Twilight Themes: Good Girls Tell Lies

This is a repost, for people who don't read the Slactivist blog. (And if you don't - you should! Fred Clark's featured Left Behind posts are very much the inspiration behind my own deconstruction posts, and the one-off posts are incredible as well, including this week's exploration of gender themes in Dr. Seuss' works by The Kidd. Pure poetry.)

Good Girls Tell Lies: Internalized Misogyny in Twilight

There’s a chance you’ve heard of “Twilight” – Stephenie Meyer’s four-book series on sparkly vampires have won multiple awards including the 2008 British Book Award for “Children’s Book of the Year” and the 2009 Kids’ Choice Award for “Favorite Book”. As of this time last year, the series had sold over 100 million copies worldwide, and has resulted in a series of movie spin-offs (1). And if you’re a dedicated book shopper you can also blame the popularity of “Twilight” for the glut of new YA paranormal literature that is now being published by the bucket-load in the hopes that lightning will strike twice.

What’s fascinating about this level of popularity is that the plot in “Twilight” is actually fairly simple – the series revolves around a love triangle between an ordinary teenage girl and the two paranormal men who love her: a pale 104-year-old vampire masquerading as a high school teenager and a swarthy Native American werewolf with fiery skin and a fiery temper.

There’s very little to be had in “Twilight” besides the love triangle – this isn’t an action-packed series like “The Hunger Games”, it’s not a religious commentary like “His Dark Materials”, and it’s not as concerned with the paranormal elements in the story as is, say, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” or “Sisters of the Moon”. Yet, despite the sparse plot and characterization, “Twilight” continues to be massively popular – the books, movies, and spin-off novellas still sell astonishingly well, even six years after the first run in 2005. The fans aren’t all YA girls, either – demographically speaking, women of all ages are ardent fans of the series (including my 60-year-old mother-in-law), and I myself can claim a teenage step-son who attends the movies with only token protests.

Now, I’m particularly fond of literary deconstruction, especially of popular series – I feel that it’s important to take a long look at a phenomenon like “Twilight” and tease apart what the narrative means to us and about us as a society. What’s awkward about deconstructing “Twilight”, though, is that unlike, say, the “Left Behind” series (an example taken completely and totally at random (2)), there’s not a significant body of readers that claims “Twilight” as a life guide to be followed – if evangelical works like “Left Behind” are seen as proscriptive by their readers, then we can safely say that works like “Twilight” are generally seen as descriptive by their readers. Most readers take “Twilight” as fluff literature only – and may actively resent the implication that by enjoying a popular series, they are somehow participating in something Bad.

I’m sympathetic to that viewpoint – a deconstruction of a popular series needn’t be about how the readers are bad for enjoying it. So while I think we have a responsibility to ourselves to look at popular literature as Serious Business and examine what the underlying assumptions and themes in that literature say about society in general, I would never presume to say that enjoying “Twilight” as a series says something about a reader in particular.

And having now said that, there’s a lot to be said about the themes within “Twilight”. The series has been accused of racism, as the lovely heroine wavers indecisively between her two suitors: one calm, cool, controlled, and marble-white; the other testy, aggressive, emotional, and dark-skinned. The series has also been accused of sexism, as almost all of the women in the book have very few interests outside the home – women are defined almost completely in terms of the men around them. These issues become even more complex when taking into account Stephenie Meyer’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – LDS doctrine on the place of women (3) and non-white peoples (4) in the church has historically been complicated, to say the least. All these issues are things that I think can and do deserve to be discussed (and I try to do so to the best of my poor abilities), even if the discussion makes us uncomfortable. Especially if the discussion makes us uncomfortable.

However, one issue that stands out to me more than any other issue in “Twilight” is that of deception. That might not seem very important – deception is a respected staple of YA literature because it allows the scrappy protagonists a chance to duck away from prying adult eyes in order to have adventures. And I would be the last person on earth to tell you that deception is some sort of categorical “sin” – I learned a long time ago that it’s rarely worthwhile to anyone for me to say exactly what’s on my mind. Judicious, thoughtful, and minimal use of deception can prevent strife, defuse arguments, and soothe hurt feelings. By contrast, though, excessive deception can utterly wreck people and relationships, and it is this sort of deception that frustrates and fascinates me as I work through “Twilight”.

The first few pages of “Twilight” are literally covered with deceptions. The novel opens with protagonist Bella Swan as she prepares to leave her mother in Phoenix, Arizona to move in with her father in Forks, Washington. This move represents a major sacrifice for Bella – she has always made it clear that she hates Forks – but she wants to provide space for her newly remarried mother. What’s astonishing about this actually-not-uncommon situation is the way in which is it utterly characterized by silence, lies, and deception. Bella’s mother knows why Bella is moving, and pleads with her to stay, but it’s clear to both Bella and the reader that she doesn’t really mean it. Bella insists, over and over again, that she wants to go, that the experience will be good for her, but both women know this is a lie. Bella’s father – who has been rung up out of the blue and told to air out Bella’s room – doesn’t have the first clue why his emotionally distant daughter would suddenly want to live in a town she has previously refused to even visit… and he doesn’t feel the desire to ask. To paraphrase one of my previous posts:
I find this setup frustrating because neither Bella nor Renee have actually broached the topic in plain English and discussed the situation like adults. What's worse is that Charlie is completely in the dark about Bella's motivations. Charlie doesn't need to be confused about this situation, and if he is to have any kind of meaningful relationship with Bella, he shouldn't be forced into continuing that state of confusion. Charlie's interpretation of Bella's decision will completely color all his interactions with her over the next several months, and thus it's important that he start with the correct interpretation of the situation.

In a healthy family, Bella's sudden and completely uncharacteristic decision to move to a place she openly hates would have triggered an avalanche of discussions within the family from either side: Is she unhappy with school? Does she dislike Phil, or has he hurt her in any way? Has her relationship with her mother become strained as a result of her new marriage? Of course, Bella reassures the reader that none of those things are true, but it's telling that neither of her parents even bother to ask about these things.
This theme of lies and deception doesn’t begin and end as a simple literary device to propel Bella towards the plot as quickly as possible – almost as soon as Bella steps off the plane, she will start lying to her mother, her father, her classmates, and her many, many suitors. From within the preponderance of lies and deceptions, there starts to arise a disturbing trend: the apparent belief within the text that Bella should be doing all this lying.

You see, when Bella lies, it’s almost always in order to get what she wants without having to plainly say what she wants. The fact that Bella’s lies are often burdensome and painful to her makes a degree of sense from a characterization perspective – it may not be the best choice to protect your family from difficult truths with pleasant lies, but it’s certainly a realistic choice. However, that reasoning starts to fracture when non-paranormal boys start pursuing Bella and we see her desperately lying to them in repeated and vain attempts to deflect their unwanted attentions rather than plainly and firmly saying, “No.” She has travel plans! She has to stay home and study! She has to wash her hair that weekend!

What’s noteworthy about this is that Bella has no reason to lie to these boys. She doesn’t care about their feelings, she’s not friends with them in any meaningful way, and she doesn’t even want to be friends with them – she doesn’t anticipate a single consequence to a plain rejection that she wouldn’t otherwise welcome. Furthermore, she’s well aware that her evasions will clearly not solve the issue, so she additionally works tirelessly to try to shift their attentions onto other classmates. Bella isn’t a matchmaker and doesn’t take any pleasure at all in these machinations – she just wants to be left alone and the only apparent route that she can see towards this goal is to work constantly to “avoid” and/or “fix” the situation without ever once so much as hinting at the truth: that she’s just not that into them.

When we see Bella’s lies in this light – as painful and burdensome lies that she feels compelled to tell to near-strangers rather than be honest about her own wants and needs – then all her other lies start to sharply refocus into something disturbing. Maybe Bella doesn’t lie to her parents because she’s a normal girl who doesn’t want them to worry, or because she’s a manipulative girl interested in getting her own way – maybe her lies and silence (as well as her parents’ curious disinterest in talking to her) are indicative of a family environment where “good daughters” don’t express wants beyond what has been planned for them. Maybe Bella doesn’t lie to her paranormal suitors because she fears hurting them or because she’s trying to avoid rejection – maybe she feels shamed into denying that she even has desires and plans. Suddenly, these deceptions aren’t healthy, judicious choices that Bella makes in service to an end-goal – they’re an unhealthy, forced behavior that attempts to somehow reconcile a contradiction between Bella’s internal desires and her “appropriate” external behavior.

Stephenie Meyer has dismissed feminist criticism of “Twilight” by saying that the fact that Bella exercises “choice” throughout the novels reflects the foundation of modern feminism (1). However, it seems to me that the “feminism” that “Twilight” offers us is a very poor one indeed. The Feminism of Twilight is that you CAN have your choice and follow your dreams – as long as your choice is shrouded in subterfuge.

The Feminism of “Twilight” seems to be that you can choose to not date a boy you’re not interested in… but you’d better expend a lot of time and effort into making sure you don’t hurt his feelings with a plain rejection. You can choose a different path from what your parents want for you… but it’s best not to sit down and discuss it with them because that will hurt their fantasy of you as their precious little girl. You can choose to plan ahead for sex, er, vampirism, but you’d better keep those desires and plans to yourself or your boyfriend may think you’re slutty. Choice is great, after all, but you wouldn’t want a reputation as a stuck-up, disobedient, slutty girl… would you?

Of course, the major problem with this is that a worldview that gives girls “choice” but expects them to be secretive and ashamed of exercising it isn’t healthy. It’s exhausting for the girls as they constantly work to maintain the perfect appearance of fulfilling the expectations laid on them by their peers, parents, and lovers. Furthermore, it’s dangerous – when you can’t safely own and express your desires, then you also can’t receive valuable feedback and advice. A system that allows “choice” only when it’s accompanied by deception and shame destroys families, ruins relationships, and tears apart girls – and yet it’s this system that I feel “Twilight” encourages for our young women. I don’t blame Stephenie Meyer for this, but I do blame the environment that raised her (and, for that matter, the rest of us) to believe that the only way she can have her cake is if she eats it after all the guests have left.

-- Ana Mardoll

(1) Source
(2) I may have mentioned before that I’m a huge fan of Fred Clark’s “Left Behind” deconstructions and those posts were a strong inspiration for my starting a “Twilight” series.
(3) Source
(4) Source


Ana Mardoll said...

This is a repost that most of you have already seen before, but I wanted to post it again here. And it's topical because there's a NEW Twilight Theme Post up at Slacktivist today that talks about parenting styles. *grins*

(And, yes, there will still be a regular decon post tomorrow. I wouldn't deprive y'all like that. :D)

Pamela Merritt said...

Kudos to you for putting your finger on something that helps explain why I really, really find this series so annoying. It's exactly that Bella cannot, and does not, ever express a wish or feeling of her own. I see this in others raised in Mormonism; what is terrible is that it is certainly not exclusive to that particular religion.

Nathaniel said...

One thing that pissed me off to no end was the fact that Bella actually says of herself at one point that "I hate lying."

No, you don't. Your actions show its second nature to you.

Juniper said...

“Most readers take 'Twilight' as fluff literature only – and may actively resent the implication that by enjoying a popular series, they are somehow participating in something Bad.”

The first I heard of Twilight it sounded terribly unhealthy to me, but I wonder to what extent it is a healthy escape or unhealthy role model

In (lukewarm) defense of Twilight, it’s very typical romance novel fare. The idea of a man who is just SO into you because you are SO specially special (without you having to do anything to prove how special you are) that he develops an unhealthy obsession and has to put forth monumental effort just to keep from raping (or biting, or otherwise abusing) you is pretty common in romance novels, and has been for a long time. I definitely believe S. Meyers when she says that Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre was an inspiration.

Mr. Rochester is a deeply unhealthy person. He shows no emotional attachment to his young ward, and interprets her joy in a new dress as a vice. In order to manipulate Jane into declaring her love of him, he pretends to be interested in marrying Blanche Ingram (Blanche and her friends and relatives are also taken in by the manipulation) and dresses up as a fortune teller. He proclaims that it’s OK that he lied to Blanche because she doesn’t love him, and similarly shunts the fault for all his young adult vices onto other people. Oh, yeah…and he keeps his insane wife secretly locked in a single room in an attic.

Personally, I suspect that Jane and Mr. Rochester’s final marriage—with her being independently wealthy, and him being blind—was, on some level Charlotte Bronte’s attempt to decrease the emotional and physical abuse Mr. Rochester seems destined to mete out.

So, fantasies about unhealthy relationships have existed for a long time. Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad, maybe it’s a good way of processing unhealthy desires in some people and a bad model that some people will try to follow. Regardless, Twilight isn’t likely to swing the balance of romance literature from good to bad any time soon.

I find it interesting you don’t get the same "Twitard" level of hatred for male-oriented fantasies, even deeply unhealthy male-oriented fantasies. In Iron Man (the movie), Tony Stark is portrayed as a sexual harasser who has his personal flight attendants dance on a stripper pole for his enjoyment. Fans defend him as, “Oh, but he’s supposed to be a jerk!” Well, yeah, but, at least in the movie, he’s not supposed to be a jerk in a “he deserves a karmic come-uppance” kind of way. Tony Stark is supposed to be a jerk in an “I wish I was cool enough to get with that” kind of way. He isn’t called up on his behavior except in an affectionate, “oh, boys will be boys” kind of way. He is a terrible role model for boys. And yet, I never find anyone else in the room who has independently come to the conclusion that Tony Stark is just as bad a role model as Bella Swan or Edward Cullen.

Ana Mardoll said...

Been chewing over this one for awhile now, so I hope this is coherent.


Re: Jane Eyre

I haven't read Jane Eyre in years, but when I did, I utterly hated Mr. Rochester. I realize this is a controversial position to take, almost up there with despising P&P's Darcy, which I also do. What can I say? I don't care for the gentlemen heroes in that period literature. I understand why the novels were "feminist" (for lack of a better term) at the time, and I understand why modern people would enjoy them, but I personally do not.

If Twilight is meant to be a call-back to those novels (and I think S. Meyer would say they are), I can see the appeal in a sort of "the old is the new" kind of way BUT I think the novels can be called out for ideological flaws in a way that the older novels can't as easily be. (Because of the "but they were forward-looking for their time!" factor.) So I reckon I'm saying I agree in my round-about way -- Mr. Rochester / Darcy are probably very close personality-wise to Edward Cullen.


Re: Tony Stark

Such a polarizing character. I'm not as up on comics as I should be, but I think there's probably a reason the writers put Stark on the pro-registration during the Marvel Civil War, which was (Or So I'm Told) largely presented as a Very Bad Thing by most of the writers. I think it's possible that more people dislike Tony Stark the character than people who dislike Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark. (I did feel that RDJ struck a good balance of likability for an otherwise unlikable character, at least in part by playing up the "he wants to be better" and "he has regrets" angles that Chris brings up.)

Having said that, I'm always uncomfortable arguing from groups. Is the level of Tony Stark hatred similar to the level of Twilight hatred, once the franchises have been adjusted for inflation? (I.e., how many people hate Twilight just because they're TIRED OF HEARING ABOUT TWILIGHT. I've met those people, they just want to live their life without Twilight, thank you. I don't think Iron Man has been so In Your Face as a franchise, so there's that.) I honestly am not sure the hatred levels can be measured. I would like someone to suggest a good unit for hatred, though. Maybe "Buchanans"? Pat seems to hate just about *everything*.

chris the cynic said...

I should probably point out that I base my post entirely on the Iron Man movies. I've not read the comics, I think I might have seen an episode or two of the cartoon back in the day. So my post is from a movies only perspective.

Post a Comment