Twilight: Strong Enough For Weakness

[Content Note: Conflation of Stereotypical Masculinity with Actual Masculinity]

Twilight Summary: In Chapter 13, Edward and Bella spend the weekend alone together in the woods.

Twilight, Chapter 13: Confessions

Chapter 13 is a weird chapter for me. It's one of the most conversational chapters so far; almost the entirety of the chapter will be a long discussion between Bella and Edward. And it really will be largely confined to talking, with the usual modifiers ("he laughed bitterly", "he said gently", etc.) without the usual major gaps of narrative we've seen in the past where Meyer and/or Bella has rushed in with text to explain what we've just seen and heard. Instead, the words are allowed to speak for themselves.

And for that reason alone, Chapter 13 is probably one of the best chapters we've seen so far in terms of both literary merit and relationship issues: we're able to just see Bella and Edward communicating openly and honestly without constant hedging or lying by omission or verbal wrestling for dominance. I am fairly stunned at how much this approach improves our characters: for at least the first third of Chapter 13, I actually don't hate Edward or think he comes off as a douchenozzle.

Bella, too, is considerably more likable when she's analytically discussing how they are going to Make This Work as opposed to languishing around in her thoughts mulling repeatedly over how much she misses Edward. There's a great deal to be said, character-wise, about getting off the how can I ever be good enough for him?!? horse and getting on the okay, we'd both like to make this work, so how? horse and riding that off into Relationship Planning Land.

And! It should be noted: Bella does not take this opportunity to demand that Edward make her a vampire. I really, really like that. From a literary standpoint, she very well could do just this thing: they're Obviously Forever In Love, and (as this chapter will soon demonstrate) a human-vampire romance is Not Going To Work well for either of them, given that Edward is constantly in danger of being a murderer and Bella is constantly in danger of being murdered. The obvious solution to all this is, of course, to turn Bella into one of them, but she hasn't latched onto that yet, and considering that this is their first official date (not counting the spontaneous Port Angeles dinner) I approve of Bella's apparent unwillingness to make a life-changing commitment right this very minute.

So let's dig into the complexities of a human-vampire romance.

   I lightly trailed my hand over the perfect muscles of his arm, followed the faint pattern of bluish veins inside the crease at his elbow. With my other hand, I reached to turn his hand over. Realizing what I wished, he flipped his palm up in one of those blindingly fast, disconcerting movements of his. It startled me; my fingers froze on his arm for a brief second.
   “Sorry,” he murmured. I looked up in time to see his golden eyes close again. “It’s too easy to be myself with you.”

I said before, and I'll say here again, that I actually kind of barely like Edward in this chapter, and it's because of exchanges like this. Edward could see Bella wanted something (in this case, to see his palm), so he provided it to her promptly and without giving her any kind of grief. And when he realized from her body language that he had startled her by moving too quickly, he immediately apologized without reservation, as well as offering an explanation for his behavior that was a compliment without any kind of backhanded blame attached.

So we have, in order: (1) sensitivity to and provision for Bella's wants, (2) awareness of and apologies for Bella's concerns, and (3) genuine compliments to Bella while still owning responsibility for his own actions. If Edward were like this all of the time, we would not have the problems we have.

   I lifted his hand, turning it this way and that as I watched the sun glitter on his palm. I held it closer to my face, trying to see the hidden facets in his skin.
   “Tell me what you’re thinking,” he whispered. I looked to see his eyes watching me, suddenly intent. “It’s still so strange for me, not knowing.”
   “You know, the rest of us feel that way all the time.”
   “It’s a hard life.” Did I imagine the hint of regret in his tone?

And then there's this, which I think is a genuinely good passage. Bella is examining Edward with realistic curiosity and -- dare I day it? -- the spirit of a scientist. Edward glitters; why? She's running her hand over his smooth skin, looking for the diamond facets that seem to cause the constant reflection of light. She's bringing his hand to her face, examining the pores (do vampires have pores?) up close, trying to determine how his physiology differs from her own.

Bella is taking a very proactive stance here, by examining Edward in minute detail. She could just content herself with dreamy gazing, but instead she's metaphorically picking and poking at him, trying to figure out how he ticks. Were they still in biology class, she might well be hauling his arm under the microscope to see what he looks like under magnification. I like this Bella, and I like the fact that her curiosity is expressed here through her own examination of the subject rather than just questioning Edward and accepting whatever he says.

Then, too, Edward's return to the whatcha-thinking refrain of his frustrated telepathy is fairly tolerable here. He still isn't phrasing it in the form of a question, but at least it's not a demand, at least he sounds somewhat vulnerable and pleading with the whispering tone of voice, and at least he admits that this hangup he has is his problem, and not something that Bella owes him.

When Bella reminds him that not knowing peoples' thoughts is the normal state of affairs for everyone else, he still has a flippant response, but the tone at least makes it clear that he's not trying to dominate her for once. I could actually believe, if we just had this passage and none of the ones that went before in the previous chapters, that he really just wants to know what she's thinking rather than being annoyed at being denied access.

   “I was wishing I could know what you were thinking . . .” I hesitated.
   “I was wishing that I could believe that you were real. And I was wishing that I wasn’t afraid.”
   “I don’t want you to be afraid.” His voice was just a soft murmur. I heard what he couldn’t truthfully say, that I didn’t need to be afraid, that there was nothing to fear.

It's an ongoing theme of Twilight that both Bella and Edward are unable to read the other's mind. And this goes far beyond the usual "does he/she like me?" anxiousness of an early romance. A very great deal of their relationship will be built around combat and maneuvering and secrets. Bella worries, and not without cause, that Edward will take off without warning and leave her alone. Edward worries, and not without reason, that Bella will recklessly put herself in danger for his sake. And both of them worry that they aren't good enough for the other; Bella being tormented by her ordinariness and Edward chased by his constant self-loathing for being a vampire in the first place.

For the most part, I'm not really on board with any of this. I'm a big fan of communication within a relationship, and the constant lies and maneuvering of Bella and Edward irk me at best and make me frustrated beyond words for their contempt for consent at worst. And while I understand wanting to know what someone you care about is really thinking, I also think there's a good reason why romantic relationships are built on trust: being with someone because you trust them to love you and treat you well is another kettle of fish from being with someone because you know through Magic Mind Reading Powers that they love you and will treat you well.

But having said all that, I do sympathize with the Wanting To Know. I may think it's probably a good thing that we can't know, and I certainly think that mental privacy is extremely valuable and not something that should be given up for anyone, but I still empathize with Bella and Edward in the early stages of their very unusual and unique relationship.

Whether she spells it out or not, Bella must wonder if Edward is with her for actual love or just because he likes her smell. Her self-esteem is, as noted in text, pretty terrible: she doesn't think that there's any reason to love her, or even for someone like Jessica to be her friend. She must wonder what, if anything, Edward sees to value in her. And it doesn't help that Edward never really gives her an answer, preferring to fall back on meaningless platitudes about her being everything to him and worth the whole world and so forth. If Bella is suffering from depression, that sort of sweeping statement of how Awesomely Awesome she supposedly is isn't going to help, because she's not going to be able to believe it.

It would be nice, I think, if Bella could spell out what she actually needs to know and hear from Edward, rather than just wishing for everything and via a magic power she'll never have. If she could just say, "Edward, I need to understand why you love me, and that you won't leave me," then I think the conversation could go much better. (But then, she'd still be dealing with Edward, and I suppose we already know that she wouldn't get a straight and honest answer.)

   “Well, that’s not exactly the fear I meant, though that’s certainly something to think about.”
   So quickly that I missed his movement, he was half sitting, propped up on his right arm, his left palm still in my hands. His angel’s face was only a few inches from mine. [...]
   “What are you afraid of, then?” he whispered intently.
   But I couldn’t answer. [...] Instinctively, unthinkingly, I leaned closer, inhaling.
   And he was gone, his hand ripped from mine. In the time it took my eyes to focus, he was twenty feet away, standing at the edge of the small meadow, in the deep shade of a huge fir tree. He stared at me, his eyes dark in the shadows, his expression unreadable.
   I could feel the hurt and shock on my face. My empty hands stung.
   “I’m . . . sorry . . . Edward,” I whispered. I knew he could hear.
   “Give me a moment,” he called, just loud enough for my less sensitive ears. I sat very still.
   After ten incredibly long seconds, he walked back, slowly for him. [...] He took two deep breaths, and then smiled in apology.
   “I am so very sorry.”

And here watch me fall out of my seat in shock, because that is Edward there at the end, apologizing with regret and remorse and sincerity. Bella apologizes too, of course, and I'm of two minds about that: on the one hand, it really does need to be stressed (and this will come up later in the chapter) that what Edward does because of his temptation for Bella is not Bella's fault and she needs to not assume responsibility for his actions; on the other hand, I can understand the desire to apologize for impulsively leaning in without checking with Edward first as to whether such a thing will cause problems for him.

But shoving all that aside for a moment, Edward is "so very sorry" for his own actions. That's two seemingly-sincere apologies in one chapter, and I feel like the first two times ever that Edward has genuinely apologized without at the same time blaming Bella for his actions, or reflexively justifying himself, or laughing in his sleeve at the silly little girl in front of him demanding that he explain himself. For at least a moment, it feels like Edward has stopping gripping his Privilege for all its worth and has decided to treat Bella like a person and an equal.

It must be asked: Why?

Part of this may be structural. Meyer is on record saying that she wrote Chapter 13 first, and then backfilled the earlier chapters later. It's possible that the Chapter 13 Edward -- the vampire who was in love with a human girl yet thirsted for her blood -- was initially a lot kinder and a lot less combative than the Edward he evolved into as his backstory was filled in. But I wonder if there isn't also a characterization issue here: if we haven't hit the point where Edward is "allowed" to be kind and gentle without it being emasculating for him, now that he's been built up as an aggressive, dominant alpha male.

Last week I read "Beyond Heaving Bosoms" by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan of "Smart Bitches, Trashy Books" fame, and I was struck by how much of the book applied very neatly to the relationship dynamics in Twilight. In discussing the Alpha Male Hero, the authors suggest that:

   The romance novel heroes’ attempts at control and domination, in Old Skool romances especially, usually result in antagonism, not happiness—at least, not until the end of the book. Part of the heroic association with control can be explained by the nature of storytelling. Conflict is by far more interesting to read and vicariously experience than quiet contentment. If the hero wrenched control from the heroine by, say, forcing her to sit and relax with a good book while he vacuumed and did the dishes, there wouldn’t be much of a story there, even if these sorts of partners are highly valued in real life. [...]
   But the other part has its roots in the hypertrophied masculinity exhibited by many romance novel heroes. [Heterosexual] Romance novel heroes must have the Biggest and Best Schlong of All in both figurative and literal terms. In many ways, the violence and wrenching of power away from the heroine in Old Skool romance novels function not only to drive the conflict, but to pump up the cock. Once his cock is metaphorically big enough, we begin to see the restoration of power toward the heroine, and the subjugation and taming of the hero that, while complete, never hints at emasculation. Romance novel heroes often show how much they care in big, showy gestures, like saving the heroine from certain death; small domestic gestures that might come across as womanish, such as cleaning the house after she’s had a difficult day, will rarely show themselves.

Twilight is an abstinence-romance, so we really don't talk about Edward's cock in the specific, but in the metaphorical sense he does adhere to a lot of masculine stereotypes. Edward loves expensive cars, and takes pride in driving fast (and flouting the traffic laws). He prefers to drive, and by the end of the chapter will have demanded that Bella allow him to drive them home rather than submit to the passenger seat. And, of course, a very great deal of the content of the previous twelve chapters revolved around a constant wrestle for control between the two lovers, even to the point where Edward was dragging Bella backwards through the parking lot by her jacket.

If the author felt that Edward's stereotypical masculinity was satisfactorily established at this point, then it would make sense that he might finally be allowed to be more "sensitive" and "tamed" in Chapter 13 without his gentler side making him seem stereotypically feminine or weak. If that were the case, it would mean that Edward could sincerely apologize for his bad behavior now, because he's already been established as enough of an "alpha" previously that this show of tenderness wouldn't mark him as unsuitable as a dominant lover. If the reader is expected to equate "dominant" with "strong", then Edward's aggression towards Bella would also imply that he is capable of defending her against other, outside threats (like other vampires).

There are several problems with this, of course. The most obvious one is that "stereotypically masculine" is not the same thing as "strong". A man who bullies a woman is not therefore automatically the best possible defender for that woman when vampires storm into town; a man who is gentle with a woman is not therefore automatically unsuited to defend her when the Volturi invite themselves to dinner. And continuing to conflate "asshole" with "masculine" does a disservice to just about everyone on earth (except maybe the assholes), because it is very much Not Helpful to assign a character trait to a gender as though a person cannot be the one without the other.

I want to reiterate again that it is Okay for a woman to read and enjoy Twilight as a fantasy. There is nothing wrong with enjoying an Alpha Male character as a sexy-fun-time fantasy, even if you'd want nothing to do with such a person in real life. (This okay-to-enjoy rule also applies to Femme Fatales, for much the same reasons.)

But from a social standpoint, if characters who are meant to be the Best Boyfriend/Lover/Husband/Etc Ever are only allowed to show gentleness, vulnerability, weakness, and kindness after they've demonstrated that their more natural responses are aggression, anger, cruelty, and privilege-waving, then we have a problem because we're reinforcing the problematic ideal that violence is sexy and that men are only "real" men when they're inclined to hurt people first (either emotionally, physically, or psychologically) and empathize with them as a very distant second.

To a certain extent, I think Twilight understands that: Edward will mellow at least a little over the course of the series, and (most importantly) Bella will eventually gain commensurate physical strength. By the end of Breaking Dawn, Bella will never again have to worry about being dragged across the parking lot against her will, because Edward neither possesses the relative power to do so to her, nor does he continue to think that overpowering her is a good idea (having finally gained respect for her and acknowledged that he has consistently underestimated her from the beginning).

But despite all that, I don't really feel like Twilight succeeds as a deconstruction of the evils of privilege. Edward never really seems to shed his privilege and acknowledge that he's been wrong to wield it like a club; instead it seems like Bella joins the ranks of the privileged and Edward ruefully admits that she belonged there all this time and should have been treated as such. And that's not a tale that really dismantles the ideal of privilege and patriarchy so much as it is a tale about one really exceptional woman being allowed to join the Big Boys Club.


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