bella's extreme hatred of her father's town, nor her mother's Toilet Seat Divorce from a man who is clearly still carrying an Olympic-level torch for her after all these years. No, what surprises me is how thoroughly catty and spoiled Bella immediately sounds in these opening pages. Let's assume that these California vacations were in-or-near Los Angeles; that's a 6 hour drive from Phoenix and an 18 hour drive from Seattle (Charlie's nearest point of reference). So for the past three summers, Charlie has almost certainly had to fly out to California - probably using all his vacation time for the year to do so - in order to drop at least $200 a night for 14 days in a crappy hotel room in order to see his only child, just because she hates the town she was (presumably) born in so very, very much. At the very least, he's dropped a total of 10 grand on visitation visits, and that seems awfully high for a small town cop in a town of a few thousand people. Is Bella gracious about all this? Seemingly, she is not:

   I knew he was more than a little confused by my decision — like my mother before me, I hadn’t made a secret of my distaste for Forks.

Because if there's anything more emasculating than forcing your father to leave his home in order to see you, it's being constantly clear that you hate his hometown and wouldn't be caught dead visiting it.

Despite having gotten her way in all things visitation-related for the last several years, and despite the fact that this new self-imposed "exile" she's undertaking needn't last for more than a year (at which point Bella will be a legal adult and can live anywhere she can afford), Bella seems pretty despondent about her current situation - you don't fling around terms like "great horror" every day - and it's here that we reach her other major reason for not wanting to leave: her loving mother is literally unable to take care of herself without the constant care of a man or his child.

   I felt a spasm of panic as I stared at her wide, childlike eyes. How could I leave my loving, erratic, harebrained mother to fend for herself? Of course she had Phil now, so the bills would probably get paid, there would be food in the refrigerator, gas in her car, and someone to call when she got lost, but still...

Bella's mom, Renee, is described here as being fundamentally unable to take care of herself; Bella is responsible for handling all the finances, food, and transportation within the family. In a way, it's a shame that Renee's characterization is basically limited to a quick rehash of The Ditz trope, because I'm curious to know how Renee managed to survive while Bella was still an infant, and I'm even more interested to know what type of work she's been doing to support herself and her child before the astonishing helpful Phil showed up to pay all the bills. Presumably, the girls have been living off the lavish alimony checks that Charlie has been sending every month; we all know what large figures these small-town cops pull in annually.

There's a lot said in this series about women, especially through the characters of Bella and Renee, and it's interesting that a lot of it is laid out so early, right here on the first page. Renee needs a man to take care of her; failing that, she needs the product of a man - his child - in order to survive. Of course, the literal-or-figurative absence of a parent is very common in stories and usually serves as a signal to the reader that the protagonist will be unusually mature as a result of these years of extra responsibility; the reader should be able to assume that Bella Swan, like Nancy Drew before her, will be exceedingly mature throughout the pages of this novel, after having spent a childhood serving as her own surrogate mother. After all, it's harder to stress over your boyfriend's parent's first impressions of you when you've seen clearly how fallible parents can be behind the smokescreen of adulthood, and it's more difficult to depend on someone to take care of you when you've been forced to be independent from your designated caretakers your entire life.

However, this is not the Bella we're given, because that's not the point of Renee's characterization. Renee isn't characterized as helpless-without-a-man because this will imply independence and maturity on the part of her daughter; she's characterized that way because all adult women - or so it seems according to Twilight - do need a man to take care of them. As Bella "matures" into a woman over the pages of this novel, she actually begins to devolve appreciably: Bella starts the novel as a confident-if-clumsy girl who has spent the bulk of her life keeping her own mother fed, clothed, and financially solvent; by the end of the novel, Bella will have the emotional depth of an infant, and will be utterly incapable of taking care of herself in any meaningful way, so cripplingly clumsy that the other characters will start literally carrying her around like one of those little purse dogs.

Now, a good author can work with an undesirable protagonist - a meaningful story could be made out of a female main character who wants nothing more than to be a delicate bauble wholly reliant on men. Such a story could be a useful deconstruction of society or as a meaningful contrast between the eventual fate of such a sheltered woman versus her more free and independent foil. Unfortunately, in the pages of Twilight, this women-as-helpless-children theme seems to play out as something desirable, that somehow a woman's worth should be measured by the number of guardians she needs to keep her safe in her velvet cage. In Twilight, it's simply not the case that Female Success Is Family; for Bella and Renee, Female Survival Is Family.


TheDreadPirateM said...


Found my way here courtesy of the excerpt from your latest post over at Slacktiverse. Glad to see someone deconstructing Twilight in the Left Behind manner (I always wanted to but couldn't actually stomach the writing).

As such, let me add that SMeyer's opening line may be one of the worst in literary history (I consider it up there with Left Behind).

Seriously, "the airport with the windows rolled down" would be both noisy and *extremely* dangerous. (Ah, the dangers of the dangling participle!)

jetso said...

Just a quick note of encouragement! Great deconstruction, lucidly and articulately argued! I'm enjoying this series of posts very much.

Katmeguy said...

Hey, I've just started reading your Twilight series and I'm looking foward to seeing how you analyze them as you go through. Very glad to see someone approach the books this way.

Interesting statements regarding the relationship between Bella and her Mom and Bella's subsequent emotional dependency on Edward. I didn't view it as a decline of her maturity. I viewed it as the response of someone with very low esteem - who doesn't think she's worth anything unless she can take care of the other person in the relationship. I mean, she seems weirded out that other people might have a genuine interest in her. Bella doesn't even seem to have any friends until Forks.

Zoosmell Pooplord said...

This is incredibly insightful and amusing. Can't wait to read the next entry in this obviously wonderful series.

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